Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.
Interview by Busy Philipps
Photos by Gene Smirnov
It’s hard to believe that Belle And Sebastian has been creating its ever- evolving brand of pop music for more than two decades. Stuart Murdoch and Co. continue their brilliant career with How To Solve Our Human Problems, a series of three new monthly EPs premiering in December. MAGNET asked actress (and B&S superfan) Busy Philipps to speak with Murdoch about his life’s pursuit: mastering the art of modern-rock songs with his Glasgow gang of six.
I was in New York while my husband, Marc, was getting ready to shoot his movie. On a whim, we decided to go to the Panorama Music Festival on Randall’s Island. We texted our friend who works at Goldenvoice, and within the hour, we were in an Uber headed out there. I didn’t even know who was playing that Saturday, but I love seeing live music and I love a music festival. If I’m being honest, it’s the shorter sets. I want the hits! And then I want someone else’s hits!! And then I want corn on the cob!! And a matcha! I really like so many bands and kinds of music (except new/pop country—sorry), but I can count on one hand the artists who I would sit through an entire hour-and-a-half set of. As it turns out, one of the bands that I would gladly listen to until they decided to leave the stage is Belle And Sebastian, and they were playing Panorama!
I’ve been a fan since the late ’90s, when Tigermilk was released in the U.S., and I’ve seen them live over the years several times in Los Angeles. Each time, I’ve left the theater or venue just feeling so good, you know? Like genuinely happy and alive and like things are going to be OK. A renewed sense of hope and love and positivity and also like I’m probably gonna start wearing my hair in a beehive and only wear ’60s dresses and dance all the time.
Anyway, I was texting with Jenny Eliscu, who was recording her show for Sirius at the festival, and we headed over to her tent to say hi. (After my matcha, obviously.) She was just finishing up her interview with Stuart Murdoch. I tried to play it cool and sat casually on a picnic table nearby. To my surprise, they both walked over to us, and Jenny explained that Stuart had just mentioned he knew I was a fan, that he had heard I had been to some shows in the past. But in my head I was like, “Stuart Murdoch knows who I am?!?” He was so sweet, we chatted a bit, and I told him I was super excited to see them play later. After we parted, I was annoyed that I was too embarrassed to ask for a photo with him. I mean, I wanted him to think I was cool. Not a total nerd who asks famous musicians for pictures.
Later, Marc and I saw Stuart lying in the sun, on the bank of the Harlem River, having a quiet moment to himself. It was so endearing and lovely, I feel like I’ll always remember it. The show was fantastic, per usual. After their set, we went backstage to meet up with Amy Schumer (who is starring in Marc’s movie), and after I told her I was too embarrassed to take a picture with Stuart, she said, “Well, I’m not!” and called him over and the three of us took the picture. His publicist ran up to us after and pitched the MAGNET piece, asking if either of us would be interested. Look, I’m sure she was hoping Amy would be, but I screamed, “I’ll do it!” before Amy could even process what was happening.
I spoke with Stuart for MAGNET a few weeks later. He was in Chicago, the band was playing the famous Chicago Theatre that night, and he was wandering around the city while we were talking. His phone was kind of cutting in and out of range, and he kept encountering things like a full marching band and a man dressed as a vampire and a bunch of tourists. I tried to sound smart and interesting and funny and ask good questions, but I was worried for weeks after that I sounded like an idiot. But really, it was just so amazing to get to talk to someone whose music has brought me so much joy for the last 20 years and provided the soundtrack for so many of my own walks around cities I’m exploring alone.
Also, I forgot to ask if he really always cries at endings. Because I do.
Busy Philipps: How’s it changed in terms of … you’re a dad now. Do your kids come with you or not so much?
Stuart Murdoch: Just simply because of the numbers, we don’t usually. We sometimes see our kids at specific concerts, but yeah, they don’t tour with us. It would be different if it was a solo tour and had a different bus for the kids or something.
Philipps: Or if you were Gwen Stefani. I guess it doesn’t really make sense. Do you live in Scotland still, or are you in the U.S.?
Murdoch: We’re all in Glasgow. When we come to the U.S., it’s like the Wild West for us. We’re camping out here, just living on a bus, rolling out of the bus every morning, playing our shows, trying to look respectable. But right at this minute …
Philipps: I feel like for me that would be the hardest part of bus living.
Murdoch: You leave your own family and you join your other family for a while, and then you go back to your other family.
Philipps: When we met at the festival in New York, you were saying, “Oh, I’m a huge Freaks And Geeks fan.” I have to tell you that I’ve met more band members who’ve approached me because on the bus they’ve watched … They don’t have, like, Netflix or streaming services on the bus, but they would get DVDs and watch Freaks And Geeks over and over again. I’m just curious: Do you guys do that? Do you consume media on the bus or together as a band?
Murdoch: We’ve probably gone past that stage together. Because we’ve been together for 20 years. Yeah, I guess we went past the sort of honeymoon period of the group where everybody was consuming what everybody else was into. Freaks And Geeks—I can’t remember who turned me on to that, but that was my own personal thing. I was an evangelist for that show, and I was telling people about it because it only aired for one series and it wasn’t in the U.K. originally. For me, it was the perfect personification of that age, the high-school age. I don’t think it was ever done better, honestly. And I’m talking about any movies here, so it really struck a chord with me.
Philipps: I mean, music plays a big role in that series, too. It informs the time period tonally, and stuff. But weirdly, to me, in watching it now, people are just now finding it because of Netflix. But the show aired almost 20 years ago. It does sort of feel timeless to me, and I feel the same way about your music. I remember hearing the first album—is that ’97 or ’98? When was it, Stuart? You know better than me. I’m not Googling this.
Murdoch: Yeah, it was ’96, but it would have been ’97 by the time it got in America.
Philipps: And I was graduating from high school, and maybe I was a freshman in college when I first heard it. I remember when I first heard it not knowing if it was contemporary or if it was something from the ’60s or ’70s, but your references were contemporary and I feel like that sort of thing—it’s just interesting to see where pop music, and music in and of itself, had started in, like, the mid-’90s to where it is today. You guys have evolved but maintained such a timeless bond. Do you feel that way? Am I crazy?
Murdoch: Yeah, all these things are very nice and complimentary. We find our thing, and we just went with it. I think the crucial thing was by the ’90s, people kind of had to … It was when everybody started looking back. The ’80s was this amazing time for music for me personally, because people were still inventing music, people were still doing things for the first time. They were kind of looking back to the ’60s, but by the ’90s, you couldn’t ignore the classic era of rock ’n’ roll. And we were such a different band; everybody brought something to the table when we all got together. Stevie (Jackson) brought the Rolling Stones, and Richard (Colburn) brought the funk, and Sarah (Martin) and Chris (Geddes) brought the Velvet Underground and nortern-soul music, and Isobel (Campbell) brought Nancy & Lee, so this is all kind of looking back. I was a kind of an ’80s person. I was obsessed with the Smiths and these sorts of groups, so it was all there. We managed to carve our own niche, but you’re never going to reinvent music the way the Beatles did unless you go out on a completely different form and use different instruments and turn into Public Enemy or something.
Philipps: What do you listen to now?
Murdoch: I listen to a smattering of new music. I tune in to 6 Music—that’s our kind of groovy station back in Britain, and that keeps me sort of informed. Really, I just jump around the decades like everyone does these days. I fool around on Spotify, listening to all the music I used to love and augmenting it by the odd classic I dig up. I’m pretty lazy. My real music-listening days were back in the ’80s. I’m unapologetic about that. I was a DJ back in the ’80s, but you start writing music and being consumed by what you’re doing and you become the egotistical monster.
Philipps: Has it changed since you’ve become a dad? What kind of music do you want to play for your kids? My husband, (screenwriter/director) Marc (Silverstein), and I have a whole thing about this, so I’m curious to hear from a musician’s standpoint.
Murdoch: It all starts with the songs that you sing to your kids. Do you ever sing to your kid?
Philipps: I used to, but now my kids are a little bit older, and they are embarrassed by me and hate my voice, so … Your kids are a little bit younger, but just wait, it’ll get there. You’ll start to sing, and they’ll roll their eyes.
Murdoch: Your oldest one—is she 12?
Philipps: Birdie just turned nine, but she seems like she’s 12. We’ve played her Belle And Sebastian; it’s hard with the influence at school to keep them away from … I just have a problem with a lot of what popular top-40 music is now. It feels so mindless to me, and I would rather they listen to more interesting modern music. But she’s really into storytelling in songs, so she enjoys Belle And Sebastian. She really likes when she feels like she can get a hold of the lyrics and figure out what the song is about, if there’s a story being told. Joanna Newsom is good kids’ music.
Murdoch: When we started as a band, sometimes you felt like you were singing nursery rhymes for children. Some of the people you were writing for or appealing to were a little infantilized themselves. They were at the stage where they didn’t quite want to turn into adults.
Philipps: That was me for sure—are you kidding? And oh my fucking god, my fucking boyfriend would play (Tigermilk’s) “The State I Am In” and curl in a ball and cry.
Murdoch: Have you any idea the reputation we’ve been trying to shake off for the past several years? Everybody in regular media still thinks that we wet the bed. The stuff they’ve said about us in Britain is so terrible it becomes funny.
Philipps: Really? What do they say?
Murdoch: Well, we just sit around knitting each other sweaters. That’s kind of all we do, and we make yogurt.
Philipps: Well yeah, because you’re just sensitive, quiet. That’s what they think, is it? I think you’re super poppy and dancey and fun. Obviously, Tigermilk is a little different, but that’s 20-plus years ago. You know what song was in my head all day yesterday, Stuart? Because of the current events in politics and our country, I literally just had (Write About Love’s) “I Want The World To Stop” playing on repeat in my head yesterday. For real. But just that one line. I know that you do some activism in terms of climate change and you’re outspoken in that. Do you feel anything about what’s going on? I know you feel something, but do you feel a responsibility to speak out about events?
Murdoch: I feel almost my only responsibility is to go in the opposite direction, where it’s to direct people to a mind of peace. I don’t mean to sound like a hippie, but part of the problem is that we get very involved with stuff that we can’t do anything about. There’s so much anger, and anger is never a good thing. I don’t care who you’re angry about; the anger is never a good thing, and it’s just harming you, the person who gets angry. So I know that’s a little bit of a British standpoint, but I think it’s entirely more useful to do something that’s in front of you, to be kind to the person who’s next to you rather than being angry at the person who’s on a television screen. Obviously, the stuff that’s going on is horrendous; these people are so disillusioned that it’s an understatement. They’re crazy; they just don’t know what’s happening. On a lighter view, if you want me to comment on it, I think my wife—who is American—said something interesting, which is, “All these angry white men are pissed off because they’re not getting their way anymore.” It’s almost like an end-of-empire situation where they realize the end is nigh, them making the decisions for everybody. It should be, and it will be. We’re never going back. We’re not going back. We’re marching on. We’re becoming more civilized and we’re becoming more equal and more groovy, but these people are desperate. They’re like cornered rats—reacting so much.
Philipps: My husband is making this movie here in Boston, and the other day he was having a really hard time with the news, and he was, like, “What am I even doing with my life?” And I was like, “You’re making art. You’re making a comedy that’s going to bring joy into people’s lives, that sends a really positive message to women. You’re putting something beautiful into the world—you’re attempting to, anyway, and that is as noble right now as any pursuit that you can have.” I get what you’re saying, but for you guys to bring joy and a message of happiness and to try to bring light is … I don’t know, man.
Murdoch: No, you’re right. It raised the question we have on our minds, and as soon as you ask yourself, “What am I doing with my life? I want to be a positive influence. I want to be a better person,” these things aren’t naive. These things are absolutely fundamental, and if everyone was asking these questions we’d be in a much better situation. Some people aren’t in a position … We’re very lucky … We should be asking these questions. We’re lucky because the likes of you and me, we’re privileged people, we’re pretty well off. It is our responsibility to ask what are we doing to make things better. It’s very nice of you to say that to your husband, and my wife in a reassuring way often says that to me when I say, “What am I doing? What the hell is going on?” So it’s sometimes nice to hear that.