Malcolm Middleton’s fifth solo album, ‘Waxing Gibbous’ – his third in as many years – sneaked out via Full Time Hobby the other week to a ripple of critical applause. Rarely one to leap headfirst into the spotlight, the former Arab Strap man’s works are subtle beasts, requiring time and attention beyond that of your standard reviewer to fully make their impressions felt.
The album’s release was preceded by news that it’d be Middleton’s last solo effort – at least for a while, allowing the songwriter to take a break from such concerns and focus on other musical projects. As such it’s landed with rather less fanfare than greeted the records released at, arguably, his solo peak – ‘Into The Woods’ and ‘A Brighter Beat’ – but ‘Waxing Gibbous’ is just as strong as anything Middleton’s previously presented, and a close tonal cousin to the high watermark of 2005’s ‘Into The Woods’.
Clash dropped Middleton a line to see how he’s feeling about the new album, and the future…
Three records in as many years – you’re hardly lacking on a productivity front.
Well, I think that’s having an effect now. I love the record, this album – I’m really proud of it – but now I’m feeling quite lacklustre. I don’t know whether it’s age, or general cynicism, or just like you say: having done three albums in three years, without any breaks.
Did you feel, while writing this album, that it’d be your last before a break, and perhaps your last-ever solo album?
It was when it was finished. I started recording last August, when I was absolutely set on doing another record. But by the time this album was finished… I don’t know why, but it seemed like the right time. I still feel that I don’t do enough, that I don’t work hard enough – there are a lot of weeks and months when I’m not really writing anything.
Well, it’s not like you don’t tour, too. This is your profession.
Oh, definitely. I don’t have anything else outside of this, but I do worry that I’ve got rather stuck with this image, something that other people have given me. It’s something that didn’t bother me when I was younger, but now I feel quite stifled by it.
I guess in some eyes you are still that man from Arab Strap singing miserable songs, but that’s not really been the case across your solo catalogue. There’s definitely a celebratory tone to a number of tracks on this new album.
I think it’s a weakness on my part – to be bothered by other peoples’ perceptions.
But it’s not like you’re giving up music…
No, but it’s definitely going to take another form. I said this in a stupid press release, but I feel quite excited about being able to put this on hold for a little bit. I know that the next couple of releases I’m going to do aren’t going to be like the Malcolm Middleton songs you’ll know, and part of the reason I’m doing that is so that I can come back to this and feel excited about it again.
So can we expect releases under an alias?
Definitely. I really want to release some anonymous stuff, so that I won’t be affected by what anyone says. It’s ever since the Christmas single, there’s been something of a change in the way I see myself, and the way I hear my songs. Now I want to try… I like the idea of disguising myself, but also I like the idea of doing a pop band.
Maybe there’s a future for you as a shadowy svengali figure, writing heartbroken songs for girl bands…
Yeah, that’d be great – but I don’t know who’d buy it!
Have the changes in the way music is consumed – the way downloading fragments an album, and the availability of material for free, illegally or otherwise – also had an effect on this decision to take a break?
Um, yeah, definitely. It’s quite hard to talk about without sounding, well, miserable, but MySpace and the whole internet thing… There’s so much, and you see how all these bands of ten to fifteen years ago, who were small but could have been so influential, were swallowed up before they started. You know, trying to make something marketed not look marketed. I think after doing this for fifteen years, now is a good time to have a breather.
The ‘We’re All Going To Die’ campaign must’ve seemed very much out of your hands…
It did, yeah. It was good that it happened, that I got that attention; but at the same time it was a bit of a blur and I wasn’t really in control of it.
Looking back to Arab Strap, has the time since your debut. ‘The Week Never Starts Around Here’, flown by?
Oh, yeah. It feels like yesterday.
Are you able to see how influential Arab Strap were?
I don’t really think there’s all that much of a legacy from Arab Strap, although I appreciate that certain people still respect, and hold dear, some of our records. I’d like to think that they’re treasured in some households. But, really, we’re quite fresh out of this, so not much time has passed.
Have you met people who didn’t know of Arab Strap prior to hearing your solo material?
Yeah, there’s been some of that. But mainly the people who follow me followed the band before. When my first album [‘5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine’] came out, Arab Strap were still going, but the second, ‘Into The Woods’, was just after the band broke up, so a lot of fans followed me from then.
Did ‘Into The Woods’ mark the moment you discovered yourself as a solo artist?
I think it did.
It sounds like a more ‘complete’ record – and ‘Waxing Gibbous’ sounds like a close cousin of it, in terms of tone. Would you agree?
Yeah, I think so. Before ‘Into The Woods’ came out, I felt like something was happening. I hadn’t planned on making a second solo album, to tell you the truth – I was actually writing songs at home, for what I thought might be a pop band. (Laughs) But it soon became quite personal; although when it came out I then thought it wasn’t as personal as the debut. Although maybe that’s because the lyrics were better hidden, under poppier tunes.
I think, lyrically, ‘Into The Woods’ is magnificent. It’s pretty bleak in places, but articulated brilliantly. Was it mainly written after Arab Strap split?
No, most of it was written while the band was together, but even then I felt there was a new freshness to it. And, when ‘A Brighter Beat’ came along, I felt I really had to try hard to better myself – and I think you can hear that in the album (laughs). For ‘Waxing Gibbous’, I made a conscious effort to not ‘try’ again, but just to stay at home and have a laugh, making sounds. I felt like I was getting out some of the innocence that the last few albums were lacking.
The new title’s a lunar reference – are you much for horoscopes?
Definitely not! I can be superstitious, but only in my own world. But I think a few bad things have happened over the past few years, and I marked them by noticing that they happened in these particular moon phases… And I liked the worlds, and something coming close to being full, but not at its peak. I was going to call it ‘Waning Gibbous’ at one point, but I thought that was too negative.
I’d wondered if you’d read that a chapter in your career was to end, and another begin…
No, nothing like that. And if so I’d pay no attention to something like that. I am going to keep on writing songs, and I think I’ll be able to write some really good ones, for later on, during this ‘break’. I think I could write really well if I’m not feeling any pressure to put something out. By taking a break, it’ll help me to do more things in the background, rather than just do them half-heartedly.
Is this the first time in a while you’ve had a clean slate to start from? Do you usually have songs left over after an album process is completed?
Yeah, all of my albums have songs carried over from before, and I’m always left with songs I might use in the future. There are three songs I have right now, which I thought were going to be the big ones on ‘Waxing Gibbous’, but I didn’t quite finish them in time. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them, but there’s always stuff left over.
That’s the next phase, then – but you’re not sure what shape that phase will take?
That’s right. I think I’d like to have a band again, after being solo for so long. I’d definitely like to do something with other people, where we’re all on the same level, rather than me being kinda the dictator in the band.
Do you miss the… well, camaraderie I guess, of being part of a ‘proper’ band?
I definitely do. Arab Strap never had that, that much – it was more like two gangs fighting each other, and I think that’s why I enjoyed the solo stuff so much at the outset. But now I’ve reached the point where I’d really appreciate other peoples’ creative input.
I guess it’s important, sometimes, to have someone there to tell you when you’re wrong…
(Laughs) I don’t know if I’d go that far – I want someone there to tell me I’m right!
Malcolm Middleton’s ‘Waxing Gibbous’ is out now on Full Time Hobby; find him on MySpace HERE and see him live as follows…
26 Stirling Tolbooth Theatre
27 Aberdeen Tunnels
28 Glasgow King Tut’s
29 Manchester Night & Day
30 London ICA
1 Birmingham Glee Club
2 Bristol Thekla
3 Nottingham Bodega
4 Newcastle Cluny
Check ticket availability HERE.