Belle and Sebastian will this weekend play their 1996 second album If You’re Feeling Sinister, live and in full at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. It’s a wildly influential piece of classic indie, reliably included in any reputable list of the best albums of the 1990s. But that doesn’t mean the band is thrilled to be playing it.
“As a group we're pretty deliberate about trying not to be nostalgic driven,” Belle and Sebastian’s founder and principal songwriter Stuart Murdoch explains over the phone from Glasgow. The festival’s request to play a record more than 20 years old was pretty firmly against the band’s policy, no matter how fondly the fans regard it. “I didn't want to go there,” Murdoch says. “I honestly didn't want to go there.”
This no-nostalgia policy is selectively enforced. When I offer that lots of artists can’t stand to consume their own work – like movie stars who don’t want to watch their own films – he cuts me off.
“Oh no, I’m not like that at all,” Murdoch says. “Just this morning I was listening to a little playlist of more recent stuff, and I enjoy some of the recordings … particularly this record that we made in Atlanta a few years ago, Girls in Peacetime.” Later this summer, the band will be in the Mediterranean Sea on a fan cruise called the Boaty Weekender, playing its fourth record, 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant. It was their idea, and they’re looking forward to it.
But there’s something different about …Sinister.
At various points over a short conversation, Murdoch calls the album “close to the bone”, “frail”, and “not exactly a ballsy record”. When I ask him how it came together so quickly – it was written, recorded and released in less than six months – I can practically hear him waving his hands.
“They’re all pretty simple things,” he says dismissively. “It wasn't tricky stuff. It was almost like kids nursery songs with a sort of sometimes subversive lyrics.”
Put another way, these very traits – simplicity, vulnerability, yearning – are precisely what fans have treasured about it over the years. Taking cues from inspirations such as Jonathan Richman, Scottish indie pioneers Orange Juice and, most obviously, The Smiths, Sinister’s melodic, deeply observed songs helped pioneer a strain of delicately orchestrated, lyrically confessional and shyly danceable music. It would influence countless early 2000s indie acts, including like The Shins, Arcade Fire, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and fellow Glaswegians Camera Obscura.
The album’s songs deal with spirituality and sex, often in close proximity, and have been treasured for years by wallflowers with a romantic bent. It sounds like it was written by a weary romantic laying on his back in a sunlit field, which, according to Murdoch, is exactly how many of its songs were written.
They’re all pretty simple things. It wasn't tricky stuff. It was almost like kids nursery songs with a sort of sometimes subversive lyrics.
“If my life was a Dickensian story I think this would probably be one of the most interesting little periods,” he says. “It's a little bit David Copperfield. Well, kind of an indie David Copperfield.”
Act of charity
Earlier in 1996, Belle and Sebastian released its first album, Tigermilk, which did well enough that the band got signed to a local label and started working on a second one, “with that kind of sense of importance that young people have”, Murdoch says.
At the time, he was still recovering from the chronic fatigue syndrome that had largely incapacitated him for most of his 20s. He was living in a church basement in his native Glasgow with his bandmate Richard Colburn, an act of charity by the local reverend who knew Murdoch “didn’t have a fixed abode”, as he puts it. During the day, he looked after the church in exchange for free rent. Later, he wandered Glasgow with a pencil and notebook, “on public transport or lying in a field if it was warm or maybe just getting away somewhere on my bicycle”, he says.
“I almost think about it as a map of Glasgow,” he continues. “I can remember writing Judy and the Dream of Horses as I walked along the Clyde River right, almost out of the city. And that was such a memorable evening, a lovely warm evening.” He’d sometimes write a few songs in the same day.
“Partly the reason that that album does hang together well is because the songs are all written so closely together,” he says.
When I ask if he felt satisfied with it, he sighs and replies, “Well, quite honestly not really. I was a little bit disappointed.” For instance, he’d hoped to replicate the intimate warmth of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Sparkin the recording process, though feels like he fell short. A bit later, in a mildly contradictory bit of criticism, he says he was also disappointed the albumdidn’t have “that American voice or made-for-radio feel”.
When I ask if he felt satisfied with it, he sighs and replies, “Well, quite honestly not really”
Still, music publications like Q, RollingStone, Pitchfork, and Spin all reviewed it rapturously and continually feature it in ‘best of’ lists in the decades since. Murdoch says he didn’t start hearing from fans about how deeply it impacted them until years after its release, and couldn’t quite believe it when he did. “Part of me was going, ‘Are you feeling all right?’” he says, laughing.
It seems like there’s been some recent softening of this position, with the last few years seeing a relative flurry of …Sinister activity. The band played it in full in 2016 at London’s Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the joint 20th anniversary of …Sinister and Tigermilk. Though Murdoch says these shows were conceived of as once-in-a-lifetime events. “We're going to play Tigermilk one night, were going to play …Sinister the other night and that's it,” he says the band promised itself. “That’s all we’re going to do.” Forever.
But then Pitchfork approached them with a headlining slot at their festival, attended by tens of thousands of people, on the condition they play …Sinister. Though initially reluctant, the publication had produced a 2013 documentary on the album that Murdoch believes helped rekindle interest in it, and his defences were overwhelmed.
There’s also a stage musical adaption ofthe record premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this year (this show is produced in part by BBC Arts). In fact, Murdoch says the band has been minimally involved in that project.
“If people go along to that expecting that it's going to be some sort of recreation of the scene around the time of …Sinister, hipsters, or you know, lonely girls or something, it's not. I think it's going to be quite a surprise,” he says. According to its press release, it’s actually about a heist.
This isn’t to say Murdoch hates it, flat out. “I wouldn't change anything now, I'm glad that it had the feeling that it was recorded in a short period of time and it's very honest,” he says.
“I'm very fond of the songs,” he adds. “I don't go back and listen to the record, though.”
Belle and Sebastian play If You’re Feeling Sinister at Pitchfork Festival on Saturday 20 July, for what very well may be the last time.
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