Eamon Sweeney catches up with Belle & Sebastian on a surreal and celebratory night in Belfast
After bonding in an all-night café in Glasgow in January 1996, Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David teamed up with drummer and percussionist Richard Colburn – a fellow student of the Stow College Music Business course from Perth who used to sell pies on match days at Celtic Park. Just over five years later, the same band have stuffed Belfast’s Mandela Hall for a double bill with The Frames and raised over £10,000STG for the NSPCC’s ‘You’re Kidding’ Appeal to buy needy children Christmas presents.
Often derided as twee namby pamby popsters, the B&S collective stylishly give their sado-indie-schmindie credentials a rocking kick in the nether regions. The set list includes a seasonal dose of B&S classics plus well-executed covers of ‘Here Comes the Sun’, ‘Happy Christmas (War is Over), a riff-heavy ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’ featuring a perfect Lynottesque snarl from Stuart Murdoch, plus an hilarious rendition of ‘Cool for Cats’ narrated by Richard Colburn.
Backstage after a very surreal show, Richard is reflecting on how his bandmates eventually persuaded him to do lead vocals.
“I’d mentioned it but I’d thought they’ll just laugh at me because I’m the drummer!” Richard reveals. “I didn’t have enough time to memorize it all so I put the lyrics into the middle of The Belfast Telegraph to pretend I was just reading the newspaper. The night before I had it in the middle of an issue of Razzle, because the song lends itself to that kind of sleaze. I just threw it into the audience at the end of the song, so some lucky punter in Glasgow got a free issue of Razzle at a B&S gig!”
Speaking of sleaze and soft porn, Belle Sebastian received the very unlikely honour of having their 2000 album, Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like a Peasant, voted as the best rock album by readers of the US edition of Playboy. “We heard about that just after it happened and it was kind of bizarre to say the least,” offers Colburn by way of a bewildered explanation. “But we’re still waiting for Hugh Hefner to phone up and invite us to play at one of his parties. Maybe they listen to our records at those mad cocaine parties where they have bunny girls around the pool. I don’t know, I’m as puzzled as you are.”
The international appeal of B&S, which has spread all the way to Brazil and Japan, is all the more fascinating as the group is not really a full time project for most members of the band. Richard is involved with both Snow Patrol and The Reindeer Section and reveals that Gary Lightbody has already written the follow up to last year’s Y’All Get Scared Ya Hear!; recording should commence early this year.
With an eerie sense of timing, an exuberant Lightbody strolls into the dressing room and sits down beside Richard. Having witnessed Gary’s antics first hand on numerous occasions, I ask The Reindeer Section / Snow Patrol frontman to put his own questions to Richard.
“Have you ever, ever, ever got down and licked underneath someone’s balls?” offers Gary.
“No,” deadpans Richard looking amused but ever so slightly concerned.
“Well, the night is young and my balls are particularly…. particularly… what’s the word I’m looking for? Pungent! See ya later!”
The lead singer of the hotpress Best New Band of 1999 wanders off into the night, no doubt on a mission for more booze as Mandela Hall’s bars are closing. (For a fly on the wall glimpse of two of the finest minds in indie getting dirty, checking out the footage at hotpress.com)
Moving swiftly away from the subject of Gary’s pungent balls, Richard is ruminating on the Belle and Sebastian back catalogue and their imminent fifth album. “I think the last two albums are similar and are on a learning curve,” he offers. “ I think the next album will really bridge over the fact that it was just Stuart’s writing on the first two and the next two was all of us finding our feet. The recording is going to happen half way through 2002 so we have a lot of time to think about it and get different directions. We were thinking about not doing this album in Glasgow for a change. We’ll just see what happens.”
Making more great records is the essence of the B&S aesthetic. They are not ones for industry convention, yet dramatically got caught up in a bizarre scandal at the Brit Awards in 1999. For the first year ever, the Best New Artist category was decided by an online public ballot. Belle and Sebastian’s highly web literate fan base clicked their mouses repeatedly, which resulted in the gong going to the Scots and not pop favourites such as Steps. Pete Waterman was incensed that his charges lost out to these mysterious cult heroes.
“After the event the whole circus and madness of it all was a different world,” adds Colburn. “We were a fish out of water completely. I don’t know if pride is the word – more confounded and confused and wondering what the hell was going on. I think a lot of people expected it to be a platform to go on to greater things, but we just got on with what we always got on with.”
Who in the band now keeps the trophy? “I have no idea,” replies Richard. “There was talk about putting it in the raffle last night. Not even as a special prize, just a plain, ordinary prize. I remember at the time The Sun made a big deal about it and Pete Waterman obviously gave ‘em loads. Like, here’s 20 pence. Phone someone who gives a fuck! At one point, we were going to get the Brit Award and throw it through The Sun window or maybe just into the Clyde. At the end of the day as long as you make good records, do your best and put on good shows, that’s what counts.”
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