It was January 1993 in Glasgow, and Stuart Murdoch was sick. Bedridden with chronic fatigue syndrome, the frail 24-year-old had already dropped out of university and quit working. In the midst of that damp and dark Scottish winter, no longer able to afford heat for his flat, Murdoch decided to head somewhere warm. Hoping a move would strengthen his health, he drained his savings and bought a plane ticket to a place he had never been: San Francisco. He didn't know then that this city would shape the course of his life, that it would lead him to learn the guitar, or offer his first chance to perform for American audiences. He didn't know San Francisco would help inspire him to form a band that would make him famous. But then Murdoch didn't know much about where he was going at all. It was the first time he had ever left Scotland.
"I realized pretty fast [San Francisco] is my kind of town," Murdoch explains late one recent night, his singsong accent making the trip sound like one of the aimless rambles in his songs.
These days, Murdoch is the lead singer and songwriter of Belle and Sebastian, arguably the greatest musical export of his native land in the last 20 years: a quirky indie-rock band known for its delicate, poetic pop, devoured with cultish obsession by its fans and dismissed as wimpy and self-indulgent by its detractors.
From its unlikely beginnings in a college music class in Glasgow, Murdoch's band rose to the elite of indie music. Named after a French children's novel about a boy and his dog that was later adapted into a TV series, Belle and Sebastian made albums that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and cracked charts around the world — though the band has never quite achieved blockbuster commercial sales. While some of its original members have departed, the seven-member lineup has performed its lush pop in lauded shows worldwide, including a historic, sold-out show in 2006 at the 17,000-capacity Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and at numerous venues in the Bay Area.
Volumes of lucid, delicate songs about loners who live in their dreams, about girls who screw random boys on buses for self-esteem, and, most recently, about seeing God in the street, have over the last decade turned Murdoch into the sort of adored popstar and poet he once obsessed over. The now-married, churchgoing 42-year-old is shy about his beliefs ("I don't want to disappoint people," he explains), but sounds quite serious about his own, low-dogma version of Protestant Christianity. "It's far and away the biggest thing in my life," says Murdoch, whose online diary tells of falling asleep during prayer broadcasts and gently mocks the reluctance of Catholic leaders to allow female clergy.
The strong-but-gaunt-looking Scot is also still sick — both with the ailment that first drove him to California, and with other viruses, as he broadly categorizes them. "That's the other thing that kind of rules my life, and unfortunately, that's the dark side," he says. "I still have to be on my guard."
Tonight, though, Murdoch is feeling fine, speaking softly over the phone from a quiet room in a new boutique hotel on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He has just come from the band's first U.S. show in four years, an almost-rained-out affair at the Williamsburg Waterfront in Brooklyn that earned glowing reviews. There, Murdoch and the band played new songs from their first album since 2006, the lush, lean Write About Love, which features a guest appearance from the unexpected likes of Norah Jones, among others.
At the New York show, in keeping with its plans to keep most of the songs under wraps until the album's U.S. release Oct. 12, Belle and Sebastian played only tracks already available online. "It's not fair on the people who were waiting for the album to come out," Murdoch told an inquisitive fan in his online diary.
Playing Brooklyn was already more than Belle and Sebastian had planned to do in support of Write About Love, which Murdoch says the band wanted to release quietly, with no U.S. tour and little or no press. Our chat was the product of a lengthy negotiation and, at the time I spoke with him, only the second interview he had done for the album.
What changed those plans were two unexpected opportunities: Belle and Sebastian was invited to play the 21st birthday party of its U.S. label, Matador Records, in Las Vegas earlier this month. And, crucially, the band was asked to headline the second day of the Treasure Island Music Festival Oct. 16 and 17 in San Francisco. "When we heard about Treasure Island, we sort of accepted that and built a tour around that," Murdoch explains. "It was key to this excursion."
It might seem strange that a quintessentially Scottish band would change its plans to perform in a city halfway across the world. But for Belle and Sebastian, and especially Murdoch, San Francisco is not just another city. It was here where Murdoch first began to shape his songs on the guitar. It was here where he first played his earliest tunes for an American audience — from behind the microphone at a college radio station. It was here where, over several months, he slowly began to recover from chronic fatigue, visiting support groups and taking walks through the city. And it was here where Murdoch — who once wanted to be a runner, and even studied some physics in school — cemented his determination to pursue music.
On the last day of his first trip to California in 1993, Murdoch made himself a promise. "I swore to myself that I wasn't going to come back to San Francisco without a band. And that happened."
So the still-frail figurehead of Belle and Sebastian doesn't see this Sunday's headlining set at Treasure Island as one more tour stop. For Murdoch, it's another chance to make good on the promise he made to himself — and give back to a city that made him who he is today.