Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"The bad things"

I'm currently in the process of writing a chapter for an edited collection on the music of 2007. In the course of researching around my topic - Malcolm Middleton's attempt to score a Christmas #1 with 'We're All Going To Die' - I came across an interview I did with Middleton and his Arab Strap partner-in-crime Aidan Moffat for the student magazine Impact, when the pair pitched up in Nottingham in early May 2001 while touring their fourth album The Red Thread. As interviewees, they proved to be great value. What follows is the article as it originally appeared in print (I've managed to resist editing any of the bits that, on reflection, make me cringe...).

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Everyone knows an Aidan Moffat.  In the pub he’s the scruffy one sat in the corner with the piss-stain on his trousers and glazed expression in his eyes, swaying from side to side, transfixed by the dregs of his pint, slurring and mumbling through saliva-flecked lips and a matted beard something about wanting to fuck his ex. There are hundreds, thousands of Aidan Moffats. What sets THE Aidan Moffat apart is that he makes a living from singing about it.

As one half of Falkirk miserabilists Arab Strap (the other being multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton), Aidan is the consummate drunken raconteur. In fact, he’s drunk right now. “I embrace women and alcohol with equal love”, he claims, while thoughtfully bending his “girlfriend”, a pliant doll called Christy, into a semi-erotic pose. “The only nemesis I have is myself. I’m a penis.

Named after a sex aid, Arab Strap are nothing if not frank. Quite probably the only band to open an album with the line “It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen”, the duo released two albums on the Delgados’ Chemikal Underground imprint before an ill-fated move to Go! Beat for 1999’s Elephant Shoe LP. I ask why things didn’t work out. “Because”, spits Aidan, “they’re a shower of cunts and have no respect for our opinions, our audience’s opinions or people who buy our records’ opinions or independent shops’ opinions.” It was not an amicable split. “If Chemikal Underground hadn’t taken us back then we would have probably done something different and split up”, admits Malcolm.

The fruit of the group’s return to their spiritual home is The Red Thread. A typically dark and claustrophobically personal album, even the moderately upbeat single 'Love Detective' is soured by Aidan’s lyrical tale of finding a book in which his girlfriend has catalogued her sexual infidelities in explicit detail. His enthusiasm for their most musically accomplished record to date is palpable: “'Turbulence' is one of the best things I’ve ever written. That and 'Haunt Me' are the two best things we’ve ever done.” Malcolm adds, “Now we’re back on Chemikal, they’re saying we’re not allowed to do any pop songs and we’re not allowed to do anything remotely commercial.” He’s joking.

Even still, it’s hard to imagine these two dishevelled sex-obsessed pessimists jostling with Geri, Britney and Robbie for chart places. “Actually I’d say I’m a complete optimist which is why I sing about misery in my songs”, Aidan ventures, “I’m quite an optimistic laddie, I’m a positive guy. I just only choose to write about the bad things. I don’t like hearing songs about being happy. It’s quite boring, not half as interesting as the dirt.” And oh how they love the dirt. Arab Strap songs are Jarvis Cocker’s bedroom vignettes reinterpreted by the Marquis de Sade, a litany of meaningless sex, boredom, post-pub pissed-up fumblings, semen-encrusted bedclothes and dead-in-the-water relationships so sordid that it makes you want to scrub yourself until you bleed. And all of it brutally, unflinchingly frank. “We’ve got a great affinity with Gladys Knight & The Pips”, says Aidan, absolutely deadpan.

And yet, when you least expect it, there’ll be a moment of touching, tender recognition or the blackest, driest humour: “I know we’re a couple now”, Aidan drawls on 'Afterwards', “’cause we went down the Family Planning”. The singer shrugs. “I don’t think I’m genuinely bitter. I just like to document the way humans react with each other.” Generally between the sheets, it seems. Most of Aidan’s ex-girlfriends have had the dubious honour of being immortalised in an Arab Strap song. “It’s easier to write about birds than write about yourself”, he admits. Aren’t the women they meet hesitant about getting in any kind of relationship in case they wind up as yet more lyrical fodder? “They are here, but in America it’s not a problem”, says Aidan. Malcolm smiles: “In America it’s the opposite, people want to get involved.” Aidan’s eyes momentarily glaze over. “That lassie in Toronto was lovely, fucking lovely.” Touring, incidentally, is described as a “pleasurable chore”.

Even after four albums it seems Aidan’s well of depravity has still not run dry. Witness 'Infrared'’s post-coital refrain: “At least we know we’re fuckable / At least we’re sated and we’re tired / At least the bedroom stinks / And we know we’re desired”. Isn’t there a danger that one day he won’t have any more bad sex, any more drunken trysts to confess to? “I’m actually quite worried about that. There’s a possibility of me being very happy in the future and having a girlfriend I get on with and like, so that might be a problem.” No wonder Arab Strap called their second album Philophobia, the fear of falling in love. Happiness could spell the end of their musical career. At the moment, it’s hanging by a Red Thread.

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As it turned out, they lasted for another two albums (2003's Monday At The Hug & Pint and 2005's The Last Romance, both of which I should really own) before going their separate ways.

Incidentally, this wasn't the only Impact article I discovered I still have in electronic form - I might be tempted to stick the others up on the site over the next few weeks...

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