switched on pop

Belle and Sebastian Fear Accordions But Not Their Reputation

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

The seven-piece Scottish band Belle and Sebastian released their first album, Tigermilk, in 1996, and the group has made nine more since then — a catalogue that helped define the sound of rock and indie in the new millennium through buoyant melodies and verbose lyrics. But for every acolyte, there was a detractor who took issue with the band’s supposedly “twee” aesthetic and reluctance to rock out. Their latest album, A Bit of Previous, releases this week, and it represents a rebuke to the critics and an insistence: “We can play whatever we want.” Switched on Pop’s Nate Sloan spoke to Belle and Sebastian’s leader, Stuart Murdoch, about the group’s latest project, embracing youthful stupidity, accordion phobias, and letting people hear what they want to hear.

I wanted to start by talking about the song that kicks off A Bit of Previous, “Young And Stupid.” Does this song represent any larger themes that you’re exploring on the album?

First of all, there are no themes in Belle and Sebastian records. There’s no themes, schemes, or plans. Songs come individually, and we always give the song precedent. Sometimes it might seem like there’s a theme afterwards. You’re probably in a better position than I am to see if there’s a theme, but it’s kind of accidental. I’ve got two young kids. There’s too much going on in our present lives to be looking back so much and reference that in the lyrics of this track

One aspect of “Young And Stupid” that does seem reflective is the bridge section. You might expect a bridge in a pop song to go by quickly, but this one takes its time, blossoming into a miniature concerto — wordless vocals, trumpet, violin, and what sounds like an accordion.
That’s Chris Geddes on keyboard, and he’s maybe playing a reedy synthesizer pad that sounds quite like an accordion. The funny thing is that we were a little bit scared to bring a real accordion into the studio because Richard Colburn, our drummer, his dad and his grandparents sold accordions all over Scotland. They had a large music shop, and his whole upbringing was accordion music and accordion caring. Richard’s got a phobia against the accordion. It’s the one instrument that he will not abide.

Your music has a certain reputation for being gentle, perhaps “twee.” For example, yesterday, I started the day scrolling through Instagram, and someone I follow there had a meme that was a fake headline that said, “Belle & Sebastian CD Swapped for Pantera Before Car Dropped Off at Mechanic.”
Maybe it should be the other way round: “Man Replaced Pantera CD With Belle & Sebastian CD Before Going on a Date.” In a sense, we’re like a regressive gene or something that should have disappeared because people are kind of against it. But the thing is, we’re still here. We ain’t going. We’ve been here for 20, 25 years, and we’re still here. We might be deeply uncool and a little bit *fey, but we ain’t going anywhere.

This interview excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity.

*An earlier version of this post included a mis-transcription.

Belle and Sebastian Fear Accordions But Not Reputation