A band that takes its name from a French children’s television series about a boy and his dog would almost have to be precious, and to be sure, Belle & Sebastian are precious. But precious can be a damning word, and Belle & Sebastian don’t have the negative qualities that the word connotes: they are private but not insular, pretty but not wimpy; they make gorgeous, delicate melodies sound full-bodied. Led by guitarist/vocalist Stuart Murdoch, the seven-piece band has an intimate, majestic sound that is equal parts folk-rock and ’60s pop, but Murdoch’s gift, not just for whimsy and surrealism but also for odd, unsettling lyrical detail, keeps the songs grounded in a tangible reality.
Based in Glasgow, Scotland, Belle & Sebastian released their first two albums in 1996 at the peak of the chamber pop movement. At first, some critics in Britain’s music weeklies tied the band into the subgenre, yet the group was too pretty, too delicate, to bear that label. Through their first two years of public existence, the bandmembers shielded their personalities, submitting publicity photos featuring a girl that wasn’t in the band and reluctantly posing for photo shoots. Furthermore, they performed in odd venues, playing not only the standard coffeehouses and cafés, but also homes, church halls, and libraries.
The idiosyncratic approach to building their career isn’t surprising given Murdoch’s approach toward starting a band. A longtime fan of Felt, Murdoch left Glasgow for London in the early ’90s in hopes of finding the group’s leader, Lawrence Hayward, but he never found his idol. Upon his return to Glasgow, he enrolled in university and began writing songs and short stories. While at school, he took a music business course where he decided to form a band and release a record for his final project (he had tried to form a band before with no success). For the project, he assembled the seven-piece Belle & Sebastian, featuring himself on guitar and vocals, and choosing and recruiting members by instinct in a local all-night café in late 1995. He eventually found Sarah Martin (violin), Stevie Jackson (guitar), Chris Geddes (keyboards), Stuart David (bass), Richard Colburn (drums), and Isobel Campbell (cello). All seven members were college students, and all agreed that the idea behind the band was to stay on a small scale, to keep it as a project and not let the band run their lives; they even assumed they would release two albums and break up.
In May of 1996, Belle & Sebastian self-released their debut album, Tigermilk, on Electric Honey Records. Only 1,000 copies of the album, which was only pressed on vinyl, were released, but it unexpectedly became a sensation, earning terrific word of mouth throughout England. As a result, the band became slightly more than a school project — it became an actual band. If You’re Feeling Sinister, released on the independent Jeepster label, followed in November of 1996. By the time the album was released in America on the EMI subsidiary The Enclave, it had earned considerable critical acclaim in the U.K. — not only from music weeklies, but from newspapers like The Sunday Times and magazines like The Face — and a large cult following; by some accounts, Tigermilk was being sold for as much as 75 pounds. Over the course of 1997, word of mouth continued to grow in America, even as the band pulled out of an American tour because The Enclave went bankrupt and closed.
As the band’s cult continued to build in 1997, Belle & Sebastian released three EPs — Dog on Wheels (May), Lazy Line Painter Jane (July), and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light (October). Each subsequent EP placed higher on the indie charts and received much critical acclaim. By the end of the year, the group finalized an American deal with Matador Records, issuing The Boy with the Arab Strap in September 1998. The following year saw the eagerly anticipated, wide re-release of Tigermilk, the album that started it all. Following completion of 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, Stuart David left Belle & Sebastian to focus full-time on his solo project, Looper. In 2001, the group released two EPs — Jonathan David and I’m Waking Up to Us — and recorded the soundtrack for Todd Solondz’s film Storytelling. Just before the soundtrack’s release in spring 2002, Belle & Sebastian embarked on a comprehensive tour of the United States and Canada before returning to Europe for the summer festival season. Midway through the tour, Isobel Campbell left the band, citing the usual differences.
Another major change soon took place when Belle & Sebastian left Jeepster and Matador to sign with Rough Trade, with their next record, late-2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, produced by the inimitable Trevor Horn (who also produced Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes, and scores of others). The record spawned the brilliant “Step into My Office” and “I’m a Cuckoo” singles, the latter of which was the group’s biggest U.K. hit, reaching number 14 in early 2004. After a long worldwide tour that found Belle & Sebastian reaching new levels of success, they retired to Scotland and began preparing for the recording of their fifth album. The Life Pursuit was recorded in Los Angeles with producer Tony Hoffer and was released in 2006 by Rough Trade in the U.K. The band was back with Matador in the U.S.
After a tour that included a sold-out show at the Hollywood Bowl, the band took a well-deserved break. Apart from the release of The BBC Sessions (by Matador and Jeepster) in 2008, no Belle & Sebastian records were released until 2010. During the hiatus, Murdoch spent time on his God Help the Girl project (which included much of the band as well), and Jackson and Kildea toured and recorded with the legendary Scottish indie pop band the Vaselines, who had re-formed in 2009. After spending the early part of 2010 recording with Tony Hoffer, the group released Write About Love on October 12 of 2010.
Write About Love performed well — it peaked at eight on the U.K. charts and at 15 on Billboard in the U.S. — and after its release, the band entered a quiet period. They re-emerged in 2013, touring the U.S. prior to the August release of The Third Eye Centre, a collection of B-sides and non-LP tracks released between 2006 and 2010. A few more shows followed in 2014, along with the release of Murdoch’s film adaptation of God Help the Girl — he turned the side project into a musical — and the group announced it was beginning work on its ninth studio album. Preceded by the single “The Party Line,” the Ben H. Allen-produced Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance appeared in January 2015.