"I just regretted doing music under my own name"

Falkirk boy, famous redhead and author of the best Christmas song ever, Malcolm Middleton’s talents know no bounds. From his time as the guitar-wielding foil for Aiden Moffat’s wit in Arab Strap to his more recent work as a self-titled solo act, he’s been an integral part of the Scottish music scene for as long as we can remember.

His latest venture, Human Don’t Be Angry – named after the German version of the board game ‘Frustration’ – is inspired by the finer parts of noodling-rock and instrumental wig-outs. Born out of a need for a fresh perspective, it sees him moving away from the hilariously maudlin lines of old and further into the reaches of guitar loops and pedals. He met up with Clash to talk us through the latest material, getting bored with yourself and his little-known background in Egyptology.

You’re working under a different name yet it’s still solo. Is this still ‘you’ or does it represent a different side of your songwriting?
Well, when I started to write, I wanted to do something different from the typical songs that I had been writing. I don’t really know about self-expression, there’s no sort of ‘the way that I’m feeling’ songs and I wanted to get away from that because it was becoming a bit boring and stale.

I also wasn’t getting any better at expressing myself. It was supposed to be just instrumental stuff but then a few songs progressed a bit in terms of words and lyrics. But as for a different ‘expression’ of me? I just wanted to have something to make me feel like I was enjoying music again. Not just doing it because of my label needed me to have an album out.

So not making it feel like an obligation?
Yeah, absolutely.

You’ve said before that this is like a façade, a front for you – representing you having fun with music again. Do you feel like – whilst it isn’t an alter-ego - that H.D.B.A. is a little like assuming a different identity?
Yeah, I think I just regretted doing music under my own name. Before with Arab Strap, it was kind of easy to have a distance. But if you use your own name and write songs about yourself, then there’s no escape. So I thought if we thought up a band name, we’d have a bit of a façade and a mask – not something that I could hide behind, but just something that wasn’t so personal.

You set out to be more optimistic than previous records – right down to the title. Do you think you’ve achieved that?
No. I do with a couple of songs – there’s a couple that are pretty happy and upbeat, but some of the lyrics are just typical. Even though I wrote them in a different way. I wrote lyrics to the music, rather than the other way around.

How did you find that as a writer? To change your process?
Um, it was ok. It was easy, but I’ve liked my songs being expressive and sometimes I don’t like songs where I say a line just for the sake of it. And I think sometimes my songs can do that.

Like you’ve shoehorned that line in?

Do you worry about it getting too noodly? I know it’s pretty experimental – you’ve got an e.p. ‘Midnight Noodles’ of the extras. What was your editing process like for the album?
Not very good. I mean, I like ‘noodles’ and stuff – I like ambient music. You could say I like noodling guitars done in a tasteful way – amongst them, Mark Knopfler. You can’t really say Dire Straits these days without getting a frown, but I like guitars.

How was Margins festival? You played on the same bill as Aiden Moffat, not that long after the Arab Strap reunion.
It was fine. He was supporting me, so he knew his place. Haha! I’m only kidding – just saying that if he reads this. It was good, the festival was nice and helped to get the band going. It was quite an intense three or four weeks beforehand to get it sounding good, but I’m enjoying it.
In terms of a live set-up, you’re working with Martin John Henry of De Rosa.

Do you enjoy how collaborative you can be with H.D.B.A? Is it a bit more fluid than the solo stuff?
Yeah, definitely. The solo stuff works like - people come in, they learn parts and we play the song as it’s written. But this is a bit more free – Martin’s doing bass guitar, though none of these guys are on the record.

You recorded with Paul Savage and Aiden Moffat played drums. What was the dynamic like in the studio? Do you enjoy that particular collaboration?
Yeah, I do now. I didn’t for a while – I think we got sick of it. But Aiden and I did a Slow Club cover song last year - and we’re obviously still friends since the band finished and stuff – and after doing that again, it became quite easy. It didn’t feel like hard work. I toured with him last spring and he heard my songs every night and said that he wanted to do something on the record. I was like ‘yeah, yeah’ but then he came in and did that.

How did it feel for you to revisit the old material after the break? You went on a two-year hiatus and took up Egyptology.
It felt good to do the old songs. The Egyptology? I did it like six years ago. I started a night class at Glasgow Uni.

Did you enjoy it?
Yeah, I enjoyed it but it was like me and twenty old ladies. So I felt a bit out of my depth. And I’m not qualified to go and lecture or anything.

Do you think you’ll run this project simultaneously alongside the solo ‘Malcolm Middleton’ stuff?
I’d like to, but I don’t want to confuse people. Though I am doing a solo gig at the weekend as Malcolm Middleton.

Are you having an identity crisis?
I’ll probably start doing the wrong songs at the wrong gigs but I’d like to do another ‘Human’ album first. I’ve written most of the next solo record as well. I’m trying not to chop and change though, as I’ve written the band thing and I’d like to keep that going for the next few years.

What can we expect from the new MM record? As you’ve held the lyrics back on HDBA?
I’m not entirely sure. I’ve held them back, but I’ve also been writing more slowly – and taking more care of them. The next album is probably going to be a bit more focussed. It’s a bit more personal but I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m not just writing songs for the sake of it. I’m writing a song because these are things that I care about at the time.

Do you write for the next album or do you write consistently?
I used to write every day, but I don’t anymore. Now it’s like, if I feel creative, I’ll just sit down and write something. But I’m not that great lyrically. It comes less and less, that’s quite worrying but it’s also pretty good when it does actually happen.

You looking forward to the tour?
Oh, aye. Yes. We’ve got a couple of dates on the go in the summer and a few after summer.

Do you want it to expand? Would you continue to do this and keep the other stuff on?
I like to think it could develop in some way. Myself and Paul Savage were making this album – and I worked a lot with him. If I had done it on my own, it would have been different. We’ll see.

Words by Marianne Gallagher

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'Human Don't Be Angry' is out now.

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