Interview: Arab Strap

In a fitting tale of pseudo-resurrection, this month saw the cultishly beloved Scottish duo Arab Strap release their first album in sixteen years, As Days Get Dark. As the duo traverses a new socio-sonic domain, Louis Griffin talked transformation and digital alienation with lyricist Aidan Moffat.

Aidan Moffat is talking to me from Glasgow, where it’s been snowing for the past few days. “It’s lovely and white just now, but it looks like it’s on the way out – I can see some grey slush out of the window” he sighs. It’s fitting, really, considering that Moffat has made a career out of documenting grey areas. He’s been making dark, contemplative indie since 1995 in Arab Strap, a project with multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton: Middleton provides pensive guitars and clattering drum machines, Moffat unflinching introspection and gallows humour. The duo have returned after recording their first album in sixteen years, As Days Get Dark, and although it’s a welcome return, I can’t help but wonder – why now?

“Well, we reformed in 2016 to do some anniversary shows, and that was the start of it,” Moffat explains. “We realised how much we enjoyed playing the older songs, but also, by the time we got to the end of it, we just felt that if we wanted to keep playing, it would be good to have something new to do. We didn’t want to be one of those bands who just go out and play the old songs.” It’s intriguing, then, now that they’ve returned, that Arab Strap sound as current as ever. The new singles have been playlisted alongside tracks from the post-punk revival that’s going on, but they seem completely at home. Indeed, a quote from Moffat appears on the press release for Black Country, New Road; “they’re a bit like the fantasy band I had in my head when I was young.” So, has the zeitgeist caught up with Arab Strap all these years later? “I’m not sure!” Moffat laughs. “I mean, everything comes round again, it’s difficult to know. I think the truth is, I’ve just lived long enough to see the 90s come back! I think it might be that simple.”

“I’d always wonder – wouldn’t it be good to sit onstage and tell really sad stories, and have a communal cry?”

For any band, news of a reunion after the best part of two decades is sure to instil fans with a certain amount of caution. After all, as Moffat himself says, there’s a tendency to just shut up and play the hits. But As Days Get Dark isn’t a nostalgia trip at all. Instead, Arab Strap have managed to turn out eleven of their leanest tracks, material that can sit proudly amongst the best in their canon. How did they manage to retain that urgency? What was different this time round? “Well there was no point in making a record that sounded like 1996!” Moffat chuckles. “The biggest change is probably that there’s more electronic parts, more keyboards and drum machines than we’d usually have. We did do some songs with live drums, but I don’t think any of them ended up on the record” he explains. “We focused on that stuff because when we reformed to do the gigs, we also did a compilation for [record label] Chekical Underground, and chose our ten favourite songs from stuff they put out. What we found was the things that we really enjoyed were the more electronic-based ones; the things that sounded the best were experimenting more with electronic sounds and acoustic guitars, and trying to bring them together to make songs.”

Dichotomies like that lie at the centre of Arab Strap’s appeal. They somehow manage to square caustic beats and slender ballads, heart-on-sleeve lyricism and wry comedy. Track six, Tears On Tour, finds Aidan revisiting his emotional low points during the band’s career, before segueing into an appraisal of his stage presence: “the opposite of comedian, that’s what I wanted to be”. He pictures himself and the audience partaking in a communal weeping session – with cotton handkerchiefs embroidered with tour dates as merchandise. Jokes aside, there has always been something of a stand-up in Aidan’s delivery, his willingness to self-deprecate. “That’s true. When I was a teenager in the 80s, alternative comedy was really thriving. Then in the 90s it was all fucking Loaded and GQ, all that bullshit, and men didn’t really talk about their feelings. I’d always wonder – wouldn’t it be good to sit onstage and tell really sad stories, and have a communal cry?” In fact, he feels that if anything, the analog of a comedian is a touch too on-the-nose. “[Tears on Tour] originally ended with me saying ‘in a sense, that’s what I became’, but we thought that was just a step too much into the comedy realm.”

It’s hard not to pin Arab Strap’s power to this ability to retain the undercurrent of satire throughout their music, always one step removed from their subject matter. But Aidan insists he was just as compromised as the characters in his songs. “The other side is, of course, I was actually living the same lifestyle. It was very much a have your cake and eat it situation; I was enjoying the nightlife and having a brilliant time, I was just a bit more reflective and honest when the sun came up.” Indeed, even when his lyrics examine the most repulsive facets of society, he’s always careful to humanise rather than condemn. “I’m perfectly guilty of everything that happens in the songs,” he tells me. “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but these things happen to everyone. I’ve never really wanted to write a song that’s pious, I’m not interested in telling people how to think, I’ve always wanted to just give people the information, and they can make up their own minds. It’s the same with the old songs as well, I was always the worst person. I basically made a career out of telling everybody I was a dick!”

In that sense, Arab Strap are distinctly out of step with the prevailing logic in the music world. Increasingly, the most lauded bands are moral crusaders, and the landscape is more politicised than ever. I wonder what Moffat makes of it all – if Arab Strap were starting today, their caustic honesty may well have gotten them cancelled. “It is troublesome, but I’ve been guilty of tribalism too in the past. I try not to get involved in that side of political argument now. It is a problem, where we have to decide if someone is good or bad, because it’s ridiculous – anyone who claims to be wholly good or wholly bad is either insane or a liar. It’s the absolute confusion of being a human.”

‘His tales of social media alienation and social paranoia hit home after a year spent communicating exclusively via the internet.’

Arab Strap have done that rarest of things: they’ve somehow managed to become more relevant than ever, upon the release of their seventh album. Aidan Moffat is still turning his gaze towards those isolated few on the edges of society, but over the past year, it’s become increasingly clear that that’s all of us now. His tales of social media alienation and social paranoia hit home after a year spent communicating exclusively via the internet. It would seem that Arab Strap are more essential than ever.

Written by: Louis Griffin

Edited by: Olivia Stock

Featured image courtesy of Arab Strap via Facebook.