We’re not at the stage where we can look for the positives of the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s fair to say Arab Strap fans have had reason to cheer. With Bandcamp waiving their fees on certain days, incentivising artists to release new material, it’s been a busy time for music fans. It’s also been a suitable time to unveil archive recordings, and the Falkirk duo has given us 20 new releases to enjoy.
We caught up with Aidan Moffat, from a safe social-distance, to hear about the archives, how he is dealing with lockdown, and where we all go next.
Obvious question to start with, but how are you doing at the moment?
I’m doing pretty well, thanks – I’ve been working from home for over twenty years now, so there’s not been that much upheaval for me, other than the social aspect and having my children at home, of course. I miss a visit to the pub, certainly, but I’m probably enjoying more walks now than I ever did. I’m just happy we’re all okay, and thankfully I don’t know anyone who’s been struck hard.
The most frustrating thing is the lack of knowledge and testing – I had a 24-hour illness that felt exactly like the bad chest infection I had last year, and I thought my time had come. When it had all but gone a day later, though, I dismissed it as nothing, until I read a blog by someone who’d tested positive and his mild symptoms echoed mine exactly.
So I don’t know what to think, and it’s disgraceful we’re so far behind on testing, and we now have the worst death toll in Europe, and so much of that has been in care homes too … to be honest, I spend a lot of the day being really angry. Our response to the pandemic looks set to be one of the world’s worst.
When did you first think about releasing the Arab Strap archive?
We’ve been meaning to do it for years, at least since we got back together for gigs in 2016. We’ve both got boxes full of old, unmarked CD-Rs and tapes, so when we had to cancel our work plans when the lockdown started, we finally jumped into it.
It was really good fun, too – I know nostalgia is often seen as something cheap and lazy, but in times of stress it’s very helpful. Some psychologists suggest it as a treatment for depression – it helps to know that today is only temporary. So, I think it’s been helping me make sense of the situation; I’ve been finding myself re-watching lots of comfort TV too, like Alan Partridge and Toast of London. I know these shows inside out, but I think I need them more than ever right now. That said, having listened to nothing but that Arab Strap archive material for four weeks, I never want to hear it again!
Has there been any release or live show that has taken you by surprise?
Lots of them! There are loads of alternate live versions of songs that I’d completely forgotten about ever playing, like a quiet, acoustic version of Turbulence in Melbourne, and a full-band version of Meanwhile at the Bar that I think we might’ve only played once or twice. The best find was the early version of Shy Retirer, which we thought we’d lost forever in a studio back-up drive disaster (although thankfully it’s not as good the one we released in 2003).
Is there anything else in the vaults you can release later?
There are a few things we can hopefully put together over the year as we go, yes, and we’re still searching for more (in fact, if anyone reading this thinks they might have something of note, please get in touch on Twitter).
There are quite a few of our early demos still missing, for instance, and I’m absolutely certain I put them somewhere so safe that I can’t even find it myself. Hopefully they’ll turn up one day soon, but I’ve searched everywhere. My last resort is my father-in-common-law’s garage, but that’s down in Somerset, so it’ll be a while before I get a chance to look.
What band or artist would you love to see release their archives on Bandcamp?
God, I’ve no idea. The thing is, we live in a digital age of limited-edition boxsets and bonus tracks and outtakes, so I think it’s quite likely that I’ve heard just about everything I ever wanted to. For instance, I just realised that I’ve never heard any Talking Heads demos, so I googled it, and their first ever recordings as a three-piece are on YouTube. At least that’s tonight’s entertainment sorted!
Are you able to write / plan your next musical move during the lockdown?
I’ve still been writing and recording stuff at home, yes – in fact I’ve been really busy, it helps keep me sane – but when and how any of it comes out is all still up in the air. I’ve been having a chat with labels and music friends today, and it’s really hard to plan anything when we don’t know how long the venues will be closed. Realistically, I think it’s unlikely that mass live events will be allowed to happen until we’re all vaccinated, and that’s at least a year away, probably more.
Is the lockdown making you question how you will work in the future, or is it too early to say?
The music industry learned a while ago that it’s never too early to think about the future, and we all want to be prepared for what’s coming. As I say, the last thing to return to normality is going to be gigs, so in the meantime we’ll have to make money in other ways, because, as you know, gigs were the vast majority of our income. That could mean live-streaming shows and selling merch etc., but ultimately, I think we’re all going to have to address how music is delivered to the consumer and how much we value it.
Is this the time for artists to call for more support in making streaming sites pay more?
It’s certainly highlighted the issue, yes, but we’ve been saying that for years now and nobody’s listening, in fact Spotify have actually been trying to reduce their royalty rate in the past couple of years. We also set up the Spotify COVID-19 Donation button thing on the Arab Strap artist page, more out of curiosity than anything, and so far we haven’t received a single penny – but people who pay for streaming can’t be expected to pay more when they’re also being told they’re paying enough.
Spotify’s undoubtedly a great tool for the consumer, and it’s useful for musicians and selling tickets too – that’s how we tend to justify the tiny payment rates, because at least those people who are streaming will maybe buy tickets, and in some cases records too.
And it’s true, it works – on my last few tours with RM Hubbert, there were much more folk coming to see us than there were buying albums, which is great. But when you don’t have a tour to promote, it’s harder to find a reason to let people access your music for next to nothing, and I think a lot of musicians will be rethinking their approach to streaming this year. Hopefully it may lead to at least some slight reversal of the situation, and listeners will begin to value recordings again while there aren’t any gigs to go to.
I can see a future where Spotify is the platform for pop acts and its major label shareholders, while the independent labels will all be on Bandcamp and in record shops, which I think could work well for everyone.
Are you the sort of person who spends a lot of time looking back on your past albums and work?
No, not at all, I don’t listen to any old material unless it’s for reference or approval. Indeed, I doubt this archive would’ve happened at all without the lockdown in place, we were always good at finding excuses not to do it. But as I said above, I think it’s been a bit of a coping mechanism, and it turned out to be good fun too.
What is getting you through the current situation, and would you offer any advice to help others?
Besides working on the archive, working in general has been a good tonic, but I’m lucky that I have a job that’s a bit of an escape in that way – not everyone feels like this, but making music for me is a way of winding down. I think doing something creative can certainly help be a distraction, but then again there’s nothing wrong with lying in bed with Netflix on all day, if that’s what gets you through.
I’m not really one for handing out advice, except to say be good to yourself, stay safe, and I’ll see you in the pub as soon as they turn the taps back on.