Belle and Sebastian's happy crew

EMMA LEE smckmScottish band Belle and Sebastian's sugar-sweet melodies and cutting lyrics have a dedicated following. Singer and violinist Sarah Martin told Emma Lee about star-spotting in LA ahead of their new album and tour.Scottish band Belle and Sebastian's sugar-sweet melodies and cutting lyrics have a dedicated following. Singer and violinist Sarah Martin told Emma Lee about star-spotting in LA ahead of their new album and tour, which includes a date in Cambridge.

EMMA LEE

“LA was fantastic,” enthuses Belle and Sebastian singer Sarah Martin. She's telling me about recording the band's seventh album, The Life Pursuit, in the showbiz capital of the world.

Fittingly, Sarah got to have her own brush with the A-list.

“Actually I saw Johnny Depp,” she says, with maybe a hint of a lovestruck sigh in her voice.

“I went to rent a car one day on Hollywood Boulevard and I saw them putting out the red carpet outside a cinema. I saw a load of girls with Johnny Depp posters. I went back an hour later and it turned out to be the premiere of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“I saw him and got a picture - but it was just of his hat. He's smaller than you'd think,” she adds.

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“We were recording for about five weeks, but I wasn't there for all of it. It was basically the producer Tony Hoffer's idea. We could have worked in London, but it's quite distracting working there because we've all got friends there - like my old flatmate,” she says.

Critics say their latest album, out next month, is their best yet - on listening it may come as a surprise to their long-standing fans.

Formed in an all-night café in Glasgow almost exactly 10 years ago by singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch and bassist Stuart David, their early albums Tigermilk, If You're Feeling Sinister and The Boy With The Arab Strap had them pigeon-holed as purveyors of cutesy indie pop.

Displaying a penchant for descant recorder solos, they became favourites of the kind of boy who wrote lovelorn poetry and the kind of girl who wore Hello Kitty hairslides (myself included).

But the late DJ John Peel once described the band as having a “surprising muscularity” after seeing them at Glastonbury festival.

And they flex it on The Life Pursuit.

Chief songwriter Stuart Murdoch, who as a lyricist rivals Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker for wit and insight, sets the new songs in school corridors and church halls, mixing heartbreak and humour and taking in unexpected influences such as Funkadelic, David Bowie and T-Rex.

Sarah says: “I think that this is my favourite record. There's not really any out-and-out pastiche on it. There are different influences or nods in someone's direction, but I don't think they have been allowed to dominate.

“Stuart has certainly written most of the songs on this album, but there's input from other people. Sometimes Stuart will have a verse or even just an idea and then when people start playing it he will cover his ears and run out of the room.”

As a band, Belle and Sebastian have never bothered about fitting the mould.

They formed at a time when many bands aspired to be either Blur and Oasis. But in Glasgow something different was happening - there was a DIY movement, spearheaded by the band the Delgados who set up their own record label, Chemikal Underground, to put out their music.

In keeping with the spirit of the scene, Belle and Sebastian eschewed the traditional guitar, bass and drum set-up in favour of something resembling a school orchestra.

The two Stuarts (Stuart David is no longer in the band. Isobel Campbell, one of the original singers, has also left and is now a solo artist) had met on a government training scheme and recorded some demos which were picked up by a scout from the record label Jeepster.

Sarah, who had headed to Glasgow to study partly because she was a fan of bands from the city such as Teenage Fanclub, heard Belle and Sebastian were looking for a violinist from Stuart Murdoch's then girlfriend who was in one of her classes.

“Over the years it's become like a family - and now we can remember who sits where,” she jokes.

“I think if one of them was missing now it would feel like there's a limb missing.”

The band have had quite a few “how did that happen?” moments. In 1998, they scooped the best newcomer award at the Brits.

And they collaborated with rather an unlikely producer on the 2003 album Dear Catastrophe Waitress - one Trevor Horn, who is famous for his work with the likes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the controversial Russian duo Tatu.

The success of the Dear Catastrophe Waitress album and singles - including the infectious Step Into My Office, Baby led to the band being nominated for both the Mercury Music Prize and an Ivor Novello Award. They came away empty-handed from both, but more oddness followed when Horn threw a concert to celebrate 25 years in the music business and asked them to perform.

The band finally threw off their indie shackles and shared a stage with Pet Shop Boys, ABC, Grace Jones, Seal, Yes and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

“Trevor Horn was great to work with,” Sarah says. “It was definitely a good move for us at the time.”

Sarah says she's looking forward to heading out on tour - but there's just one very minor problem.

“We have to learn to play the songs first - everyone's been away in all sorts of places doing promotional stuff.

“I don't really tend to drink too much on tour - but there's a bit of poor behaviour goes on, I'm sure.”

t Belle and Sebastian's Civic Pride tour calls at Cambridge Corn Exchange on February 2. Box office: 01223 357851 or www.cornex.co.uk. The band's new album, The Life Pursuit, is released on the Rough Trade label on February 6. The single, Funny Little Frog, is out now.

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