Belle & Sebastian are a triumph of credibility over everything else. They’re not cool – the band’s twee sound precludes that – and even hitting number eight in the British album charts wasn’t enough to push them into mainstream popularity. But their name carries more respect and cachet than many other indie bands. Chances are, even if you haven’t heard them you’ve heard of them.
This impressive credibility might have something to do with their uniquely muted beginnings. After their self-distributed debut album, 1996’s Tigermilk, proved a critical success, the band were snapped up by Jeepster Records. Many groups would court the media, but Belle & Sebastian’s main songwriter, Stuart Murdoch, had other ideas.
‘Stuart wanted the music to speak for itself – he wanted people to buy it, because they liked the music, not because they saw it all over the TV,’ explains drummer and founding member Richard Colburn. ‘And none of us really wanted to do that kind of thing anyway, so we’d just send our mates – people who had nothing to do with the band – to be interviewed and have their photos taken by the press.’ After we stop him to confirm that, yes, he is indeed the real Richard Colburn, he continues: ‘We came out of our shells in 1999 after our third album [The Boy With The Arab Strap] won us a Brit Award for best newcomers. We realised that we had to do something with the media.’
In 2000 they made their first appearance on the British chart show Top Of The Pops, and in 2001 they were picked by acclaimed indie film-maker Todd Solondz to provide music for his movie Storytelling. But, while the film was declared one of the 100 best flicks ever by The New York Times, the band weren’t able to share in its success. ‘When Todd first contacted us, it sounded like we were going to be a really big part of the film, so we recorded lots of material over quite a few weeks. It was fun, making music to order, but in the end they only used about five or six minutes of what we’d recorded.’ Instead, the band released the music in 2002 as the 35-minute album called Storytelling, to mixed reviews.
This wasn’t to be Belle & Sebastian’s last dalliance with the world of cinema. As frustrating as the Solondz collaboration was, the process seemed to kick off something in Murdoch’s mind. After earning critical acclaim for 2003’s album Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Ivor Novello and Mercury Music Prize nominations for 2004’s Books EP and hitting number eight in the album charts for The Life Pursuit (2006), the band was put on ice. Stuart took the opportunity to pursue God Help The Girl:, a musical film project he’d been holding on to for years. ‘We’d worked solidly from January to October 2006, so we planned to have a few months off, which turned into two years off,’ explains Richard. ‘It’s mostly because Stuart is in America.’
But Stuart’s not the only person doing his own thing. The break has allowed Richard to step out from behind the drums and into the spotlight himself, DJing under the name of ‘Rico’. ‘It started off as an ad hoc thing – I’d DJ after shows or do one-offs – but now I see it as a big part of what I do. As much as being in the band, I think.’
Cynics may raise their eyebrows at that. Indie musicians don’t tend to make the most respected DJs, since many aren’t used to reading the crowd or mixing records. But Richard’s aware of the problem. ‘There’s a big difference between just getting up and playing some music, and working out what makes a good set. I’ve had the privilege of DJing with some guys who are light years ahead of me, guys who’ve done it for decades, and I’ve watched them to see how they do it. I find the science of it interesting, and I dissect every set I do, saying, “What made that work?”’
Belle & Sebastian’s fans will be able to ponder that for themselves when Richard plays at Alpha on August 5. But if they’re expecting to hear the band’s signature pop, they may be surprised. ‘I’ll put on a bit of electro, I think, and probably some indie and other stuff as well. Generally, I’m moving away from the band’s sound.’ That’s a bit of a dangerous game, isn’t it? ‘Yeah, you can’t bite the hand that feeds you. After all, the whole reason I’m coming to a place like Dubai is because of the Belle & Sebastian name. It’s like walking a tightrope – you need to find the balance. I’ll play it by ear and see what the crowd is going for.’
It’s clear that Richard is very confident in his craft. Not only has he developed his own identity outside the band, he’s also learning how to produce music so he can work on his own dance album. But has he grown too much over the past two years? When God Help The Girl is finished and the band come back together to record, will he be joining them? ‘Absolutely, without a doubt. But I’m not going to give up DJing. There are times when I’ll be working on Belle & Sebastian for two to six month blocks, but I’ll do things like DJ at after-show parties and use my laptop to produce wherever I can. I just want to keep as busy as possible for as long as possible –¬ that’s the key to it all.’
And when can we expect the band to return? ‘I imagine 2010 or so – it’s hard to say how long a film’s going to take to produce. But we’ll definitely be back. It’s just a matter of when, not if.’
Richard Colburn plays See You Next Tuesday at Alpha on August 5.