Aidan Moffat on plans for the forthcoming Arab Strap UK tour, the lead up to new album As Days Get Dark, how his approach to writing lyrics has evolved and the changing experiences of being in a band
From 1996 to 2006 Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton marked out something of a distinctive musical niche for themselves under the Arab Strap name, writing candid, revealing songs that explored some of the darker, more insalubrious aspects of life.
After releasing sixth album The Last Romance in 2005, the pair went their separate ways to pursue solo careers, but reconvened in 2016 for a series of well-received shows to commemorate the band’s 20th anniversary. Those gigs put in place the conditions that were to eventually result in them coming together again to record new album As Days Get Dark, released earlier this year to widespread praise.
We caught up with Moffat for a chat about how all that happened…
What has it been like to get such a positive reaction to the album?
“I don’t think it could have gone any better to be honest. Everything has been really positive. Obviously, you worry about these things. You worry if you’re doing the right thing. You worry about if you’re going to make music that will be as good as the older stuff, although I don’t think we were ever happy with any album we made. It’s the same with the solo records as well. Once the record is out and released I’ll hardly ever listen to it again and on the rare occasions I do I just think about the things I don’t like about it. I’m sure there’ll be a time when I listen to As Days Get Dark and absolutely hate it but right now I’m quite fond of it.”
What were the main inspirations for getting back together again?
“We did the 20th anniversary shows in 2016 and then played 17 festivals in 2017 and we really enjoyed it. We wanted to continue doing it but we didn’t want to do it without any new music, we wanted it to be interesting for us too so we thought we’d try to make a record. Although it’s just me and Malcolm that make the records, we had the live band in mind when making this record so we knew we could play them live. For the first 10 years, the ‘Ten Years Of Tears’ as we called it, with those albums we never really thought about how it would transfer to the stage but this time, having a live band in place and being inspired by wanting to play certainly informed how it sounded in certain ways. Now, we know we can have two guitar players on a song whereas before we only had one. Things like that can make all the difference.”
Do you think having that time apart helped in terms of how fresh and developed the album sounds?
“I think so. We never stopped making records individually so it seemed like a natural step. A lot of bands split up then reform but they haven’t done anything in between but because we kept going it was different for us. I also like to think that we’re still learning, there’s things I can do today that I couldn’t do in the early days. There were things I couldn’t afford, technology is much cheaper now. There’s a lot that has changed, I mean the internet and social media weren’t that big when Arab Strap split up. In the past 10 years the world has completely changed. We’ve been learning to use new tools and it’s much easier to communicate ideas. When we were writing the songs we were just bouncing things back to each other over Dropbox.”
Do you mainly write for whichever project you next have lined up or do you keep things back for certain collaborations?
“I pretty much always wait and respond to the music that I have. That’s exactly the way Arab Strap worked the first time round too but it’s much easier now. I’m not singing into a shitty cassette now. Malcolm would send me some music and I’d add some drums and keyboards and then let the music hopefully try to inspire some ideas.”
There’s always been a strong element of storytelling through music to Arab Strap but it’s arguably stronger than ever on this album. Is that just something you enjoy or feel is well suited to you as a lyricist?
“It’s probably more prominent now because I’m more into the actual storytelling side of things and I enjoy the language involved in that. With the old Arab Strap stuff, which I’m very fond of and we still play live, I had this rule with the lyrics that I had to be truthful and honest and involve the same sort of language that I’d use every day. I was quite particular in not wanting to make it too poetic. It had to be quite stark and full on. These days I’m far more excited about language and the writing itself so I’ve completely gone back on all my principles, but that comes to us all.”
Is finding new ways and new language to express yourself something you actively seek out?
“Yeah, I suppose so. I sometimes take notes of words that I really like the sound of and I try to work them into songs. I think it’s been a natural thing that has happened over the 10 years since Arab Strap split up. It was also something we agreed on early on that for these new songs I wasn’t going to write the same way that I used to as that would just be pointless and slightly embarrassing as well. We said at the start the important thing was that this should be a record about us now, not like how we sounded in our 20s.”
One of my favourite lines on the album is the one about children’s films in Tears On Tour. Do you enjoy incorporating your experiences as a parent into your music?
“Well, it is a big part of my life. I guess our music has always included specific intimate points but over the years they have just changed from dirty bed sheets to children’s films. The reference points change as you get older. The first single The Turning Of Our Bones mentions Tesco and I wasn’t going to do that but I thought why not, it’s real life. I’m still waiting on my Clubcard points.”
The Fable Of The Urban Fox is another song with a strong storytelling element and is arguably the most political Arab Strap have sounded, linking the presence of foxes in cities to human immigration. How did that develop?
“It’s not a very subtle metaphor. There are some foxes that live nearby and I’d see them at night and I just wanted to know more about them so I bought this book called Foxes Unearthed by Lucy Jones. It was fascinating but there were a couple of chapters on how foxes were treated by the media and they became victims because of that and the general public turned against them. The parallels with refugees and immigration were just obvious. It wasn’t so much just the fact that they came from somewhere else it was just as much about how the media controlled the story. What happened was one city fox attacked a child, it wasn’t particularly bad, it was just a bite, but then every other fox was then considered dangerous. The entire fox community was then seen as violent and aggressive.”
How are you feeling about touring next month? You must be looking forward to it.
“Yes, we just spent all weekend rehearsing. The Fable Of The Urban Fox is actually one of our favourites and should be a highlight of the shows. Obviously, the new songs will be the most exciting but we’ve also picked some old ones that we’ve very rarely played like Love Detective which we’ve never played before. Again, it’s a technology thing, the Roland SPD-SX Sample Pad didn’t exist back then. So, yes, I can’t wait to play again. Obviously, it’s going to be a very different kind of tour. We’re not allowed to mingle, there’s no one allowed inside the dressing rooms and we’ve got to stick to our bubble.”
Have Arab Strap always been a band that has embraced touring?
“No, not really. When we started we actually vowed never to play live, we didn’t want to but (label) Chemikal Underground convinced us otherwise. Then, our first gig was broadcast on the John Peel radio show, so that was kind of my life’s ambition fulfilled on our very first gig. All I ever wanted was to do a Peel session and that was the first thing we ever did! It took a while to get into touring. We were quite renowned in the early days for being a bit hit and miss, how good we were going to be depended on how drunk we were. It took us two or three years to find our way but now it’s the thing I look forward to most. I see making a record and playing live as two separate things. You can control a record, you’re in charge of how it sounds but if you’re playing a gig half of the atmosphere is down to the audience. You need to tailor what you’re doing on the stage to work in a live situation as well. It’s like two separate jobs.”
How have your pre and post-gig routines/activities changed over the years?
“We did introduce the two drink maximum before a show rule back in 1998 but what happened there mostly was that the band would follow it but Malcolm and I would sneak off to have some more. It’s a much calmer tour bus now but in some ways not that different. After our third album Elephant Shoe came out, that was the time when things got a bit more serious. We supported the Tindersticks in Europe and we had a big sleeper bus and that was quite an eye-opener. If you do something like that you come back changed.”
Are there any shows that you’ve played that are particularly memorable for you?
“In 2017 we played at Primavera and that is far and away the best gig I’ve ever played. We got it through a bit of bad luck as we replaced Grandaddy after their bass player had passed on. It was a last-minute thing and it was also the first festival of the whole run that year. We did a warm-up in Brighton the night before then went straight out to Primavera. We thought since we were a last-minute addition we didn’t think it was going to be that great but it was incredible. It must be the biggest audience I’ve ever played to. I obviously love playing the Barrowlands in Glasgow and I always look forward to playing London as well. We played the Electric Brixton back in 2016 and that was great, I really like that venue.”
You’re at End Of The Road this year as well. How do you approach festivals?
“Yeah, that’s going to be a strange one. I’m not sure how we’re going to work the new album at festivals but we’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be safer than being inside anyway. Festivals are like a totally different thing to gigs, you have to rethink the set. The first step is to usually drop the quiet songs. I’m also quite conscious that people haven’t been to gigs in 18 months and they want to enjoy themselves. I don’t want to put them through half an hour of torture with me moaning about a girlfriend I had 20 years ago. We want to have fun. We’ve picked a set which has a few that you can dance to.”
What have been some of the most memorable shows that you’ve seen as a gig-goer?
“Everyone remembers their first gig. Mine was David Byrne at the Barrowlands. That was great, I was 16 so a bit of a late bloomer in that respect. No band ever came to Falkirk. I also once saw Devendra Banhart and he was just sitting on a table playing and there wasn’t anyone in the room except Arab Strap and it was amazing. Little things like that I find really exciting, gigs that completely blow you away.”
As Days Get Dark by Arab Strap is out now on Rock Action. The band tour the UK in September, beginning at Academy 2, Manchester on 4 September, calling at End Of The Road’s final day of 5 September and London’s Electric Ballroom on 8 September. Full details can be found here.