The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

In Their Own Words

Aidan Moffat: The Worst Gig I Ever Played (& A Few I've Been To)
Aidan Moffat , May 28th, 2010 13:34

Next week, the Quietus is helping put on an Aidan Moffat pop concert in London. We're hoping that he's learned some lessons from the escapades that he outlines below

There was an Arab Strap tour in the early 2000s sometime, and we were playing at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia. For some reason we'd been invited to what I think was an engagement party in the afternoon before the show, there may even have been a barbecue. I think the hosts were friends of our tour manager, who was always up for whatever party he could find. We all discovered Maker's Mark whisky that afternoon, and by the time we went onstage we were absolutely blootered, as we say up in Scotland. We all forgot even the simplest of parts and lyrics, and I had a very animated shouting match with both Dave (drummer) and Malcolm, and then threatened to walk off, which I unfortunately never did. We improvised a couple of tunes too, which is never a good idea, and all the while the groom-to-be kept leaving little shots of our newfound tipple on the edge of the stage. We played like utter shit, and if it was half as painful to watch as it was to create then there's a few Georgians who are still owed an apology from us all. I really can't describe how ashamed we all were the next day, and that's saying something for Arab Strap. We'd spent so much time and money rehearsing for that tour, only to sink into old, bad habits - everyone let everyone down. Even so, I did manage to pull a renowned groupie, but only after the rest of the band had declined her services. I think that was the only tour that I was ever single on, so I had to make the most of it. I didn't have enough money for my own hotel room, so we ‘slept' in the van outside - how romantic! So at least the evening had a happy ending.

The Athens disaster was our fault, of course, but sometimes you find yourself in entirely the wrong environment with the exact opposite of your target demographic baying for entertainment. We had a hellish gig in Belfast University once, which was some sort of BBC Radio fresher's ball or something, and I seem to recall Hastings and Exeter being particularly pointless in the early days. I recently did the Reading and Leeds poetry stages and I just wasn't suited to that environment at all - although I got a lot of emails from people who'd been at those gigs to offer words of support afterwards, which was most welcome. The worst gigs are always the ones where you're out of your comfort zone, although occasionally they can be surprisingly rewarding too. Arab Strap once played to ten people in a 700-capacity venue in Dallas, Texas - typically, it was one of the best performances of the tour. And for some reason we always ended up recording the shit ones. I've got a CD and a VHS video of that Athens gig somewhere but I can never bring myself to watch it.

I've been to some terrible gigs, as well as played them. Any technical difficulties at gigs can be forgotten if the performance is good and the audience is responsive. The audience is just as crucial to the success of the evening as the musicians are, it's all about the right atmosphere. I recently saw The Fall in Edinburgh and it was awful, more so because we'd all spent a lot of money to travel through from Glasgow for the day. There wasn't really a good atmosphere, the crowd seemed a bit subdued - until Mark E Smith decided to pack it in after five songs and disappeared. I did wonder that maybe if the audience had been as enthusiastic with their applause and appreciation as they were with their boos and heckles after he walked off, then maybe it would have lasted a bit longer. But probably the absolute worst gig I've ever experienced was Cat Power at a beautiful wee festival in Urbino. She was solo, and she simply wouldn't stop playing, they'd booked her for an hour but she played - badly and incomprehensibly - for at least two. She was in dire need of an ambulance home, and she thought the best way to communicate with an Italian audience was not to attempt to speak their language but rather speak English in a ludicrously racist Italian accent. It was genuinely horrible to watch, and even worse to listen to. That might be the only time I've ever booed.

I suppose nerves and fear ever played a part in disrupting our early gigs, in the sense that we drank a lot to combat it and ended up playing shit gigs. The first year or so of Arab Strap shows were fucking horrible, it took us a while to sort ourselves out. But that can only be expected - when unemployable young men suddenly find they're living the dream, they tend to enjoy it. Malcolm and I would exchange many a scowl when we noticed something particularly bad. But to be honest, we probably ganged up on the rest of the band or whoever was playing with us at the time. Because they were our songs, we were allowed to fuck them up from time to time, but ‘The Staff' probably got the odd grumpy glare or two more than we ever exchanged between ourselves. I always joked about doing that James Brown thing, where we would knock a few quid off a musician's per diems if they made a mistake. I'm not that much of a cunt, though.

It's a wonder anyone ever came back to see us after the first couple of tours we did, especially when we did a tour with Mogwai around 1997. Mogwai's agent vowed that we would never play with them again because we were a bad influence on them and caused them to fuck up their gigs by encouraging them to do too much drink and drugs, but I can assure you they needed no encouragement from us. Arab Strap started to become a lot more serious in 1998, so we sorted that out and would have a two-pint rule - no more than that before the gig - and we became pretty professional after a while. That's why we did the Mad For Sadness live album, we were proud of how we'd developed from a bunch of pissed chancers pouring pints into their amps into quite a sophisticated evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The bottom line is: if you want people to pay money to see you twice, you should make sure you impress them the first time, and playing a sloppy, inebriated set probably won't do that. I think we were lucky to have a lot of people who were prepared to give us a second chance.

These days, I still stick to the two-pint rule, even if it's just me. I'm more likely to have a cup of tea these days, to help open up the throat. I may even make a cup of hot water with honey, lemon and ginger if those things have been provided. There's no point playing when you're pissed, it's an insult to the paying audience and it's not dignified for a man who's a couple of years shy of his fortieth birthday. Fundamentally, music is about expression and communication, both of which are dulled and destroyed by excessive alcohol. But I'm always up for a pint afterwards.

Aidan Moffat plays the Borderline, London next Saturday, June 5th, supported by Lone Wolf and Brendan Rogers. You can purchase tickets here