Spin Cycle

Belle and Sebastian survive love, politics and laundromats to make a new album

Don’t worry, Belle and Sebastian were not seduced by the glitzy excess of LA when they recorded their new album,
The Life Pursuit. Frontman and former church caretaker Stuart Murdoch would rather make a record than take ecstasy, the Scottish band stayed in sensible digs, and they’re still producing whimsical indie-pop with too-clever lines like, “he was chained to a girl who could kill you with a look - it's a nice way to die, she’s so easy on the eye”. The most gratuitous drug reference here is delivered with such cheering charm that you could quote it to your grandmother: “for a price of a cup of tea/you get a line of coke”. In fact, she might sing along in the chorus.

On this seventh album, Belle and Sebastian tackle everything from white collar crime to love and disappointment in laundromats. Given the latter topic gets a spin dry in “The Blues are Still Blue”, the band’s keyboardist, Chris Geddes, goes along with the notion that public washhouses should be more nightclub-like to help single people meet. Band mate Stuart Murdoch would probably like the idea too, as he’s the only person Geddes knows who at 37 doesn’t have a washing machine.

“For years and years, he used to go to the student union at Glasgow University and use their washing machines because it was the cheapest place but I think he treats himself to a service wash these days,” quips Geddes.

A frontman who frequents coin-op laundries may sound more oddball than hedonistically rock’n’roll but Geddes suggests it helps Murdoch’s music-writing. Perhaps to be voted Best Scottish Band - as Belle and Sebastian were last year, beating Franz Ferdinand, Primal Scream and Travis - you’re better off seeking the muse in soap powder and lint than lines of cocaine. However one thing you can rely on with Belle and Sebastian is that no matter how insistently upbeat the melodies are, “the blues will still blue”.

The last year involved trips down musical memory lane for the band and fans, with the release of
Push Barman To Open Old Wounds, (a compilation of all their old EPs) and a live recording of their seminal If You’re Feeling Sinister through iTunes, with proceeds going to charity. While fans cherish that 10-year-old album, Belle and Sebastian show little desire to replicate that fragile, pastel pop sound. The Life Pursuit is a robust album, full of melodic pluck, buoyant synths and basslines you can bounce off.

However, some themes are eternal and although the single, “Funny Little Frog”, is a love song, Geddes does not advocate relying on pop songs for relationship advice. “Certainly I wouldn’t take any romantic advice from any of our songs or anyone in the band,” he jokes. Still, he says, “Declarations of affection and big emotion do go well into song, whereas maybe political sentiments are more easily expressed in a book or article than short rhyming couplets.”

Having said that, “The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House”, their contribution to last year’s
War Child charity album (and B-side on the Funny Little Frog 7” single), is political at core and the band is happy to wade into the political quagmire that is the Middle East. The song was inspired by a trip Geddes and Murdoch took to the Palestinian Territories, on invitation of British charity, War on Want, although it’s “more a few brief impressions of the different people we met rather than anything polemical.”

The pair travelled throughout the region, where they met Palestinian musicians and visited areas divided by the Separation Wall. “We met a lot of inspiring people doing amazing stuff in the face of huge adversity and human rights abuses that have been widely internationally condemned,” says Geddes. “There’s not really been any meaningful action taken by the international community to do anything to safeguard their rights.

“I do think that countries shouldn’t have normal relations with Israel because what they’re doing is deeply wrong andbasically based on racism. On the one hand, I don’t know if it’s for me to be judge and jury in that situation but you can’t ignore all the stuff we saw,” says Geddes, who acknowledges on the band’s website that he has been accused of only presenting one side of the debate

His onsite discussions with fans - who range from critics to supporters of his stance - has resulted in (untrue) reports that Belle and Sebastian wouldn’t play in Israel. “There was a storm in a teacup,” he notes. “It came about because I had an argument with an Israeli person. They took offence at the fact I’d said we’d been to Palestine. She said, ‘if you looked at a map, you’d see there’s no place called Palestine, I think you’ll find it was Israel you were in’. I did end up saying that that was the kind of attitude that meant I’d never go back to Israel again [laughs]. I just said it in haste, really.”

That Geddes engages in these debates with fans says a lot about how forthcoming Belle and Sebastian are with their followers. Before arriving in LA, for instance, Murdoch suggested fans in the area get in touch if they were interested in playing soccer with them. It’s reciprocated with the release of projects like
Put The Book Back On The Shelf, a graphic novel where fans creatively re-interpret the band’s back-catalogue, and the fact that a month before The Life Pursuit’s release, “there’s already a 400-post-long thread on one of the forums, discussing the new album. Half of them like it, and half of them don’t,” he says. “We sit around in rehearsal and we complain that the fans are complaining. But we’d be complaining if they weren’t saying anything either.”

Lee Tran Lam

The Big Issue, Feb 13-28 2006