All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Stuart Murdoch




PERHAPS THE FINEST BAND ever to emerge from a university music course, Glasgow’s Belle & Sebastian was formed in the mid-’90s by Stuart Murdoch and several friends. The group has gone on to become one of most tuneful and literate acts in indie rock, with a style ranging from acoustic folk, dance music, and chamber pop explored across nine albums and consistently impressive live shows. Murdoch also wrote and directed a 2014 film, God Help the Girl.

Earlier this year, the band released a trio of EPs, How to Solve Our Human Problems; Belle & Sebastian are currently on tour and touch down at the Rose Bowl as part of the Arroyo Seco Festival on June 23.

I spoke with Murdoch from his home in Glasgow.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: Let’s start with the big picture here: a songwriter can draw from all kinds of things, like a blues song or a line from a movie, or something you overhear on the bus. I’m just wondering how important literary work has been — poetry, novels, essays — to your work as a musician, and to how you see and hear the world.

STUART MURDOCH: We have a reputation as a very literary group — I’m always talking about books, the allure of books, and making a fetish out of reading books and living in a bookish world. I don’t think, though, that I lean on books for ideas as much as other groups, when I think about it. When I just randomly read about — you know I quite often read about bands that I love and artists that I love, and it’s surprising to me how often anybody from The Cure, to Morrissey, to Queen, how often they’re writing about — they’re inspired by this book, or … Actually, it’s almost like their song is inhabiting the book; it’s like straight out of the book they’ve read. For me, that doesn’t happen very often. It’s quite rare that — I sort of wish it did, because it would be a nice way of getting some more songs. Anyway, so perhaps not as often as you would think.

Right, given that you used to perform your early gigs in libraries, and you have a song called “Wrapped Up in Books” and so on. But you’re not someone like Tom Verlaine who literally named himself after a writer. You’re not in that orbit, it sounds like.

Yeah, it didn’t go that far. And again, I’m not an expert in his back catalog, so I’m not so sure, but it seems to me that so many rock people are inspired — you know, song after song — by the books they like.

Right, well let’s talk about your reading. I mean who were some of the writers when you were young — young meaning childhood — who were some of the people you were especially excited about when you were growing up? 

When we were young, we couldn’t watch films whenever we wanted to: this is before video and digital, so books were the refuge. So, obviously for people our age, books hold a very special place for anybody who was a bit of a loner or just wanted escape.

So it depends how early you go, but I’m trying to think what I very first loved. It would be safe to say that Roald Dahl — yeah, Roald Dahl the great children’s author, Norwegian background but British author. And actually, he does creep into — there’s one of our songs called “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” from our second album, which alludes to a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Mike Teavee gets turned into, he gets transported by television — he’s the first boy to travel by television. He loves TV so much, and there’s a lyric in there: “Now I’m in a million pieces, picked up for deliberation by the people listening at home.” So that actually has made its way into one of the songs.

And Dahl was, you know, so many people’s favorite author — because he was dark for kids, and we loved that. And then you grow up with Dahl as well because his stories — you know, one of my favorite books as a teenager was called The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, and other stories. So he wrote adult — that was the amazing thing about books, was that you could sort of read ahead, and although you were told not to swear or have ideas about your station when you were young, you could always … An author was always your friend, because you could get those books, you could read ahead, and they would treat you like an adult when you were only a teenager. And so, in that case, these authors helped you to grow up.

I’m glad to hear you mention Dahl. When I was about 10 or 11, I read the semi-obscure Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator about a dozen times. I’m not sure why I did that.

Yeah, I read that one too — the Vermicious Knids!

Yep! [Laughs.]

Yeah, so Dahl was terrific. I guess the king for me was C. S. Lewis, with his children’s stories. That was my number-one escape.

The Narnia books?

Yeah, I think that was just an unbelievable place for me to go when I was young. And that never left me. And C. S. Lewis again, because he never condescended to children; he was an adult writer. I think when you read his books you could tell, I mean there was certainly a mind behind it, there was an adult mind, a fantastic mind behind his creation. And again you could grow up, and then you could move on to his later spiritual works, if you wanted to, and I was glad to do that.

A real mind there. He has a book about the Middle Ages — what’s it called, The Discarded Image, that’s really great. And I think he’s got a memoir called Surprised by Joy. But yeah, real heavyweight. How old were you when you were reading that?

I probably got into Narnia when I was nine years old. My favorite aunt had bought me the books, she bought me four of the books. And I can remember it being a Christmas, and to be honest with you, it’s not like I was particularly scholarly, so sometimes when you got books, you were like, “Oh, thanks very much!” — and you put them to one side. And they were the last things that you went back to, after interesting toys.

But then, by about February when there was nothing else going on, I thought, “Well, I might as well have a look at one of these books.” And luckily the first one I picked up was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which happened to be probably the first one you should read. And then, I was entranced.

You started to say something about Surprised by Joy and I cut you off. Were you going there? 

I mean, Surprised by Joy is a fantastic — I mean, being a creative person, I love biographies of creative people. You know, it’s inspirational. And that was an inspirational biography to me. And C. S. Lewis as a person is probably more influential to me than any other person that I don’t actually know. He’s my literary — he’s my spiritual hero. And so I read that book a number of times at an early age.

And I also love — you know, there’s a biographical short story by Roald Dahl that’s also very — it was called “Lucky Break” — it’s about how he became a writer. And I remember pondering that, because he talked about inspiration, and the way that he talked about it was, that he would get his ideas and they would just spring from nowhere. A sudden shaft of light would come upon him, and he would write down one sentence that would encapsulate what would become a novel. And when I was young, I didn’t believe that. I couldn’t believe — I thought that any kind of writing, or music, or creativity was simply perspiration, was somebody getting down to it — and they had talent and perspiration.

But this notion of inspiration — the shaft of light — you know, Dahl writes about that and I used to think about that a lot.

So, the notion that some of that spirit came from outside, rather than something inborn with rigor applied, that there was another element to making a work of art?

Yeah, absolutely — I mean, what is this magical thing? As a child, I couldn’t understand that, I couldn’t get to grips with that.

So Lewis’s best friend, I think, was Tolkien; did that stuff ever speak to you? 

Yes, absolutely. I — [Laughs.] Yeah, I probably got The Hobbit slightly later than it was designed for. You know, The Hobbit was written for kids, so I really didn’t get into it until I was 12 or 13. You know what, I was always put off by the runes at the start. [Both laugh.]

When you open The Hobbit, the first page is like — I think there’s an introduction where he’s talking about runes and the way that hobbits talk, or something. And I thought, “Oh, this is a bit too boring and obscure.” But of course, when you actually read the first page, it becomes one of the most excellent stories ever written for the youth, you know?

Yeah, I read that to my kid who was probably five or six at the time, and I was reminded of just how lovely it is. I always thought of it as the sidekick to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it’s not got the same heft exactly. But it’s really a beautifully told story. 

Wow, so I’m not reading it to my four-year-old, I’m telling him it from memory. Because, as you would know, I think you automatically adapt whatever you’re reading for your kid’s own age. And we just lie in the dark, and I just — I’ve read it so many times that I just tell him the story of The Hobbit, and I stop to ask him questions to make sure he understands what’s going on, and I try to tell it in a way that he would understand. Because I think that if I just read it, he would get bored, it would be a little bit above his head right now.

So Lewis and Tolkien were both serious Christians, and I think you’re a practicing Presbyterian. Was that spiritual aspect of Lewis’s work important to you then or important to you now?

It wasn’t important to me then, but that is probably — you know it signified, that I picked up on Lewis. I mean I used to go to church when I was a kid all the time, but it didn’t mean too much. Everybody went to church when we were younger, there was nothing else to do on a Sunday.

[Laughs.] Every day is like Sunday, right?

Yeah, that’s right, especially in Presbyterian Scotland, everything shuts down on a Sunday. But I think the fact that Lewis got those hooks into me with those Narnia stories is a signifier, and probably was a big influence in drawing me back to the church eventually.

Right, he certainly makes an intellectual case — I mean, that was his life’s project, making an intellectually serious case for the whole thing [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] For the whole business.

Let’s talk a little about your reading as an adult, whether in university or later. Were there writers who were as powerful to you, and transformative to you as those writers from childhood?

I guess the next, well one of the transformative experiences was — and anybody who reads this might sigh, thinking, “Could you not try a little bit harder?” or “Could you not avoid a cliché?” — but you know, the first time in your late teens when you read The Catcher in the Rye, it simply spoke to me like no other book. And I think when you say transformative, that book was transformative for me. The language and the feeling of the book went into my veins, and made me a different person.

Did it seem radically American to you, as a kid who had probably never been to the States?

I think it was that — you know, he paints that lovely picture of the East Coast, of prep schools, of New York City in winter, that we couldn’t even imagine. So that sort of [image] which was carried on for me in other writers and became lovely to me — you’re right, you know, nobody went to America when I was young, and so that was the closest we got.

Right, that and an Otis Redding record, or something like that I guess.

Yeah.

Well Salinger is — it is a cliché, but it is something that everybody of our generation and the generation older — everybody goes through Salinger I think, who becomes a writer or a creative figures. His stories are great too, I think.

You know, now that we’re talking, I remember that I wrote a song called “I Fought in a War,” which was inspired by the feeling of “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor”: the soldier who’s stationed in England and the girl, she’s some sort of consolation to him, being far from home with the horrors of the war.

Yeah, I didn’t know that connection. I know that song well — it’s the opening track on one of your albums, I think.

Yeah, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant.

Right, that’s a good one. Well, the form that’s closest to lyrics, at least superficially, is verse — I wondered if poetry ever mattered to you, whether when you were younger or later, if a poet really hit you between the eyes the way some of these novelists did?

[Laughs.] For some reason when you said, “Did poetry ever matter to me?” I had this sinking feeling. You know a parallel thing — I was at university by accident one time, in a music department. I wasn’t there for long. And a lecturer was talking about Mendelssohn or something, and she looked around the room and she said, “Does music matter to you? Do chords matter to you?” And she looked at me, and I said, “Well, I suppose so.” And the whole class laughed. But not in a good way, they were laughing at me. And suddenly, I feel like I have nowhere to hide: “Does poetry matter to me?”

Yeah, it sounds like I’ve touched a nerve, Stuart.

Yeah, because you know what? Poetry doesn’t matter to me as much as — [Sighs.] I’m not a great poetry person, I’ve tried to read poetry over the years and find it, not so much to be a waste of time, but just too much effort for too little reward. I’d rather find the poetry in prose or find the poetry in the everyday. I do often find poetry to be written by pompous men who take too long to say too little. Maybe I’m reading the wrong poets though.

And, again, being a songwriter and being obsessed with pop music, I so often think, “Well, you might as well set a tune to it.” And then it becomes lovely. And so I tend to like lyrics more than poems. A good example, though — I mean someone that I love, and there’s no avoiding it in this conversation, is Robert Burns.

I was about to say, a guy who put his words to music late in his life.

So often he did, and what a great idea, because he took popular tunes of the day — Scottish folk tunes and otherwise — and he set his words to the rhythm of this Scottish music. So the poetry could be delivered in this very sweet way. And that’s how it got around, and it probably helped him become so popular in his lifetime. I was brought up in the village that he was born in.

Was that Ayrshire, or something like that? 

Yeah, so Ayrshire was the county, and Alloway was the village that I was brought up in. And so Burns had to be an influence on us, because Burns was part of our education, we had to recite Burns’s poetry — everyone had to stand up in front of the class and recite Burns’s poetry. We had to learn Robert Burns’s songs. So this is very much part of our education.

I had forgotten that you were from his hometown. I just got a new edition of him. I mean, for an American he can be tricky to read. But Burns really managed to become beloved by a wide range of people, literary people, rich people, and working-class people, and just kind of across the spectrum. He was a genuine national poet, it seems.

Yeah, and even the Russians loved him because he was down with the people. His famous poem “A Man’s A Man For A’ That” was basically saying that all men are equal, and this was in the days when there was a strict hierarchy. So the Russians really took them to heart. But also, if you think about Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, that was a quote — “The best laid plans o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley” is from Burns. And also I loved that The Catcher in the Rye is from a Burns song, “Gin a body meet a body / comin thro’ the rye.” And even when you sing at New Year — you know the famous song — that’s Burns too.

I forgot that Burns had all those resonances. I was gonna take you back to Scotland — are there other Scottish writers, whether old Gaelic writers or modern Glasgow novelists or anything that you feel a real connection to?

Yes, my biggest connection with somebody who’s living is Alasdair Gray, who punches above his weight in many categories. I almost think of him as my favorite living artist, as well as being such a great writer. He was brought up to be a draftsman, to be an illustrator. And I sort of think of him as Glasgow’s William Blake. He’s gone yin-and-yang his whole life between drawing and painting, and writing. And his most famous book is called Lanark — it’s probably one of the most favorite Scottish books of the last hundred years. And for good reason, it’s an amazing read. It’s obviously written about a slightly fictional Glasgow, but it captures so much of the spirit of the city. It’s great.

So let’s close out with where you are now as a reader: is there anybody recently you’re excited about, and has anybody filtered into this new set of EPs? I know it can be hard to figure out where our inspirations are coming from — after a while it gets diffused and kind of abstract. But is there anything that’s turning you on recently? 

Well, here’s my big secret: I’m a terrible reader these days. And I’ll just put that right out there. I had my great reading days as a younger man. I think maybe creativity took over and I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. But saying that, though, my two big things — always the Bible, you know, I’m a Christian so I read my Bible. There’s no other book that finds its way into our songs as much.

Well, there’s no other book that finds its way into literature in English as much as the King James Bible. Maybe Shakespeare ties it, but whether you’re a believer or not, it’s just a huge part of Western literature.

Sure, well King James as a work of literature, certainly. But to me it doesn’t really matter, because I’m so spiritually wrapped up in what’s in the pages, it doesn’t matter to me what version. So these stories and these chapters of spirituality pervade the songs.

There’s a recent song on the EP that we’ve got coming out called “Show Me The Sun,” which talks about the story of Lazarus, who is the poor man. There’s two Lazarus episodes. When Lazarus is a poor man begging at the gates of the rich man — and it’s actually a scary story, it’s so arresting, you know the idea that when they both die the rich man is in hell and is begging Lazarus, who was the beggar man, he’s begging him for just a drop of water on his tongue to help quench the eternal fire. You know, this is an arresting image.

But recently as well I’ve been super interested in modern Buddhism. So the title of the new EP is How to Solve Our Human Problems, which is one of the Buddhist texts that we study at the center I go to.

Here’s my last question: you’ve been putting out records since 1996, and each one’s been a little different. The bands I grew up with — I mean, we’re the same age, about — The Beatles, The Clash, The Jam, recorded only for a few years. So I’m fascinated by bands, and writers, and so on who can keep going, can keep alive artistically — not just putting out records and books but can continue to be strong — and “feel the spirit,” as we say in the jazz world. In a nutshell, where do you think that comes from, the ability to have a long arc to your work?

I think unresolved issues. [Both laugh.] I’m serious. Healthy doses of suffering will keep an artist working, while he tries to work out what the hell is going on.

Do you feel like a stylistic restlessness is important too? There are a lot of people who have had long careers, but if you think of the Miles Davises, the Picassos, and so on, they had long careers with a lot of chapters to them. And your first record or two are quite different from what you’ve done along the way. What Bowie called “changes,” right?

Yeah, “ch-ch-ch-changes.” I don’t think the stylistic recklessness is high up on our agenda. To be honest, I think there’s more — a genuine feeling of always wanting to console the listenership. As if it becomes part of your job, as if in fact we are priests and those who are listening are the congregation. You know, we’re wanting to speak through the songs. And so, there’s a genuine feeling on the recent records that — we’re still here, and we still love our music, and that’s why we’re doing it, there’s no letting up there. But we did want to be useful, so I hope we can be helpful. Because we’re getting old now, and you want to leave a legacy.

So you’re saying that the connection to the audience is part of what keeps you going and keeps you engaged?

Yes, I think so absolutely.

I hadn’t thought of that — so unresolved issues and a loving audience, that seems like a productive combination. [Both laugh.]

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.


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