No Fucks Left To Give? Arab Strap Interviewed

“The internet is literally Thatcher’s Dream: an entire society of strangers out there working for themselves.” Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton are back and – despite their protestations, says Elizabeth Aubrey – they patently care now more than ever

Arab Strap by Kat Gollock

Arab Strap’s new album, I’m Totally Fine With It Don’t Give a Fuck Anymore, opens with a song full of yearning for the natural world. “I want to suck on a stone, taste the salt from the sea/ rest my head in the arms of a tree/ I want to swim in a brook, push my toes in the mud/ and forage for berries and buds”, muses Aidan Moffat on ‘Allatonceness’. He’s inhabiting a character who longs to reconnect with nature after being sucked into the daily doom scroll for years. Against one of the heaviest beats his multi-instrumentalist musical partner Malcolm Middleton has ever laid down, a story of lost hours among “deluders and doxers… agonised fanboys… shockdrops [and] hate” unfolds. The track is menacing and regretful concerning a person who is now "fucking numb", unable to escape an online addiction. The person is, to a certain degree, Moffat himself.

“I think the turning point was when my girlfriend of 21 years told me I need to get out of the fucking house”, Moffat laughs from his flat in Glasgow, where he spent day after day in lockdown whiling away the hours online (and plenty of time after lockdown too). He became dependent on social media. “I realised I was writing a lot about being trapped online for too much of my time. That opened my eyes a bit.”

The Scottish duo’s latest is a sharp about turn from the core Arab Strap sound – a sound that was perhaps best defined on 1998’s Philophobia, the album that opened with the audacious line: “It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen / But you’ve no idea where that cock has been”. Known for candid and wry, fly-on-the-bedsheet lyrics married to brooding lo-fi post rock, the duo confronted, provoked and found poetry in themes such as bad sex and poly drug use in ways that few of their indie rock counterparts of the 90s had the stomach for. Much to the devastation of their fans, Arab Strap decided to call it a day in 2005, but a surprise return in 2021 with new album As Days Get Dark signalled a new era for the band Pitchfork described as “Sleaford Mods on meds”; one that “took stock of a world whose soul has been rotted out by internal addiction, xenophobia and toxic masculinity”.

The band’s eighth album continues to examine these themes but concentrated specifically on where they interact with the hellscape of internet culture and social media. Whether it be the battle of the billionaire tech bros, online conspiracy theorists reaching peak X-Files territory or, as Moffat bleakly observes on the opening track, “Nazis and rapists selling merch". It’s rich territory for Moffat, who claims, with some justification, that scrolling on social media is a grim, wearying existence and one that now frequently decimates the mental health of its users. And yet, even though we all know this, it’s relatively hard to stop.

“Elon Musk taking over Twitter was a big eye opener,” he says. “I logged on recently for the first time in ages and posted about getting an Uber down the road. Next thing, someone was accusing me of supporting modern slavery and I was like, ‘Fucking hell!’ I immediately got a fear from it that I hadn’t had in ages. I was like, ‘Why am I back on here?!’ These things are designed to create rage. It’s not healthy and no good for anyone being on these platforms all the time. The first thing Musk did [after the purchase] was reinstate all the people who got banned – the racists, the misogynists. I think Elon is quite dangerous. I often feel scared about it.”

An Arab Strap self-portrait

X fka Twitter was a frequent go-to for Moffat, something he explores on percussive piano standout ‘Sociometer Blues’ where the site is personified as a love affair turned toxic. “I come to you for confirmation/ testimony, adulation/ education, excitation/ palpitation and flirtation/ But you give me aggravation/ insult and disinformation/ hatred, bias and predation” Moffat’s monologue begins on the song.

“It’s specifically about X and my addiction to it, but also learning to understand that addiction,” he explains. “That was a big turning point for me, examining my own feelings and what it did to me. Then I realised I don’t have to do these things, despite the fact we’re all programmed to think that this is the way to live now – that social media is what we need in life, which isn’t true at all.”

As the song progresses, Moffat describes seeing social media for what it is and, for the most part, breaking the habitual cycle of logging on. “You take all my time/ you take all my strength/ you steal my love”, he tells it, describing it as “the worst friend I ever had”, something that made him “a distant pal” and “an absent dad”. At the song’s end he wonders: “When will I be cured of this fucking crippling FOMO?”

“It’s designed to be addictive,” Moffat continues, reflecting on his recent, short-lived return to the platform. “I started to understand it was all about addiction. There was the thrill, then the fear. It was like an alcoholic having his first beer in about ten years. I could feel the adrenaline in me, then the worry. I walked away.”

Moffat and Middleton say the likes of Musk and Meta owner, Mark Zuckerberg, seem to spend more time challenging each other to cage fights than caring about the welfare of the people using their platforms. “That just sums up the big dick energy of Silicon Valley,” Moffat says. “It’s where it all comes from, like 4Chan, that big masculine bro culture. They’re the absolute peak of it. I wish they had [fought] and wiped each other out.” Middleton chips in. “You know, you’re basically describing Bond villains. We have them in reality now,” he laughs. Moffat enthusiastically agrees.

“Never trust a billionaire because they don’t have anyone’s interests at heart except their own, and this is the problem with the online world,” Moffat continues. “There’s three or four people who run the whole fucking lot of it who are wildly rich, don’t have a care in the world and seem to be solely concerned with getting richer and have no moral compass whatsoever. They don’t make decisions with the human race in mind,” he says. “The internet is literally Thatcherism. It’s Thatcher’s dream: an entire society of strangers working for themselves.”

Track two, ‘Bliss’, turns its attention to the way “women are terrorised online by the worst kind of cowards”, the singer says, adding that it was written after he saw female friends and loved ones fall victim to toxic masculinity and misogyny online. Unlike the sonically heavy opening of the album, ‘Bliss’ ventures into thrilling electronic dance music territory, something that gives the track an urgency – much like the issues the song covers. “The knives are sharpened, pistols drawn/ the boys warm up and flex their brawn/ Soon hearts are broken, points are scored – it’s just some banter when they’re bored”, Moffat whispers with world-weariness on the track.

“There’s this woman I know, but when I first met her, she was a teenager and she did a song years ago. She’s a singer and I follow her online and the shit she gets for daring to speak out about things is incredible”, Moffat explains. “I have a ten-year-old daughter too and I’m becoming more and more acutely aware of that sort of thing. These online pressures really worry me and of course, I think about the abuse she’s undoubtedly going to have to suffer at some point in her life, which is terrifying to me.”

Middleton’s young son is also online and while he’s trying “to not panic too much about it” he says he “can’t help but worry what he will see”. Moffat agrees: “Obviously people don’t want to argue with the concept of freedom, but when you give people anonymity, they turn into absolute bastards online. I think that has to be addressed. All these social media platforms were created by people who use freedom as something that can’t be argued with but the things people say these days and the shit they get away with is outrageous – especially since Musk took over.”

Arab Strap on the set of the ‘Strawberry Moon’ video by Marilena Vlachopoulou

The more songs Moffat wrote for the album, the more he realised how much online culture was affecting his mental health in a detrimental way. “Some of it still gets to me still,” he explains. “Like fucking Piers Morgan when the Oscars were on when he took the opportunity to start raging about Barbie and how it was this man-hating film.”

Moffat was online when he stumbled upon Morgan talking about Greta Gerwig’s movie with two YouTubers who he says, “are the sort of people who just hate any film that has anything to do with women.” He continues: “They are utterly vile fucking arseholes and one of them is Scottish as well, which makes it doubly worse. I could not believe these were the two people [were on what was] ostensibly a serious show online. Ava Santina was the sole person who supported the left-wing point of view [but] these two horrible, sexist pricks were just delighting about how Barbie was a horrible experience, that it didn’t deserve to be successful. It was literally the biggest film of all time for a reason and they couldn’t cope with it. I mean, fuck! Barbie was brilliant. I went to see it with my girlfriend, my daughter and my mum and I loved it!”

Middleton asks Moffat why he still watches content like the YouTube channel. “It’s like Twitter”, he tells him. “You’re watching this programme that’s filling you full of hate. Can you just ignore it?” Moffat says he tries but finds it “fascinating” how “the same people talking to each other hating the same things over and over again” – and then he can’t stop watching. Middleton says it’s like people who click on The Daily Mail “because they think it’s funny.” He continues: “You’re just giving them money; you’re helping them sell advertising – that’s why it’s still going. I imagine ninety per cent of their audience reads it just because it’s so bad.”

The pair turn to conspiracy and mention the frenzy of speculation over Kate Middleton whose recent absence from public life after surgery prompted a mass of wild theories (it’s been revealed that she has been treated for cancer since the interview). The album’s closing song, ‘Turn Off The Light’, explores how outrageous such theories have become and how quickly these spread online, from “Holocaust deniers” to “people who think Bill Gates is full of nanobots”.

“The song refers to a magazine called The Light which is pretty much a far-right funded magazine of ridiculous conspiracy theories,” Moffat explains. “People who get involved in conspiracy theories are usually victims of lies. They’ve been sucked into these things and they get trapped by these ideas spun by unscrupulous people. I’m not angry at the people who believe conspiracy theories, I understand, I suppose, the need for answers, the need to make order from all this. That’s why they were so popular during the pandemic because it was just such a wild, chaotic time and everybody had to make sense of what was going on.”

The pandemic is also a theme the band have returned to on the album. ‘Summer Season’ sees Moffat chart the decline of a friendship that goes from meeting in person to the exchange of occasional emails, to then just clicking like on occasional social media posts – human contact becoming less and less. The crushing ‘Safe And Well’ is an acoustic tribute to a woman who died during the pandemic and whose body was left to decompose by authorities, despite neighbours raising concerns about her welfare. Moffat says both songs are about “the irony of being in a so-called connected online world and how we no longer communicate”, something he thinks was exacerbated by the pandemic.

Despite its heavier themes, the album also has lots of humour and hope too, like on the tender ‘Strawberry Moon’. “There aren’t many Arab Strap songs about being cheered up by something, so that one might be a first actually,” Moffat laughs. He wrote the song during a particularly challenging time in the pandemic, where he was struggling with his mental and physical health (he suffers from arthritis). “I was feeling very sorry for myself when I wrote this,” he explains. “But I’ve always been obsessed with the moon since being a kid and I suppose it’s the closest thing I’ve come to in terms of adopting a religion. I know that makes me sound like a weird Wiccan Pagan but it’s not like that,” he laughs.

“On a purely scientific basis the sight of the moon will always fill me full of awe. It’s breath taking. I was in the house, having a miserable time, unable to leave. I was laid up in bed watching the moon and it cheered me right up. I realised that the hope in that song comes from the natural world. But the more I thought about it, the more it helped me to break away from the online one, and that’s ultimately where I found hope: in nature, in the [tangibility] of the natural world.” Likewise, the upbeat rock song ‘Dreg Queen’ is about a character in a pub bumped into after years away. “A rom-com-by-numbers jukebox needle-drop/ a classic banger we hadn’t heard in years/ It was all we needed” he sings on a track about the simple joy of people getting together in the pub. “It’s a track about re-engaging with the physical world and meeting people again,” Moffat says, “and how much that is sometimes needed."

Middleton adds: “We sort of forgot we were allowed to do these things again, we’ve still not got back out there properly”, he says, saying he thinks many are still struggling to recover from the pandemic. Moffat agrees. “I went to the pub on Friday after a gig and it was really crowded. I was talking to people I didn’t know and it’s something I’ve not done in a long time. I actually embraced being sociable for once.”

Moffat says there’s a moral to this story and the album. “Go out and enjoy yourself. Go see Arab Strap. Have a night out”, he smiles, laughing. Middleton says they’re looking forward to touring this summer. “We have noticed more young people at the gigs as well, which is great.” Moffat tells him it’s just “dads dragging them along to concerts because nobody else will go with them!”

But the main thing,” Moffat continues, “is that I’m getting out of the house more now I’m glad to say, which is the message to take away from this; you have to remember there’s a real world out there too.”

I’m Totally Fine With It Don’t Give A Fuck Anymore is out 10 May on Rock Action

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