Arab Strap :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

In its first late 1990s to early aughts run, Arab Strap made a string of beautifully profane albums which distilled the grit and hedonism of post-industrial Britain into muttered poetry and moody post-rock atmospherics. An early single, “The First Big Weekend,” chronicled an endless drunken bender, while songs like “Girls of Summer” described the most ephemeral of sexual encounters in terse, morose style. It was the kind of material that seemed unlikely to survive midlife settling down, and, indeed, in 2006, the two principal members — Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton — announced a hiatus. Said Middleton, “Unless there’s a definite need and desire for us to play, I don’t think we should ever get back together.”

Skip ahead to 2016, and Arab Strap reunited for a tour, playing gigs around the world and reviving their blend of sardonic, thick-burred lyrics and agitated, dance-y instrumentals. The “elephant in the room” during the tour was always whether there would be another album, Aidan Moffat explained, and in 2020, on the brink of a global pandemic, he and Middleton set out to write one. As Days Get Dark, the band’s seventh full-length, moves further down the Arab Strap timeline, still contemplating the rotten underbelly of sex and death, but from an older perspective. In it, the two musicians also expand their use of electronics, using new tools to realize their darkly funny view of the world. A few weeks before the release date, Aidan Moffat shared his thoughts on the reunion, long-term relationships, the utility of nostalgia and the hope for at least enough normal to return so that Arab Strap can tour again. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: You ended your hiatus in 2016, but this is the first album since. What made it feel like the right time to do it?

Aidan Moffat: We enjoyed playing the gigs a lot. That was a bit of a test, I suppose to show that we could still enjoy it and do it and still get on and not have too many conflicts. There were a couple of moments that were a bit combative. But the elephant in the room was wondering if we should try a record. When we played our last gig in 2017, it was, in Iceland, I think we realized we didn’t want to keep playing if we didn’t have anything new to play. If we didn’t have anything exciting for us to play. As much I love the old songs, I don’t want to be some sort of nostalgia band.

AD: It must be weird playing songs that you wrote in your 20s.

Aidan Moffat: Yes! I have changed some of the words here and there. But aye, especially for me, it’s very much of a diary I suppose.

AD: Did you record this before the world went to shit with COVID and everything?

Aidan Moffat: We had started recording it, and we had written most of it before then. Our final album sessions were supposed to be in April, and they all got cancelled because everything had to shut. The album should have been out in October last year, and we should have been touring all over the world already by now. So no, I mean, it didn’t influence the writing, but it certainly messed with the release of the album.

AD: But even without COVID, there’s been a lot going on with Brexit and Scottish Independence. How does all that political chaos feed into what you do if it does?

Aidan Moffat: It’s not something I think is a big part of it. The only song on the album that’s anything like that is “The Fable of the Urban Fox,” and that’s the one that’s clearly a metaphor for something, for migration and refugees. I don’t know, I suppose it does influence us a wee bit. When we started, just singing in a Scottish accent seemed like a political statement. Even now, it’s something. It says something about you. Because I hear a lot of Scottish bands who have crazy American accents to sing, because they think that’s the way it should be done.

AD: Right. Like Teenage Fanclub. You’d never know they were Scottish by listening.

Aidan Moffat: I do love Teenage Fanclub. They’re allowed to do it. That’s fine.

AD: And Mogwai doesn’t sing, so that’s not a problem.

What can you tell me about the recording process? How did you do it, and how long did it take and was there any kind of getting back up to speed with each other? I know you’ve been doing a lot of solo stuff in between.

Aidan Moffat: Not really, it just felt pretty relaxed and natural. We had both been working on a lot of solo stuff and collaborations over the years, and most of the stuff that I did with Paul Savage in the same studio. I don’t think he was very pleased to see me again. What was exciting was that it was exactly the same three people that made the first album, and just us with new technology and new knowledge. Obviously people have asked us if we’ll do another album, but there has to be something, there has to be an angle for us to be excited about. We’ve talked about going even further back and recording at home and doing a really quiet intimate record. Maybe that’s the next thing, just to keep going backwards and backwards.

AD: Malcolm has been doing a lot of electronics in his Human Don’t Be Angry and his solo albums. They have a very dance-y, electronic vibe to them. Arab Strap didn’t used to have that stuff, and now it does. Did that affect your process at all?

Aidan Moffat: No, how we work it is exactly the way we used to. He’ll give me a guitar piece, and then I’ll try and respond to that and write words, and then I’ll add some drums and beats, and then we put everything else together. He would start writing a lot of parts and samples. The difference between now and then is that everything’s much cheaper. Back then, if you wanted to use a Roland Bass machine for instance, you had to either have one or have a friend with one or buy one, which would cost a thousand pounds. It was really hard to do that sort of stuff back then. But now everything’s practically free. I think it’s just having the tools. And also, when we reformed for the gigs, the songs that we chose to play tended to be the ones that had the beats, the disco beats and the drum machines, and so I think that sort of inspired this record.

AD: The very first words that you hear on this album are, “I don’t give a fuck about the past or glory days gone by.” Why don’t you care about the past?

Aidan Moffat: Yeah. I mean, it’s not that…The point of that song is not to be too informed by it. Obviously, it has an influence. It makes you. But I don’t see the point of getting upset over something you can’t fix or control. There’s sadly no going back. When I wrote that, it was not about the band, but afterwards, I realized I was probably subconsciously saying something about the band. And that was the thing we all talked about. We didn’t want to make a record that sounded like 1997. We wanted to use the tools that are available to us today to make it.

AD: Right, and yet people are going to want to listen to this album, in a lot of cases, because the past and your history and their connection to what you were doing in 1997. Are you telling the audience not to be nostalgic?

Aidan Moffat: Ah, maybe… well no. Not so much that. It’s more of a way for me to do that. I mean, nostalgia now is often ridiculed. And I said to myself I don’t want to be a nostalgia band. But it’s also very useful, especially right now. Psychologically, nostalgia is a very useful thing for people. I’ve been doing it myself. I watched the Sopranos again for the third time during the first lockdown.

I’ve watched so many things that I’ve seen before. I’ve hardly watched any new things, because I just want the comfort of something that I know. And I think it’s a way to cope right now. Yeah, and as I said, I don’t want to just sing the old songs, because I was a young lad then. I wouldn’t have made the record if we didn’t think we could do a wee bit better.

AD: I think it’s interesting how artists either do or don’t age with their music. Whether their music keeps up with where they are in their lives. Some of them are pretty aggressive about singing about teenage things well after they must be doing them. But your songs have always pretty raw and explicit sexually, and they still are, but from a whole different, older perspective. For instance, “Another Clockwork Day,” the narrator is looking at pornography, and you don’t realize until the end that they’re pictures of his wife from years ago. Do you think people get more twisted as they get older or about the same or different?

Aidan Moffat: That’s a very deep, existential question. Does anyone really change as they get older? Psychologists would have you believe that your entire personality is written by the time you’re six. That’s pretty worrying. The point of that song is that there’s two different kinds of sex and two different kinds of gratification, I suppose. And also, the proliferation of porn now is kind of troublesome, I think. The fact that the kids are learning about sex from pornography is absolutely terrifying. Yeah, I mean, again, that’s not something I could have written 15 years ago, you know?

AD: I can’t think of too many songwriters who are writing about the perversity of long-term relationships, can you?

Aidan Moffat: Ha, you know, I always think that Carly Simon’s, what’s it called, “coming Around Again,” and I was thinking about that the other day as one of the few pop songs to talk about very old relationships. That is a very lovely, lovely song.

AD: I also really liked “Tears on Tour” which has some very moving verses about losing older relatives, and it’s so bleak and beautiful, and then it’s got this really funny part where you talk about “What would you call the opposite of a comedian?” Do you find death and disaster inherently funny?

Aidan Moffat: Ahhhh, you know, inherently is the right word. It’s a very Scottish thing. The noose and the gallows humor is part of our culture. We’re very quick to make fun of ourselves before anyone else and to be critical of ourselves before anyone else. You have to be able to take a joke in Scotland. People struggle to get by and struggle to get though the week. But aye, I think that it is something that is certainly not only me but also the culture as well.

AD: What exactly is compersion? [The word appears in the title of an early single, “Compersion Pt. 1”]

Aidan Moffat: Compersion is a new word that was invented for the polyamory scene, and it’s the joy that you have from knowing that your partner is experiencing joy. It’s like a secondhand joy. It’s basically being happy that they’re off with someone else.

AD: Yeah, wow. I really like that line, “I come on strong with a limerick. She knocks me back with a villanelle.”

Aidan Moffat: Yeah, I was quite fond of that one, myself.

AD: Have you been reading villanelles?

Aidan Moffat: No, but oddly enough, I’ve been reading limericks. I’ve got somewhere around here the Penguin Book of Limericks, and I had a plan to write an album of 20 limericks, but I never got around to it. But no, the villanelles are too complicated for me, so it’s a very honest line.

AD: I really “Fable of the Urban Fox,” which is an animal story, but also a pretty chilling view of immigration. What can you tell me about writing that song?

Aidan Moffat: It started with a book about foxes. There are some foxes that live nearby the house in a bit of waste ground. I’ve always found them fascinating. I decided to find out some more about them, so I bought a book. There were a couple of chapters in the book about how when foxes started to move into cities because they were getting hunted and murdered in the countryside and how they were demonized by newspapers. It was an obvious similarity to the way they treat migrants and refugees. It’s the same people as well in the media.

AD: It’s beautifully done. Sometimes allegorical songs lean on the allegory so far that you lose the actual thing you’re talking about. This one is really well-balanced. You absolutely know the song is not totally about foxes, but it’s also kind of about foxes.

Aidan Moffat: Yeah, that’s the thing. There’s no point in being subtle. If you’ve got a point to make, you might as well make it.

AD: What is the image on the album cover and what does it mean?

Aidan Moffat: The cover started out with just a painting in a marble frame. The painting is called “The Night Escorted by the Geniuses of Love and Study,” by Pedro Americo. I liked that it’s a depiction of night as a seductress. And also the idea of love and study. At night you do a lot of, maybe too much thinking and quite often too much love. So, it seemed to suit the themes that I wanted to address, and I wanted to use it in some way, but we couldn’t quite make it work. I didn’t like the ornateness of it. It looked a bit old-fashioned like an old Joy Division album cover, which is good for Joy Division but not for us. So then, I was on my computer looking at it and I realized that was the answer, because we also wanted to have a theme about windows at night, and then obviously there are windows on the computer. And then it just sort of clicked by accident when I was working on it.

AD: Do you have any favorite bits in this album, favorite lines or sounds or anything like that?

Aidan Moffat: I don’t know. The limerick line is one of my favorites. I don’t know. I do like “Tears on Tour” as well. It’s hard to say. I haven’t actually listened to it in a while. I think I’ve made about three albums since we finished. I’ve been at home and we’ve been a bit idle and not able to go out. “Turning of the Bones,” that was the first one we did, and if it hadn’t have been the first one, I think the album would be quite different. I think that was really the jumping off point for the rest of it.

AD: What was it about it, and how did it affect the rest of the album?

Aidan Moffat: It has a lot of the different elements that we were looking for. It has the disco beats, the deep bass-y rhythmic guitar that we used to do all the time, and also we added new stuff like, well, the percussion is quite new for us. There’s a touch of saxophone in there. The strings at the end. It just seemed that once we’d done that, we were equipped to try everything else. And it was inspiring to have the song be liked that much.

AD: What else have you been working on? Those three albums?

Aidan Moffat: I made a few albums last year on cassette for Bandcamp. Sheerly out of boredom. Also last year, during the first lockdown, we made the Arab Strap archive on Bandcamp, which I think it’s got 20 different releases on it, live stuff and B-sides and unreleased stuff. And I’m working on all that stuff, just to keep occupied.

AD: Is it hard to collaborate in this environment? Are you working with other people or just doing your own stuff?

Aidan Moffat: No, not yet. I thought about it. I kind of feel that I should wait to see if we do another Arab Strap record. We did actually do one wee demo at the start of the year, which is currently available as a flexi-disc. It’s like a free gift with the LP. Malcolm plays the piano. It’s mostly just the piano and the vocals, and it’s a lovely, gentle song.

AD: What’s the name of the song?

Aidan Moffat: It’s called “Receive,” and maybe that’s a way to go next, something more quiet and intimate. I’ve recorded at home. We might have to record it at home, of course. But maybe, we’ll see. Working makes me happy. Working on music keeps me sane.

AD: Do you do anything else in the arts besides music?

Aidan Moffat: Not especially. I do some writing on the side. I’ve got a book I was supposed to finish years ago, but I just don’t have the discipline to get it done. I’m not sure when that’s going to happen. I build Lego things quite a lot. I’m very fond of Legos.

AD: You must have children then?

Aidan Moffat: Yes, I have two.

AD: I spent hours and hours with my son on Legos. It’s a very happy thing.

Aidan Moffat: Yeah, it’s something that’s very good for the soul.

AD: I know that in the past that Arab Strap has taken some young Scottish artists under your wing, and I was wondering if there was anybody you were excited about?

Aidan Moffat: It’s been such a long time since we’ve been in a show, obviously. There’s a whole year. There’s a good band called Cloth that we’re both very fond of.

 AD: What are they like?

Aidan Moffat: Quite sparse, sort of deep bass lines and …. I’m really awful at describing music. They toured with me with another band and I was going to say last year but it must have been 2019. Malcolm came to see them a couple of times, too. We both really like them.

AD: Have you been listening to anything interesting over the lockdown?

Aidan Moffat: Do you know Eartheater? I’ve been listening to that. Kelly Forsyth made a very good album as well. Generally, it’s just really sad music that I listen to. Black Country New Road, that came out last week.

AD: I’ve got to get that. It sounds like I would really like that.

How are you doing in the lockdown and the COVID? How are you keeping yourself sane and productive?

Aidan Moffat: Well, I’m pretty used to being at home quite a lot. It’s starting to weigh on me now. Last year wasn’t too bad because we hadn’t planned do anything. We were finishing up the Arab Strap album. That’s something that we could do remotely. I really want to get out to a show now. I want to tour as well. We have a tour booked for September in the UK.

AD: Are there are any things that people think about Arab Strap that you think are not quite right, any misperceptions?

Aidan Moffat: I think people who listen to the music think that we’re pretty miserable. I think the general view of us by people who don’t listen carefully is that we just wallow in misery. I mean, I wouldn’t want to do that, I don’t want to make people miserable. I want to communicate and discuss things with people. I think it’s a bit more fun than a lot of people would like to believe.

AD: It’s funny. It’s this dark humor.

Last question, what do you think makes a great song a great song?

Aidan Moffat: I have no idea. I just try not to think about these things. Usually, for me, I suppose it’s like films as well. There’s some sort of conflict. To me the best songs are all about problems. Things that are missing or things that are needed. Desire I suppose. That’s what makes the best songs, desire.

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