Belle & Sebastian were formed in Glasgow in 1996 by Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David.Together they recorded some demos with Stow College music professor Pilar Duplack, which were picked up by the college's Music Business course that produces and releases one single each year on the college's label, Electric Honey. As the band had a number of songs already and the label were extremely impressed with the demos, Belle & Sebastian were allowed to record a full-length album, which was named Tigermilk. Murdoch once described the band as a "product of botched capitalism".
Tigermilk was recorded in three days and originally only one thousand copies were pressed on vinyl. These original copies now sell for up to £400. The warm reception the album received inspired Murdoch and David to turn the band into a full-time project, recruiting Stevie Jackson (guitar and vocals), Isobel Campbell (cello/vocals), Chris Geddes (keys) and Richard Colburn (drums) to fill out the group.
After the success of the debut album, Belle & Sebastian were signed to Jeepster Records in August 1996 and If You're Feeling Sinister, their second album, was released on 18 November. The album was named by Spin as one of the 100 greatest albums between 1985 and 2005, and is widely considered the band's masterpiece. Just before the recording of Sinister, Sarah Martin (violin/vocals) joined the band. Following this a series of EPs were released in 1997. The first of these was Dog on Wheels, which contained four demo tracks recorded before the real formation of the band. In fact, the only long-term band members to play on the songs were Murdoch, David, and Mick Cooke, who played trumpet on the EP but would not officially join the band until a few years later. It charted at #59 in the UK singles chart.
The Lazy Line Painter Jane EP followed in July. The track was recorded in the church where Murdoch lived and features vocals from Monica Queen. The EP narrowly missed out of the UK top 40, peaking at #41. The last of the 1997 EPs was October's 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light. The EP was made Single of the Week in both the NME and Melody Maker and reached #32 in the charts, thus becoming the band's first top 40 single.
The band released their third LP, The Boy with the Arab Strap in 1998, and it reached #12 in the UK charts. While often cited by critics as the band's best album, Arab Strap has nonetheless had its detractors. Pitchfork gave the album a particularly poor review, calling it a "parody" of their earlier work. In spite of this, the album garnered positive reviews from Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice, among others. The name of the record also created a bit of tension between Belle & Sebastian and fellow Glasgow band Arab Strap. During the recording of the album long time studio trumpet-player Mick Cooke was asked to join the band as a full member. The This Is Just a Modern Rock Song EP followed later that year.
In 1999 the band were shockingly awarded with Best Newcomer (for their third album) at the BRIT Awards, upsetting the much better known acts Steps and 5ive. That same year, the band hosted their own festival, the Bowlie Weekender. Tigermilk was also given a full release by Jeepster before the band started work on their next LP. The result was Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, which became the band's first top 10 album in the UK. A stand-alone single, "Legal Man", reached #15 and gave them their first appearance on Top of the Pops.
As the band's popularity and recognition was growing worldwide, their music began appearing in films and on television. The 2000 film High Fidelity mentions the band and features a clip from the song "Seymour Stein" from The Boy with the Arab Strap. Also, the title track from Arab Strap was played over the end credits of the UK television series Teachers.
Stuart David soon left the band to concentrate on his side-project, Looper, and his book writing, which included his The Idle Thoughts of a Daydreamer. He was replaced by Bobby Kildea of V-Twin. The "Jonathan David" single — sung by Stevie Jackson — was released in June 2001 and was followed by "I'm Waking Up to Us" in November. The latter appears to describe Murdoch's relationship and breakup with Campbell, but Murdoch denied this in the sleeve notes to 2006's The Life Pursuit. "I'm Waking Up to Us" saw the band use an outside producer (Mike Hurst) for the first time. Most of 2002 was spent touring and recording a soundtrack album, Storytelling (for Storytelling by Todd Solondz), a movie which the New York Times has called one of the best 1,000 movies ever made. Isobel left the band in spring of 2002, in the middle of the band's North American tour.
The band left Jeepster in 2002, signing a four album deal with Rough Trade Records. Their first album for Rough Trade, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, was released in 2003, and was produced by Trevor Horn. The album showed a markedly more 'produced' sound compared to their first four LPs, as the band was making a concerted effort to produce more "radio-friendly" music. In spite of this, the album was warmly received, and is credited with returning the band's "indie cred". The album also marked the return of Murdoch as the group's primary songwriter following the poorly-received Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant and Storytelling, both of which were more collaborative than the band's early work. A documentary DVD, Fans Only, was released by Jeepster in October 2003, featuring promotional videos, live clips and unreleased footage. A single from the album, "Step into My Office, Baby" followed in November 2003 — it would be their first single taken from an album.
The Thin Lizzy-inspired "I'm a Cuckoo" was the second single from the album. It achieved their highest chart position yet, reaching #14 in the UK. The Books EP followed, a double A-side single lead by "Wrapped Up in Books" from Dear Catastrophe Waitress and the new Your Cover's Blown. This EP became the band's third top 20 UK release and the band went on to be nominated for both the Mercury Music Prize and an Ivor Novello Award. In January 2005, B&S was voted Scotland's greatest band in a poll by The List, beating Simple Minds, Idlewild, Travis, Franz Ferdinand, and The Proclaimers, among others.
In April 2005, members of the band visited Israel and the Palestinian territories with the UK charity War on Want; the group subsequently recorded a song inspired by the trip titled "The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House", which would later be released as a B-side on 2006's "Funny Little Frog" single. Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, a compilation of the Jeepster singles and EPs, was released in May 2005 while the band were recording their seventh album in California. The result of the sessions was The Life Pursuit, produced by Tony Hoffer. The album, originally intended to be a double album, became their band's highest charting release to date upon its release in February 2006, peaking at #8 in the UK and #65 on the US Billboard 200. "Funny Little Frog", which preceded it, also proved to be their highest charting single, debuting at #13.
On July 6, 2006, the band played a historic show with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. The opening act at the 18,000 seat sell-out concert was The Shins. The members of the band see this as a landmark event, with Stevie Jackson saying, "This is the biggest thrill of my entire life". In October 2006, members of the band helped put together a CD collection of new songs for children titled Colours Are Brighter, with the involvement of major bands such as Franz Ferdinand and The Flaming Lips.
On November 17 2008 the band will release a BBC Sessions album, which will feature songs from the period of 1996-2001 (including the last recordings featuring Isobel Campbell before she left the band), along with a second disc featuring a recording of a live performance from Christmas 2001. The band is currently on a temporary hiatus with no immediate plans to record a new studio album.
The current members are: