How Belle and Sebastian Loosened Up and Created Some of Their Best Work in Years

Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Like the films of director Wes Anderson or cartoons made by Adventure Time animator Pendleton Ward, the songs of Belle and Sebastian illuminate the magic and wonder of the natural world. From the striking monochromatic artwork down to lyric sheets that read like tightly wound short stories, the indie rock group’s 20-plus year oeuvre evokes the colorful character and breathtaking landscape of its hometown of Glasgow, Scotland, in the same way that the Stooges and the MC5 depicted Motor City disorder, and claustrophobic Nas raps envision Queensbridge projects. The mix of small-town, working-class frustration and questioning faith, of twee acoustic guitars and glam rock posturing at play in albums like Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit couldn’t come from anywhere else in the world.

Singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch is a writer delicate enough to break your heart just by wondering where hungry foxes find food in winter, and a rock scribe reverent enough to bless a proto-punk shuffle like “The Blues Are Still Blue” with a vocal that quietly calls back to T-Rex. He was the band’s de facto leader for the one-two punch of 1996’s Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister, both inarguably indie rock classics, but the story of Belle and Sebastian has since been one of interplay and democracy. Starting with Catastrophe Waitress in 2003, the group began workshopping a brighter and more accessible sound and giving bandmates more space to shine as writers and vocalists. Over the last 15 years, Belle and Sebastian has evolved from lush chamber pop to something bigger. The last two records incorporated shades of electronic music into the fold, proving the kids who made some of the finest, saddest bedroom records of the ’90s could also make you dance if they wanted.

After its ninth album, 2015’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, Belle and Sebastian came off tour determined to make new music that eluded the constraints and formalities that come with making and selling a proper album. Everyone piled into the studio back home and simply followed the muse, building grooves from the rhythm section up and producing for themselves. The loose spirit of the sessions carried over to their format. How to Solve Our Human Problems is a set of three EPs released over three months, the third and final one seeing the light today. Each EP contains five songs and a cover comprising Belle and Sebastian fans photographed by Murdoch himself.

Human Problems calls back to the group’s fruitful early years in form — in 1997, Belle and Sebastian released the Dog on Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, and 3…6…9 Seconds of Light EPs in a similarly quick succession — but not so much in style. The new music incorporates aspects of funk, soul, psych, and house music in addition to the expected spate of hushed acoustic guitar pieces, sometimes all at once. The ebullient “Poor Boy,” off Human Problems’ third installment, could easily fit on a classic Squeeze record or a little-known disco 45. Minutes later, “Everything Is Now (Part Two)” pairs a killer melody, soaring instrumentation, and a druggy coda, like a theme song to a television show you wish existed. It’s some of Belle and Sebastian’s finest work in years.

Talk to me about the concept behind How to Solve Our Human Problems.
Stuart Murdoch: We’re never as clever as maybe you think we are. I think this goes for most bands. We just get into something. The concept was simply to record music back in Glasgow quickly, a little bit cheaply, to kind of control things ourselves rather than ramp up for an LP. So that was it. We started recording, and we didn’t want to ask anyone’s permission. We thought that casual way would suit the EP format a bit more than doing a whole LP. You encourage everybody from the group to gather up their ideas and be as enthusiastic as possible and not rule anything out — our catchphrase this time was “Anything goes” — and then just put it in a pot and see what fits together.

Both popular and independent music got dark last year in response to political anxieties, but this year, it feels like people are trying to create more space for joy in their lives.
SM: I think there’s space for joy. I think there was a feeling of letting go of certain things, certain fears and anger and just focusing on good energy. I don’t know if I set out for things to be joyful, but they certainly were. I think the music flowed naturally without too much planning. We just picked a studio and went and saw what happened.

Do you think that freewheeling approach to recording loosened the record up? It reaches out into more different sounds than what people normally expect from you.
SM: We don’t have anything to prove anymore. We’re not trying to catch anything, we’re not trying to be rivals with other groups, we’re not trying to impress the press. By going back to Glasgow and doing it ourselves … in a sense you’re stripping away a layer between yourself and the listener, which is groovy. Fingers crossed, it makes for a more intimate, a more honest recording. I guess we’re not a great soapbox band, where we get on a box and get political. It’s not our forte. We tend to do things in a passive way. The title of the record is from a Buddhist book, and that philosophy is we shouldn’t get really aggressive. We shouldn’t get angry. I don’t mean that to be defeatist. I mean looking at a more peaceful path that actually could be much more useful. In all the craziness, this perceived craziness that’s going on just now, I’m playing the long game. I think peace is inevitable. I think we’re gonna win.

A lot of the more disco-flavored material feels built from the drums up. I don’t know if I would think of you guys historically as a drum-centric band.
Stevie Jackson: I think we’ve been down that path for a long time. The first couple records, Stuart would come in with an acoustic guitar and a piano, and the rest fell in. As we’ve moved on— [whispers to Stuart] You don’t mind me talking about you? Stuart has this knack for writing songs in his head. He can hear the melody. Generally, to write a song, I need to have an instrument in my hand. Sometimes I come into the studio, go for a walk, come back, and he’ll just start conducting. I’ll hear the drums, the bass line, and build it like that, starting with the rhythm section.

SM: That was totally the vibe on the last record, but it’s definitely leaked into this one. This bunch of tracks is more eclectic than the last one, but so many started with that … [Taps out a house beat on the floor with his foot and hums a syncopated synth melody.]

SJ: Someone’ll ask “How’s the song go?” and you do a little dance. [Laughs.]

SM: Rhythm is such a signature. I think often when you’re putting together a set list to play live or when you’re putting together a record, it’s the different rhythms that are the signature of a song. The way I’m thinking, you want to vary up the rhythm. This swings, this is straight four-on-the-floor, this is a slow one. It’s always about the rhythm. If we’re playing a set of music, and something in the middle has a rhythm that automatically makes the crowd do this … [Stuart starts to sway.] You know that’s gold.

You’ve always struck me as very literary songwriters, and I wonder how you get a song to be such a tightly contained little story with character development and a finite ending. Do you think about your characters and how they should interact before committing to writing?
SM: It’s an area that I love to think about. My happiest place … I got this chance to do a different project a few years ago, a movie called God Help the Girl, in which I took my obsession with character to its natural conclusion and wrote the whole thing. In a sense, I was like an 18-year-old girl for that whole period while I was writing. I wrote a whole bunch of songs I never could’ve written before. I haven’t gone back to it so much since. I guess I wrote more character songs traditionally in the first four LPs for the group. “Allie” was a character on the last LP, but there’s not so many this time around.

So do you ever think about the character after the song is done?
SM: Like, Where Are They Now?

Ha! Yeah.
SM: With God Help the Girl, I had the three characters for quite a while working on the script and then working on all the songs. So I carried the characters around with me obsessively. The process of making the film was intense, and even when the film was done, I had the picture of the characters, which was different from the cast. I had my characters still with me, and I really had to work hard to let them go. “The Cat With the Cream” [from Girls in Peacetime], to my mind, that was a song written from the God Help the Girl character, almost like saying “cheerio” to that character.

So if I wanted to know what ever happened to the philandering boss from “Step Into My Office, Baby” or what happened to the schoolboys who had to hide their romance in “Seeing Other People,” I have to sort it out myself, what went on? I’ve been wondering for several years.
SM: I never thought about the boss!

Prescient song now, huh?
SM: Well, Stevie and I wrote that together, and that was unusual for the time. The boss seemed almost like a character from a British illustrated postcard.

SJ: ’70s kind of character.

SM: He was a little cartoonish. But the kids from “Seeing Other People,” they were real guys.

They’re actual people!?
SM: Yeah.

Oh my God!
SM: People we still talk about. I think about those guys every time we play it. You’re more likely to still play the song if you’re connected with the sentiment.

How often does that happen? Are you writing more songs that are about real people than we think?
SM: Somebody asked last night. We did a Q&A at a record store, and I made up an answer I hadn’t really thought through? I told her that if there were named characters in the song like Lisa and Antony, they’re more likely to be made-up characters, whereas if there’s just songs that talk about people’s emotions and feelings, they’re more likely to be based on real people.

SJ: We don’t name names. And as for the boss, he’s probably sweating profusely.

SM: He’s probably wondering where the next lawsuit is gonna come from.

I’m also curious as to why you’ve stuck with monochrome album art all these years. I look at your discography, and I see an art book from a very specific person.
SM: We made two LPs in the first year, and I think they were so close together that the artwork was months apart. We were basically just trying to rip off Blue Note. The book of the Blue Note artwork, but with pictures that I take. Once we’d done two, we continued from then on. There’s a signature there. I would hope that it gives people a different feeling from Blue Note. Also, the Smiths record sleeves …

That was my guess.
SM: There were always beautiful French film stars and people Morrissey finds.

French New Wave was my other guess.
SM: Sure. These were all just people that lived in Glasgow. People that were around. Friends and lovers.

Talk to me about the framing of the new material. Does releasing things as a series of A-sides relieve pressure and encourage experimentation?
SJ: There’s something about an EP, a smaller group of songs. There’s something a bit relaxed about them. You’re not so concerned about making a cohesive statement like an album. Bands from the ’80s, the stuff on the EPs would be… I don’t wanna say “throwaway.” Just more relaxed. Things like “There Is an Everlasting Song,” we just put it out there and don’t think about it too much.

If How to Solve Our Human Problems were an album, would you sequence it differently?
SJ: We probably wouldn’t. We’d probably get into an argument.

SM: You’d fret about it, and then you’d feel like you have to knock it down to 11 songs, and then people would get pissed off.

SJ: With the exception of Write About Love, it’s usually a struggle. There’s a few arguments going on.

SM: This time, I think there were six tracks on each EP, and Chris [Lombardi] and Patrick [Amory of Matador Records] ] said, “Lose these three,” and I was like “Fine!” We had our friend Sophia singing a Jane Bond theme. We wrote a song for Jane Bond, as if James was Jane. And she sung this big bold tune that was pretty out there. The guys just said, “That’s for another record.”

Belle and Sebastian On Making Their Best Music in Years