A band that takes its name from a French children’s television series about a boy and his dog would almost have to be precious, and to be certain, Belle & Sebastian are precious. But precious can be a damning word, and Belle & Sebastian don’t have the negative qualities that the word connotes — they are private but not insular, pretty but not wimpy; they make gorgeous, delicate melodies sound full-bodied. Led by guitarist/vocalist Stuart Murdoch, the seven-piece band has an intimate, majestic sound that is equal parts folk-rock and ’60s pop, but Murdoch’s gift for not only whimsy and surrealism, but also for odd, unsettling lyrical detail keeps the songs grounded in a tangible reality.
Based in Glasgow, Scotland, Belle & Sebastian released their first two albums in 1996 at the peak of the chamber pop movement. At first, some critics in Britain’s music weeklies tied the band into the subgenre, yet the group was too pretty, too delicate, to bear that label. Through their first two years of public existence, the band shielded their personalities, submitting publicity photos featuring a girl that wasn’t in the band and reluctantly posing for photo shoots. Furthermore, they performed in odd venues, playing not only the standard coffeehouses and cafes, but also homes, church halls, and libraries.
The idiosyncratic approach to building their career isn’t surprising given Murdoch’s approach toward beginning a band. A longtime fan of Felt, Murdoch left Glasgow for London in the early ’90s in hopes of finding the group’s leader, Lawrence Hayward, but he never found his idol. Upon his return to Glasgow, he enrolled in university and he began writing songs and short stories. While at school, he took a music business course where he decided to form a band and release a record for his final project (he had tried to form a band before with no success). For the project, he assembled the seven-piece Belle & Sebastian, featuring himself on guitar and vocals, choosing and recruiting members by instinct in a local all-night cafe in late 1995. He eventually found Sarah Martin (violin), Stevie Jackson (guitar), Chris Geddes (keyboards), Stuart David (bass), Richard Colburn (drums), and Isobel Campbell (cello). All seven members were college students, and all agreed that the idea behind the band was to stay on a small scale, to keep it as a project and not let the band run their lives; they even assumed they would release two albums and break up.

In May of 1996, Belle & Sebastian self-released their debut album, Tigermilk, on Electric Honey Records. Only 1,000 copies of the album, which was only pressed on vinyl, were released, but it unexpectedly became a sensation, earning terrific word of mouth throughout England. As a result, the band became slightly more than a school project — it became an actual band. If You’re Feeling Sinister, released on the independent Jeepster label, followed in November of 1996. By the time the album was released in America on the EMI subsidiary The Enclave, it had earned considerable critical acclaim in the U.K. — not only from music weeklies, but from newspapers like The Sunday Times and magazines like The Face — and a large cult following; by some accounts, Tigermilk was being sold for as much as 75 pounds. Over the course of 1997, word of mouth continued to grow in America, even as the band pulled out of an American tour because The Enclave went bankrupt and closed.

After a tour that included a sold-out show at the Hollywood Bowl, the band took a well-deserved break. Apart from the release of The BBC Sessions (by Matador and Jeepster) in 2008, no Belle & Sebastian records were released until 2010. During the hiatus, Murdoch spent time on his God Help the Girl project (which included much of the band as well) and Jackson and Kildea toured and recorded with the legendary Scottish indie pop band the Vaselines, who re-formed in 2009. After spending the early part of 2010 recording with Tony Hoffer, the group released Belle & Sebastian Write About Love on October 12 of 2010.