The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Strange World Of...

The Strange World Of... Arab Strap
Rob Hakimian , March 3rd, 2021 11:11

With their first new album in 16 years arriving this Friday, now is the perfect time to investigate Arab Strap and why they are one of the UK’s most beloved underground bands. They take Rob Hakimian through their discography, from regular weekends ‘on a permo’, to reckoning with the green-eyed monster, to their recent rejuvenation

Arab Strap by Kat Gollack

This week, Arab Strap, the Scottish duo of Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton, will release their seventh full-length, As Days Get Dark. It’s their first new album since 2005’s The Last Romance, which capped off a prolific ten years of endless album releases and tours that saw the band grow to one of the UK’s most beloved cult acts.

Understandably, Arab Strap were pretty burnt out after a fairly breathless decade – and it wasn’t just the music that had been sapping their energy. As Moffat details time and again in his autobiographical missives, they were quite active on the pub and club scene throughout their teens, twenties, and even into their thirties. With that came plenty of highs, lows and a seemingly endless string of sordid hookups. That all of these events were high on the agenda for discussion in Arab Strap’s music is what won them so many admirers, especially as they were not ones to polish them up for public consumption – in classic Scottish fashion, they are more often the antagonists in their own work. Jealousy, depression, lust and bitterness are regular shades for Arab Strap, whose lyrics could fill a year’s worth of gossip magazines.

Sonically, what started as a band based around two mates fucking with a drum machine and some guitars gradually grew to incorporate strings, piano and more adventurous arrangements. True to the pair’s ramshackle nature, the songs were rarely written prior to going to the studio, so they pretty often ended up raw or skeletal, only to evolve on tour. This has turned out to be yet another winning feature for Arab Strap, as their studio work has a homespun charm that’s perfect for quiet study, while on stage they can rouse the masses.

With their long-awaited comeback album upon us, now is the perfect time to revisit their back catalogue. For those diving into their work for the first time, their canonical discography provides a rich world to get lost in – and it can be quite dizzying merely listening to the amount of drugs and sex that they were investing themselves in during those days.

For this piece, Moffat and Middleton themselves have picked out ten songs, spanning their entire discography, that form a snaking thread through squalid basements and questionable choices. In listening to their recollections of writing and recording these songs, what’s striking is just how often they returned to the same well of self-absorption and self-deprecation, and yet they kept returning with buckets of gold. Listening to Arab Strap is like sitting down in a local pub with old friends and catching up, so to actually get to spend some time talking to the two men responsible for these years’ worth of snort-inducing stories is quite incredible. Do enjoy as they take us chronologically through the key points of Arab Strap’s discography.

‘Oxytocin’ [Demo] (1995)

Aidan Moffat: It was the first thing we recorded, on a Thursday afternoon – Thursday was my day off work – at Stewart the postman's flat. We went round to use his four track. I think it's funny looking back at it, because a lot of what we ended up doing is in that song; it's got the acoustic guitar, the sexually frank spoken lyrics, and a sort of cold scientific look at sex and love. It's amazing how much of Arab Strap was in that to start with.

Malcolm Middleton: It was just about fun. I was just making tapes for passing on to friends, but it was quite obvious straight away that there was a wee thing there a bit different from other stuff we'd been doing.

The thing that it starts with about the woman's orgasm releasing oxytocin, is that something you'd read?

AM: Do you remember More! magazine? It was a girls magazine that came out every fortnight. It used to do position of the fortnight and it was very big in the 90s. I read that in More! – I was an avid reader.

‘The First Big Weekend’ - from The Week Never Starts Round Here (1996)

AM: I went through a phase of not enjoying ‘The First Big Weekend’ at all because it became the song that was the only song people knew by us, and that kinda annoyed me for a while. But I've come to love it again, and we owe everything to ‘The First Big Weekend’. It seemed to capture people's ears at the time. The only reason I wrote that was because I didn't have anything else, so I just said, “Fuck it. I'll write what we did at the weekend. It'll be quite funny,” and it seemed to work, by magic. That may have been a tame weekend at the time, to be honest. I think we probably lived a far more rock & roll lifestyle before we started the band. There was a time when we were both on the dole, and I don't know how we managed but we seemed to be out all the time - it was great!

MM: We were very young, it was a long time ago.

AM: It wasn't on the first album at the time, and then it did really well, and we realised that it would be absolute madness not to put it on there. It does kind of stick out a bit on the album, but I think it works because the rest of the album's about the morning after and the come downs, and right in the middle was this big party. So either side of it was just sheer misery and darkness.

MM: We thought we were making a quietly funny humorous sensitive delicate record. And then we did this silly party song that then became like a thing that launched us, so it's funny.

AM: I think John Peel played it first, then Steve Lamacq picked up on it and played it like non-stop for a couple of weeks. We had no plans to be a live band, there's only two of us, but then Chemikal Underground booked us on a John Peel session live from King Tut's, so we had to get a band ready and panic and do all the proper band stuff, which we weren't even planning on doing.

MM: We got a local punk band from Falkirk and ended up doing really fast versions of our songs.

AM: I was absolutely shitting myself. I mean, I was pretty drunk – you can tell listening to it – it was the only way I could cope with it. That's all I ever dreamed about as far as music was concerned; get a Peel Session, that would be me happy – and that was the first thing that we did.

‘Girls Of Summer’ (1997)

MM: We did a nice quiet acoustic studio version that was on the Girls Of Summer EP, but then when we started doing it live, and it just completely changed and became this bigger thing. I've not even heard the original since we did it probably. When we recorded it on [1999 live album] Mad For Sadness, lots more people heard it and it became what we probably think is a fan favourite, because it always gets a great reaction when we play it live. Maybe they're just glad when it finishes because it's so long; Aidan needs toilet breaks because he drinks so much on stage, so we had to add instrumental sections.

AM: I can't do it in ‘Girls Of Summer’ now though because I play the keyboards on it. So my toilet break's gone. That's why the instrumental of ‘New Birds’ is a wee bit longer, so that I can wander off and go to the toilet.

‘Packs Of Three’ from Philophobia (1998)

AM: After I wrote the first line [“it was the biggest cock you’d ever seen”] that was gonna be the opener; I think it was kind of obvious that it was a good place to start. Unfortunately, everything on Philophobia is true as well; there's not a single lie on there – well, there's maybe an occasional bending of the truth, but ‘Packs Of Three’ is all true. I made a point of never mentioning any names, so only the people in Falkirk knew who I was talking about, and even then it was just our circle of friends who knew about it. But it didn't go down that well.

Was it pretty common at the time for you and your group of friends to talk frankly about your sexual escapades? Even among exes and stuff?

MM: I think it was just Aidan.

AM: Maybe it was just me. In a sense, I kind of felt I was always talking to Malcolm in the songs and that's stuff that we talked about quite a lot back then. Falkirk's quite a small place with close-knit communities, so you know that there was a couple of times when the girls we went out with sort of crossed over a bit, if you know what I mean.

MM: Aidan was going out in Glasgow more, and I'd be in the studio waiting for him to turn up. I wouldn't know who'd be coming in that day because whoever he met in the pub the night before would have been roped in to coming and playing violin, cello, piano.

AM: There's a sense of humour in most of our stuff. There's no point writing miserable songs. Nobody wants to wallow in misery, you have to temper it a bit with the occasional joke. I mean, it's a song about an AIDS test – it's not a happy subject! I'd like to think it's got a couple of amusing moments in it. Dark humour is in Scotland's blood, you know, it's something that we're all into here – and also making fun of yourself. I'm always the dick in the songs, I am always the worst person in the situation, the worst person in the room. I think that's important too.

‘The Drinking Eye’ from Elephant Shoe (1999)

AM: I chose that one because I think it's one of the best things we did in that period. Again, it's all true; it's the green eyed monster that comes out after too many pints, I suppose. Someone had stayed overnight with my girlfriend and played my PlayStation and it was hard not to think something had happened. You know, alcohol clouds your judgment – although, as it transpires, I think it was probably right, anyway.

Were you a big gamer at the time?

AM: Aye, that would have been a PS1 at the time.

MM: We took it on tour in the Travelodges with us. I remember playing this tennis game that came out at the time.

AM: Oh, Anna Kournikova's tennis!

MM: Aidan would get fucking mental because he didn't understand the rules or the confines of the game and he'd be like, “Why did it not do that when I pushed the button?” You'd just do that every night; the same same argument every night.

AM: I remember there was one tour when we basically went through Silent Hill. Every night after a gig we sat and played Silent Hill for hours until we completed it four times.

‘Rocket, Take Your Turn’ (2000)

MM: We left Chemikal Underground to go to the Universal imprint Go! Beat for Elephant Shoe and then came back to Chemikal. This was our coming back EP, and someone at the label must have talked us out of putting it on an album because we kind of regretted later on that ‘Rocket’ wasn't on the record. We liked the idea of it being a standalone thing, like a really good song somewhere where hardly anyone can hear it; indie band obtuseness. Again, playing that live is a favourite, and the live version's better.

AM: It's brilliant to play, that's my favourite moment live. The studio version’s got a real 808 drum machine on it, which is one of the reasons I'm very fond of it. But when we were recording, the drum machine was broken and you couldn't program it. So what we had to do is record the drums, every single drum from each channel into the desk, and then mix the drums rather than program it, so we had to mute drums here and there. It was a fucking pain in the arse but I think I feel that was quite a good achievement, because we had the worst 808 in Glasgow at the time. I'll give you a bit of trivia: the person in the song that I'm singing to there is Stewart from Mogwai. We'd had a mad night out, and we were sitting in Kelvingrove Park. The bit about the city being tropical and all that kind of stuff, we were sitting on the top of a children's climbing frame in Kelvingrove Park. Good times.

‘Turbulence’ from The Red Thread (2001)

AM: I think it's one of the best examples of us doing – I wouldn't call it dance music, but using dance elements and guitars. I think the record's got a nice subtlety about it that I've always really liked. Also the live version again, playing it is one of the biggest highlights of the set for me, I really enjoy playing it. It's not so subtle anymore, because we have a bigger band and it's gotten a bit livelier.

MM: It's a good song. It's comforting and it's got a good atmosphere to it. I have no idea what it's about, but it's one of those things little phrases poke out rather than having a story, like “you always jump and quiver.” It's nice, poetic.

It ends on quite a depressing note: "We might never sleep again."

AM: See that isn't depressing to me because that was just that was just about staying out all the time. That's about being on a constant high – a ‘permo’, as they call it.

‘The Shy Retirer’ from Monday at the Hug & Pint (2003)

AM: After The Red Thread I split up with a mid-term girlfriend and I found myself being single in a nice wee flat in Glasgow. I just had a couple of years of having a really good fucking time, and ‘The Shy Retirer’ was born from that. I'd go to a lot of clubs, mainly Optimo, which I used to go to probably every weekend for at least two years. I'm all over the place on the album because I was literally quite all over the place at that point. But I'm not trying to elicit sympathy there. I had a fucking brilliant time.

MM: I think I was still living in Falkirk, and I don't know what I was doing for the two years Aidan was in the club. I went a few times, but not much.

AM: 'The Shy Retirer' started with Malcolm posting me a cassette to Glasgow I think, and it had just a guitar part on it. I didn't have a computer at that point, in 2002. I've absolutely no idea how that came about. As I say, I had a really good time back, so I think things just happened.

In that song, you reference Jenny Agutter. Was she a big crush?

AM: There's a scene in Walkabout where she comes across a pond and she goes for a nude swim. And I mean, I must have been nine or ten when I first saw that, and it was the first time I remember ever feeling any sort of sexual attraction.

‘Stink’ from The Last Romance (2005)

AM: I think it's the best-sounding one we did, rock-wise. It’s maybe not necessarily the best song, but I think we finally managed to get the mix right on a rock song – on our last album!

MM: I remember sending Aidan a lovely little slow acoustic guitar thing and he just said “speed it up and put it through a distortion pedal”. And I was like, “Well, it's a really nice, kind of picky quiet acoustic thing,” and he's like, “Nope.”

AM: What probably happened is that I started thinking about words when I heard the acoustic version, and then as the feeling and the words grew I started to think that maybe it should be a bit louder. And then I got angrier and angrier, and next thing you've got this wee rock beast.

‘The Turning of Our Bones’ from As Days Get Dark (2021)

AM: This is inspired by the Madagascan ceremony Famadihana. I was reading about death rituals and things, which, as I get older, seem to be occupying my mind more and more. I thought it was a beautiful metaphor for rejuvenating romance, but also there's a wee sly nod to us reforming as well.

MM: The plan was to do anniversary gigs after being separated for ten years, and then it just led on to like, “Let's try some recording, and if it works, it works, but if it doesn't, it doesn't.” And ‘Bones’ worked. We wouldn't have used saxophones or congas before, but it didn't feel like it was over the top or out of place in the song, it felt quite natural.

AM: When it came out as a single, the response was great. It's exactly what we hoped for in that people could hear Arab Strap in it, but we didn't want it to sound like the old Arab Strap, we're not trying to re-capture that sound.

MM: We didn't want to make ‘Oxytocin’ part two.

AM: No, but because we did it with the same three people, us and Paul Savage, that was what was exciting about it.

As Days Get Dark is out this week