A Firsthand Account of How Belle and Sebastian Came to Be That Way

In the All-Night Cafe: A Memoir of Belle and Sebastian’s Formative Year
By Stuart David
Little Brown UK/Chicago Review Press, 208 pp., $15.95

With Belle and Sebastian playing Free Press Summer Fest this weekend (the first time the Scottish band has performed in Houston in ages), we decided to review a recent book from one of the band’s founders describing their first year together.

Everyone loves a good origin story, especially when you consider the number of superhero movies filling theaters over the past decade. The tale of how “the team” came together serves as the dense foundation for the rich mythology driving any beloved fictional universe. But when it comes to the heroes in a beloved real-life band, we’re often more interested in the nitty-gritty details that led to an especially nasty crash-and-burn. Our affection for VH1’s Behind the Music series or a salacious, tell-all biography evinces our desire to see musical “gods” brought down to earth a little bit.

I get it – we like drama and enjoy conflict. Why else would Fox's Empire be the television hit of 2015?

But it’s refreshing to learn how one of your favorite music acts came into being and discover that it’s free of the normal cliches. With In the All-Night Cafe, Stuart David, a founding member of Belle and Sebastian, tells the story of how the group came into being and recorded its seminal debut record, Tigermilk, in the space of a year. It’s a first-person tale that’s remarkably sweet, brimming with idealism, and quite descriptive without overindulging in personal reminiscences.

David possesses a whimsical narrative voice that balances optimism and realism with a clear-eyed, easy grace. The story began in 1995 in Glasgow, Scotland at Beatbox, the site of a music course designed as a “Training for Work” program for folks on Income Support. We’re introduced to the dilapidated facilities, outdated technology, and the sorely lacking curriculum of the program, but we spend most of our time getting to know David, his classmates, and their various attempts to become working musicians.

Anyone who’s ever attempted to start a band (or three) with friends will connect immediately with David’s initial stories of woe, ranging from ill-formed acts with no vision, playing bass in a country band just to pay the bills, and the struggle to write music you enjoy with people you actually like. Many of the results are quite tragicomic, but they’re also truthful and down-to-earth, especially in how David manages to hold on to his naive hopes of making music he believes in.

The tale kicks into high gear when David finally connects with Stuart Murdoch. Fans of Belle and Sebastian will greatly appreciate the keen-eyed insight into Murdoch’s vision and direction for the band, even as it retains some much-needed dreamy mystery. Lisa Helps the Blind was the initial and clumsy attempt of these two gentlemen to form a band, but things don’t really get going until Murdoch takes the artistic lead. After he refashioned the group as Rhode Island with his fully formed songs, the group began playing a few shows and eventually recorded a 4-song demo (later released as the Dog on Wheels EP).

The band eventually applied to record a single for Electric Honey, the record label operated by Alan Rankine and the Music Business course at Stow College. Instead of the usual single, Murdoch stated the group was ready for a full record, complete with a name change from Rhode Island to Belle and Sebastian. Most of the group — now including Richard Colburn, Isobel Campbell and Stevie Jackson — had little to no experience with professional recording, much less music marketing, but Murdoch remained true to his artistic vision. Hence, we have Tigermilk – the one true twee masterpiece, released on Electric Honey and Jeepster in 1996.

Through it all, David ably chronicles this whirlwind progression from idea to band to signing with a record label in barely a year’s time. In the All-Night Cafe reads a bit like a journal, complete with bits about a romantic interest named Karn, yet blissfully absent is the sort of over-the-top, egregious hand-wringing you might expect from a sensitive artistic type. He’s upfront with his misgivings and frustrations about not playing his own songs, but he also greatly admires Murdoch’s skill with pop songwriting and likes being part of a group making good music. David even provides an open-ended conclusion, one packed with the promise of more music while subtly foreshadowing his own departure from the band in 2000.

Ultimately, this is an excellent tome perfect for long-term fans of Belle and Sebastian. While David doesn’t pull any punches with his recollections of this time, the book is also relatively free of the internal drama and band politics we tend to expect from a bunch of people forming a musical family. At times, the lack of strife and apparent ease with which the group meets, scores a record deal, and records its debut album seems remarkably naive and nigh-impossible, but then again, just we’re used to hearing about conflict within a band doesn’t mean that’s how it’s supposed to happen.

In the All-Night Cafe is a concise and inviting recollection of how this iconic act came together to record one of the more celebrated debut albums of all time. It’s well-written, personal, friendly, and quirky – just like a good Belle and Sebastian song.

Belle and Sebastian performs 7:40 p.m. Sunday, June 7 on FSPF's Neptune Stage.
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Adam P. Newton
Contact: Adam P. Newton