Rank Your Records: Aidan Moffat Ranks the Six Miserable Records of Arab Strap
One half of the Scottish duo looks back at the band's catalog as they celebrate their 20th anniversary.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Sometimes a band just breaks up because it’s time. When Scottish duo Arab Strap announced their split in 2006, it was a completely amicable decision made by two good friends who knew after six albums they had reached a conclusion. Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton ended things with a compilation of rarities, newly recorded versions, Peel Sessions and outtakes amusingly titled Ten Years Of Tears, and a farewell message far more cheerful than any note of music they ever recorded: “There’s no animosity, no drama, we simply feel we’ve run our course... everybody likes a happy ending!” Arab Strap have decided to make a bit of a return to celebrate their 20th anniversary.
When they first emerged in 1996 with their debut single, “The First Big Weekend,” no one had quite heard anything like Arab Strap (which, yes, is the name of an outdated sexual device). That song’s deadpan yet droll dialogue depicted an authentically triumphant couple of days and nights on the tiles with friends in Falkirk. With Moffat’s heavy brogue and Middleton’s sparse, thumping arrangement, the track immediately became a cult hit, even inspiring Radio 1 DJ Steve Lamacq to hail it as “The Best Single of the Decade.” But that song was just the beginning for the two Scots. In their decade together, the duo released six albums of miserably perverse storytelling and skulking indie rock that never stopped evolving. And now they’re back.
“We always joked that if it all goes to shit we can just reform,” Moffat says with a hearty laugh. “And I think the reason why it’s been so enjoyable so far is because that’s not the reason why we’re reforming. We’ve managed to maintain a pretty successful existence since Arab Strap split up, and done a lot of different things. And with our 20th anniversary coming up it all started to make sense. Don’t get me wrong, the money is great and they’re some of the biggest gigs we’ve ever played, but that’s not the reason why we’re doing it. We’re having fun.”
Moffat says there is nothing further planned beyond the four reunion shows in London, Manchester and two in Glasgow. But a new self-titled compilation containing “songs we are really proud of and represent the band well on our anniversary” will give fans something to buy, considering most of the band’s material has gone out of print.
In anticipation of the reunion, we got Moffat to rank the six Arab Strap records, which he was glad to do even though he admittedly does not listen to the music he makes. “I should also preface the whole thing by saying that to me when I make an album I absolutely love it while I’m making it," he adds. “And there’s a period when it’s finished, before it’s released, where it’s still mine and I have a really strong relationship with it then. But as soon as an album is out and released into the wild I just have no interest in it then. Aye, it’s been an interesting thing to think about.”
6. Elephant Shoe (1999)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Aidan Moffat: It’s probably for more personal reasons than anything. I don’t think it’s a bad record, I just think it’s the weakest, lyrically. Looking back at it, the songs don’t really have any staying power with me. We didn’t really play a lot of them live when we did our farewell tour. To me, that was always, from a lyrical point of view, the weaker one. But also, it was a strange one, Elephant Shoe, because we had signed to a major label and this was our chance. I think we’re still recouping money from it. [Laughs] I don’t think we’ll ever quite pay back the money that they spent on us. I was very conscious of it because it was a hard decision to leave Chemikal Underground. Even before I started making records I was pretty against the whole major label system. I was very much a believer in doing things yourself and that DIY ethos, and Chemikal Underground was formed by a band [the Delgados] that wanted to put out their own records. We were all good friends and it all worked out well, so it was a very difficult thing to decide. But they were very supportive and said, “This is your opportunity. You can’t throw away a chance like this so you should do it.” And we did. And I’m glad that we did. I don’t regret it either.
I remember at the time I was very conscious of being another one of these 90s indie bands that sign to a major label and then no one ever hears of them again. That is the problem with the major label system: if the record you make isn’t a roaring success, you won’t be making another one. So I was very conscious as well that the people who liked Arab Strap didn’t think we were selling out. I think because of that I kind of steered it in a direction where we made our most difficult record. [Laughs] I still think there is a nice irony in that our saddest, most difficult record was the one we put out with a major label and had the opportunity to get more exposure. But, that said, that album did well in Europe especially. Being on a major label really helped us get to a new audience. People do seem to like it, but I don’t think I was as focused as I could have been making it. I was worried too much about what other people would think and I don’t think I got the results that I was hoping for.
Is it true that Go Beat! asked you to write more accessible songs?
No, to Go Beat!’s credit, they never tried to steer us in their direction at all. They were happy to leave us and let us do what we wanted. I do get the feeling that they would have preferred an album full of songs like “The First Big Weekend,” and I think that’s what they were hoping for. But no, they never said that. They weren’t upset with us because we had made that record. They were very supportive. But it was a difficult record to sell. It was probably the natural record Arab Strap would have made wherever we were. It just so happened that it was also the most expensive one. [Laughs] We probably could have spent the money better.
5. The Last Romance (2005)
Our last album. It wasn’t a bad record at all. I just don’t think it was as great as a whole as some other ones. To me, the best kind of albums are the ones that exist in their own world, and you get taken into that world for a little while. Like, I still listen to Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs. The way that album starts and ends, it’s such a complete whole. We’ve always tried to do that with Arab Strap records, but I’m not sure that The Last Romance gels the same way as the rest of them. That said, there are some songs on there that I’m real proud of. The first one, “Stink,” I’ve always really liked, along with “Don’t Ask Me to Dance.” And also, from a personal point of view, when you’re making your last album, it’s never gonna be as exciting as making your first album. I just don’t feel again a great joy when I think about that record. But I’m looking forward to playing them again. I think we’ll be playing at least three or four songs when we do the anniversary shows.
You announced the band’s demise right after the album came out. Was that something that was decided before or while you began working on the album?
It was after, although calling it The Last Romance and having that happy ending on the song “There Is No Ending,” which in itself is pretty funny because he were are talking about coming back from the dead, perhaps we were hinting at it. When you look back, no one had said this would be our last album at the time. But I think there was probably a feeling that we knew this was a natural ending to what we were doing. By that point, it had been almost ten years and this was our sixth album. I’m a big believer in the multiples of three idea, so the two trilogies sort of thing. It certainly wasn’t discussed, but maybe subconsciously it was made that way. And I do like it as a final album, and that Arab Strap’s six studio albums end with a joyous “fuck it!” [Laughs] I’m very happy that it’s all singing and dancing in the end.
Yeah. What brought that cheerfulness on?
Well, I think we both felt it was time to try something different, a wee bit more upbeat, certainly tempo-wise. But there is still plenty of dark stuff on there, and at the same time it’s more reflective and mature lyrically. Probably from a lyrical point of view I think the lyrics get better as the records go on. I think the lyrics I’m writing now are much better than they were then. There is very much a learning curve, and hopefully it will continue that way. That is always the worry because you always hear lyrics of people and they tend to get awful as they get older. I’m not descending that way. [Laughs]
I think with this record we just wanted to use different methods. It was the first time we used computers to write songs. We were making full demos at home and working on them there. It was a different way to work for us, because before that we pretty much always worked in the studio and improvised songs. But this was a first experience of using new technology, and even then it wasn’t as easy to make records at home as it is now.
4. The Red Thread (2001)
It’s difficult when you get to this point because I love all of these records to a degree. I think there is a lot of positive stuff on The Red Thread, but I just find the first half of it to be too slow and miserable. [Laughs] Even for an Arab Strap record! I really like the second half. I like “Love Detective” and “Turbulence,” the last song. But I’ve always thought it’s a pretty dark and grim record, especially that first half. Having said that, it’s probably one of our most popular records too. I have a lot of good memories associated with that because it was when we went back to Chemikal Underground after the major label. It was a really exciting time to make the record and everyone was so excited to be back with the label. We were really enthused and we put a lot of effort into that record. It did really well, I just think it was really a product of its time because now I don’t connect with it the way I did back then.
It’s a strange one, The Red Thread. There are moments I enjoy and songs we play live, and “Turbulence” is one of my favorite Arab Strap songs, but it’s such a heavy record, a lot of it. Again, I think there are personal issues connected with it because at the time the stuff I was writing about was the break up of a relationship I was in, which is a common theme with Arab Strap. But this was a particularly bad one, so it’s not a record I enjoy listening to perhaps because of that. There are all of these psychological factors you have to figure out with these things and I think The Red Thread just has a few too many bad memories tucked inside for me.
The red thread is said to link soul mates through time. So are you and Malcolm soul mates?
[Laughs] Ahh, I wouldn’t quite go that far, but we are certainly very good friends. We’re much better friends over the last ten years because we didn’t have Arab Strap. We’ll see how it goes when we get to October and do it again. It’s been really good fun getting ready. I’m really excited about it. I am enjoying it more than I expected to. I expected to like it, but I’m getting really excited thinking about playing these songs again. And I think Malcolm and I get along better now than we did back then. When you’re in a band it can be pretty intense. Especially when it’s you and your best friend and you’ve got these two alpha males, these two apex predators screwing off with each other quite a bit. [Laughs]
I collect paint-by-numbers paintings, so I’ve always liked this album cover.
Oh aye! That actually scared me as a child. It was on my grandparents’ wall. My mother had painted it and she didn’t reveal it was a paint-by-numbers until just before the album had come out. It was a scary, scary picture from my childhood, but an image that just fit the album so well: these beasts getting swallowed up by the fires of hell. [Laughs]
3. Monday at the Hug & Pint (2003)
I used to say it was my favorite, but in retrospect, from a personal point of view I think it’s one of our best as a whole. That thing I said earlier about being taken away to another world for 50 minutes, I think we did a good job of that. It tells a story as well. There are a lot of different sounds too, that it sounds very schizophrenic, and that’s what I wanted. It very much reflected what was going on in my life at the time, which was basically the aftermath of The Red Thread, when the relationship had died. I spent two years, I think, going out all of the time. [Laughs] And it was great! But I’m not interested in singing about the good times when you go out. It’s always the dark stuff that interests me. And I think Monday at the Hug & Pint is the real Arab Strap combine album. It also has some of our best songs, like “The Shy Retirer,” which is my proudest moment. That was quite a lucky song to happen because we had recorded that and it was finished, but then we lost the whole session in some sort of computer meltdown. And so we had to do it all over again, but it worked out better. Some horrible accidents can work out for the best. “Fucking Little Bastards” as well is a favorite. It’s Arab Strap’s best rock song, I think. It was a good period to make the record too. A lot of it is miserable sounding, but it was such good fun to make. It was the last time we were in the studio and did most of the recording in there.
What was the significance of having a track called “The Week Never Starts Round Here” sung by Malcolm?
It was one of these things where Malcolm sent me a tape and that was on it. Everything about it was great. I think he actually wrote the song for me as a gift, because there’s a bit in it about me forgetting the past and moving on. There were a lot of things that were in my mind at the time. And Malcolm hadn’t sang a song since the first record, so it seemed like a nice connection. It was great to have him back on a record, and a nice way to direct it back to that period of when the band began.
Did you get free drinks for life at the Hug & Pint for naming the album after it?
Well, the Hug & Pint didn’t exist back then. A lot of people thought it was a real place, but the Hug & Pint was a joke that my friend John used to talk about. In the artwork I think he is credited as the proprietor of the Hug & Pint. So we created this idea of a pub where you could go on a Monday morning and get a wee cuddle and a drink, obviously, after a long weekend. So it didn’t actually exist, but it does now, and I do get free drinks there, yes. [Laughs]
Yes, and I designed the logo for it too. I’m very proud of that.
Well it’s a very good thing that you didn’t end up calling it The Cunted Circus!
[Laughs] No! That would have been a band name for a pub as well. But you never know, ten years from now there might be a pub called that.
I read that the label wasn’t too fond of that name when you pitched it.
No, they weren’t. They weren’t having it. And that was the original name for the album, The Cunted Circus. But no, they didn’t want to do that, and I was quite angry at the time because I felt, and still do think it’s a good name for the album. But I’m glad we changed it because in retrospect, Monday at the Hug & Pint is a much better name, and the record shops didn’t have any problems stocking it.
2. The Week Never Starts Round Here (1996)
Again, it’s really for personal reasons. There is no greater joy than being young and making your first album. You really feel like you’re speaking to the world. It’s such a big step. Even just the act of going into a studio was so exciting to us. I make it sound quite glamorous too, but you can tell from the record that it wasn’t a highly polished and produced record at all. It was made in a pretty dingy studio with one dark live room with no windows on an industrial estate in Hamilton. I don’t think anyone in Hamilton would be offended if I say it’s not the most glamorous place in the world. It’s got some beautiful spots, but the Peacock Cross Industrial Estate is not one of them. [Laughs] If you turn the album up quite loud you can actually hear some of the bands that were rehearsing next door because it wasn’t soundproofed very well. Yeah, the ones where Malcolm is singing and playing the acoustic guitar, you can hear the low rumble coming through the way. You can also hear the trains, because the train station was right next to the studio. But even so it was such an exciting time, and listening to that record isn’t even about the music at all. It’s an exercise of nostalgia to me. It really is a document of youth to me.
I think a lot of people’s first records are their best because it captures something that you lose again: that initial excitement of making a record. I don’t think that was the case with Philophobia. This album isn’t all great memories, but memories I can look back on and still manage to enjoy.
Malcolm has said in the past that this was his favorite Arab Strap album.
Yeah, I don’t think it’s our best musically by any stretch. Certainly not our best lyrically. But on a personal level, you have such a strong emotional attachment to your first record. Normally I would have put it as my first, but I listened to Philophobia a couple of years ago and I was surprised with it.
Guinness used “The First Big Weekend” in an ad. That seemed like a good fit for the band.
Yes, that was our only dabble with the advertising world. It was okay. I feel like we were not given the best treatment financially though. There were all of these news stories at the time reporting that “Arab Strap were given £50,000 to do this advert.” What’s closer to the truth is that we got about £5,000 from them. [Laughs] And I did get the feeling that because we weren’t a big band at the time they could take the piss a little bit with the money. I don’t regret doing it. I’m glad we tried it, but I don’t think it’s something we’d ever do again. To be associated with a brand is not something I’d be willing to do now. We’re quite lucky in that respect because the ad didn’t quite click. The deal was they would show it for a few weeks, and if they saw an increase in their sales they would continue to show it. And that’s not what happened with the Arab Strap ad. It didn’t boost their sales at all, so they stopped using it after the first run. And I’m glad they did, because if it had taken off I’m not sure I would have been happy being associated with a brand. Nothing against Guinness, just brands in general.
You named a song after Kate Moss. Did you ever hear from her?
No, no, never did I’m afraid. Probably for the best. It’s not exactly a hands-in-the-air celebration of Kate Moss. [Laughs]
1. Philophobia (1998)
Why is this your favorite?
As I was saying, I was listening to this recently because we did the reissue and I had to approve a test pressing, and it took me by surprise. There are a lot of wee bits I had completely forgotten about. For a band that I’ve always considered pretty miserable, Philophobia is actually quite a colorful record. There are tales to be told, perhaps because of some dark areas, but I was thinking of what an inventive record it was. I don’t really remember being that inventive at any point in my life. [Laughs] Certainly not at that point. Making Philophobia was very exciting. You can’t beat the feeling of making a first album, but for this second album we went to a posher, more expensive studio. It’s where we first met Jeff Allen, who would record lots of stuff for us right up until the end. In fact, Jeff has just mastered the compilation, so we’re still using him. The first album I love for many personal reasons, but musically we were still trying to find our feet. I think it all came together on Philophobia. I still think it’s probably the more popular album we made. The first album is pretty tough. It’s a dense listen. But Philophobia takes those ideas and makes them more palatable and brighter.
I do think my vocals are shite though, don’t get me wrong. I wish I could go back and re-record every single vocal because I can now sing these songs the way I wanted to sing them back then. That’s one of my reasons for reforming. I’ve been singing the old songs better than I used to, because I’ve had ten more years of experience. So it’s quite strange to do that. When people go and hear a band that’s reformed, I’m not sure they want to hear professionals. I think they’d rather hear them be a bit shit like before. I might have to dial it back a bit. I might be too good now! I don’t know. We never really rehearsed the songs before we recorded them back then, and I think that is partly what gave us our sound. So I cannot really complain about it.
Without question "It was the biggest cock you'd ever seen..." is my favorite opening line on any album.
[Laughs] I suppose it does have a very good opening line. I’ve always been quite proud of that one. Even the way we did that. While we were making the record I was very conscious. As soon as I wrote it I thought, “This is definitely the first song on the album.” And we made sure that the song starts with me. I’m on my own when I introduce the song, so it was all thought out and I’m really proud of it. I’m not sure I’m in a hurry for my children to hear it.
At what age would you play your kids an Arab Strap album?
I’m not sure. Hopefully, I’m gonna try and get my son into the show at the Barrowlands. It can be done as long as he doesn’t come through the bar area. I hope it will work. He’s eight right now, and it’s not so much that I want him to hear the band, I just want him to see what I do for a living because I don’t think he quite understands yet. I think that might be a good first gig to go to.
Are there any regrets to using naked portraits of your ex-girlfriend and yourself as the artwork?
Funny enough, I just showed that to my son for the first time yesterday and he thought it was fucking hilarious. [Laughs] No, not at all. That was all very well planned. It did cause me some trouble with the parents of my girlfriend at the time because that was her on the front of the record. They weren’t too happy about it. I did create a bit of tension in that respect. But no, I think it’s a pretty good cover. There is nothing else quite like it, especially when you turn it around. I wanted people to wonder why there was a naked woman on the cover. Some people felt it was a bit sexist, but then when they turned it around they were confronted by my naked body. I think the artwork and the opening line of the album came together really well.
The same year you released Philophobia, Belle and Sebastian released The Boy with the Arab Strap. How did you feel about that album title?
The only issue I have with the album title—it’s actually quite a good album title, which we should have thought of ourselves—was that to this day people still think we named our band after that album title. Which is fucking annoying! And I knew that would happen. Even at that point, Belle and Sebastian were doing much better than we were, and I knew people would ask me, “Why would you name your band after a Belle and Sebastian record?” And it started to happen pretty much immediately after it was released. But I think most people know the difference, but some thought we were a new band named after that album.
We supported Belle and Sebastian at our fourth gig, I think. Their first album came out only four months before ours. I mean, I don’t really care so much anymore. I’m 43 years old and these things don’t bother me at all. When you get past 40, it’s time you stop giving a fuck about most things.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac