Initially inspired by the instrumentation of '60s chamber pop as much as underground college rock favorites like Felt and Orange Juice, Belle and Sebastian formed around the bookish and sometimes salacious songwriting of Stuart Murdoch in 1994. Murdoch was hoping only to document some of the songs he had been writing while suffering a years-long bout of chronic fatigue syndrome. After a Scottish welfare program for unemployed musicians offered to fund the recording of an album on the strength of Murdoch's demos, he hastily assembled a makeshift band to track 1995's Tigermilk in just three days. For the project, he assembled a seven-piece band featuring himself on guitar and vocals, and choosing and recruiting members by instinct in a local all-night café in late 1995. He eventually found Sarah Martin (violin), Stevie Jackson (guitar), Chris Geddes (keyboards), Stuart David (bass), Richard Colburn (drums), and Isobel Campbell (cello). All seven members were college students, and all agreed that the idea behind the group was to stay on a small scale, to keep it as a project and not let the band run their lives; they even assumed they would release two albums and break up.
In May 1996, the songs from Belle and Sebastian's hasty first sessions were released as their debut album Tigermilk on Electric Honey Records in a vinyl-only edition of 1,000 copies. Tigermilk unexpectedly became a sensation, earning terrific word of mouth throughout England. As a result, the band became slightly more than a school project -- it became an actual band. Not quite comfortable with this new level of publicity, the bandmembers were cagey about sharing their identities in the earliest days, submitting publicity photos featuring people that weren't in the group and preferring to perform in odd venues, playing not only the standard coffeehouses and cafés, but also homes, church halls, and libraries. Second album If You're Feeling Sinister was released on the independent Jeepster label in November 1996. By the time the record was released in America on the EMI subsidiary the Enclave, it had earned considerable critical acclaim in the U.K. -- not only from music weeklies but from newspapers like The Sunday Times and magazines like The Face -- and a large cult following; by some accounts, Tigermilk was being sold for as much as 75 pounds. Over the course of 1997, word of mouth continued to grow in America, even as the band pulled out of an American tour because the Enclave went bankrupt and closed.
As the group's cult continued to build in 1997, Belle and Sebastian released three EPs -- Dog on Wheels (May), Lazy Line Painter Jane (July), and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light (October). Each subsequent EP placed higher on the indie charts and received much critical acclaim. By the end of the year, the band finalized an American deal with Matador Records, issuing The Boy with the Arab Strap in September 1998. The following year saw the eagerly anticipated, wide re-release of Tigermilk, the album that started it all. Following completion of 2000's Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, Stuart David left Belle and Sebastian to focus full-time on his solo project, Looper. In 2001, the group released two EPs -- Jonathan David and I'm Waking Up to Us -- and recorded the soundtrack for Todd Solondz's film Storytelling. Just before the soundtrack's release in spring 2002, Belle and Sebastian embarked on a comprehensive tour of the United States and Canada before returning to Europe for the summer festival season. Midway through the tour, Isobel Campbell left the band, citing the usual differences.
Another major change soon took place when Belle and Sebastian left Jeepster and Matador to sign with Rough Trade, with their next record, late-2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress, produced by the inimitable Trevor Horn (who also produced Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes, and scores of others). The record spawned the brilliant "Step into My Office" and "I'm a Cuckoo" singles, the latter of which was the group's biggest U.K. hit, reaching number 14 in early 2004. After a long worldwide tour that found Belle and Sebastian reaching new levels of success, the band retired to Scotland and began preparing for the recording of their fifth album. The Life Pursuit was recorded in Los Angeles with producer Tony Hoffer and was released in 2006 by Rough Trade in the U.K. The group were back with Matador in the U.S.
After a tour that included a sold-out show at the Hollywood Bowl, the band took a well-deserved break. Apart from the release of The BBC Sessions (by Matador and Jeepster) in 2008, no Belle and Sebastian records were released until 2010. During the hiatus, Murdoch spent time on his God Help the Girl project (which included much of the band as well), and Jackson and Kildea toured and recorded with the legendary Scottish indie pop group the Vaselines, who had re-formed in 2009. After spending the early part of 2010 recording with Tony Hoffer, the band released Write About Love on October 12, 2010.
Write About Love performed well -- it peaked at eight on the U.K. charts and at 15 on Billboard in the U.S. -- and after its release, Belle and Sebastian entered a quiet period. They re-emerged in 2013, touring the U.S. prior to the August release of The Third Eye Centre, a collection of B-sides and non-LP tracks released between 2006 and 2010. A few more shows followed in 2014, along with the release of Murdoch's film adaptation of God Help the Girl -- he turned the side project into a musical -- and the group announced they were beginning work on their ninth studio album. Preceded by the single "The Party Line," the Ben H. Allen-produced Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance appeared in January 2015.
Belle and Sebastian returned in December 2017 with How to Solve Our Human Problems, the first in a series of three EPs released in succession. All three How to Solve Our Human Problems EPs were released as a collected set in February 2018. In 2019, Belle and Sebastian revisited a handful of old songs as part of their soundtrack for the coming-of-age comedy Days of the Bagnold Summer. When the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the band's plans for touring and the recording of a new album, they used the unexpected time to work meticulously on a live album. Released in December 2020, the double live album What to Look for in Summer gathered the best of multi-tracked recordings of Belle and Sebastian's 2019 tour dates, with a set list equally weighted with fan favorites and more obscure songs. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Fred Thomas, Rovi
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