Ten years ago, when Belle and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister took the indie-rock scene by storm, the Scottish group assumed a reclusive posture. The band avoided interviews and photo shoots, creating an elusive mystique. In performance, B&S were, frankly, a mess; confidence was never their greatest attribute.
Fast-forward to present day: Belle and Sebastian are releasing self-assured pop records, gamely courting press coverage, actually appearing in their videos, and making serious inroads in touring the U.S. behind their latest album, The Life Pursuit.
The turning point, according to members of the band, came in the summer of 2001. "We started getting our live [act] together and everything started to change at once," guitarist Stevie Jackson said. After years of false starts, the band was attempting to be a professional entity, even agreeing to write and record the score for Todd Solondz's film "Storytelling." "We changed record labels, personnel, attitude, everything," Jackson said.
It became apparent around that time that singer/ violinist/ founding member Isobel Campbell wasn't going to come along for the ride. "I don't think that Isobel was ever totally comfortable ... and then [she] left," Jackson said. "[That decision] cemented into a situation where everyone in the group wanted to be there."
In 2003 the band made a musical left turn with Dear Catastrophe Waitress — a shimmering record put into sharp focus by '80s synth-pop producer Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Art of Noise) — and never looked back.
While Waitress was a poised rebirth, the band's obsessive fanbase was divided: One faction loved the album's renewed energy and verve, while the other yearned for the bittersweet folk of If You're Feeling Sinister and the three albums in between.
On The Life Pursuit, B&S have continued in the vein of Waitress. While the band's storied preciousness is hardly expunged, the album explores wry, character-based vignettes ("Sukie in the Graveyard," "White Collar Boy") with infusions of British soul, Motown, '70s soft rock, glam and buoyant '80s pop.
"You've got to look them straight in the eye, and say, 'We know what's best for you,' " laughed lead singer Stuart Murdoch of his hesitant fans. " 'You loved our first record, you'll love this one. Just give it a chance.' "
Pursuit was produced by Tony Hoffer, best known for working with Air and Beck. It's only the second time Belle and Sebastian have ceded production duties to an outsider, but, according to Murdoch, it's also "the first time we didn't feel like killing each other or going straight to [writing] a new record" afterward.
The goal for Pursuit, aside from pop perfection, was to make people want to dance — an objective not previously associated with B&S. "I wanted to make a record where the songs could stand up to the records we loved on the dance floor while keeping the strong and punchy melodies," Murdoch explained.
Ultimately, the band's goal is to challenge apathy. "It would be totally [horrific] if people went, 'Yeah, another Belle and Sebastian record,' " Jackson said with mock indifference.
In a move that further confounds expectations of longtime fans, B&S recently shot videos for "Blues Are Still Blues" and "Funny Little Frog," and they're even toying with the notion of shooting a clip for every song from Pursuit.
The last year has seen a deluge of Belle and Sebastian arcana, including a biography ("Belle and Sebastian: Just a Modern Rock Story"), a comic book ("Put the Book Back on the Shelf: A Belle and Sebastian Anthology"), and three CDs (Pursuit, the concert album If You're Feeling Sinister: Live at the Barbican and an entry in the mixtape series LateNightTales). It's fair to say that such multiplatform carrying-on would be anathema to the Belle and Sebastian of 1996.
"I never thought of a vaudevillian future," Murdoch said. "I thought we'd stay in our bedrooms and make one record, maybe two. So this is all a constant surprise."
Belle and Sebastian tour dates with the New Pornographers, according to Matador records:
- 3/10 - Chicago, IL @ Riviera
- 3/11 - Milwaukee, WI @ Riverside Theatre
- 3/12 - Minneapolis, MN @ Orpheum Theatre
- 3/14 - Dallas, TX @ Granada Theatre
- 3/15 - Austin, TX @ Stubb's (Matador SXSW showcase)
- 3/18 - Los Angeles, CA @ Wiltern
- 3/19 - Los Angeles, CA @ Wiltern
- 3/21 - San Francisco, CA @ Concourse at the SF Design Center
- 3/23 - Portland, OR @ Roseland
- 3/25 - Seattle, WA @ Paramount Theatre