Fables Of The Urban Fox: The Return Of Arab Strap
Easter’s round the corner, a festival of resurrection. An appropriate season, then, to discuss Messrs Middleton and Moffat’s own revival: the return of Arab Strap.
For a band that began as two Falkirk boys making tapes, Arab Strap grew into one of Scotland’s most beloved exports, spilling hearts and pints into their tales of lust, and love, and woe.
Caught somewhere between the bacchanal and the bedsit — they were as at home capturing the hedonism of the night before as they were the fag-ends of the morning after. But who wants to dine out on the old days forever, especially when they hit it with such gusto the first time round?
Since calling time in 2006, their talent’s turned to experimental solo projects, in a host of different guises — Moffat as Lucky Pierre, Middleton as Human Don’t Be Angry, both under their Sunday names — plus collaborations with David Shrigley, Bill Wells and RM Hubbert.
In the making since 2016’s reunion tour, their magisterial return, 'As Days Get Dark', was written the way they’ve always done it: old pals tinkering with guitar bits and drum machines, winding each other up ever-so-gently in the process.
To producer Paul Savage at basecamp Chem19, they took new skills and ideas, shaping a record denser and richer for all the life that’s been lived along the way. There’s no rulebook here.
The sound is bigger, but so are the stories. Moffat projects his knack for narrative, breathing life into the animals, celebrants and monsters of the night. It’s a Sauchiehall crawl through transgression and mundanity, darkness offering both a place to hide and to see.
By the magic of Zoom, we discuss splitting up, growing up and a tiny wee tiff about a guitar solo.
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How are you both holding up? Surviving in lockdown?
AM: Aye, alright, I suppose. We were supposed to be on tour by now. This week, actually.
Have you been using the time to practice?
AM: No, to reflect! We haven’t started to practice yet, that would be far too sensible.
How does it feel to be back? To have released 'As Days Get Dark' into the world?
AM: Do you know, it didn’t feel like that big a deal, until it came out. But people that have been sending me nice things on Twitter - so that’s been great. What we’d hoped to do was make a record that was very much ‘us’, but made with the tools of today - rather than sound like our old selves. And people seem to think that we’ve done that. I’m very, very happy with it now. It’s like any record, really. It doesn’t feel real until people hear it. MM: We’ve made a good record. But the reaction to it has been amazing. Beyond what I thought we were gonna get. One or two reviews haven’t been what we wanted - but really, we can’t complain.
Was it written in a different way this time, or the same as before? Did you write any of it in lockdown?
MM: We finished it just before lockdown. We had a few weeks left to mix the album, so it kind of stalled things a wee bit. It gave us time to reflect, think about what we could change and what we could add. But the songs were written before the pandemic. We wrote them the same way as always, over email - and in studios in our homes.
AM: Yeah, we did it the same way we’ve always done. Malcolm will send me a wee guitar bit, and I’ll try and write something in response, and we kind of bash it into shape as we go along. We were both busy at the time. It’s not like we’ve been working on it constantly for years. I mean, in 2018, we were both busy with our solo stuff, so it was more about working on it when it came, spending our spare time on it. I think that’s why it was quite laid-back making it. There was no pressure. It didn’t even really feel like that big a deal until it came out.
MM: Obviously, there’s the link with our first album - it being me, Aiden and Paul. And it felt like it too. With the first album, there was no deadline. No-one was expecting the record from us.
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When was the moment you decided to record again? When you said, ‘Arab Strap’s getting back, we’re gonna make something new’?
MM: We did our last gig in 2017 in Iceland, and Aidan announced, “That’s us for good. Finished!”
AM: I didn’t announce it. I said it to someone in the queue. That’s not quite the same as announcing.
MM: He said it on Twitter!
AM: I wanted to retain a bit of mystery, you know! Have them thinking it might be the end. Keep people guessing.
MM: Not long after that, Aidan set me over the drum parts for ‘Turning of Our Bones’ and we started working on it. Not long after I’d sent the guitar part, he sent over ‘Bones’ with all the strings and vocals added. Once we’d heard that, we knew that there was something exciting there. We thought: this is it.
You’ve been split up for a while, and trawled through the archives for last year’s live BandCamp releases. Did you set out with the intention to make ADGD ‘different’ to the old stuff?
AM: No, we never discussed any of that. But we understood where it was going sonically. We did the reunion gigs, and chose ten songs for a compilation for Chemikal Underground. They all tended to be the electronic ones, with all the disco beats. So that definitely informed the way we were going. But it was very much about trying something - seeing how it goes and then taking it from there. I mean...we’re not the sort of people who make plans! Themes and stuff become apparent after a while, of course. But there was no plan.
Night’s a thread that runs throughout, and you’ve mentioned that 'Kebabylon' was sparked by a book that you’d read. Did you set out with defined characters that you wanted to document, in this story of the night?
AM: 'Kebabylon' was one of the last songs that we put on the album. By that point, the themes running through it had become quite apparent. By then, I had about half of the lyrics and I knew it was going to be about these night-time ideas, these themes of desperation. I was, at that point, reading specifically for it. 'Kebabylon' came about because I had been reading this book, 'Night Haunts' by Sukdev Sandhu. It’s all about London. The things in the city that you don’t see, that happen after midnight. A really interesting book for someone like me, who’s always been a nighthawk.
MM: Top points on saying 'Kebabylon' (a well-known Glasgow kebab shop) with a straight face!
Haha. Do you think you’ll get a discount after?
AM: *Laughs* I know! I mention Tesco on 'Turning of our Bones' too - but no sign of a top-up on the Clubcard points. Not a peep. Disappointing.
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You worked with Paul Savage, as you did on the first album. But there’s saxophone on this record, plus a lot more strings than ever before. It’s fuller, more cinematic. Where did those musical ideas come from?
MM: I think it came from all the things that we’d been doing apart from each other. Aidan’s Lucky Pierre stuff comes with all the string samples and saxophone. I’d wanted to incorporate that years ago, but it was never ‘done’. Now, it feels like it’s the right thing. And we can do it too, because we’ve got the right technology.
Maybe in the past, we got caught up in some of our own non-existent rules about how to make music. But now, with everything that we’ve been doing solo - it was all kind of added in.
AM: I guess it’s about the fact that we’re not going to sit back and make a record that sounds like 1996. It was important that we made a record with the tools and skills we’ve gathered since. It’s cheaper now, too.
We did try to use samples, and a lot more electronics back in the day. I remember we had an 808 drum machine which was the worst one I’d ever seen. You couldn’t programme it. But if we’d wanted to get a good one, it would’ve cost hundreds, thousands of pounds! These days, it’s just an app. Everything’s just so much easier - and cheaper to use. I think this is how we could’ve sounded if we’d had the money back then.
And that accessibility’s encouraged your own experimentation?
AM: We mainly do that stuff at home. Or in the dropbox folders, where we bounce things back. The way the world’s changed in the past ten years - it’s a much easier place to make music.
MM: We’ve both worked with Paul - together, and by ourselves. To go back with him - there was no worry about the taste level or anything, you know? We trust him. He’ll reign us in - or tell us that it’s shite.
Does he ever just outright say he thinks it sounds shite?
AM: Oh aye!
MM: Maybe he’s telling us different things when we’re not in the same room. AM: He goes through my vocals quite hard. He’ll make me do ten takes, and pick each line. And that’s the most boring part of the day.
No suggestion of an auto-tune, or anything like that?
AM: I think he slips it in when I’m not looking. Sometimes I’ll be listening back thinking, it doesn’t sound as if I could’ve hit that note.
MM: He does it for backing vocals. He’ll give us loads of options - and then we’ll go in to listen to the mix and then you realise that he’s kept everything in. And it always kind of works. I mean, Graeme Smillie’s got to learn three basslines for one song!
AM: We had a grand piano in the studio (someone else had hired it) and so he got us to use that. And then he put a distortion on it! One of the most expensive pianos ever hired into the studio - and then he does that.
MM: I mean, this massive grand piano that he makes sound like Italo-House, and then he puts all this distortion and tinniness over it.
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You did a Tim Burgess Twitter Listening Party not long ago. How did that feel for you, in lockdown and not able to tour, to listen with fans and take in their response in real-time?
MM: Quite weird. I mean, it goes so fast. I’d sneakily done it on Thursday night with a couple of guys who were listening. I said this to Aidan - you don’t want to ruin the magic of the record by explaining everything about it. But ultimately, it’s a great thing - especially in lockdown, when we’re doing nothing else. Connecting with people who’re enjoying it.
How was it to speak about the work, outside of an interview situation?
AM: I do that quite often, day-to-day, with people on Twitter. Bluebird on the album’s all about Twitter and how it can be horrible. Although generally speaking, I’m quite happy to talk to anyone. We did one for Philophobia a couple of years ago. NO. It couldn’t have been a couple of years ago because they only started in lockdown...I’ve no concept of time any more!
That 'Philophobia' one was kind of hectic. When you’re doing it, it becomes frantic. You panic and can’t really engage with people properly. This time, I’d planned it all and made sure everything was ready. And I did a Reddit AMA. I was terrified, but everybody was really nice. I was expecting to get some right dicks! We were talking about pies and horror films. All the questions that weren’t about music were my favourites.
The videos that you’ve released so far - 'Here Comes Comus!' (directed by Bryan M. Ferguson) and the 70s horror movie splice-up for 'Turning Of Our Bones' - have been pretty stark statements. Is that visual presentation of the work important to you?
AM: We don’t think about visuals at all. I mean, I never think beyond the music at all. With Comus, we let Bryan do whatever he wanted. He took the idea of the song, multiplied it by a thousand - and made a pretty scary video with it!
But you are quite influenced by film, aren’t you?
AM: Maybe. I very much believe in the idea of story, and saying something with a song. That’s what I wanted to do with my life when I was wee. I wanted to go to the Glasgow Art School and study film. Make films. But it didn’t work out that way. And I’m glad it didn’t, I guess.
'Fable Of The Urban Fox' is a modern parable with a clear message. Was it important for you to be political with the song, even in a guarded way?
AM: I think it’s impossible not to be political these days. It’s a very different world than the one we (Arab Strap) left. Social media has completely changed society, and newspapers are now transparently in charge of public opinion. That’s what the song is about.
I was reading a book about foxes, and there were a few chapters about how they were demonised by the likes of the Daily Mail. Precisely the same way they’ve demonised refugees and migrants. One fox attacks one child, and suddenly it’s all ‘foxes are to be exterminated’. It’s about the way the media’s controlled thought. I don’t think it’s explicit, as you say. But I do feel that there’s always been an underlying political thing with us.
When we started, even using my accent seemed like a statement. And sometimes, I feel like being Scottish is a political statement in itself.
Is it true you had a disagreement about the guitar solo at the end of 'Tears on Tour'?
MM: We don’t argue. Aidan just tells me stuff! When I sent it back, he was like: that’s not going on. None of this,“oh, we’ll talk about it later.”
AM: Didn’t I send it back to you...having removed it? I think that’s what happened! MM: It happens all the time. On 'Bluebird'. Aidan wanted drums and acoustic, nothing else. I did all the lead bits, sent it over - he doesn’t like it, wants to keep it ‘minimal’ and then two days later he likes it, wants to keep it on. I mean, obviously, the solo is ironic. Some people are disgusted that we’ve used something like that on our record.
I did an interview with a Dutch guy the other week. And I said - “there’s a really thin line between ironic and iconic.” It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever said!
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The tour’s scheduled for September, with everyone having been released from lockdown (fingers crossed) - are you excited about playing live again?
AM: I don’t think we’ve really thought about it yet, to be honest. I’m getting quite used to surprises and plot twists at this point. I wouldn’t be surprised if something happens. But I was saying the other day, we’re going to need to think of a setlist soon. We’ve had a couple of Zoom parties with the band as well. I think they’re all bored out of their minds!
MM: I’m really looking forward to it, and hope it’ll happen. We did a radio session for Vic Galloway last week. We had a couple of hours rehearsal in the afternoon, just me and Aidan. But I’d forgotten about that performance angle - the adrenaline and the fear, shitting yourself that you’re going to fuck it up. Which is great! And now, there’s all this weird stuff I hadn’t even thought about. Like, if we’re on a sleeper bus with the band, we’re all going to need to get tests at the start and the middle of the week?
AM: Aye, but we’ll all have had at least one dose of the vaccine by then. What do you mean, we’ll still have to get tests? Away ye go. There I was, thinking it was our passport to freedom.
Are you gonna return to your solo work, or to an Arab Strap record after the tour?
MM: Aidan’s probably already planned his next three records! We’re excited about this being out and have a couple of things to work out - songs that weren’t finished, that wouldn’t have worked on the record that’ll work on their own. One of the reasons we split up was because we were on the treadmill of album-tour-album-tour. When there’s pressure to do it, it’s no fun anymore.
If we do another record, we’d need to come back to it for the right reasons. Not because we feel like that’s what we should do. We’re both quite prolific, and happy doing our own things. This album sounds amazing - but I can’t imagine us coming back with anything half-arsed.
AM: With this album, it wasn’t a necessity. We didn’t need to. We wanted to. I think a lot of bands reform for the wrong reasons. They feel like they need to recapture something. Or it’s a financial decision, or something. We weren’t desperate to make a record or anything like that. And I think that’s why this all went so well.
Because it was motivated by the desire to create together again, really?
And finally, what pub are you going to go to when this is all over?
AM: Oh, I don’t know. I expect that the first person I’ll meet will be my brother, and he works in the city - so we’ll go to The Old Hairdressers. He likes it in there. That’s probably where we’ll go.
MM: I’ll go to the Haven, up in Anstruther.
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'As Days Get Dark' is out now.
Words: Marianne Gallagher
Photo Credit: Kat Pollack
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