"Museums are traditionally places you get dragged to by girlfriends," cracks Stevie Jackson, longtime lead guitarist and cosongwriter for the legendary Scottish indie-pop iconoclasts Belle and Sebastian. Reached by phone on a late July day, he's in good spirits and is playing a bit coy about whether he likes art museums. After all, what pop group in the last two decades feels more tailored to the environment of a modern art museum than Belle and Sebastian, with its cosmopolitan presentation, its blending of eras, its endless flood of implicit and explicit references, and sense of pristine, childlike wonder and loneliness?
The ever-changing ensemble started in 1996 as the project of Stuart Murdoch, in the halls of Glasgow's Stow College. After writing the guts of Tigermilk there, he recruited Jackson, Isobel Campbell, Stuart David, and a handful of other members to bulk up the songs. Even in these early days, Murdoch's talent as a songwriter was immediately apparent. On pre-Tigermilk recordings later released as Dog On Wheels, lines like, "So I gave myself to God/There was a pregnant pause before he said OK," hinted at the wry, self-deprecating lyrical persona that Murdoch would hone in subsequent years. He backed up his lyrical acuity with melodies as sticky as any Smiths or Orange Juice song.
From these humble beginnings, it makes sense that 1996's legendary If You're Feeling Sinister on Jeepster Records (later released by Matador in the U.S.) was recorded quick and dirty. Quick and dirty enough, in fact, that in later years, the band would record a live album to "fix" the studio version in a memorable bit of revisionism. Recording quality aside, the record remains a landmark in independent culture. It remains a masterwork of subtle melodic genius and sophisticated wit, a cultural bulwark against the excess of nineties guitar music. It reintroduced the idea that cynicism and alienation could be expressed without distortion or volume, that soft, book-smart folk-pop could be incisive and clever again.
Perhaps encouraged by the band's reticence in interviews, a network of record store clerks, indie geeks, and magazine critics proselytized on behalf of the LP with a near-religious fervor. Appropriately, the band's 1997 live American debut occurred in a New York City synagogue.
A year later, with the band's star on the rise, The Boy With the Arab Strap demonstrated even greater ambition. Murdoch democratized the band, ceding songwriting duties on several tracks to Jackson as well as Campbell and David, both of whom would later leave the group. Jackson's first contributions were the fan favorite "Seymour Stein," famously included in the 2000 film High Fidelity, and "Chickfactor."
Asked about the latter, Jackson recalls that the song was inspired by the writer and filmmaker Gail O' Hara, who was "probably the first American friend I made" during that fateful stateside debut. She was the driving force behind a popular zine called Chickfactor and "immediately thrust a giant pile of zines into my arms" upon meeting him. The interaction led to the song, which included playful lyrics like, "Met the cigarette girl/took a note of her charms but no cigar" and a multidecade friendship with O'Hara, which endures to this day.
After experiencing a slight lull in the early 2000s when the band worked on good-intentioned but lackluster projects like the soundtrack for Todd Solondz's 2001 film Storytelling, Belle and Sebastian bounced back with an excellent hi-fi pop pivot on 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Produced by Trevor Horn (who also produced Russian pop duo t.A.T.u.), it includes "Piazza, New York Catcher," a homoerotic ballad about New York Mets star Mike Piazza, which has since turned into one of the band's most popular songs.
Since the beginning of Belle and Sebastian's "pop" phase, the band has occasionally acquiesced to modern trends, even if those modern trends are rooted in throwback gestures. Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, the group's ninth studio LP, tapped Deerhunter/Washed Out producer Ben Allen to throw some buzzy retrofuturist bliss on them. As a result, the 2015 record notches a few of the band's clubbiest tracks to date. "Play For Today" features Dee Dee from the Dum Dum Girls raining disco delight in a duet with Murdoch, and "Enter Sylvia Plath" bathes in Europop synth starshine, sounding like a run for Neil Tennant's pop throne.
Given its history of flipping the script, what could come next for Belle and Sebastian? Perhaps Murdoch, Jackson, and company will swing back to pastoral guitars next time out, or to straight-up techno pop. Or maybe even more film work looms on the horizon: Murdoch directed a full-length film, God Help the Girl, in 2014. Jackson isn't sure, either. For inspiration though, he has a simple recipe for success: "A healthy breakfast, exercise, and not being hung over, you can't go wrong."