"When I was a fan of groups like Echo & the Bunnymen and the Smiths," Murdoch tells me via telephone from London, "there was that community feeling, and it stinks now because I'm in this privileged position [so that feeling is gone]. But you can have a lot of fun with it."
And so Murdoch came up with a game that he and his devotees could play -- a treasure hunt. Last year, in advance of tour stops in Edinburgh, Manchester, and London, he researched and devised clues that, when painstakingly deciphered, led to well-known locales within each city. At each site was a letter of the alphabet, displayed in plain sight (usually hanging on a wall in a frame or placed on top of a service counter). The collected letters from each clue spelled out a word, and the word was the final clue for the last location -- in the case of the London hunt, for example, "Rough," for the Rough Trade record store -- where Murdoch had hidden a special treasure: a couple of concert tickets, backstage passes, and other personalized Belle & Sebastian ephemera. Thanks to Murdoch's encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature, the clues weren't easy. In London it took five days before eager fans finally decoded them and discovered the prize.
This month, as Belle & Sebastian gears up to release its first proper LP since 2000's Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, Murdoch brings his game to the States. To coincide with the band's appearance this Friday at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, Murdoch and a pair of hand-selected local fans, so-called "Treasure Troopers" by the names of Deborah Kaye and Solomon Kidd, have designed San Francisco's very own treasure hunt. And it's as difficult as you might expect.
"If you spend enough time in San Francisco just hanging out and doing things," assures the 27-year-old Kaye, "you would hopefully know these places. And as far as treasure hunts go, you can't be afraid to use the Internet and do some research."
The idea is the same as on the European hunts: Each clue takes you to a location where a letter will be prominently displayed. The collected letters spell out a word, which is the final clue to the last location, where you'll find the treasure.
Now, I am a Belle & Sebastian fan (own all the albums, know all the words), yet when I first heard about this treasure hunt thing I thought, "Publicity stunt. Sheesh. How sad." Which would make perfect sense since this band hasn't had a hit since the Clinton administration and might resort to any means to find some kind of spotlight. This seeming act of desperation worried me, because I don't like it when my favorite bands stoop, and that's what it seemed Murdoch was doing. But then I heard the group's new album, and now, as far as I'm concerned, B&S can resort to skywriting and infomercials for all I care -- we need to get the word out!
Belle & Sebastian recorded one of the most essential indie rock records of the '90s, If You're Feeling Sinister, a record I can still put on when a) I want to bond with Dad over music ("You see, Garrett, now there's a band that can still write hooks"); b) I want to sensitively make out with my girlfriend; or c) I feel like weeping and I need an album to listen to while doing so. Picking up the torch once carried by the Smiths, Belle & Sebastian welded bubbly, effervescent melodies to cantankerous, literate, and decidedly indie rock lyrics -- "I'm not as smart as Dostoevski/ I'm not as clever as Mark Twain/ I only buy a book for the way it looks/ And I stick it on the shelf again" -- lyrics that helped form the pretentious image that came to be associated with the band, an image Murdoch shuns.
"I like books and I like wordiness and I like poetry -- or at least I like poetry when it clashes with pop music," he says. "There's no pretension there just 'cause I shout it from the rooftops. That's what I love and breathe."
That literary quality (not to mention Murdoch's fey, soft-sung vocals) is what made the band so reviled by the peanut gallery yet so revered by the music geeks. But the most classic music-geek cliché -- their old stuff was better -- is true here, agreed upon by many a Belle & Sebastian fan, critic, and even casual observer.
After Sinister came 1998's The Boy With the Arab Strap, which had a few decent songs but didn't match the pitch-perfect sentiment of its predecessor. Then came the aforementioned Fold Your Hands, which was nice and all, but ultimately flat and uninspired. In 2002 the band slipped yet again when it opted to provide the soundtrack for writer/director Todd Solondz's colossally morbid, unforgivably cynical film Storytelling, a movie whose third act was described by critics as so vile and tasteless (what's not vile and tasteless about Dawson's Creek star James Van Der Beek having anal sex?) that the studio cut both it and its accompanying music.
In short, the band just couldn't win, its music growing ever more obsolete as the years went by. After reviving, exemplifying, and totally fucking nailing the '90s twee/ chamber pop movement, it seemed that Belle & Sebastian simply couldn't evolve. That is, until now.
Dear Catastrophe Waitress -- the new record, which doesn't hit shelves till October -- is a triumph. It's nothing like anything you've ever heard from this band. Rather than simply taking a tiny slice of the chamber pop pie, Murdoch's lined up a pie-eating contest, and the sweet, tasty mess is all over his face. On this album you hear echoes of everything from the Beach Boys to General Public to the Jam to Billy Joel to the Monkees to The Brady Bunch. No shit. Whereas previous albums, even Sinister, were mere essays on pop music, this one's a 10-volume set.
The opening track, "Step Into My Office, Baby," is all the schizophrenic proof you need. What starts as a swaggering shuffle combining the best bits of the Stray Cats and Elliott Smith melts, halfway through, into an a cappella choral duet before building into the lost showstopping number from the Who's Tommy. This tune is followed by the '70s soul of "If She Wants Me," the rollicking '60s jangle of the Sergio Mendes-inspired "You Don't Send Me," and a song called "Stay Loose," which -- I am not fucking with you -- is the '80s-born love child of Rick Springfield and the Police, complete with chanky reverberated guitars and a chorus every bit as catchy as "I wish that I had Jessie's girl!" Remember, folks, this is Belle & Sebastian we're talking about.
The record is almost absurd in its ambition. It's as if Murdoch was swept up from his gloomy surroundings by a tornado -- a maelstrom swirling with Hammond organs and French horns, choral singers and an orchestral string section, the cast from every '60s sitcom as well as Frankie and Annette, Tommy Tune, Al Green -- and plopped down in some kind of musical Oz, a strange, new world that sparkles with both wonder and falsity. Honestly, you have to hear it to believe it.
And so whether this treasure hunt is a publicity stunt or not is irrelevant. What matters is that Belle & Sebastian fans have something they can be proud of again, an album that's probably going to wind up being one of the best records released this year. As corny as it sounds, that's the truest treasure of them all. Given that you'll have to wait a couple of months to hear it, I'd say a pair of free tickets and a chance to make song requests backstage (ask for "Stay Loose" -- trust me) is a stellar reason to go a-hunting. I'm not saying it'll be easy, but I am saying it'll be worth it.