Arab Strap 1 by Paul Savage
Photo: Paul Savage / Courtesy of Motormouth Media

In Conversation With Arab Strap’s Malcolm Middleton

On the eve of Arab Strap’s latest album, PopMatters caught up with the erudite and thoughtful Malcolm Middleton to consider now, then, and everything in between.

As Days Get Dark
Arab Strap
Rock Action
5 March 2021

In the long gap between The Last Romance in 2005 and this year’s album As Days Get Dark, the erstwhile denizens have never truly been away. Malcolm Middleton has maintained a consistent rhythm of solo albums, appearances with other bands, and great works under his Human Don’t Be Angry identity. Aidan Moffat, meanwhile, has collaborated extensively with RM Hubbert and Bill Wells, released electronica as Ben Tramer and Lucky Pierre, as well as being part of the documentary film Where You’re Meant to Be. On the eve of Arab Strap’s latest statement, PopMatters caught up with the erudite and thoughtful Mr. Middleton to consider now, then, and everything in between.

Aidan mentioned it’s been a pleasure making the record, with the only argument being about the running order…

I did shout something about “alphabetical!” just to stop us arguing. I think we’d agreed on a 10-track album, then it went up to 12, then it went down to 11, then 10, back to 11…It went back and forth and, in the end, I said that if someone wants something, and someone doesn’t want something, we should go with the person who wants it. You can’t have what you want all the time, so it’s best not to take something away.

The order of songs is really important, you spend that much time making them you can’t just put ‘em down any old way. It’s an old habit that hasn’t died, because we’re both aware a lot of people don’t listen to whole records anymore, but we’re still thinking of it when we make a record. When I did my record Bananas I put some of the best songs on the B side. I thought that was really cool, hiding them away, but I don’t think it’s a very clever way to sequence a record…

I’m glad you mentioned Bananas, you have a really great back-catalogue as a solo artist. Are there ambitions keeping you motivated?

I’ve been doing collaborative song writing over the last year and a half, writing pop songs for people. I’m a massive fan of pop music and one of my ambitions is to write songs for someone to do in a pop style, with deep lyrics. It’s amazing when I hear people I’ve collaborated with singing my words! Part of the reason I don’t write so much now is I know I’ve not written anywhere near something that I’m really proud of.

So it’s harder to get back into it because I know, after all these years, I’ve still not succeeded. That’s the kind of force that will keep me going. I remember what it feels like to write a good song, but you can’t bank that feeling, you can’t accrue it and think, “oh I did that good record once, I’ll be able to do it again.” You go into the next record and you have to start again.

I think people underrate the positive power of a good negative…

I’ve never liked my voice and when I wrote Into the Woods, I was thinking someone else should do the songs, they were written with the intention of having someone else sing, so I wouldn’t have to stand behind the songs and deliver them myself because they were so personal. I’ve definitely got self-esteem and self-worth issues, so that feeds into things I do. I don’t think it’s a sign of a great artist, in fact the older I get the more I think it’s some kind of flaw in my character. I’ve finished songs or albums in the past I’ve been really happy with, but it’s a short time between that and then going back and being hyper-critical. Which doesn’t mean, if I’m hyper-critical about something, that the criticism is true.

I remember being amazed at the quality control of Arab Strap, and that you had enough great songs to release two solo albums — 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine, Into the Woods — and to have the Quarter Past Shite compilation in the back-pocket too…

I always felt more like a songwriter than a guitar player and when Arab Strap started I sang a couple of songs on the first record. I remember for Philophobia I gave Aidan a song called “Devil and the Angel” and he batted that aside. That set me off a wee bit, I was annoyed, but with hindsight, he was right that Philophobia is a really strong album lyrically and it works. From that point, it made me think I was going to do my own record.

Cut to a few years later, after The Red Thread, we had a break. I started getting into home-recording, and I had a few things going on in my life so I was writing more so that’s when the first album got written. Then it went on parallel to Arab Strap with Into the Woods coming out between our last two records.

Did it start to create a pull away from Arab Strap with these records being perceived as side-projects?

It does tie in with the end of the band because we toured The Last Romance and realized we weren’t enjoying it as much. I was really excited about my solo stuff and, at the time, it was more exciting than Arab Strap so it was an easy decision to split the band up. It felt more satisfying. I was expressing myself and people were coming back saying they appreciated the songs and that they meant something to them. That was a massive confidence boost.

I’m curious at what point the potential to work together again became a possibility?

When we split up we didn’t speak for about a year then we got to be friends again after that. We did a Slow Club remix, he did some drumming for me, then we started doing a soundtrack in 2011, not as Arab Strap, just me and Aidan. A guy had asked for some ideas, we did about three or four songs and he didn’t like them. He ended up going with the guy from the Brian Jonestown Massacre, but the stuff we did made us click again.

It wasn’t the intention to do Arab Strap, but it did re-spark the excitement of working together. After the reunion gigs we started talking seriously about doing a new record and then these ideas were already there…But none of them made it though there’s one we might use on an EP.

With As Days Get Dark, did you have a strong sense of what would work for Arab Strap?

I had to sit down and really think what was I going to give Aidan. The reverse of that has stung me a few times, where I’ve given Aidan loads of guitar bits and then he ends up picking bits I don’t like! I’ve given him things that didn’t work before because they were too upbeat or major key or not the right mood for him. When I give him things I have no idea what he’s going to do. It’s good for me when I hear what he does because my lyrics and melody go along with whatever I’m playing, but Aidan won’t sing along with the melody or the guitar, so it’s always a surprise for me. “Compersion Pt.1” he said it made him think of fast cars on a motorway at night…So he writes a song about swinging. I don’t know how that works…

Like one thing he does is he says he wants something to sound minimal, and I’m like: “what do you mean minimal? It’s only a guitar?” So I’ll go and put loads of stuff over the top and he’ll moan about it — then two days later he tells me it’s great! For the most part, we agree on stuff, Aidan had a definite way he wanted to end which I’m fine with because it’s his lyrics and he’s got more of an idea of what the narrative is. Aidan’s always been a bit “less is more, be minimal, sound like Slint or Smog…” It was always a struggle getting more things on. It was easier on the new record, it was like a compromise, he knows what I’m like and I know what he’s like, so it’s minimal but when we filled up the space with layers it was exact, not just squashing things in.

 The working title was Disco Spiderland because we did early demos of “Bones” and “Compersion” with Slint-y post-rock guitars, quite angular, we thought that was the way we were going to go with six or seven long songs. Then we started more songs and they were different and got slower and we realized we needed different styles, so the longer songs got a bit shorter. “Bones”, “Kebabylon”, and “Fox” all had one or two minutes chopped off, and the last song on the record, “Just Enough”, we did about four versions and one had an extra five-minutes at the end of really loud stuff that was great but it didn’t suit the record so we cut it off.

It sounds like a really productive phase. You’ve got enough left for future releases?

I almost don’t want to start the EP until we’ve done the touring, but we’re just having to get on with it and we’re enjoying recording. We had a collection of about 20 songs and there were three-four that could be really good, but we just didn’t need them at this time. One of them is called “Flutter” and we loved it but it sounded too much like old Arab Strap — a really good old Arab Strap, but we felt like we shouldn’t put it on the record because it was too much of a nod to the past. In among it all, we’ve both been doing our own solo things — Aidan’s been doing loads of cassettes, I’ve just been doing collaborations and I’ll think about doing a Human Don’t Be Angry record and another solo record this year