Today marks the respective 42nd and 43rd birthdays of Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. As leaders of their seminal and highly enduring bands, both have grown from cult status in the mid-'90s to established indie-rock big-hitters. T-shirts from their acts sit in many cool dad and mom's closets, and their successful careers are still in full swing.
The two men share little when it comes to their bands' overall sound maps. But looking deeper, we can see a pair of geniuses fit to command decent-sized groups of musicians -- with many lineup changes through the years -- in a fashion that has garnered serious critical acclaim. Both are interested in the darkness of the human condition -- check out the Murdoch-soundtracked Storytelling or Tweedy-scored Chelsea Walls, if you want to get disturbingly real -- but neither artist is content to detail the struggles of relationships, substance abuse, and faith without a sharp sense of humor.
Let's begin with Stuart Murdoch, who launched Belle & Sebastian as a low-key project at an
art college in Glasgow, Scotland, naming the band after a French
children's television series about a boy and his dog living together
in the mountains. The semantic association of the band's name perfectly
captures Murdoch's aspiration for an outfit that strives toward a
delicately melodic, preciously idiosyncratic form of folk-rock that wistfully looked back toward the
simplicity and purity of 1960s pop.
Their first three albums, 1996's Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister and 1998's The Boy With the Arab Strap, garnered the band a huge pre-internet, word-of-mouth following. The "twee" sound it developed on these records has largely defined it, and its influence is heard in bands such as the Magnetic Fields, Jens Lekman, and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
This performance at Coachella in 2002 of the Murdoch-led "The Boy With the Arab Strap" encapsulates the group's eminent appeal -- not merely
exuberant twee-pop for cliched blazer-wearing indie kids but something
intelligent, self-referential, and timeless that bursts forth into a
variety of genre interests. Stay tuned for the masterful guitar solo at
Let it not be forgotten that the band influenced an entire cultural movement when Murdoch assembled the Bowlie Weekender festival in 1999 at the Pontin's Holiday camp in Camber Sands. Inviting their favorite bands -- the Flaming Lips, Mogwai, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and Sleater-Kinney among others -- to play over the weekend, this festival evolved into the global indie institution that is All Tomorrow's Parties. In many ways, its artistic resilience and commitment to evolution and independence epitomizes the ideals of the festival.
Now let's move forth to Jeff Tweedy, who formed Chicago band Wilco from the ashes of seminal country punk rockers Uncle Tupelo. The outfit initially leaned heavily on the "country" aspect but soon developed an inimitable "alt" style -- with the release of the albums Being There and Summerteeth -- that embraced psychedelia, soul, infectious power-pop, and lush orchestral flourishes. It was with the protracted release of Wilco's fourth album, the majestic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, that the band arguably released its masterpiece:
Released only after a bizarre tussle with its label -- Reprise/Warner refused to release it, so the band acquired the rights to the album, streamed it for free online, then released the album with a different Warner subsidiary (Nonesuch). It was a critical and commercial success, famously joining the hallowed club of bands that have been awarded a 10.0 by Pitchfork.
Tweedy has done the usual things bands and artists do upon reaching tangible breakthrough security and opportunity: received two Grammys for the follow-up to Yankee..., A Ghost Is Born; toured the world; dallied in experimental side projects; published poetry; collaborated with Beck and Feist; embarked on solo tours.
Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth recently said in Spin: "A band like us never did break up. Which was to our detriment. What would have happened if we did break up after Daydream Nation -- or even after Dirty -- and had gotten back together two years ago? You'd be interviewing me at the Chateau Marmon as I'm waiting for my limousine... This was our biggest career faux pas -- not breaking up."
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Like Thurston Moore, neither Stuart Murdoch nor Jeff Tweedy broke up the bands that have been such an intrinsic vehicle to their individual creativity. It's hard to know for sure how their bank accounts compare to that of frontmen like Frank Black (Pixies), Stephen Malkmus (Pavement), and J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), who all broke up with and later re-formed the original lineups of their bands.
Yet almost like the enduring bands from the past that both Tweedy and Murdoch sing about wanting to follow, they show a very clear sense of commitment to not only leading relevant bands with integrity but also establishing their own personal artistic legacy.