MAY 20, 2015
THE SLEEVE of Belle and Sebastian’s debut album Tigermilk tells us that the band formed over three days in an all-night café in Glasgow in 1995. Over time, this was exaggerated down to one day by the press and morphed into folklore. With In the All-Night Café, band co-founder Stuart David tells a very different story — one of hard work, quiet determination, and, above all, commitment to an unconventional creative vision.
In the mid-1990s in the UK, the Spice Girls topped the charts, while Oasis and Blur ignited the Britpop grudge match that would define British alternative music for years to come. With Tigermilk, Belle and Sebastian distanced themselves from both of these mainstream genres. There’s an immediacy to the bare, trembling vocal track on the opening song, “The State I Am In,” a confidence in their independent vision that demands attention. Such individuality doesn’t happen overnight.
In the All-Night Café describes the year before the release of Tigermilk and helps to explain how Belle and Sebastian’s sound was a product of their environment. At the heart of the book is a friendly rivalry between two Stuarts: Stuart David, the band’s bassist until his departure in 2000, and Stuart Murdoch, the band’s singer, songwriter, and overall auteur. The two Stuarts meet in their early 20s and strike up a friendship based on mutual shyness and a desire to make a living playing music. They are first drawn together by misunderstanding — a fellow musician invites them over for a jam, but confuses their taste in leather trousers and boots for an interest in the world of S&M. A quick tour of “a very disturbing cave, where the tiled floor sloped in four sections towards a drain in the middle” forces the two Stuarts to bond in discomfort. It is an early lesson in their shared taste.
David writes: “Ever since I’d turned fourteen, I’d been convinced that writing songs and stories was my vocation. […] No other possibilities existed for me.” His younger self seeks a medium for the creativity brimming inside of him, often finding it in writing music and fiction. He enrolls in a government-run music course so that he can keep receiving unemployment checks and pursue these interests, but his initial enthusiasm is tempered by a cast of disillusioned chain-smoking hangers-on. Many of them have no intention of playing music, but just want to keep receiving their unemployment checks without having to do any real work. Surrounded by such apathy, David takes a pragmatic approach to becoming successful — he learns bass, plays in a country band, and scours open mic nights for inspiration. Nothing fits. He endures the universal struggle of the young artist: he knows what he wants to achieve, but he doesn’t know how to do it. His effort to create is plagued by anxiety.
Stuart Murdoch, on the other hand, is self-assured and calm. Already he has the components of the band in mind. His songwriting turns heads, and his technique seems effortless to the onlooking David: “He told me that melodies just happened, popped into his head sometimes — and the trick was simply to listen out for them, become aware they were there and then work out the chords on guitar to accompany them.” Unlike David, Murdoch is selective about who will play his music and whom they will play it to. At one point, he walks off stage during a show, dissatisfied with the quality of the sound and the audience. He baffles David with a kind of sixth sense for knowing who his audience is and what they want — which leads to David’s wonderful description of the hipsters that came to see the band’s early shows, purely based on word of mouth:
I couldn’t quite work them out. Most of them didn’t seem to know each other, and yet they’d all turned up here in the same place, at the same time, dressed in a similar way to each other, all dressed like the one awkward kid in the class at school. The kid who had often been me. They were willowy creatures, both the boys and the girls, and although they looked like outsiders they all fitted in.
Murdoch’s determination and vision provide the backbone for the immediacy of the band’s first album, but this is also a story about how a supporting cast — bandmates, producers, friends, managers, and David himself — helped to mold Belle and Sebastian’s identity. As the band begins to get noticed, it swells with percussionists, a studio guitarist, a cellist, and plenty of other affiliates. They become a patchwork of like-minded but idiosyncratic people, a dynamic that transfers to their live performances. David writes of their first gig: “It had a lot of the elements that were to become characteristic of a Belle and Sebastian show for the next few years. It was informal and relaxed, with points where it seemed like a whole song might fall apart, teetering on the edge of disaster, only to come back together again at the very last minute.” For his own quirk, David sits on the floor during the shows.
As the band’s following grows, so does its individualism — they play shows in church halls and eschew parties. When they’re taken out to a dinner by a charming record-label executive, the band scoffs at the opulence, as they’re presented with “a huge silver platter over half a metre in diameter, its entire circumference laid out with After Eight mints, the rest of the plate heaped high in the center with boiled sweets and jelly beans.”
But perhaps the most significant ingredient for the band’s ability to innovate in an otherwise stagnant pop scene is the time they are afforded by the government’s social welfare programs. Although Belle and Sebastian’s success was rapid, it was the culmination of earlier years of experimentation and failure, hard craft that wouldn’t have been possible without the help of unemployment checks and continued musical education. (Would a band in a similar circumstance be able to exist today?) Like so many people growing up in small towns in Britain, career options were limited for the bandmates. For many of the characters in David’s book there is the feeling that by pursuing music they are suspending the inevitable — a long, dull, and demoralizing blue-collar career. Describing one of his friends, David writes: “[He] was trying to escape from […] Glasgow’s sprawling council estate, Easterhouse, deprived of even the factories and missile base that Alexandria had as options. The only real career option in Easterhouse was signing on.” Instead of taking a job in a factory, the members of Belle and Sebastian had the time to practice, write, discard songs, rewrite, and ultimately discover their identity as writers, musicians, and artists.
The band’s success is important considering the current state of the liberal arts. Following seven years of economic austerity in almost every developed economy, music venues, theaters, and literary magazines have closed. We live in an era of financial pragmatism where return on investment is the principal metric for judging success, and where that success is often determined more by marketing than music.
Belle and Sebastian’s albums have been purchased by millions of fans across the world, and the band has played sold-out tours in support of its albums since the mid-1990s. They have generated millions of dollars, but, more importantly, they have improved the lives of their fans. Without the support and subsidies they received during the early days — support that has been greatly diminished in recent years — this story wouldn’t exist. The band members would likely be part of an undermined and forgotten working class.
There are many variables to consider when calculating the value of art, which makes calculating the value of investment in art even harder. The circumstances in which the two Stuarts found themselves, backed by unemployment money and eventually the enthusiasm of a local music college, enabled one to flourish and the other to stagnate. Murdoch found his voice in a kind of government-funded incubator for talent, Belle and Sebastian found their identity as a band, but David found his own creative identity to be elusive.
Although he helped Murdoch craft the direction of the band, and no doubt contributed bass lines to the album, he is clear throughout the book that Belle and Sebastian is not his band:
There was no doubting that everything had come together for Stuart at that moment; he’d hit his songwriting stride, he’d found some of the people he wanted to play on his songs, and he had the interest of the industry […] Somehow, I was no longer writing songs, no longer had a band, and was quite aware watching Stuart arranging and mixing his songs with conviction that I didn’t have the singularity of vision for myself to pull that off there and then.
David doesn’t resent Murdoch; he has tremendous admiration for his old friend, but there is certainly a degree of envy and longing, a sense that he has lost a competition. This becomes more apparent as the band start working on its second album, and Murdoch presents each band member with a song sheet containing chords and literally dictates exactly what he wants each band member to do. Even now, David recalls this with mixed emotions.
Like many great writers, David has a distance from the events happening in his life, even while they’re happening. He captures the small details — what someone was wearing or the song on the tape player during a specific drive — but many of the ingredients that make Belle and Sebastian so unique seem to elude him. He writes of the recording of Tigermilk: “Quite by luck, or by Stuart’s intuition in putting us together, it transpired some kind of special chemistry was emerging — a slightly shambolic magic.” He still finds the success of his first band bemusing, and this memoir feels like a pilgrimage to the past in an attempt to understand what he missed the first time around.
As a result, David has discovered what eluded him during the period he is writing about: his own creative identity, one that is made manifest in the memoir’s calm, observant voice. The end product is a funny and unpretentious meditation on finding your own shambolic magic, probably best enjoyed with a cup of (thick Scottish) tea.