A Quietus Field Trip With Aidan Moffat, UFO Hunter
, September 22nd, 2011 07:23
Nicola Meighan takes "swashbuckling cult-pop autodidact" Aidan Moffat for a stroll around his childhood home in search of ET, but ends up discussing his past, and sense of place, family and death
Here's how I remember it.
We went to look for UFOs. We travelled back to where he was born, and to where he grew up, and we looked at the sky.
Aidan Moffat was raised in the Bonnybridge Triangle – an area in Central Scotland that is frequented by aliens, according to legend. Earlier this year, Time magazine identified Falkirk and its surrounds as one of the world's greatest 'UFO Hotspots'. Yet despite an alleged third of the local populace having reported a sighting – and despite Moffat's repute as a cultural polymath of great vision – he has never seen a UFO.
I wanted to change that. I hoped we'd visit Scotland's flying saucer capital and find evidence of Martian life. A glowing orb, a cross made of stars. A crop circle maybe. But we did not. We found his tombstone.
And that is the end of the story.
Except that, when I listen back to the tape of the hours we spent basking in Ufology, I realise it is studded with unlikely stars and revelations. We wander through the places in which Moffat played as a child and immortalised in Arab Strap, and which colonise Everything's Getting Older, his sublime collaborative long-player with free jazz maverick Bill Wells. And all the while Moffat points out surprises: the one about his granddad and Hitler; his family connection to Laurence Olivier; his man-crush on Daniel Craig; the night that he got pissed with a ghost.
To Dennyloanhead, then – a popular UFO hot spot – to commence our astral observation.
Do you see anything?
Aidan Moffat: No. Do you?
AM: When I was born I stayed in a wee council flat just up that road. My mum told me this story recently – she says it's the only time she's ever hit me. She says I disappeared. I was three at the time. She had the whole fucking neighbourhood looking for me and I was missing for about an hour. She eventually found me waiting at the icy [ice cream van]. I didn't have any money! So she asked me what I'd been doing – and I like this story 'cause it sets a precedent – apparently I'd ran across the street and I was playing with the wee lassie across the road, and the lassie said she wanted a cone, so I'd gone to get her one. [Laughs] Apparently my mum screamed at me, slapped me round the back of the legs, and then bought me a cone. I don't remember any of it. She didn't tell me until about a year ago. And I was like – why have you never told me that before? It makes such perfect sense…
The Moffat and Wells album, Everything's Getting Older, is an exquisite, forceful body of work. It documents life, love, death, and the passing of time, and revolves around Moffat's own celestial obsession: he has an abiding love for the moon. And there she is now, above us, as ever.
AM: Do you want to hear a dark memory? Up that road somewhere, I'm convinced that I heard somebody jump out the window when I was a kid. Someone died. I was walking up there with my grandparents, and I heard this awfy, awfy sound. I'm not sure if it's true though, and no-one's alive to tell me now. And it didn't help that my papa was a bit of a fantasist – he'd tell me all these stories. Like the top of his finger was missing, and I honestly believed, until I was about 14, that I had bitten it off when I was a baby. It was actually some sort of work accident.
He also told me that he nearly killed Hitler. He told me that he was in the war, and he went right up behind Hitler with a dagger in his hand, and he was just about to get him right in the back, when some bugger shot him. And obviously, I had no desire to find out what actually happened to Hitler, so I was all, 'Woah, aye? That's amazing!' and told folk at school. It was only years later I realised my papa never really saw any combat – he was an engineer in the RAF. [Laughs]
UFO surveillance is an arduous pursuit. It requires patience; stamina. It is hungry work. We go in search of provisions.
AM: There used to be a good chip shop down there, next to the Scout hut that I only went to twice because they made me pick up fag ends in the street. Fuck off. That's the chip shop there – is it open? Aye it is – Christ, they've still got the same bloody windows...
The windows are yellow – no, they are brown – smeared by nicotine, grease and venetian blinds. There's a cracked Regal King Size clock on the wall. It has stopped. We acquire edibles; decamp to a bench in the in the middle of a junction called 'The Parting of the Ways'. Our chips are wrapped in pages of The Sun. Perhaps this is an inter-planetary portent.
AM: I saw The Sun the other day, I couldn't believe they still had Page Three – I didn't think that was allowed! I didn't expect to see that at all. My favourite word at the moment is 'up-skirt'. That's a belter. Candid up-skirts. [Shakes his head in disgust] Do you think you get up-kilts?
You should have an up-kilt shot on your next single cover.
AM: [Muses] A candid up-kilt shot... Hahaha, dearie me. Well as long as we could photo-shop it, or digitise it or something.
So as not to show off, you mean? So as not to make other men feel inferior?
AM: Definitely. [Clears throat] Oh aye.
Moffat's next release is the Cruel Summer EP, and again it's in gorgeous cahoots with Bill Wells. The title track strips off the sweltering dejection of Bananarama's greatest hit and re-styles it as a smouldering avant-jazz lament.
I love your take on 'Cruel Summer', but a cover of that Sting song might be more appropriate for these parts.
AM: [Sings] Oh aye, I'm an alien in Bonnybridge? [Laughs] There's not much chance of me ever covering a Sting song, to be honest with you.
Is that where you draw the line? You've done some ace cover versions: Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, INXS...
AM: I draw the line at Sting. I'd like to draw a line over Sting.
But you're okay with Katie Melua? [Moffat recently re-wired 'Nine Million Bicycles']
AM: I do like that song...
So it's Mike Batt's song you admire, rather than Katie Melua herself?
AM: Oh aye. Her version of it is hellish. I mean fuck sake, what's it got panpipes on it for? It's supposed to give it an Irish feel? It sounds like the fucking panpipes of the Andes.
Bill told me a story about your first single together, '(If You) Keep Me in Your Heart', from earlier this year – he said you changed the line about blood dripping from a useless womb because the label felt it was a bit too graphic. Have you made many other changes like that – or enforced any self-censorship – in the past?
AM: Nah, to be honest, that song was so old, I think it was just me trying to give it something new – to make it a wee bit grittier – I think I thought it was too nice. [Laughs] But they were right, the version you hear on the record is better. And I can't think of any other instance of me holding back.
You once told me your mum asked you not to use the word 'cunt' in your songs.
AM: Haha, aye, that's right – I don't know what it is about that, it's bizarre. Out of all the things in Arab Strap – all the drugs and shagging – the worst thing she can find is a swear word. I mean, it's not like everything just comes out. There's plenty of things I've never written about, and plenty of things I'll never say. But I can't stand that fucking attitude when folk call writers brave. You know? 'Oh, they're so brave.' Fuck off. Firemen are brave. Soldiers are brave. We are in perfect control of what we're doing. Nobody's sitting there going, 'Oh my God, it has to come out! I have to let that song out!' Everybody knows what they're fucking doing. It's nonsense. I'm perfectly in control of it. There's nothing bold about it at all. Nobody's a slave to their pen.
Moffat shakes his head and looks to the skies.
I am not sensing a lot of alien activity.
AM: Right - where's your book?
We consult our weighty research tome – Ron Halliday's UFO Scotland: The Secret History of Scotland's UFO Phenomenon. Moffat appraises some of the volume's local extra-terrestrial stars, including alien witness Bob Taylor ('he's got a pished look about him'), the Macpherson UFO ('that's a fucking frisbee') and the Solway Spaceman ('what the fuck is that? It looks like fucking Evel Knieval').
This chapter states that round these parts, UFOs tend to appear as a triangle, or a blue orb, or a cross. It says that in the mid-90s, Falkirk councillor Billy Buchanan recruited a UFO investigator and alien psychic called Malcolm Robinson, who concluded that Bonnybridge was a portal to another dimension.
AM: I crossed paths with Billy Buchanan. He was recording in the studio at the same time as we were. [Before Arab Strap] I was in this band called Bay – I played the drums quite badly in Bay - I have to say the other guy would've probably done a lot better if he'd just told me to fuck off – but anyway, we were in the studio, and Billy Buchanan was there, and it was like meeting a real fucking celebrity. This must have been 1993 or 1994, and he was always on the telly, talking about the UFOs. He even made a record, he made a single about aliens – I can't for the life of me remember what it was called but it was fucking shite.
I had a CD single of it actually. It says here that Councillor Buchanan brought a film crew over from Japan, and that he tried to secure financial backing for a 'giant glass mushroom-shaped visitor centre' to celebrate the area's UFO heritage. It'd probably have been built exactly where we're sitting now.
AM: Haha, aye! I still don't see anything. Do you?
No. But Buchanan reckoned that over a third of local residents had reported a sighting – he claimed there were two thousand spaceship witnesses from a population of five and a half thousand. That ratio suggests that someone in your family should have spotted a UFO. You said your granddad was a bit of a fantasist – was he not into life on other planets?
AM: I was a bit cruel with the fantasist thing about my granddad. He told a lot of truths as well. Like he was in the same regiment as Laurence Olivier – I've got photographic evidence of that. I get the feeling Olivier didn't really knock about with them that much though. I don't think anyone in my family has seen anything. I wish I had seen something. I'm sure there probably is some sort of other life out there. [Eyes up my can of juice] I should've got the Barr Bru instead of Diet Coke.
Check out my chip wrapper – it's got a picture of Pierce Brosnan on it.
AM: Do they still have James Bond on at Christmas?
I don't know. I lost interest in James Bond after Pierce Brosnan.
AM: Oh I like that Daniel Craig. I like that. He's a killing machine. You don't like Daniel Craig?
I just can't see past Pierce Brosnan. I actually met him once, and he followed me home, and he said he'd text me, and it took me until lunchtime the next day to realise that it wasn't true; that I'd dreamt the whole thing; that Pierce would never, ever text. I was devastated.
Moffat laughs like a drain, sizes me up along our park bench, and laughs again.
I know why you're laughing so hard – why in God's name did I think that a guy like that would be interested...?
AM: It's just the fact that you believed a dream. [Wipes his eyes] Actually, I think I did that one night – it was maybe 10 years ago. I was living on my own, and I used to go to Optimo all the time. One night I went out, and I came back, and I swore I'd been sitting talking to somebody all night back at my house. So the next day I was like that – 'who came home with me last night?' And everybody was saying, 'what the fuck are you talking about?' The weird thing was – I swear to fuck – there were two glasses. [Laughs] I was so fucking out of it I must've been pouring drinks for somebody that wasn't there…
Maybe it was an alien? Maybe it was an apparition.
AM: Maybe it was a dream, or maybe it was a ghost, I don't know – but in my mind I was sitting on the couch, drinking, with my arm round somebody...
Come on – let's have a look up here.
We pass Moffat's old school. Our swashbuckling cult-pop autodidact – poet, author, journalist, artist, singer and sexpert – pauses for thought.
AM: I always had a vision that I might get to walk back into school again and see what it was like. I thought maybe one day they'd welcome me back – give me all the exam qualifications that they never gave me… [Sighs] Ah, get it fucking up ye, ya pricks! [Laughs] Want to go and see the creepy graveyard?
To the Hills of Dunipace Cemetery, which is sited on slopes of mysterious origin. Some say its mounds are of glacial derivation; some say they are ancient burial chambers; some say they have navigational magnitude for extra-terrestrials.
AM: This might not be as scary as it used to be. They've tidied it up a bit. Look at this! [He starts to read out gravestone inscriptions]
Is that you getting inspiration for your headstone? Do you have an epitaph in mind?
AM: [He laughs and composes one on the spot] 'I miss you more each night and morn / and when I wake I've got the horn'. That'll do! Woah, and that's it – that gravestone there – that's the one I want. Is it wrong to take a picture of it? Because that is the best one I've ever seen. It's even written in fucking Helvetica. No fucking about, you know what I mean – so tasteful.
Moffat photographs his chosen tombstone – it's a minimalist black affair. I survey the heavens one last time: no aliens. I switch my gaze to our brilliant elucidator of birth, and sex, and love, and death. Below him are yesterday's bodies and memories; above him is tomorrow's sky, whatever it may hold. Let it be writ in a sans-serif font, by the light of the moon: all life is here.
The Cruel Summer EP by Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells is out on Chemikal Underground on Oct 17; they're touring the UK and Europe this autumn – full details here. Everything's Getting Older is out now. With special thanks to Paul Fegan, ace director of The Copper Top video, for his stellar Ufologist chauffeur services.