Lonely this Christmas? You could do worse than spend some time with ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’, the latest from Aidan Moffat and RM Hubbert.
It’s a sheaf of songs for the other side of the festive period – tales to keep you company if feeling low and heartsick, disconnected from the scenes in supermarket adverts, or simply in need of an antidote to overindulgence and sentiment. It’s an alternative view, but then what would you expect? Ghosts lurk in the looking-glass, characters grow legs and leap from other albums to find their place in this modern Christmas carol.
Moffat borrows the words of other storytellers, from Dickens to Hans Christian Andersen, to augment these fables of frailty and want in the season of presents and pressure – whilst Hubbert lends flamenco frill and fireside glow to set our scene.
Confronting their own ghosts of Christmas past and present, ‘Ode To Plastic Mistletoe’ nods to a night spent alone in Nice’n’Sleazys, as ‘Remembrance Of Dickens’ keeps one eye on the credit card bill and another on the children opening their presents. Mournful covers of Mud and Yazoo twinkle like baubles.
This album might excavate what lies beneath the discarded gift wrap, but it’s quick to remind us of the small ceremonies that can bestow one day with magic. In an interview punctuated by parcel deliveries, Moffat reflects on recording in summer, Beyoncé- induced religious experiences and how best to break the news about Santa to your children.
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This album spun out of the track, 'A Ghost Story At Christmas'. Could you tell us where that song came from?
I’ve always liked Christmas records, and the idea was to do a one-off single that was an epilogue to the first album. To my mind, the song ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’, was about some of the same people as the ‘Here Lies’ album. Sort of a wee continuation of the story. That’s how it was planned.
Which people from the first album? Do you want to say?
I never like explaining these things, but there’s definitely someone on this first album who’s part of all this. The story’s there, if you look for it. I don’t like to spell it out. People get a wee bit scared sometimes when you start explaining stories to them. I prefer to just let people enjoy it as it is. There’s something there if you want to find it. But aye, once we started recording all of the B-sides, it was just so much fun that it was great to keep going.
Did you record it in summer?
Mostly in September. We did the single at the start of August and then started on a couple of B- sides. By the end of August, I’d decided to do an album. Deciding that in August for a December release is pretty ridiculous, but we had most of September free. It was a very warm September, if I remember correctly. I wore shorts every day we were recording that album!
There’s something a bit perverse about that, isn’t there?
It was good fun though! Apparently that’s the way all good Christmas records are made…’Fairytale of New York’, Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’. All made in the summer. And I’m sure, made in a much more glamourous location than the Blantyre industrial estate that we made ours!
The album touches on loneliness and disconnection, and the ghosts that people can feel at Christmas. Did you feel it was important to be honest, and to represent the ‘other side’ of it all?
Definitely. There is an element that this is what I do naturally, and I don’t really feel a need to be happy – I never have. That’s not to say that I don’t like happy music, I definitely do. I think people get quite upset when they discover that I’m not a miserable bastard all of the time.
We had a gig last week in Manchester, actually. I got monumentally heckled by a guy who seemed to be really, really upset that we were enjoying ourselves. I don’t think he had heard me and Hubby (R.M. Hubbert) before. Maybe he saw my name on the poster. I think maybe he was an Arab Strap fan, maybe liked the Bill Wells stuff that I did.
So he was looking for a certain thing?
I think so. Towards the end, he started shouting that I had become a “cabaret act”. He was really, really loud and obnoxious. The audience turned on him, and I jumped off the stage, for the first time since the 90s, with the intention of getting into a fight. It was very, very exciting. To be honest with you, it made me feel alive again. I felt young!
Thankfully, by the time I reached him, the bouncer had already marched him off down the stairs. But I think that’s a very good example of how people expect me to be a right miserable bastard all the time and get quite disappointed when I’m not.
I said to him, I think the mistake you’re making is that you’re expecting me to be the exact same person that I am in the songs. That’s not who I am – I choose what I put in the songs. He was quite angry about that, I remember. Saying, “No, you put everything in the songs.” He was so upset that I wasn’t the man that he wanted me to be, which is ridiculous! People are fucking idiots sometimes.
And then he was talking about it on Twitter, then he joined The Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ section just to make a comment underneath the review of our album. So angry. If you’re the sort of person who’s really, really angry at anyone, far less someone you’ve never met before who makes music, for not being the person you want them to be – then life is just going to be a series of disappointments, from one moment to the next.
I know you use characters to tell a story, but how much of your own thoughts and feelings about Christmas did you bring to this record?
I’m very much a believer that no-one is really writing about other people, they’re always writing about themselves. Obviously, it’s not as personal and direct as the stuff I’ve written in the past. As I get older, I enjoy a bit more of the mystery. When I was younger, the rules were that it always had to be true, and it always had to be about me. These days, I enjoy writing with emotional truth. I think sometimes people can relate more to that.
I’m a middle-aged man these days, no-one wants to hear me being grotty about my own body. It would make me uncomfortable, so god knows how everybody else would feel.
There’s definitely bits of me in it. In ‘Such It Shall Be’, me hiding in the toilet – that’s quite often something that I do at family events. I’m very good at disappearing with a book for half an hour. Even ones like ‘Recurrence of Dickens’, although I adapted that from one of his essays, it’s still very much how I feel as well.
All of the songs, even the cover versions, were chosen with care, and they mean something to me.
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Why did you choose those particular covers? You’ve been doing ‘Only You’ for a long time in the live set.
I’m a massive fan of Vince Clarke. A couple of years ago I went to see Erasure and I thought I was going to take off. It was outstanding. When they did ‘A Little Respect’, I mean, honestly – I’ve not felt like that in years. I was tingling all over. And, I hasten to add, I was sober as well!
Was it better than Beyonce? I remember the night you were tweeting about that.
Not the one with Jay Z – that was good, that was alright. When she did her solo gig a few years ago at Hampden…that was definitely a religious experience. It was phenomenal, and I was so close to her as well. We managed to get into the ‘special circle’ because a friend knew someone who worked there, so they managed to sneak us in.
And, they knew exactly what was happening in the set, so they said ‘Look, follow us, because Beyoncé will be standing over there in about ten minutes’ time. I’ve never been so close to a God.
I just remember watching Twitter and seeing you say, ‘This must be what the first Christians felt like’
Haha! Indeed. It was brilliant, aye.
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You’ve used other people’s words to help tell your stories – Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Fir Tree’. How did you come across them, and how did you adapt them?
Well obviously, I’ve known Dickens was a perennial Christmas classic. But it was only recently that I read A Christmas Carol for the first time. I was just shocked at how great it was. Everybody knows what happens. We all know about the ghosts, about the change of heart that he has in the end. Though I’d never actually read it, until about five or six years ago.
You forget how innovative Dickens really was. And I think it struck me how modern it seemed. There’s a really wonderful, conversational tone in it. That’s because he wrote these things to be read. He would tour the country and read these stories to people, so it was very much written as a sort of personal, intimate sort of story.
But aye, I did a wee bit more research into him and found an essay he wrote before A Christmas Carol. Technically, it encapsulated all of the ideas that became the book later on. It was just lovely, that first page, and it seemed to have connotations applicable to now.
There’s a lot of talk of “reduced circumstances and straitened incomes”. It seemed to ring bells for where we are at the moment, which is a terrible thing to say – the idea that we’re travelling back into some kind of Dickensian nightmare is horrifying, but it actually seems to be the case.
My son was reading about Dickens recently, and he was telling me that in that time, at his age - of ten - he would be working. We’re not actually that far from those days.
Your children appear on the record – both in the lyrics, and the music. Did becoming a father change your relationship with Christmas?
Definitely. Christmas was pretty dull before I had children, to be honest. For the first couple of years, when they’re babies, it doesn’t really matter, but when they become aware of it, it’s great. And it really is. That’s what it’s really all about. If I didn’t have children, I’d be, I don’t know, visiting my mum, maybe having a quiet night in or something. But it becomes such an event with children.
I found an old video camera not that long ago. One of those Flick ones. It was just a wee, hand-held white thing with a USB poking out of it. Before everyone had videos on their phones it was quite a trendy wee camera.
It must’ve been seven or eight years ago when I last used it, because I found footage of my son when he was three, on the first Christmas that he was kind of into it and understood what was happening. And it was great to see. It was also amazing to see how utterly empty my flat was at that point. Now it’s full of boxes and children’s junk!
But to see his wee face light up again?
Aye, it was beautiful. I mean, he knows the truth now. I told him Christmas Day last year.
He’d been really upset, because he was with his cousins, and all the parents do things differently. He and his sister had a present from Santa, but his cousins didn’t. He was really, really upset about this, and didn’t understand how Santa could give him a present and not one to his cousins. He started saying that he didn’t really want his present, asking if he could share it. Saying how he thought it wasn’t fair what was happening. Started shaking.
He just couldn’t comprehend how Santa had been so unfair to his cousins. So I had to take him upstairs, and sit him down, and tell him the truth. Which maybe, on Christmas Day, wasn’t the best idea. But then again, when is a good time? Afterwards, he quite enjoyed having the wee secret.
I think that’s the day that he felt a wee bit older. I expect, as time goes on, he will remind me that that was the day he became a man! That time his vicious father told him that Santa wasn’t real. On Christmas Day!
I don’t know what I’m going to do with his sister. She’s five, and she’s very much still enraptured with the fantasy. It’s great that he knows, and he’s been great at keeping it quiet and not letting on. He understands now why it happens, he knows that it’s just good fun. It’s a brilliant wee fairytale.
Yet now he’s complicit.
Exactly. No longer the audience, he is now the magician.
You’ve got that lovely line about toasting the trees with cider, and watching Dr Who – those little family rituals. What do you do for Christmas?
I don’t really have any rituals, to be honest. This is the loose cannon Christmas, because I’m going to my mum’s wee flat in Falkirk. When it’s the other year, when we go to the in-laws, that’s a different thing. That’s the time where all the cousins go, and it’s a much bigger event. That’s a bit more of the ‘traditional’ idea of Christmas, but I like having them both. The contrast of the wee flat and the big house.
It’s such a personal celebration, isn’t it? Everyone has their own way of doing it.
I mean, I don’t really know, I just take it as it comes. It’s about the children now. And then that’s over within about half an hour, when everything’s open. The thrill has gone, and then it’s just sitting about trying to manage it all for a day or two.
And just eating, for about three days straight.
There is a lot of that, aye. I mean, I really should get a handle on that. I’m starting to get a wee bit rounder than I’d like to be. In the New Year I think I’m going to do the Dry January and cut down on the crisps. I’m becoming Santa. From this time last year, my beard is much greyer and whiter, my belly’s much bigger. Rather than letting myself turn into Santa, I think I should try to turn the tide, at least for a wee while.
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'Ghost Stories For Christmas' is out now.
Words: Marianne Gallagher
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