The Belle Epoque

  • The release of Belle And Sebastian's fourth album was no 'N Sync affair. Crowd control was not required. Traffic was not stopped. But when the doors opened at New York City's downtown Tower Records store last Tuesday morning, a steady procession of people--very intelligent-looking adult people--headed to the racks, grabbed their copies of Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador) and tore out of the store, desperate to get to the first music-playing implement they could lay their hands on. Soon the Belle and Sebastian websites, and there are dozens of them, were humming: "I've got it!" wrote one fan. "It's quite remarkable how beautiful it is. There is a God!!!"

    Devoted fans aren't unusual in the music world, but Belle and Sebastian--not a duo, but a mixed-gender septet from Glasgow, Scotland--inspires cultish adoration from folks too old and too smart to be hanging posters on the wall. The group's votaries meet in coffee houses to pore over lyrics. A couple proudly reported naming their children Belle and Sebastian. There's even a website devoted to--no joke--original fiction inspired by B&S; songs. What artistic force could cause perfectly normal adults to regress into thoroughly obsessed teens?

    For the most part, it's old-fashioned pop music. Belle and Sebastian blends guitars, pianos, violins, cellos, horns and whatever else is lying around into the kind of sweet pop pioneered by the Beatles, Love and Phil Spector. Lyrically, chief writer and singer Stuart Murdoch, 30, favors mournful, Smiths-influenced rhymes about the adolescent frustration that comes from desperately wanting to do something but not knowing exactly what. He's clever, but it's Murdoch's quavering falsetto that is the band's trademark. Earnest and prematurely wise, his vocals mix angst and nostalgia with a hint of optimism. As he sings on B&S;'s second album, If You're Feeling Sinister, "Get me away from here I'm dying/ Play me a song to set me free/ Nobody writes 'em like they used to/ So it may as well be me."

    As good as the music is, and all three previous records have found their way into year-end critics polls, it's the group's resolve to do things in its own flighty, boho way that has transformed it from a mere band into a cosmology. Growing out of an experiment in a music-business class at Glasgow's Stowe College in 1996, Belle and Sebastian was named after an obscure French children's cartoon. The band turned down major labels and big-money offers to sign with tiny London-based Jeepster (it's distributed in the U.S. by Matador), and all seven members have kept their day jobs, including Murdoch, who rather famously lives above the annex of a church where he works as a caretaker and janitor. Their videos are hilariously amateurish. They release unrelated EPs weeks before their albums come out. They tour infrequently. And their media shyness is pathological; the photo you see here of Murdoch is the first he's ever posed for, and he has avoided interviews for years. In short, they do everything so purposefully wrong, they just have to be right.

    Murdoch, who interrupted his media blackout for a rare chat with TIME while vacationing in the U.S., is aware that the band has an aura of preciousness, and he dutifully tries to deflate it. "We get drunk and go out to clubs and listen to deejays," he says in a quiet brogue. He likes sports, and even checked out a Mets baseball game. His normal guyness is impressive. Still, he lovingly refers to the band as "the people's republic of Belle and Sebastian," and as he strolls through Manhattan's Greenwich Village, he stops in his tracks in front of the Lucille Lortel Theater's mini Walk of Fame. "Ring Lardner," he says, staring in wonder at the satirist's little star in the cement. "Salinger mentions him in The Catcher in the Rye, but I had no idea he was a real person until just now." Perhaps precious fits just fine.

    If there's a danger lurking for Belle and Sebastian, it's that the members' capriciousness may one day do them in. Each seems to have an individual musical side project in addition to his or her day job, and while Murdoch likes to think the band is peaking, he recognizes that trying to professionalize things would be a grave error. "Our lives outside of music are who we are. If we thought of ourselves as strictly professional musicians, it would probably take all the fun out of it." And leave a gaping hole in the lives of countless adoring adults.