Archive for May, 2009

“We just had to stand there taking envelopes of money. It was like The Godfather. If you marry a Sicilian, you do OK”

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Date: May 3, 2009
Time: 14.00
Location: The Left Bank, Glasgow
Interview subject: Stuart Murdoch, Belle & Sebastian/God Help The Girl
Background info: Let’s go back nine years. It’s a late afternoon in spring and I’m a passenger in a car. We’ve rolled up to a set of red lights at a pedestrian crossing on Gibson Street in the West End of Glasgow. After a couple of seconds the lights change to flashing amber. There’s not a soul around but the car doesn’t move. Still they flash, on and off, on and off. Why won’t he drive on? It feels like minutes have passed. Nobody says a word. I glance nervously at the rear-view mirror, another vehicle approaches from behind. I crack. “Stuart, I think it’s OK to drive thr-”. The lights turn green. Stuart hits the accelerator.

The last time I met Stuart Murdoch, most of the interview was conducted while he drove around town in his 1973 Ford Granada. Nine years later, I’ve somehow ended up a passenger in his car again, only now it’s a decidedly more modern black Astra, stuffed with Fruit Pastilles and Polo wrappers. Stuart was running late and didn’t want to leave me waiting at our pre-arranged Hillhead Underground meeting place, so he picked me up and we head, with terrifying inevitability, towards Gibson Street. This time the lights stay green.

Stuart takes a right and executes a textbook reverse park. As I open the door to get out, I ask him if I need to push down the button. He shakes his head. We start walking away from the car. “But it’s not locked,” I insist. Stuart doesn’t reply. Without breaking stride, he puts his hand in his left pocket, clicks the key, and the reassuring clunk of the central locking does its job. Smooth.

We head into The Left Bank and the waitress ushers us to a table smack bang in the middle of the cafe. It’s not the most discreet spot for an interview, so Stuart folds his arms over my dictaphone to make this look more like an everyday conversation in a coffee house. The man is clearly clued up in tape recorder camouflage techniques.
“I’ve got a little Toshiba one,” he says. “I quite often get song ideas when I’m walking along, so I turn the thing upside down and pretend I’m on the phone and sing into it. Nobody would know.”

Stuart’s new project is called God Help The Girl. It is a film that the 40-year-old is still in the process of writing, but the soundtrack that accompanies it can’t wait. Fourteen tracks have made it on to the album, which is released on Rough Trade in June, with four leftovers earmarked for a future EP.

Catherine Ireton is predominantly the lead singer, but there are cameos from several others including The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, while two guest vocalists – American pair Britanny Stallings and Dina Bankole – were found through an online competition set up by Stuart.

Did you feel like Simon Cowell sifting through all those wannabes?
“A little bit. But I must admit, I’ve never watched any of those programmes. I am aware that there is a phenomenon called… is it called X Factor? [I nod] This is my little thing and it would have happened regardless of the latest fads. At first I thought I was going to have a girl group, three singers together. They would move into the same house and be a force, but that never happened. We had about 380 audio auditions and 50 videos on top of that. [Stuart sighs] By the end, I didn’t listen to some of them all the way through but I pretty much knew.”

Stuart submitted the first draft of the God Help The Girl film to the producer last October (“he politely suggested I needed to write some more”) and is working on another version.

What’s the concept of the movie?
“The main protagonist is Eve, the girl who sings most of the songs on the record. She starts off in a mental hospital, at her lowest ebb. She’s not too crazy but she’s crazy enough. She’s in there for a long time and she discovers that she can write songs and she sees that as her way of getting out of the trouble she’s in. She makes it out of hospital eventually and runs into James and Cassie and the three of them make music over the course of a summer and become really close.”
If you are familiar with the Belle & Sebastian biography, you might recognise that Eve’s predicament bears uncanny parallels with Stuart’s own life story. Before forming Belle & Sebastian, Stuart spent seven years saddled with ME, a condition that sapped his energy and often left him housebound, crippling him for most of his twenties.

The film is biographical, isn’t it?
[Stuart takes a gulp of coffee] “There are biographical strands with Eve being in such a poor way. But I had to make Eve’s condition more dramatic because I would challenge anybody to write a good drama about ME. It’s like watching paint dry. Maybe one day somebody will make a good film about ME… it would be a sleeper hit [laughs]. Sorry.”

How did you ultimately get better?
“I tried lots of different therapies and doctors and eventually – and this happens to Eve in the story – I went to a healer. She was a Christian healer and I wasn’t a signed-up Christian at the time but the woman said, ‘You don’t have to be to benefit from this so don’t worry about it’. She charged me nothing. She just put her hands over me and said I might feel a bit warm. I was just lying there and felt very relaxed. She spent a whole hour, just moving around. I went away and thought that was the end of it. About a week and a half later I had what could only be described as a nervous breakdown and had the worst six months of my life, mentally as well as physically. But my physical condition got better from that point and I spent the next three of four years slowly recovering from ME. It might sound like a crazy story but she really helped me.”

Do you regard that as the turning point?
“Absolutely. Absolutely! [Stuart gets visibly animated] The turning point of my LIFE. I’ve tried to track that woman down since but she moved from Mosspark and her neighbours don’t know where she went. I think she cut hair in hospitals and while she did that she gave the old ladies healing, although they didn’t know it. I’m not going to name her but I do wonder where she is.”

It was through ME that Stuart met his best friend Ciara MacLaverty, a fellow sufferer who has campaigned vigorously to raise awareness for an illness that she had for 20 years. Her ‘miracle’ fix was a treatment programme, developed by a Scottish doctor, called Mickel Therapy which, incidentally, has also cured two other chronic-fatigue sufferers I know personally. Like Stuart’s healer, Mickel Therapy is unavailable on the National Health Service despite a 92% success rate.
“Back in the day, and probably still to this day, ME was a network because there’s not the support through the NHS,” he says. “So you have to find out things from people around you. Ciara and I formed our own ME club in the West End of Glasgow for like-minded sufferers and we used to hang out. The funny thing is, when I was feeling a lot better and Ciara was feeling really low, I used to try healing on her, just for half an hour. I don’t know whether it did any good but I tried [laughs]. I think you’ll find what’s for you if you go looking for it.”

Stuart has become more open about the subject of religion as he has grown older. After our 2000 interview, he sent an additional quote by email which I segued into the published article. It read: “My favourite book is the Bible, and my favourite book in the Bible is St John, and I’ve lifted freely and happily from that since I read it.” Similarly, religious references have become commonplace in Belle & Sebastian’s songs. If You Find Yourself Caught In Love is a paean to “the man above”, while the band’s last album, The Life Pursuit, opens with the lyrics “morning prayers”. His recent online diary entries are also peppered with religious content: “May 3, 2009: What I meant to talk about tonight was hymns. The greatest hits of God! I’m going to write hymns one day.” And, it’s so blatant you might have overlooked it, his new project is called God Help The Girl.

Do you feel a duty to spread the Word?
“If you’re a Christian, there’s meant to be a feeling of mission. But I think it’s mission enough just to act in a certain way. People will be drawn into stuff if it appeals to them. I would never chase somebody up the street with a club trying to get them to convert.”

Does it concern you that society as a whole, certainly in Britain, seems to be becoming less religious?
“Organised religion has fallen away for many reasons over the past 20 or 30 years. It doesn’t bother me at all. Come on, it’s not like I’ve got shares in the Church of Scotland. People might turn away from the Church but a lot will end up finding spirituality elsewhere. You can’t really expect in this day and age when we’re a world culture for us to simply accept Christianity when we’re a “Christian country”. The areas where other faiths and religions cross over are much greater than many people would imagine. But I can see people’s problems with organised religion, I’ve got no argument with that. I’m not into tribes. I wouldn’t go to war on anybody’s behalf.”

Do you think about death?
“Not so much, but I do have a constant notion about another life, another place. I think about spirituality. It lives with me like another dimension all the time. It guides me along. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a Holy Joe or pious but I like to lean on that stuff. It makes life so much more interesting. Maybe this developed out of my ME years of nothingness. I wasn’t able to work and live as much as other people. Sometimes you’re only on 30%. You’ve got to fill in the other 70% yourself and that can be when spirituality jumps in, so maybe some people just don’t need it or their lives are full enough.”
Stuart officially joined the Church last month, along with his wife of two years, Marisa Privitera. An American born to Italian-Cuban parents, she appeared on the cover of The Life Pursuit and was pictured topless on the front of Belle & Sebastian’s Fans Only DVD, with her modesty preserved by a carefully-position book.

How did you meet Marisa?
“I met her briefly in Boston and then we met again at the Benicassim music festival in Spain. I think it was 2002. We met at the go-karts and she’d had a couple of gins and I told her to be careful. [He pauses] She’s phoning just now!”
Stuart digs into his pocket and plucks out his vibrating mobile – the kind you’d describe as a ‘brick’ – and has a brief, predominantly one-way, conversation (“Yeah… oh yeah… I’ll do that”) before he takes up the story again.
“She always hates that bit when I say that she’d had a couple of drinks. So she went on the go-karts and smashed it straight into the bales of hay and broke her foot. I was going to Barcelona and she had a couple of days before she went back to the States, so I had to carry her around the city. You get to know someone pretty well that way.”

Marisa moved to Scotland to do a Masters degree in film. They got married in New York and spent their honeymoon in Sicily, where they were invited to a typically Italian celebratory dinner with the extended Privitera family.
“We just had to stand there taking envelopes of money,” he says. “It was like The Godfather. I’m telling you, if you marry a Sicilian, you do OK.”

How did you propose?
[Nervous laugh] “I didn’t exactly get down on one knee but we talked around it for a while. So I said, ‘Look, I’ll get hitched if we go to New York and do it in the public office and we don’t tell anyone’. So that’s what we did. That’s as magic as it gets! She always feels ripped off. She says, ‘I can’t believe I’ve got the most unromantic guy. You write all those songs and you can’t even say such-and-such. If only they knew the truth.’ I can’t imagine being married to any other person because she’s so tolerant of my entrenched ways. I’m a pain in the arse.”
Stuart’s relationship with Marisa and the way his eyes light up when he talks about her couldn’t be more different from his affair with former bandmate Isobel Campbell, which was largely kept hidden until she quit the band in 2002.
“If it wasn’t common knowledge then it was probably my fault,” he admits. “I was a little bit ‘one foot in, one foot out’ with that and I put my hand up and say that’s not an ideal way to run a relationship. It’s definitely not an ideal way to run a band. It had, shall we say, an interesting dynamic that really wasn’t very positive. In saying that, for a couple of years the static between us was like an engine that ran the band for good or bad. I hear from Isobel less than it’s possible to hear from a person who lives in the same town as you. I’ve maybe bumped into her twice since she left, which is quite a feat. Just shows you how much we had in common.”

Is Morrissey still an idol for you?
“Yeah, a little bit. But I wouldn’t really want to meet him. I don’t think he’d be that nice. I’d rather keep him as an idol of the 80s – The Smiths, the first solo album. Whenever Morrissey plays the same festival as us he cancels. Up until a few years ago I would have really liked to have met him and hung out, had a coffee, but like I say, he just kept cancelling when we played. I figured he didn’t want to meet us.”

Do you have any other idols?
“I think Andy Murray is pretty great. Who would have seen that coming? A Scottish tennis player in the top three. It will be a great psychological weight lifted from the country if and when he finally wins a major. I think that would have happened if Colin Montgomerie had ever won a major.”

On April 23, exactly two months ahead of its release date, the full God Help The Girl album leaked onto the internet. However, Stuart isn’t too troubled.
“The hard fact is, we’re going to make a lot less money,” he acknowledges. “Our sales will go like that [arrows hand done], they have done. But up until the point where I’m having to seriously think about getting another job to get by, I can’t really complain. What’s the point in getting mad? The internet is a sort of approximation of what Belle & Sebastian was all about when we started. It’s a democratisation. It’s not so much them and us any more. When we started we felt we weren’t different from the audience and they got that feeling from us, and that has been carried on with the internet. You maybe lose a bit of glamour on the way but it’s good for music.”

4 God Help The Girl – Perfection As A Hipster (Gary Olson vocal)
4 God Help The Girl – The Psychiatrist Is In (Catherine Ireton vocal)

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Live review: Hockey @ ABC 1, Glasgow

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Expectation can be a curse. At the turn of the year we would have put good money on HOCKEY following in the riff-stream of The Strokes and The Killers to become the great new heroes of glammed-up American alternative rock.

While there’s still every chance the Portland boys will turn into the darlings of the media (they snagged a spot on Jools Holland last week despite only having one UK single to their name), watching them perform in the flesh for the first time last night exposed their limitations.
They look the part (i.e. they’d get a sound whipping if they weren’t in a band) with Hockey members sporting such preposterous features as a hairband, a semi-handlebar moustache, sunshine yellow jeans, indoor shades and a white-man afro – but they quite simply don’t have enough songs of real quality to fill a set.

During their final gig as tour support to Friendly Fires, singer Benjamin Grubin tries his hardest to rouse an attentive but whelmed Glasgow audience, flailing his arms around like a chimp during the new wave pop of Too Fake and making a possibly ill-thought-out remark about the Edinburgh crowd being “crazy” on the previous night.

Make no mistake, Song Away is as perfect as a pop song can get, and assuming the make-Hockey-famous mission goes to plan, it should be on the radios just in time to become the ‘surprise’ hit of the festival season. But as dazzling as Song Away is, don’t get carried away.

4 Hockey – Song Away
4 Hockey – Too Fake
b July 12, T in the Park, Balado (tickets)
b September 19, Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh (tickets)
b September 20, King Tut’s, Glasgow (tickets)

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Why politicians telling radio stations what to play is a good thing

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Scotland’s most listened to commercial radio station, Clyde 1, has a list of artists which they call their “Top 50”. It is an exclusive club that contains only the rich and famous, from which their daily playlist is chosen, and it reads like Q magazine’s contents page:

Amy Macdonald, Amy Winehouse, Beyonce, Bryan Adams, Coldplay, David Gray, Duffy, The Feeling, Franz FerdinandThe Fratellis, Girls Aloud, James Morrison, Kaiser Chiefs, Katy Perry, Keane, Kelly Clarkson, The Killers, Kings of Leon, The Kooks, KT Tunstall, Kylie, Lily Allen, Madonna, Maroon 5, Mika, Natalie Imbruglia, Nickleback, Oasis, Orson, Paolo Nutini, Paul Weller, Pink, Pussycat Dolls, Razorlight, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rihanna, Robbie Williams, Scissor Sisters, Scouting For Girls, The Script, Sharleen Spiteri / Texas,Simple MindsSnow Patrol, Stereophonics, Sugababes, Take That, The ProclaimersTravis, U2, The Verve.

As you can see, 10 of the 50 acts are from Scotland (and we’re generously including Snow Patrol – three parts Northern Irish to two parts Scottish), but if one man gets his way things could soon change.

Culture Minister Mike Russell wants to force radio stations to play a quota of Scottish music – much higher than the 20% currently wheeled out by the likes of Clyde 1 – to increase exposure to native musicians and boost the country’s music industry. The difficulties standing in his way are twofold:

1. Since broadcasting powers are not devolved to Scotland, Russell would not have the authority to legislate a quota regime, so the best he can hope for is to introduce it as a voluntary code.

2. Opposition MSPs will do anything and everything to ensure the scheme (voluntary or otherwise) never becomes a reality – not because they think it is bad for the Scottish music industry, but because they represent opposition parties and, as such, have to be seen to be hindering the SNP at every turn. This is one of the many reasons why the pettiness of politics leaves most people feeling disaffected or, at best, indifferent.

Russell got the idea from a recent visit to Canada, where the system is in operation under an agreement known as Cancon (‘Canadian content’), which guarantees that 35% of music played on commercial radio is Canadian, so the likelihood is that a similar figure will be sought here.

Predictably, Radio Clyde, which attracts 600,000 listeners in and around the Glasgow area, are far from happy at the prospect of their precious Top 50 list being tampered with. In response to the proposal, programme director Paul Saunders said: “If Scottish artists are good enough they will get support from radio stations here anyway. Playing them just because they are Scottish would not be fair to them and would also be a disservice to listeners.”

They key phrase to take from his statement is “good enough”. What Saunders meant to say was “famous enough”. Commercial radio stations such as Clyde 1 will refuse to touch any song (Scottish or otherwise) if it doesn’t already have a high profile or, at the very least, a London-based PR company plugging it. The best an unestablished artist can hope for is to get a cursory play on one of the graveyard shows.

The reason this has got us so worked up is because we come across dozens of fantastic new Scottish bands and musicians, but they don’t get the support they need and deserve because people in influential positions aren’t willing to give them a shot. Why? Because they fear that playing songs made by non-household names will make their audience switch off.

We couldn’t disagree more, and we’re offering up four mp3s to prove it. Two of the artists, DOTJR and RODDY HART, are unsigned, while MALCOLM MIDDLETON and CAMERA OBSCURA are probably familiar to most readers of The Pop Cop yet still ignored by commercial radio in their own country, the latter having just played the 1,900-capacity Barrowlands venue and reached a very respectable No.32 in the UK charts with their new album My Maudlin Career.

4 Dotjr – This Is My Life
4 Roddy Hart – Dead Of The Night
4 Malcolm Middleton – Red Travellin’ Socks
4 Camera Obscura – French Navy

The four tracks have one thing in common – they’re all bona fide pop songs made by Scottish artists that wouldn’t sound out of place next to any other artist in that hallowed Top 50.

Speaking of which, one of that list, Razorlight, stepped back in time last weekend by playing to just 300 punters at King Tut’s in Glasgow in what could only be described as a frenzied atmosphere.

A friend of ours who knows the band well once told us that, yes, Johnny Burrell is every bit the egotistical, big-headed control freak he comes across as, but apparently that’s no bad thing when your primary goal in life is to be a rock star.

And judging by the way his fans hung on his every word (and to each other in a gross display of sweat-soaked manpanionship) at King Tut’s, he’s clearly a hero to some, although not the kind we can readily identify with.

Then again, if it wasn’t for hearing the Razorlight song America, this post wouldn’t have been half as interesting. Perhaps Johnny was on to something when he wrote “there’s nothing on the radio that means that much to me”.

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