How To Solve Our Human Problems: depending on your disposition, the phrase could be a plea for guidance or a blueprint for change. Either way, it’s a pertinent title for a body of work in 2017, the first installment of which is arriving at the tail-end of one of the bleakest periods for global politics since, well, 2016. So it’s interesting that Belle & Sebastian – the creators of the EP trilogy in question – don’t seem especially interested in unleashing polemics, nor in using their musical platform to rake over the events of recent months.
Nestled in the beer garden of an East London pub alongside band mate Stevie Jackson, lead singer Stuart Murdoch reflects on the recent phenomenon for politicised records. “It’s the obvious thing to do,” he says calmly and without spite. “We’re not considering what is the best thing to do, but personally it strikes me maybe don’t get angry? This doesn’t mean apathy, but just ask yourself how much good it is railing against the world and pointing out the obvious. Pointing the finger of hatred at this person or that person doesn’t do any good at all.”
In fact, it actually transpires that the title is borrowed from a Buddhist text which Murdoch has spent the past three years studying, and that he believes has affected his outlook considerably. “We’ve been talking about it within the group, and the huge thing is that it’s very difficult to change people by yelling at them or preaching at them. The one thing you can do is you can change yourself, and that’s the crux of Buddhism.
“That’s not maybe a very popular notion because people get very angry if you suggest, ‘Oh maybe you should change yourself.’ Like, ‘Why should I change myself?! He’s the wanker! It’s not my fault; it’s the world’s fault.’ But it’s really empowering to consider getting a peaceful mind. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be active and useful.” “We are the world,” Jackson interjects with a grin, before Murdoch concludes, “It’s helped me to survive. There’s a lot of anxiety going around these days, a lot of depression, and a lot of that maybe stems from people’s reaction to the catastrophe of the times. So this EP is an antidote.”
How To Solve Our Human Problems Part 1 will be Belle and Sebastian’s first release since their 2015 LP Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance. It also follows a period of reflection during which the Glasgow six-piece marked the 20th anniversary of their much-loved debut Tigermilk and the acclaimed follow-up If You’re Feeling Sinister at the Royal Albert Hall in 2016. Murdoch looks back on the celebrations today with great fondness, describing them as “two of my favourite shows we’ve ever played.”
“There’s a lot of anxiety going around these days… So this EP is an antidote.”
When I suggest that Belle and Sebastian have always been generous in their willingness to play older songs and fan favourites live, Murdoch laughs, “Well it depends what you mean by generous. Some folk would say, ‘Ach, they’re still pedaling that old shite from 20 years ago.’” He continues, “There’s an artistry in getting a perfect set list together, and it’s dynamic; it changes from night to night. And that buzz keeps the band going, like, ‘What do you wanna play tonight? What do you not wanna play?’ And I know that seems quite self-centred, because we’re meant to be playing for the fans, but if it’s good for us it’s going to be good for them. We’ve always kept ourselves interested.” Jackson too denies any selflessness on their part, insisting, “Songs are still alive for me – they’re not nostalgia.”
Murdoch recounts an encounter at San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival earlier this summer. “It was quite a young crowd, and my friend was in the audience. We threw in an old song, ‘Like Dylan In The Movies’ from Sinister and there were two teenage or 20-something girls standing next to him, and they said, ‘I know this one from somewhere? This must be a cover.’ And the other one was like, ‘No, no – they wrote this song. They wrote this song.’ And how do you take that?! You could take that so many ways. We’re survivors: we get to cover our own songs after 20 years.”
Though they’re now forging forwards creatively once more, their return to the EP format could be interpreted as an affectionate nod to the early years of their career, which famously spawned fan favourites Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light in 1997, and 1998’s This Is Just A Modern Rock Song. But dismissing more sentimental motivations, Murdoch cites the format’s flexibility as the only impetus for the latest series.
“It’s pretty much the same reason we did it the first time round. We made Tigermilk and Sinister in six months and I still had loads of songs pouring out, so we thought how can we mix it up? Let’s do singles instead. The Smiths did singles. The Cocteau Twins did singles. It’s a slightly different way of creating; it’s more anything goes, and you can be more catholic in your style and your taste, rather than trying to knit an album together. So that’s a fun philosophy to have when you’re getting into a project. It freshens it up.”
Instead of heading to the US to record as per their previous three albums, the band chose to stay in Glasgow and spread sessions across six different studios. Both Murdoch and Jackson credit this relaxed approach, plus the decision to self-produce – aside from isolated collaborations with The Invisible’s Leo Abraham and Michael Kiwanuka-collaborator Inflo – with lending the set spontaneity. This rule-free approach ultimately manifests in a diverse collection of songs that ranges from the tangle of electronic atmospherics and horn-flecked wistfulness that is ‘We Were Beautiful’ to the melodic folkiness of ‘There Is An Everlasting Song’.
It appears that the overriding message of the latter is music as salvation. “I think that’s often a theme in our music,” Murdoch agrees. “And that’s part of it, but also that’s a bit of Dharma. I would hope some of that has sneaked into that song.” So while Belle and Sebastian might not be interested in examining the minutiae of global politics, there is guidance to be gleaned in songs like ‘The Girl Doesn’t Get It’, from the first EP. Examining the temptation to wallow in misery (“Are you living or waiting for the time to get better?”) Murdoch concludes, “If compassion was honoured, all the dumb human problems, would belong in unmarked history.”