ON the evening before we were due to meet and talk about the 30th anniversary of his group BMX Bandits, Duglas T Stewart got in touch with a warning: over the last couple of years he has been wrestling with serious mental health issues which manifest themselves, now and again, in self-harming behaviour. “Last night,” he explained, “I attacked myself and my face got a lot of it.” There were fresh cuts and scratches across his cheeks, nose and forehead, but he wanted to get together as planned. “It’ll be good,” he insisted. “Laughter and tears.”
Laughter and tears. Two reactions which have been reliably provoked by BMX Bandits since the release of their debut single, E102, in 1986. Anger, too, on occasion, and confusion, joy, even envy; Kurt Cobain said that if he could be in any other band it would be the Bandits. They are, perhaps, Britain’s ultimate cult group, and its most divisive. Reviled by some as nauseatingly cutesy and affected, they have a reputation among pop cognoscenti as creators of sophisticated and witty love songs.
At the centre of this contradiction is Stewart himself, an amiable 51 year old man-child with hair that could use a cut, a silvering beard that could use a trim, and a Christmas jumper that could use reminding the holidays are a fortnight past. The intercom to his Glasgow flat has two intertwined hearts on the button. He buzzes me in. Deep breath. Here we go.
“Hello,” he says, shaking hands. “Come in.” His face looks sore, but not too bad. He didn’t need stitches. The front room is small, with peach walls. Stewart shares the couch with the soft toys – a fox and a monkey – that he considers friends.
Sitting on the couch, leaning against a cushion in the form of a smiley emoticon, he explains that he can’t say on the record what caused him to hurt himself, other than that it’s to do with a relationship. This makes sense. Twice married and with a 21 year old son, Stewart’s life can be seen as a quest to find perfect love and to record that quest in a perfect love song. “Love and art are, for me, the two things that are important in life,” he says.
His romantic life is inseparable from his work, a mere matter of rendering incident and emotion in rhyming couplets. “I don’t think I can take it much longer/She said maybe your tablets should be stronger,” he wrote in Serious Drugs, the band’s best known song, inspired by a girlfriend’s suggestion that he up his dose of anti-depressants.
“It’s strange,” he says. “I never had an experience of self-harming until I was close to 50.” He turns rage and sadness on himself rather than express them to the people who make him feel that way. “I think it’s related to why a lot of people like myself choose to become artists. Creating beauty out of the pain and ugliness has been a big part of what I’ve tried to do. I can make things make sense in a song that don’t make sense in the real world.”
One thing that makes no sense is that BMX Bandits have not had the success they deserve. Stewart’s ear for melody and eye for lyrics add up to immaculately crafted songs which, if only they could hear them, would provide any canny pop star with a wealth of material to make their own. He’s a sort of bedsit Bacharach and David. Yet there is something of the comedy of errors about his own career. Three albums on Creation in the 1990s offered an opportunity for success, with the single Serious Drugs the best chance of all. “That was hilarious,” Stewart smiles “We had all these people at Radio 1 saying they loved it and it was going to be big, but its release coincided with their anti-drugs week and they couldn’t play it.”
Arguably, their difficulty was more significant than radio playlists. BMX Bandits were an awkward fit with the laddishness of Britpop, just as they had been too sunny for po-faced post-punk. Their most recent album, 2012’s In Space, was their best-selling since the Creation years, but the general trajectory has been one of mass public indifference mixed with intense devotion from those fans who consider themselves privy to a delicious secret. In any case, the idea of music as a “career” is not one Stewart would recognise.
To all intents and purposes, he is BMX Bandits. The line-up has changed many times over the years. Musicians come and go, and come back – “We’re like Hotel California. You can check out any time you want but you can never leave” – but he is the one constant. Stewart describes the group, currently a six-piece, as a musical family, but it seems to function more like a magic circle in which he is protected from the sad and mundane realities of existence. He had always had a strong sense of who he is: this rather flamboyant and extroverted eccentric called “Duglas” (he dropped the “o” in his late teens, a decision commemorated in the great Teenage Fanclub song Neil Jung) was a persona who best expressed the person he wanted to be. But lately, he says, he has lost touch with that identity, and feels he is somehow absent or simply treading water in his life. The only time he feels back to his old self is when he is making music with the group; then, he feels safe and at his best.
“Playing live has become more important than it ever was,” he explains. “I feel like I’ve been brought out of sleep and every atom in my body is alive again, rather than feeling 80 per cent of me is missing.”
The new BMX Bandits album, Forever, was recorded, in part, in this flat and is likely to come out in the spring. Stewart moved to Glasgow in the summer of last year after spending most of his life in Bellshill, the post-industrial town 12 miles to the south-east. If you want to understand the Bandits, you have to visit Bellshill, so Stewart pulls on his boots and we get ready to go.
It’s a bitter morning and he debates what to wear. He tries on a heavy parka which he inherited from the late Alex Chilton, lead singer with Big Star and The Box Tops, but opts instead for his usual brown car coat. Chilton was into astrology, he says, and followed a system in which dates of birth were associated with particular playing cards. Stewart smiles at the memory. “When he discovered I was the ace of hearts, he said we were going to be friends forever.”
We drive over to Bellshill, on the M8 motorway. “This turn-off is the one for us,” he tells Murdo the photographer; then, remembering the SatNav, “but, of course, you’ve got your magical device.”
“It leads me up some blind alleys sometimes,” says Murdo.
“Oh,” says Stewart, “life does that as well.”
We park near the house where he grew up. Ramsey Wynd is a terrace of pebble-dashed houses on a small council estate. He points out the bedroom where they came up with the name BMX Bandits. Early incarnations of the group included Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, who has been Stewart’s closest male friend since they were pre-schoolers, and Sean Dickson, later of The Soup Dragons. In the excellent documentary about the group, Serious Drugs, Blake recalls going round to Ramsey Wynd to record songs on a cassette player; lacking drums, they would hit empty margarine tubs with pencils.
Stewart’s best friend was Lorna, the wee girl next door, who grew up to be the writer Lorna Gibb. In The Two Gardens, a memoir for Granta, Gibb recalled the estate in the 1970s and early 80s as a place of sectarian violence, unemployment and heavy drinking; fights would sometimes leave blood and broken glass on the communual patch of grass out the front. Stewart is not named by Gibb, but she recalls him as wearing “weird clothes and make-up, even though he was a boy when boys were not supposed to do that kind of thing; we were fair game for bullies and the garden was our refuge …”
Together with his big sister, Alison, Stewart would stare down from their bedroom window at the fighting in the street. He felt secure in a home with parents who never argued. Jean and Tom Stewart were his example of that perfect love he has sought in life and song. He remembers his father singing to her over the kitchen table: “Come into my arms, bonnie Jean.” Being in BMX Bandits, with their sunny, cosy mindset, is a way for Stewart to stay in that childhood home forever; warm and safe behind the glass, looking out at a world where the roses are never quite as red as he’d like them to be.
His way of thinking about relationships was shaped, too, by old movies he absorbed during childhood: Singin’ In The Rain, It’s A Wonderful Life, Snow White, a universe of happy endings in which heartache, when it happened, was aestheticised and transformed. “Beauty and love can save us,” he insists, “if we just believe.”
This is a child’s prayer, a Walt Disney world view, yet he clings to it, like Dumbo twining his trunk round his mother’s through the bars of her cage. When people age, he says, they often experience a second childhood. “I just never left my first one.”
Stewart’s old school, Bellshill Academy, isn’t far away from Ramsey Wynd. A big red sandstone building with the motto, Virtus in Arduis, courage in adversity, carved above the door. Right from primary school, Stewart was a performer, he recalls. He’d tour the other classes, singing, telling jokes and doing impresssions. At secondary, he had an encouraging art teacher who introduced him to Matisse, and there was a trendy geography teacher who, via his sister, turned him on to Jonathan Richman. Those remain key influences on his whole approach and aesthetic. “I like a lot of art that bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the heart. Humour and melody and colour are all keys to do that.” Worth noting here, perhaps, that BMX Bandits’ retrospective collection, The Rise & Fall, is dedicated to Jim Henson, Ivor Cutler and Gene Kelly.
When Stewart was just starting at Bellshill Academy, Sheena Easton was in her final year. A senior teacher, getting wind of her ambitions of pop stardom, made a public announcement that such fantasises were not to be encouraged. But Stewart saw her as a kindred spirit. “She looked like she’d already decided, ‘I’m somebody.’ I don’t think that was arrogance, it was just that she knew she wasn’t a normal person.”
Stewart stood out, too. When boys gathered for furtive cigarettes, he would turn up wearing a deerstalker and smoking a pipe. He introduced himself to bullies as “Nancy”. He was the only boy in school allowed to wear ear-rings, having secured a special dispensation from the art teacher on the grounds that it would be a shame to stifle his creativity.
He became interested in drama and began attending a youth theatre in the east end of Glasgow. This was where he first met his close friend Frances McKee, who would go on to form The Vaselines. She was his first muse. Stewart remembers that the two of them were in a stage version of Charles Sculz’s Peanuts. He was Charlie Brown, Frances was Snoopy, and Billy Boyd, later famous as a hobbit in Lord Of The Rings, played Linus. “They don’t feel so distant, those distant memories,” he says. “We were such dreamers and I think we all still are.”
As Stewart grew up, Glasgow’s gravitational pull increased. To earn money they could spend on records, the embryonic BMX Bandits would busk for shoppers, playing New Wave covers, learning something about stage craft and how to deal with hecklers. It was The Beatles in Hamburg, but with flowery shirts instead of black leather. Argyle Street was their Reeperbahn. They also played early shows at Bellshill’s Hattonrigg Hotel, no longer there, and discovered that their anti-macho image could be taken as a provocation.
“I remember a group of supposed anarchist punks decided that they were going to protest that we were playing,” Stewart says. “They were all sitting outside saying, ‘Don’t go into this gig.’ Like a picket line. I couldn’t understand why they found us objectionable, but I liked it. I remember another time we played, a bunch of skinheads turned up, and Norman and I decided we’d do the Dead Kennedy’s Nazi Punks Fuck Off just to see what happened. They all came down the front, signalling they were going to cut our throats. The police were called and escorted us out the back of the building.”
He is unembarrassable and there is a part of him that enjoys annoying people, but in Glasgow, in 1985, he discovered a club night that was a mutually supportive gathering of like-minded musicians and artists: Splash One. “Suddenly the weirdos and outsiders had a place of our own. It was like a collective brain.” We wander along West George Street to the former site, now an Irish bar. Run by the young Bobby Gillespie among others, Splash One was a crucible of influences where the chat was all about music, cinema and art, punk and psychedelia. It only lasted for a year, but continues to shape Scottish culture.
Stewart himself seems, in a way, emblematic of that culture, or at least of the music scene. He has never moved away from Scotland, never tried to make it in London, and embodies not just continuity and tradition but also the spirit of the scene: generous, non-competitive, whimsical and tender. A few days before we met, I happened to spot him in Glasgow Central, greeting a woman beneath the old clock which hangs from the train station’s great glass roof, a meeting place where several generations of courting couples have arranged their trysts. It is ground zero of the city’s romantic history and, therefore the precise spot where one would hope and expect to see Duglas T Stewart. Spotting him there felt cosmically correct.
Although he is happy to leaf through his back pages for the sake of this article, it’s an important aspect of his personality that he is no nostalgist. He is an evangelist for up-and-coming Glasgow bands such as TeenCanteen and Happy Meals and considers BMX Bandits a contemporary group. So it is that we finish our tour at Monorail, the record shop that functions as a focal point for the local scene. Working behind the counter is Stephen McRobbie, leader of The Pastels, who – in 1986 – released the first BMX Bandits record on his 53rd and 3rd label. Thirty years later, he and Stewart still talk excitedly about new bands, new sounds.
For Stewart, though, making music has become a vital function; the blood in his veins, the breath in his lungs, the songs in his head and heart. “I’m alive when I’m in the BMX Bandits,” he says. “I’m alive even when I’m talking about the BMX Bandits. Life can be very difficult. But when we’re on stage, when we’re recording, when I’m in that world, everything is okay.”
A shorter version of this story was first published in The Guardian