When Arab Strap disbanded in 2006 after playing a series of farewell shows, it appeared to be the last we would ever hear from the Scottish duo. Sure, singer Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton would resurface as solo artists making records under their birth names and other guises, but such endeavors seemed like only added nails to the coffin.
Moffat and Middleton had emerged as Arab Strap from the Scottish Lowland hamlet of Falkirk some 10 years earlier buoyed by the success of their first single, “The First Big Weekend,” a song that juxtaposed Moffat’s thickly accented recounting of a four-day bender with club beats and which was championed by BBC1 deejays Steve Lemacq and John Peel. Over the course of six albums, the duo made a name for themselves fusing frank lyrics about sexual relations and affairs of the heart with a musical backing that could be glaringly sparse or pulsing with electronic beats and lush flourishes. Albums like The Red Thread and Monday at The Hug & Pint were studies in the romances forged in the hours after last call (and frequently ended soon after). Never has getting fucked over sounded so brilliant.
Fortunately for us, Moffat and Middleton felt the need to mark the occasion of the band’s 20th anniversary with a handful of reunion shows in 2016. (I was fortunate enough to see one of their Glasgow appearances, and it didn’t disappoint.) As they say, one thing led to another, and the two began work on a new album, with the end result, As Days Get Dark, being released (on the Rock Action label run by their mates in Mogwai) perhaps when we needed it most: in the dark days of the pandemic. Though Moffat’s voice has aged and his lyrical subject matter has broadened while advances in technology have helped expand the band’s musical palette, Days still bears many of the hallmarks of Arab Strap’s best work. It leads off with first single “The Turning of the Bones,” a fitting invocation of resurrection themes that manages to squeeze in an opening line about a mole on the inside of a paramour’s thigh.
I caught up with Aidan on the phone to find out more about the album’s creation and the effects of the pandemic on the band’s reunion.
It sounds like you guys were in the middle of making the record when the pandemic hit. So what effect did that have on it pragmatically?
Aidan Moffat: Not a great deal. Most of it was written before it happened. Maybe two songs were written after the pandemic started. It was due out last October, which means it was supposed to be finished in April last year, but the studio closed in April so everything got pushed back a few months and it ended up coming out this year. But other than the schedule, it didn’t have that much of an influence. We did end up with more songs than we expected because we had another three months to work on it. I was quite grateful that we had that extra time to work on it because I think it was beneficial to the record.
Aside from the mention of a mask on “Turning of the Bones,” it doesn’t seem like Covid and the pandemic seeped into your lyrics too much.
AM: That was written a long time before the pandemic. It was never supposed to be that kind of mask. It was intended to be a masquerade sort of mask like they wear in Eyes Wide Shut, the sort of orgy mask things that you have. So it was just pure coincidence that I mentioned a mask in that song.
Given the title of the album, though, people are going to be tempted to look at it through that lens. Did that concern you at all?
AM: No, we kind of joked that the world has finally caught up with our worldview. But we even had the album title before the pandemic struck. There was maybe one other choice we were considering, but we were pretty sure that was going to be the title even before the pandemic happened. It’s mostly just coincidence. There might have been a wee bit of influence on some of the lyrics here and there. I rewrote a couple of wee things, but I didn’t want to get into it too much because I thought it would all be over by now. I kind of thought that by the time the album came out people would have forgotten all about the pandemic and moved on, but I was very wrong about that obviously!
Thematically, it seems more insular than past records, and you mentioned that you’re sort of an indoorsy person. Were you looking more inwards even before the pandemic hit?
AM: I didn’t really start with an idea. What I always do is wait until I have the music and then respond to that. But after you’ve written a few things, a theme does start to appear. I’m not quite sure when I realized what was happening, but they all seemed to be about desperation and where people turn to in times of need, quite often at night time. So then, about 3/4 of the way through, I started reading about the nighttime and taking inspiration from other places. “Kebabylon,” for instance, was inspired by a chapter in a book about street sweepers in London. Once I know where it’s going, I write for the album. At the beginning, it just so happened that those were the things that were interesting to me at the time. But you’re right, environment probably plays a part. I live in a flat with my family and have two children so getting time to write songs usually happens between 12am and 4am.
Given the cover with its desktop imagery and songs like “Another Clockwork Day” and “Bluebird,” do you see the virtual world as the equivalent to the club and pub environs about which you used to write?
AM: No, I think they’re a bit more lawless and horrible. It’s difficult to answer that because it’s such a different world than when we first started writing. The internet has completely reshaped society in the past 10 to 15 years. Social media has completely changed our behavior. It’s responsible for massive political movements, some of which are good, many of which are terrible. It’s impossible to escape it. With “Bluebird,” that’s what I was trying to get at. As much as I’m addicted to social media and being online, it is a destructive thing. I’m not going to suggest that the world was a better place 20 years ago—because it wasn’t—but the price you pay for something as wonderful as the internet is the dark side that it brings with it. That happens with any kind of technology. It happened with printed books. I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that it has exposed and amplified true human nature, and it doesn’t have a lot of great things to say about it.
I’ve been trying online dating for the first time during the pandemic. It’s too bad you’re not doing the same so we’d get some songs about the dating apps.
AM: Imagine if Tinder if existed in 1996 when I was writing songs! It would have been very different. I might have been happier with my everyday liaisons. I probably wouldn’t have even written a record because I would have been shagging someone every night! I would have nothing to moan about.
I’m curious about Bluebird’s chorus of “I don’t want your love, I need your love, give me your love, don’t love me.” Is that about looking for adoration on social media?
AM: It’s that confirmation thing that everybody does. You find yourself in a little bubble and you talk to the people that you know and agree with, and they confirm how wonderful you are. That’s what social media is. Obviously, it gets abused. I’ve found myself in trouble on Twitter before. I go through phases. Right now, I think it’s been great. In the past month, it’s been a great way to communicate with people about Arab Strap. But then I tweet something political, which I know I shouldn’t because I’m going to get some kind of abuse. Scottish independence from the UK is a very toxic issue in Scotland and there are people who just look for tweets about that stuff to argue with people they don’t know. It’s being very aware that you should know better, but also I’ve been addicted to it and sometimes I get addicted to the fights as well. Sometimes when you’re bored, there’s nothing better than fighting with a stranger online.
The beginning of that song is interesting because it sounds like it could be about masturbation.
AM: It’s supposed to be a bit racy, but it’s really about composing a tweet. I wrote it the day after I sent a tweet that got me in quite a lot of trouble. I don’t want to go into it now, but there were some very strong opinions. It changed the way I work on Twitter because I used to do the same thing. If someone insulted you, you would respond to it and make it public so your followers would help defend you. It’s kind of like unleashing the hounds. And that’s what happened to me: someone very popular in Britain unleashed his Twitter hounds and I was getting constantly attacked. It was strange because I didn’t know this person. I just try to keep out of that now. I don’t get involved in the pile-ups. I just try to be as pleasant as I can be unless it’s politicians. They deserve it and I pay their wages!
Is it harder making an Arab Strap record being more settled and being a dad?
AM: I don’t think so. It’s funny, my daughter is definitely more interested than my son. She thinks it’s fascinating. If she hears me on the radio, she thinks it’s amazing and gets really excited. She goes to dance classes so I think she has the showbiz bug. But no, it’s not more difficult. They pop up on some songs here and there, though I don’t think I’ve written about them on this record. Obviously, I don’t go out as much or have the exciting romantic lifestyle that I used to have, but I feel that there’s still plenty to write about. I’m just much more comfortable writing from other perspectives and telling other people’s stories, whereas before I was absolutely determined that everything had to be true, the details had to be accurate, and it had to be honest on every level. I still believe in honesty and truth, but I’m far more comfortable writing about different things.
Malcolm has that great line on his (solo) song “Break My Heart,” where it’s like you’re going to have to break my heart or my career is over. Did you feel like that at one point, like you needed real misery to fuel the songs?
AM: No, to be honest, living with me is a nightmare so there’s always some sort of drama anyway! Some of the records I’ve made in the meantime with Bill Wells and RL Hubbert, those songs are about the stresses of middle-age life. It can be just as interesting, though obviously it probably won’t attract a lot of young kids. Well actually, I’ve been surprised this past month that there have been quite a few people who haven’t heard Arab Strap before that have sent me wee messages about how they really like the new record. I kind of don’t want them to listen to the old stuff! It’s like let’s just keep it moving forward now, you don’t need to know what happened years ago. It’s about like having a new girlfriend: let’s not talk about the past.
You frequently enthusiastically tweet about pop songs, often late at night and after a few pints, I imagine. Do you have an earnest appreciation for that stuff or is it more of a guilty pleasure?
AM: No, I don’t believe in guilty pleasures at all. Music is there to be enjoyed. I don’t think there’s any sort of snobbery involved. Some of the most sophisticated production in music is in pop music, some of the most incredible sounding records. Billie Eilish’s record that her brother produced, some of the sounds on that are brilliant. It’s a genuinely excellently made album. But I don’t listen to a lot of pop music just now. In the past year, since we’ve been on lockdown, I find myself listening to stuff I know. I find myself getting nostalgic. There’s a comfort in knowing something, and we’ve all been comfort-listening and comfort-watching for the past year. But I grew up listening to pop music—my first love of music was pop records—and I don’t see why that should change as you get older.
Do you see any of that seeping into Arab Strap?
AM: Not especially. I’ve noticed that the trap high hat snuck into two of the songs, one that’s on the album and one that didn’t make it. I used to be a drummer, but I’m so out of practice because I live in a flat and can’t have a drum kit. I don’t really play as much anymore, but I’m still obsessed with drums and drum machines so that slipped in there subconsciously. We never really talk about the sound of our records or the production. We just get on with it and see where we get to. I don’t think we’ve ever had a single conversation where we’ve discussed direction or production or anything like that. It’s just do it, and if we like it, we keep going.
Have you always felt this synergy with Malcolm where you don’t really need to talk?
AM: I wouldn’t put it like that. I think we just don’t like communicating! We’re just not very good at talking sometimes. But there is certainly something that happens with us. About 10 years ago, I was asked to do music for a film, but I’m not really a musician and it sounded like something that would work well with me and Malcolm. We did a few tunes and it just sounded like Arab Strap so we abandoned it because that’s what we didn’t want. We didn’t want to reform the band, we didn’t want to make an Arab Strap record. We wanted to do something together that was completely different, but it seems we just can’t. Whatever we do always ends up a certain way. We don’t listen to much of the same music, so I think the Arab Strap sound is the middle tension of two alpha males fighting with each other silently, trying to get what they want.
You mentioned this album sounding different. One thing that sticks out to me is your singing, which is lower and a bit more spoken. Is that something you’re cognizant of?
AM: Not especially, I just do what comes naturally. That’s just the way it’s developed over the years; my voice has gotten deeper. There are a few Arab Strap songs that I struggle to sing because I can’t really do that high voice anymore, and when I listen to them, I can’t believe I even attempted it. It sounds fucking ridiculous quite a lot of the time. But no, I think as I’ve got on, I’ve learned more about where I’m comfortable and understand what keys a song can be in. If a song’s in the right key, it gives me more room to play with, whereas if I’m struggling with a strange key, the only option is to do spoken word. I like to have options now, whereas before I was just winging it.
Did you even know what a key was when you started out?
AM: No, and I think Malcolm still doesn’t know! I can work it out if I know what the first piano chord is, but I struggle with it as well. I often use one of the deejay apps that tells you what key a song is in.
I get the impression that the band wasn’t completely serious when you started…
AM: Aye, definitely.
Did you think there was any chance that you’d be doing this so many years later?
AM: Not at all. Before Malcolm and I got together, I was making tapes for friends. That’s what the first Arab Strap is about: our close circle of friends in Falkirk. I had no idea that anyone would listen to it outside of Scotland. I thought we’d make one record and that would be it. The only thing I ever wanted to achieve was a John Peel session, and it turned out that was the first thing we did. Our first ever gig was broadcast by John Peel. I thought it was over then, to be honest. It’s amazing. I didn’t expect to be working in music 25 years later. I’m very grateful.
Speaking of those old songs, “The First Big Weekend” still seems like a kind of anomaly. Is it odd that that’s still probably the song you’re most well known for?
AM: Yes and no. As you say, it is quite an anomaly in our catalog—even on our first album. It works on the album because it’s in the middle and is the big night out and everything on either side is coming down and hangovers. It wasn’t even meant to be on the first album, though. It was released as a single and did very well for us, so we thought it would be madness not to put it on the album. I went through a phase of being quite annoyed with it. We stopped playing it pretty soon after. After we made Philophobia, we stopped playing it completely and didn’t play it again until we did the farewell shows in 2006. So that was eight years without playing it. At first, that probably seemed a wee bit grumpy, but it worked because we made different kinds of records and kept going for another five albums. But I’ve made peace with it now and actually really enjoy playing it. Playing it live is fantastic, people really respond to it. I owe so much to it and I’ve come to love it again. I actually look forward to it in the set.
You’ve said elsewhere that you had fallen into a routine of album-tour, album-tour and that led to the break-up, but I was wondering if there was anything that made you know you had to take a break from it?
AM: I think at the time we felt that we didn’t have anywhere to go musically. We didn’t feel there was another Arab Strap album worth pursuing. Although the last album is called The Last Romance and sounds like it was deliberately the last album, it wasn’t at all. We didn’t think about that at the time. But it wasn’t well-received, and we were at that point in every band’s career where you have a loyal fanbase, but you’re not hitting the heights you were five years ago. We just felt that maybe the universe was telling us it was time to move on. It was definitely the right decision to make. If we hadn’t made that decision, maybe we would have made one more record, split up, and never came back to it. But because we stopped at the right time, we were enthusiastic to come back to it.
Were you concerned about living up to the band’s legacy? Would you have scrapped the record if it wasn’t good enough?
AM: If we hadn’t thought it was good enough, we definitely would have left it. It’s strange, we don’t really think of our music in the same terms as the people who buy it. We don’t see ourselves as having a legacy. We just have a string of records, none of which we were completely happy with. And I think that’s the best way to be. I haven’t really listened to the new record since we did one of those Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties. And the next time I listen to it, I’ll just start finding things I don’t like about it. That’s what happens, but I think that’s a healthy way to be. I don’t want to make a record I’m entirely happy with because then what would be the point of making another one?