The young actor and Belle and Sebastian frontman on teenage ennui and their shared enthusiasm for skateboarding
You would have had a strangely blessed childhood not to be able to recall summers that crawled by with all the excitement and drama of paint drying. For many of us, it’s the definition of adolescence. But while America has a great tradition of coming-of-age movies that vividly capture teenage ennui (think Lady Bird or Rushmore), the UK does not. Enter Simon Bird, best known for his role on the hit UK show The Inbetweeners. Bird has now made his first foray behind the camera with Days of the Bagnold Summer, a loving celebration of British suburbia and teen angst that is carried by Earl Cave, son of the iconoclastic gothic rock troubadour Nick Cave. Based on Joff Winterhart’s graphic novel of the same name, Days of the Bagnold Summer stars Cave as a frustrated teen who has to while away the summer with his mom after a promised trip to the US fails to materialize. Cave, who had a small but perfectly formed role in the pitch-black British comedy The End of the F***ing World, also stars in True History of the Kelly Gang, based on the real-life exploits of Australia’s legendary outlaw (via Peter Carey’s acclaimed novel) and directed with punk-rock panache by Justin Kurzel.
For Document, Earl takes time out to chat with Stuart Murdoch, lead singer and founding member of Belle and Sebastian, the seasoned Glasgow band that wrote and recorded the soundtrack for Days of the Bagnold Summer. The two talk about finding creativity out of boredom, share their enthusiasm for skateboarding, and swap musical obsessions.
Earl Cave: There’s a lot of talk about identity politics in today’s world, the idea of figuring out who you are, and having the freedom to do that, and Bagnold Summer captures this searching for identity. Unlike my character, Daniel, I never went through a heavy metal phase, and I don’t think the film is trying to talk to people going through heavy metal phases. It’s about someone using metal to represent their inner voice. I definitely was, and I still am, trying to figure out who the fuck I am, you know? It’s really difficult. I don’t know if you ever really find out. Did you ever go through a heavy metal phase, Stuart?
Stuart Murdoch: I was a big metal fan, and it was the original metal, if you know what I mean. Your character, Daniel, is into new metal, but this was AC/DC and Thin Lizzy and Status Quo. That was my first big affiliation—heavy rock—when I was 10 years old, but I stayed with it for a while.
Earl: At the moment, I’m going through my biggest obsession phase. When I was at school, everyone was playing a lot of rap, and I never really connected to it in any way. And when anyone’s rapping the lyrics to a song, I always feel a little bit like an impostor. My music tastes have stayed the same my whole life, but they’ve grown and grown. When I was little, I was obsessed with Raw Power by the Stooges. I had a little iPod Shuffle, and that was the only album I had on there. I listened to that album going to sleep, which is weird for a 10-year-old. Everything that I’d heard felt so rehearsed, and then I heard that—it was raw power! Something really resonated with me—the idea of just going into the studio and bashing out this nuts song, just throwing yourself into it.
Aaron Hicklin: Does Bagnold Summer reflect for either of you anything that is reminiscent in terms of your own teenage years?
Earl: I think what’s nice about this film is that whoever is watching it, whether they are a mother or father or son or a daughter, anyone can relate to both characters. It’s not just about Daniel’s coming of age; it’s also a film about Sue [his mother]. It’s just this strange summer in both of their lives. They come in at one end and exit at the other, and I think they’ll have another summer, and then another, and they’ll keep having summers like that for God knows how long.
Stuart: It’s funny how often fallow periods in people’s lives can be the best subjects for art or stories. I recently started writing a little bit of autobiographical fiction about the time before the band got together. It was this nothing time when I was sick and couldn’t do anything, but funnily enough that’s the time that I chose to write about. In a sense, it feels like fertile ground because I can remember having a lot of spare time to think back then, and sometimes it’s these less busy times where you can have quiet revelations.
Earl: I write classical pieces on the piano, and I write lyrics, and I play a bit of guitar, and sometimes record things on my iPad on memos. I like to get a little bit weird when I’m on my own and screw around with things, but nothing I’ve already made feels finished to me. I’m always coming back to things and building on them. I can never end anything.
Stuart: We’ve recently had an election [in the UK], and I would like to ask, Earl, as a young person—and this might be the first election where you were eligible to vote—do you feel hopeful about the future in general, or do you ever feel bad about that stuff?
Earl: It’s very easy to feel scared of the future, and I think it’s easy to fall into the idea that everything’s going to shit. I think there’s also a lot of really amazing things that people need to look at. There’s a lot of problems in the world, and this sort of miniature depression, but ultimately people should look at all the amazing things that are being made because of what’s happening.
Stuart: I was chatting to a friend of mine yesterday—a very artistic, creative guy—and he was sounding a little depressed with the background hum of everything going on. I said, ‘You know, because of what you’re doing, you’re definitely part of the solution.’ I tried to say that to my wife as well, you know—try not to get too caught up with, frankly, things that we can’t really do too much about.
Aaron: I’m curious about this idea that artists are part of the solution. At the same time, there’s an accompanying narrative that the youth will save us. But, as Bagnold Summer reminds us, youth is very self-involved: The people that we’re looking to save us are simultaneously in the midst of their own crisis. Much of early Belle and Sebastian seemed rooted in coming-of-age narratives. Stuart, was your youth a wellspring for a lot of your art?
Stuart: I think it started off that way because I got sick when I was about 20, so life stopped for about seven years. That’s when I started writing, so I think I naturally looped back. I couldn’t really write about my present time. Now, though, I do feel, maybe not quite avuncular, but that the songs I’m writing are much more about trying to help people, especially younger people, avoid some of the pit-falls. Actually, a lot of them are based on Buddhist thinking, which might seem a little bit unusual to you.
Earl: I write songs, but I’m sort of terrified of letting anyone hear what I’ve done or see what I make because it’s so personal to me. I’m terrified of people hearing it and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this guy’s a fucking lunatic.’ So, there is therapy to it. It’s quite nurturing. A lot of the music I make has come out of a tragedy that happened a few years ago. When you go through something that’s so impactful in your life, it makes you realize that not everything is about you.
Stuart: It doesn’t stop when you’re a teenager or in your twenties. I hope this isn’t a shock to you, but I’m 51 now and still constantly changing. I’ll admit to you, I use songwriting, or whatever I’m doing, often as a consolation. Earl, do you have a creative thing that you like to do, beyond filmmaking?
Earl: The piano is my safe space, as you will, but skateboarding is also something I do for myself. I grew up in Brighton, and there’s a lovely skate park there, and that’s all I did growing up. I could just get away from the world. My school friends weren’t necessarily my skateboard friends, so there were these two friendship groups, and I could escape each in two different ways.
Stuart: I get the skateboard thing. When I was 18 or 19, I used to have a skateboard and I would go all over Glasgow with it. I hope you don’t think this is pathetic, but recently I got a scooter and I totally love it. My wife said to me, ‘You’re not going out with that—you’re 50, and it’s Glasgow!’ I said, ‘I don’t care what I look like.’ I am just really into the feeling of it. I love using it to get around.
Earl: It’s not one of those electric ones, is it?
Stuart: It’s just a push one. In a sense, it’s taken me back to my skateboard days, but a little safer. Obviously, I don’t go anywhere near the skate park, but I cover quite a lot of distance.
Earl: If you are ever down to Brighton, man, come have a scoot.
Stuart: Brighton has the promenade, which would be amazing for that. Are you still living in Brighton, or are you in London?
Earl: I have been living in London for eight months now. It was a scary move, going out to the big city. I love it, but it’s very nice to return to Brighton for a weekend. Seventeen years was a good amount of time to live there, but as soon as you get off the train, it just feels like a simpler life.
Stuart: I watched your new movie, True History of the Kelly Gang. It’s amazing. Your performance is obviously so different from Bagnold. I’ve got a little bit of experience on film. I bet that in the finished movie, you only see short clips of what you must’ve been doing, which, frankly, looked crazy.
Earl: We actually had to start a band as preproduction to get the Kelly gang to know each other—as a bonding experience. Justin [Kurzel, the director] was, like, ‘All right, you got to go in this room, you’ve got your instruments, you’ve got your dresses, and you’ve got to fucking start a punk band. You’ve got a month to create a set, and I’ve booked you a gig at the end of the month.’ We’d just met each other, but we were in this environment where, every day, nine-to-five, we’d go and practice. We basically created a folk punk band and called it the Flashlight, and then we played this gig at the end of the month in this Melbourne bar called the Gasometer. It was this strange way of making us become inseparable. And it worked. It really fucking worked. There’s something about working together intensively where you really get to know people. Have you found that with making music?
Stuart: Yeah. Bands are creative gangs, really.
Earl: Have you always had the same people in your band?
Stuart: Over the years we shed two, and we brought on two, but I think it’s amazing that from seven people, we have the original five, and another two that have been with us for a dozen years. We never planned to be a band. I just asked a bunch of random people if they wanted to make a record for a college project, and then it took off. I had to persuade all these people to stay together, and they were all doing different things. Some were really young, and at college and stuff, but I’ve always loved the camaraderie, it’s like a second family. We’ve been going 23 years now.
Aaron: Belle and Sebastian made a very conscious decision not to engage with the PR machine at the beginning of the band’s trajectory, which seems inconceivable in the era of Twitter. I’m curious how you handle the glare of being watched, scrutinized, second-guessed in the world of social media.
Earl: Social media, I think, has made everything very accessible, which is good, but also bad, because I think we know too much about things. There’s something nice about not having all the information, and having to work it out for yourself instead, and trying to stay in the present. I’ll go through periods when I’ll stay off of my phone and work on myself, rather than looking at pictures of what everyone else is doing. There’s this idea that people are never content just being present, that we need something to distract us.
Stuart: Our group started just as the internet was getting going, so all the stuff that you can do today, you could only dream about. But, I assure you, I was just trying to protect what I thought was this very fragile thing at the time. The group had come together all of a sudden, and the band members weren’t even sure they wanted to do it. Suddenly, the music press like NME and Melody Maker were chasing us all over Glasgow. We were thrilled with each other’s presence, and we were just so in love with making music that we ended up shutting that stuff out. But thankfully the music dripped out, and fans of the music started to engage with it. And that’s how we built up our following. Sometimes if you build up a thing yourself rather than being hyped, it’s very difficult to knock you back. It’s kept us in good stead for 25 years because it’s the same people who are coming to the shows, with their families now. I think ironically, after we started doing a Q&A thing on our website, people were like, ‘Wow, these guys are really ordinary, these guys are pretty boring.’
Earl: Did you find there was a lot more freedom in terms of what you could say back then? Is there less freedom and leeway today?
Stuart: I think anybody who’s in the public gaze has to be careful. There’d be times on Twitter when I’d say something and get into trouble—I’d be Wanker of the Week in some magazine or other. It’s so easy to offend people these days. To be quite honest, when I’m in the public eye, I treat the public like they’re in a nursery school, like they’re five years old, so that nobody gets offended, and that works out OK.
Aaron: Does that affect your songwriting?
Stuart: No, that’s the beauty of fiction. If these characters did or said in real life what they did in stories, then there would be an uproar. But then there’s stuff, which is maybe the better stuff, that skirts the line between fiction and truth. And then you have to ask yourself, well, ‘Who’s problem is it? Is it the problem of the creator or the problem of the people that are consuming?’ Most of the time, I think it’s the problem of the people that are consuming. You should make what’s in your heart, that’s the important thing.