Hopefully, 2021 will be the year your social life makes a thrilling comeback. But if that has to be on hold for longer, so be it. However, this year is definitely the year of the comeback for Arab Strap. The duo have wowed fans with reunion shows, but it’s on their new album, As Days Get Dark, that Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton fully re-emerge.
SNACK caught up with Aidan, over the phone and sadly not over a pint, to discuss the new album, satire, comedy, and the modern tragedy that is dealing with the pandemic.
‘The Turning Of Our Bones’ was a fantastic comeback song – it really stood out on release. Were you confident with that being the comeback track, and how did you feel about the reaction?
That was the first song we did a proper demo of. It was pretty much together mid-2018. There was a full demo because the way technology is advancing, you can do a lot more at home. That was the starting point of the album, and we’re fond of that song; it was what we wanted to achieve. It was Arab Strap, but a different kind of Arab Strap.
It gave us the confidence to go ahead with the album. I must have listened to the demo hundreds of times. We went over and over it to get it right, and when it came out, people responded to it exactly how we wanted. It was great.
The feedback from people I know has been great, even from people who I never knew listened to Arab Strap.
We’ve found new ears. We were on Radio 2. Jo Whiley was playing us, and I did an interview with her, and when it happened, we thought, ‘Have we fucked this up, are we a Radio 2 band now? Maybe we’re too old for this.’ I listen to 6Music, and Radio 4 sometimes, but usually on the Sounds app. That’s the way things are going these days.
The thing is, radio is still vital in helping people find bands, although people not being in offices like they used to might impact that.
Radio is still really valuable. I don’t use streaming, I don’t like it, I try not to support it, for obvious reasons. I think people are more aware of the terrible fees we get offered. Even when I have used it, those algorithms are bullshit. I have never, never found anything I like because a computer told me. I don’t understand it all, so yeah, radio is really important for bands.
You raise the point on ‘A Clockwork Day’. The overwhelming abundance of content: is it eventually going to put a lot of people off?
I think it already is. I struggle with it as well, I’m one of the people who stick Netflix on and then spend 40 minutes trying to find something to watch, and then it’s too late, and I need to go to bed. It’s all so overwhelming now. We got Disney+ as we wanted to watch The Mandalorian, and I like that one, because compared to the other ones, there isn’t too much on it. You put it on and it’s quite quick to find something, especially for the kids. Stick on The Incredibles or Toy Story. But Amazon or Netflix, they’re terrifying.
When I grew up, there were three TV stations! It was good culturally as the entire nation was experiencing the same things. Obviously, the internet has fractured culture now, and everyone is into their tribes and fighting. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, everyone was watching the same shit. Everyone was part of the same cultural community. Even something like Top of The Pops. Since that’s gone, everything has broken up into wee factions.
It’s great that people are making music and getting it out there, but at the same time, a larger community, in a cultural sense, is missing. Music is my job, so I am quite active in finding stuff. There are websites I go to, and I read reviews in magazines, I’m active, but if you’re the sort of person who expects music to find you, you will have been fucked for the past year.
‘Kebabylon’ – Are you looking for sponsorship or an endorsement deal?
I’ve always wanted to get ‘Kebabylon’ into a song somehow. There are a few takeaways called that, but recently I’ve seen a few people use it to describe the aftermath of a weekend. It fits perfectly with the song I wanted to write.
I was reading a book about nightlife in London, and what happens after 3am. There was a brilliant bit about the street sweepers, and all the things they find. They were saying, ‘we keep your secrets, we find the things you don’t want to take home’. I thought that was brilliant. The idea of these street sweepers, who people often don’t see, the people who get paid less. But here they are as the guardian angels.
There’s been a re-appraisal of people and roles in the past year, and people are realising how important so many of the seemingly smaller roles are for everyday life.
Yeah, definitely, aye. I used to work in a record shop once, it was the only job I had when I was young, and see having a shop now, and you see customers not wearing a mask! There are signs on the doors, and the staff are in the shop, however many hours a day, having to deal with that. That really infuriates me.
Whether or not you have a political chip on your shoulder, they have asked you to do it, it’s for their safety. They are risking their life to sell you fags, you know what I mean?
‘Tears On Tour’ – Do you feel at times what you do is the opposite of being a comedian?
See that wee spoken word bit in the song, it did end with the line ‘in a sense that’s what I became’ but we decided it was too on the nose, so we took it out. Maybe [that was true] more in the past than now. The way Arab Strap developed, we’re pretty much just playing the big songs and the ones you can dance to these days. I think that’s what people want to see and hear anyway. The sad songs are for the house; if you’re doing a gig, you want people to have fun. It’s a very different thing, listening to a record and being at a gig.
The album features the line ‘Fuck off back to Foxland’. I’m no great political observer, but it’s not really about foxes is it?
No, well, funnily enough, no! I love foxes. I live near Hampden, and there’s that bit of ground at the car park, and there’s foxes living there. I used to see them on the way to Asda. I just realised I didn’t know a lot about foxes, so I bought a book to educate myself. There’s two chapters about foxes leaving the countryside as they were getting murdered, and it was getting harder for them to stay settled there. So they came into town, and they were demonised by the press.
It was the exact same way the press demonised refugees. Exactly the same tactics. There was one event where a fox bit a child, it made its way into a house and bit a toddler. Which happened, the toddler was fine but because that one fox did it, all foxes were bad. Suddenly, every single one of them had to get out of the town and sadly, that’s been the opinion of a lot of folk in the UK in recent years. Again, I think it comes back to the internet. Social media has given a voice to people who frankly aren’t qualified to have opinions.
Did you see that guy going around Govanhill? He was taking a picture, someone had dumped rubbish outside their flat, and he said, ‘if you’ve been to Romania, you will know this is part of their culture’. I’ve been to Romania, is it fuck. I was in Bucharest not too long ago and it wasn’t any dirtier than Glasgow, let me tell you that. It also had some of the most beautiful countryside. We went to some stunning castles, including Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, it was gorgeous.
He’s never been to Romania; he’s just making that up. You get to a point when everyone can upload and broadcast, but 80% of those broadcasting aren’t qualified to talk about it. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
There’s a terrible need for supposed balance too, isn’t there?
Balance isn’t asking what an idiot thinks. It’s like the environment, if you try to find balance in the environment issue, you can’t find a single scientist. If you’ve got someone sitting there saying the environment is in a dire situation, they never get a scientist to argue against it, it’s always a politician. Someone getting paid by the oil companies.
The stories on ‘Here Comes Comus!’ and ‘I Was Once A Weak Man’: are they based on real people, or an amalgamation?
Yes and no. Comus is the Greek God of Nocturnal Excess. Basically, a good excuse to blame someone else for bad behaviour. That’s probably about me. I’ve not been out in a while, and even when I was out, I was certainly nowhere near as lugubrious, I’m calmer these days.
At my peak, Comus came to me a lot, around about midnight. That said, I’m still the person who cannot go home. If I’m out, I’m always the person begging folk to stay out. Which isn’t a criticism of my home, once I’m in the zone, after three fucking pints, I’m out. I don’t agree with people who can go out for just the one.
If I’ve put trousers on, I’m out for a while.
Aye, if you’ve gone to the effort, you’re staying out. It’s very moreish, that lager stuff.
With ‘I Was Once A Weak Man’, I need to ask, what’s your favourite Carry On line?
You’re the first person who has picked up on that, thank you. Nobody has mentioned that as a Carry On punchline yet, well done. I’ve explained it to so many people, and they’ve not got it, but then again, many of them are quite young. That is my favourite line. I grew up with Carry On films – they were always on the telly in the 70s. I’ve a real fondness for them.
They were often denigrated as pathetic and sexist, but I don’t think they’re like that at all. When they came out, it was very rare for women in films to have libidos. Women in Carry On films want to have sex, and you didn’t see that anywhere else. Hollywood films didn’t do that. And it’s a class thing as well. Virtually all of the Carry On films were about the working classes revolting against their paymasters.
It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that I’m a big Sid James man. Kenneth [Williams] and Hattie [Jacques] got the best lines, but it’s funny the way everybody talks about Sid. All the women who worked on the films loved him. In the films, he was lecherous and annoying, but no-one’s got a bad word to say about Sid James, it’s amazing.
Should bands split up to allow themselves to appraise what they do – can you properly assess yourself while being in a working band?
It certainly helped us. At the time we split up, we felt we didn’t have anywhere else to go. If we hadn’t split up, we could have got another album, maybe another tour, and then just faded out, and that would have been it. Also, we were both working on our own stuff, and I don’t believe in side projects. I don’t do side projects; everything gets the same amount of care and love. I’ve always hated that term.
That was a problem, if we kept going, everything we do would still have been a side project; it gave us space to do our own stuff, and learn new things. When we came back to it in 2016, we were both surprised at how much we enjoyed the old records. I hadn’t listened to them, I don’t really listen to my old records – once it’s out, it’s out. It was good, and we started to understand why people like us. You don’t think about that when you’re in a band, you just try and enjoy it.
The stuff we chose for the set, and the compilation, it gravitated naturally to more electronic stuff. I think that’s why the new album sounds the way it does, that influenced the sound of the new one. I think with the gigs…who wants to go to a festival and listen to sad songs about a girlfriend I had 20 years ago? If you’re coming to a festival, you want to have a good time, so we’ll play the fast ones.
You were involved in the Whole Lotta Roadies project – was that good to be part of?
It was a brilliant idea. Rod [Jones, from Idlewild] did a great job there. Obviously, it’s hard for musicians right now, but there’s a whole system of workers that are deeply affected by it, and it’s harder for them. They don’t have records out to make the little money you make from music these days. There are so many people I know; our regular sound man had to get a job for a wee while. The thing is, he got a job in a pub and then a month later, the pub fucking shut! Aye, it must be really hard for them, so Rob did a great job.
There’s going to be a lot of bittersweet moments when we move forward, isn’t there?
I have to wonder on that. I go through phases of thinking, I really want to go to the pub, and then on the other hand… My brother moved during lockdown, but before it all kicked off last year, he was living round the corner. Every Monday night, we would go out for a pint, and it was great. It wasn’t about going out and getting pished; it was a quiet night. But now, I feel kind of scared about the whole thing. On the one hand, I can’t wait to go back out and sit in a pub, but it’s been so long now. I’m also scared it’s going to be fucking mental. See when Glasgow opens, Jesus Christ, it’ll be insane.
I think it’ll be hard to get back into the rhythm of it. It’s not as easy as just going out. A lot of stuff has happened to everyone psychologically. We might not notice it, but it’s there. The way we live our lives has completely changed in the past year.
We’ve got a tour booked for September, and I think that’s the edge of possibility, right now. It’s one thing we’re looking forward to. Ironically, it’s a good time to put out a record right now. People are at home, and I think people have readdressed the value of recordings. They are more engaged with recorded music.
Obviously, we should be out on tour, we should be playing a gig next week. It’s definitely the one thing we are looking forward to. There’s a couple of songs we never finished on the album that we might put out at some point, just for fun and to keep it going. Who knows what will happen in the next year? We aren’t concentrating on doing anything new just now, we’ll get the gigs done, and hopefully next year, do some more, do some festivals, play Europe, and other places. Fingers crossed. That’s the dream right now.
We’ll continue. If it turns out it’s all postponed or cancelled again, we’ll just make another record, and we’ll have plenty of new songs to play. That said, I’ll be in my 50s by then!
When you started the band, did you think you’d still be in Arab Strap in your 50s?
When we started, I didn’t expect it to last more than a year. All I wanted was a Peel Session, and our first ever gig was recorded live on John Peel. We were like, where the fuck do we go from here? I’m very lucky at this point in life. 25 years making a living from music. I really feel for younger bands, especially in the past year. They must be really struggling. Young bands can’t live on music, and they have other jobs, so now they’ve lost the music income and if they’re working in bars, they’ve lost that too.
I hope people aren’t put off making music because of the situation. I’m hoping there will be a surge of amazing music coming out, that people are working on right now.
Not that I’d like to hunt for a positive from a pandemic, but that could be something?
There is one positive. People realise the value of recorded music. The Government is talking in Parliament about Spotify payments, so for music, that is one small positive. But of course, it in no way outweighs the negatives.
Arab Strap will play Glasgow Barrowlands on 10th September (Sold out)
Main image courtesy of Paul Savage
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