Belle and Sebastian are one of the most celebrated chamber-pop bands of the last 20 years, and despite fluctuating trends and industry developments, the Stuart Murdoch-led septet has managed to stay commercially relevant (however modest that may be for a successful indie-rock band) and critically appreciated.
"I don’t even think in those terms anymore," Stevie Jackson, who has been the group's guitarist and occasional songwriter following the release of "Tigermilk" in 1996, told me over the phone last week.
"When we came out in 1996, we just ignored everything. For the first 10 years, we were a pop band.... In 2010, there was a change. Psychologically, I never really thought we were competing at all; we were just working. We just follow our nose I guess," Jackson said.
In 2015, Belle and Sebastian's nose seemed to smell something more straightforwardly danceable. The very electro-pop oriented "Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance" seemed to trade groove and swing for four-on-the-floor pulses and an ostensibly higher production value.
"It’s actually just what people in the band like. It’s not conscious; it's just kind of for the audience and commentator to work that stuff out. It’s just about expression and sound; it’s just stories and colors, and we’ve never just done the same thing," Jackson explained.
Earlier this year, the band released a three-part EP series called "How to Solve Our Human Problems," which sees them returning (here I go "working that stuff out") to themselves in a major way. Disco synths flit in and out over '60s melodicism, playful theatricality and feathery grooves -- there's a calm and collectedness about it that might owe something to Murdoch's turn toward Buddhism as a means of respite from his Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
"Since he [Murdoch] did come out and has been more public, I’ve learned a lot more myself. There’s certain things in the last 20 years that now make perfect sense to me that I didn’t understand at the time. He has to be alone a lot; he always has to be separate in a way. He’s always just navigating and just getting his energy.... But it works fine; Stuart just takes care of himself, and we back him up," Jackson said.
Twenty years is a long time for band members to continue backing each other up. Most either dissolve quietly into the ether or explode spectacularly into fine threads of fake leather and spittled booze.
As Zen as Murdoch might be, Belle and Sebastian's longevity is the result of a collective enlightenment, an understanding that you can't force anything -- you can't speak in definitive terms when the present is still playing out.
"It’s all just one thing. That’s just death. As soon as you start defining anything, then you’re dead. You can define things once it’s over, but we’re too busy living and breathing to consider things like that," Jackson said.
"Maybe San Diego will be one of the most defining moments," he added.