Stuart Murdoch – lead singer of Belle and Sebastian – arrives a few minutes late for our rendezvous at Mono, a vegan cafe in the edgiest part of Glasgow city centre; but he has an excellent excuse. “I set out on my scooter,” he explains, “but after a few streets, I realised I wouldn’t make it in time, so I went back for my bike.”
The sun is shining; the air carries the sharp poignancy of not-quite spring. Close by, quirky girls rifle through al fresco racks of brightly coloured shirts in a retro clothing shop. As Murdoch, who is wearing faded green cords, finds us a table outside, I reflect that – had I spent weeks trying – I could not have conjured a scene that so perfectly matched the Scottish indie band’s quietly cool, bittersweet aesthetic.
We are here to talk about Belle and Sebastian’s new album, A Bit of Previous, which was released in early May. Murdoch is emphatic that – while the album was produced during the pandemic – it is not a response to it. Indeed, musically, it is a poppy antidote to the pervasive gloom. From the synth-laden borderline Erasure energy of Talk To Me Talk to Me to the singalong chorus of Unnecessary Drama, it brims with joy; though the lyrics, as always, are tinged with melancholy.
Maybe that’s because, for Murdoch – who spent his late teens/early 20s incapacitated with ME – the Covid-19 restrictions were not unduly traumatic. “I had my first big lockdown 30 years ago,” he says, sipping a ginger beer. “Now I have two young children [Denny, eight, and Nico, five]. Denny is on the autistic spectrum, so it’s hard to get out anywhere. We didn’t have much of a social life so there wasn’t much change.
“And when you make an album it’s a form of lockdown anyway. You go somewhere and get locked into the creative process, so, in a way, we were lucky we had the perfect thing to do [during that period].”
The pandemic may not have infected the atmosphere of A Bit of Previous, but it shaped how it came together. In spring 2020, the seven members of Belle and Sebastian were set to head out to Los Angeles. They were looking forward to an intense few weeks of recording: no partners, no kids; yoga in the park at 7am.
When Covid struck, they had to rethink. After a six-month hiatus, they rejigged the rehearsal space they already owned in Glasgow, creating a full recording studio. “It was like a doll’s house,” Murdoch says. “We were dotted round the studio like Barbie dolls in a Barbie world.”
And so, A Bit of Previous became the first full Belle and Sebastian LP recorded in Glasgow since 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant. “I think the band had been coy, always thinking you have to have an expensive producer,” he says, “but that’s nonsense. We used to produce all our records at the start and we have learned a lot over the years.”
The way Murdoch tells it, those days were idyllic. If they’d gone to California, they would have written and rehearsed the songs beforehand, but in Glasgow it was a more fluid, evolutionary process. “There was less pressure,” he says. “You might wake up with a tune in your head and think about the words on the way in, and it wasn’t until you got to the studio that you would nail it down with chords.”
It was also an opportunity to reconnect with the city. Fifteen or so years ago, when Belle and Sebastian bought the building in the West End, the lane in which it sits looked like something out of Steptoe and Son. “There was a blacksmith next to us and guy fixing Citroëns,” Murdoch says, “but it’s been what you might call ‘gentrified.’ It’s not full of cars anymore, it’s full of people coming to get a beer or a burrito. It’s come into its own.”
With a “free pass” to stay out, Murdoch would wander the traffic-free streets in the evening, listening to songs they’d recorded and pretending the skaters, pram-pushers and gyro stall owners were an impromptu audience. “I will remember that experience for a long time,” he says.
Murdoch is Belle and Sebastian’s principal writer, but everyone in the band brings in songs which the others then work on. Surely, when seven people collaborate so closely, sparks must fly?
That cliché of dysfunctional dynamics is something Belle and Sebastian play up in the video for Unnecessary Drama, which shows them working to become a better team through group counselling. Murdoch says it was inspired by an episode of The Simpsons. “During a family therapy session, they are told to draw a picture of the person who winds them up most and they all draw Homer. The therapist is like: ‘Do you realise the family sees you as some sort of ogre figure?’ That’s why there is a bit in the video where everyone turns to look at me.” So, you’re the ogre? I ask. “Well quite often, I am leading from the front and you might get a bit fed up with that after a while.”
It’s a wry, self-deprecating concept. In reality, though, relations in Belle and Sebastian appear harmonious. “If you listen to us in the studio you just hear us chuckling,” Murdoch says. “And because everybody’s writing, we’re never short of ideas. When someone flags or their inspiration goes, someone else will say, ‘I’ve got one’ and you have a chance to get your breath back.”
When things do get tough – in music or in life – Murdoch has his faith to fall back on. He is a Christian, an elder in his local church. But shortly after Denny’s birth, he started attending classes at the Kadampa Meditation Centre, and became hooked on Buddhism too.
“It was amazing, like practical psychology,” he says. “I would come home and tell Marisa [Privitera, his wife] about it. I would go into band practice and talk about it.” Not everyone wanted to hear. Sometimes Marisa, a photographer, who had been looking after the children, would tell him to stop and pour her a glass of wine.
During the pandemic, Murdoch has been hosting Facebook meditation sessions for those struggling with lockdown. Buddhism has found its way into his writing too. The title track, A Bit of Previous, which didn’t make it onto the album, alludes to reincarnation. Sea of Sorrow is about trying to find a way through Samsara: a sort of dissatisfaction with the world.
“I don’t mean to proselytise,” Murdoch says, “but when things go in deep, they come out in songs. These days, when I write, it’s like speaking to someone: a friend, an acquaintance, someone I love. So that kind of advice which maybe, in everyday life, would be refuted sharply, I can put down in records and, there you go, it’s in a song now; you can take it or leave it.”
Though only a handful of Belle and Sebastian songs – think The Cat With the Cream about the Tories’ return to power – address current affairs, Murdoch is political as well as religious, using his Twitter account to comment on Brexit and the cost of living crisis. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came as the band was starting to publicise the new album. Within days, the decision had been taken to release If They’re Shooting at You, the track lined up as the second single, pairing it with images from the war-torn country, with all income going to the Red Cross. “This is a song about being oppressed by forces, so it just made sense’,” he says.
Despite its vitality, A Bit of Previous is preoccupied with ageing. “Now we’re old with creaking bones,” Murdoch, 53, sings on Young and Stupid, a hymn to nostalgia. Talk to Me Talk to Me includes the line: “I can’t afford to waste another second”. I tell him that, when I turned 50, I was gripped by a sudden panic, a sense of time running out. He says he was the same. “In Buddhism, one of their mantras is that you could die tonight. They are not being morbid. They are saying: ‘Don’t hold anything back, get it done now.’ I have definitely felt that in the past few years. You look around the group and you think: ‘How many more records will we get to do?’”
Murdoch has already directed his own film, 2014’s God Help the Girl. Belle and Sebastian wrote and recorded the soundtrack to Simon Bird’s 2019 film Days of the Bagnold Summer. And during lockdown they created Protecting the Hive, a collaboration with the general public. So what more does he want to achieve? “We have produced a lot of instrumental music we’d like to put out under a different guise,” he says. “And at one point we were talking about a ballet. I like the idea of our music being interpreted by others.”
Like most of us, though, Belle and Sebastian are constrained by having bills to pay. “We are a working band,” Murdoch says. “We have to say: ‘Guys, we need to put something in the pot here.’ You know how you see solo artists from America, they live in a different sphere, they are doing this project or that: we don’t have that luxury.”
He has his children to think about too, especially Denny, who has ADHD as well as autism. For a while, they worried he might not go to school, but his teachers have been supportive. “He has a slow start in the morning,” Murdoch says. “He can go and take his Lego and play with the other kids.” He and Marisa have learned what Denny is comfortable with, but it does limit them. The 40 miles to the beach at Ayr, where Murdoch spent much of his childhood, is about as far as they can go as a family.
He will be travelling further afield soon. Belle and Sebastian’s much-delayed tour is finally going ahead: the States in May, the UK in autumn, Europe in the New Year. Murdoch is hoping the tendonitis in his shoulder, which stops him playing guitar, will have eased by then. Those “creaking bones”. Still, Belle and Sebastian have lost none of their magic. And sure, wasn’t it always about the aches and pains? About life in all its happy sadness.