Arab Strap
Photo: Courtesy of Chemikal Underground

In Conversation With Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat

Taking a break from the pleasures of domesticity and enforced confinement, the ever-charming and loquacious Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap speaks with PopMatters of matters large and small, past and present.

Arab Strap
As Days Get Dark
Rock Action
5 March 2020

Half a decade on from their reunion gigs in 2016-2017, a full decade-and-a-half after their farewell shows in 2006, Arab Strap have readied their seventh album: As Days Get Dark. It’s been a thrill to find that neither Aidan Moffat nor Malcolm Middleton would grace a record with the Arab Strap moniker unless it lived up to the exacted standards they set for themselves. It’s also pleasing to hear that — COVID willing — there are already plans for a follow-up EP to accompany touring plans set for later in the year (with the same tour booked again as a backup in spring 2022.) Taking a break from the pleasures of domesticity and enforced confinement, the ever-charming and loquacious Mr. Moffat took time out to tell PopMatters of matters large and small, past and present.

It’s amazing how many excellent bands were coming out of Scotland in the mid-’90s. Did you appreciate the sense of community and is it something you still feel?

In the ’90s, there was a strong focus on Scotland and Scottish culture, though a lot of people thought it was just junkies and stabbings — a lot of people still do! I moved to Glasgow in 1999, and I’m very fond of the music scene. It’s very supportive. Now there’s a lot more mini-scenes and cult-scenes, but there’s a lot more music too. It’s great to live in a city that has spaces to nourish that kind of thing.

I underappreciated how much Arab Strap did across 11 years: you had at least one album out every two years, a ton of great B-Sides, plus a lot of solo stuff…Did it feel pretty intense?

Well, we did have a break in 2001. I’d just split up with a girlfriend — the girl on the front of Philophobia was my girlfriend for years — then we canceled an American tour, so we took a year off. I say that, but we were still writing stuff. I had a fucking brilliant time, quite frankly! I found myself in a lovely wee flat in the west end of Glasgow, the perfect bachelor pad, so I had a year or two of having a brilliant time, and that’s what led to Monday At the Hug and Pint. I think a lot of the songs were written on a Monday morning when I’d just gotten back in after a weekend out. I think you can tell!

Making The Last Romance in 2005 felt more like a job, a necessity. Everything we did after we split up, if we were still together, it would always be a side-project to some people, and that got quite frustrating because neither of us considers anything a side-project, everything gets the same attention and care. We both felt we had stuff to do on our own and the only way to do it properly and have it assessed fairly was to break up Arab Strap.

I’ve seen compilations like Angry Buddhists, or Malcolm’s A Quarter Past Shite, and hadn’t realised how much you wrote even as teenagers. When did it start to feel like a future?

I didn’t have a good time at school, I made it to the sixth year, but they asked me to leave. So I got a job in a record shop in Falkirk and the first thing I bought with any money I made was a drumkit and I learned to play them — very badly. I started making silly tapes with different musicians and on my own. The first album (The Week Never Starts Around Here) felt like a bit of a novelty and it never felt like it was going to be a career option until Philophobia came out.

To me, your portrayal of the confusion that is love, it’s always felt very much how it is to be a young man. Have you ever been surprised that people are shocked by your lyrics?

I think it comes down to escape. A lot of people use music to escape reality and the nitty-gritty of life, so when you start talking about something overly intimate, people tend to shy away from that. I’ve never been scared of the human body. Nothing fazes me about nature, so it’s always been in my character to discuss these things. It might also be an influence from when I was a teenager growing up: the AIDS epidemic started, and people were encouraged to talk about sex in school…Though it also meant I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 18 because I was terrified! Shagging would actually kill you! We only kept the name Arab Strap because we couldn’t think of anything better, but then, strangely, it became very apt that the band was named after a device that keeps you erect…

And here you are, a quarter decade into a life in music, what keeps pushing you forward?

If I’m making something new, I’m more worried than I used to be because I’m conscious of being nearly 50. I reckon that’s half my life is gone and my life expectancy. I reckon it’s around the 70 mark, so there’s not an awful lot of time left. I do feel I have to get things done a lot quicker. Many people will tell you music is a young person’s game, and I’m worried that maybe I’m writing complete shit. So far, there’s nothing I’m particularly embarrassed about, but it must be in the pipeline — everyone has to make a mistake!

I’ve become pretty nocturnal because my partner’s at home. She’s very much a morning person, so she can get the kids up, but as they’re here all day, there’s no silence, it’s impossible to record or concentrate on writing, so I find myself writing at night. I find myself getting to two in the morning, and I’ll think, “oh, I’ll watch a film and have a beer!” and next thing I know, it’s six o’clock, and I’m just getting to bed.

There’s certainly a night-time vibe to As Days Get Dark

I don’t start out with a concept. On As Days Get Dark I found myself writing about a sense of desperation, the things people turn to when they need help — it’s usually at night. That desperation and secrecy became the theme and I started to concentrate on it and look for ideas that were based in the night-time. “Kebabylon” for instance was inspired by a chapter in a book about London at night-time. It was about the street cleaners who look after us when we’re all safe in our beds, like this guardian angel that hides all your secrets.

There are always seven or eight songs everyone agrees on, then you argue about the rest. I was never quite sure about “Here Comes Comus!” but you have to trust someone else’s instinct and I grew to really like it. Making the music was very peaceful, the only thing we argued about was the eventual running order and tracklisting. Malcolm and I, we won’t argue for ages, so we let it build up, then there’ll be one big burst and then we’ll be all right again.

Could you describe your working process as a duo?

I tend not to write until I’ve got the music because I don’t write without a melody in mind and I don’t sit and write poems for use later. Usually, Malcolm’ll send me a guitar piece and I’ll respond and write words inspired by the melodies. Then we take it from there and let it happen organically. I’ll add drums and samples, Malcolm adds basslines and piano parts, etcetera. I had a day of drumming but we ended up only keeping live drums on one song, all the rest was scrapped, so it was a pretty wasted day in that respect! It sounded a bit too indie rock so I replaced them with a drum machine.

When we did the gigs in 2016 the songs that we chose tended to be all the ones with electronic elements so I think that influenced the sound of this album. Also, knowing we have a brilliant band who can play all these things, that helped us be more confident because we know they can pull it off live. That was a big thing years ago, we’d have these ambitious sounds in the studio but there was no way to recreate it on stage.

Are you particularly strict with what invited musicians do within your compositions?

I’m always quite happy to let people do what they feel. It’s important that they’re happy with what they do as well. Jenny (Reeve) has been playing with us for 20 years — she’s someone we know and trust. So when we played “Here We Go” in 2016, there isn’t a string part, so she just got some pedals out and it sounded great! We never questioned her. It’s great to have people you trust to do whatever they want.

Your film Where You’re Meant to Be, explored the Scottish folk tradition and I wondered whether you started to see connections to your work?

People used to say Arab Strap had a folk element. Looking into folk and singing the songs, I understand that it’s something in our blood, that storytelling is a big part of Scottish culture. And it’s about the language as much as the story, about preserving that kind of thing. So, I suppose I must be connected but that isn’t for me to decide, that’s for history. I just keep going. I really like to keep busy and I’m very bad at saying no.

Last year, sitting about the house bored because we couldn’t do any gigs, I made three albums, started a cassette label to release them, and we did the Arab Strap Archives for Bandcamp — that was great! Including the archives, I think I released about 20 albums! I don’t like sitting about with nothing to do. Especially these days, working on music keeps me sane and focused. If I didn’t have that I’d go mental I’m sure!