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Interview: Malcolm Middleton

9th September 2008

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Ex-Arab Strapper Malcolm Middleton described listening to his first album as being ‘quite harrowing’. His new album, released on February 26, is called A Brighter Beat, and Malcolm describes the song, of the same name, as being 'up tempo with quite poppy music.' But, then, the first track is still called 'We're all going to die.'

Michael Simon spoke to Malcolm about splitting up, depression and Madonna.

Malcolm Middleton“A lot of people have been calling us ‘miserabilists’ for years, and I think it's quite a lazy tag. A lot of the songs are downbeat or melancholic and so you get called miserable. There's definitely a lot of wallowing in self pity, but there's a lot more to my records. I think they're quite hopeful and quite funny. Whatever I put on a record is all that people have to see of me. So if I only put one side of myself, the more depressing side, then that's what people are going to write about and associate that with me, but obviously it's not what I am totally,” explains Mr Middleton.

If you've never heard of Arab Strap, then you've the missed the boat, because the band split in December. Taking their name from a leather ring used to maintain erection, the band peaked at the tail of Brit-pop, and over their eleven-year career produced six studio albums and a string of live albums.

Though it wasn't publicly announced until September, the band had decided to split up in April, going out with a final tour and an unusual 'best of' as a final album, almost entirely made up of unreleased material.

Malcolm was a principle member of Arab Strap, along with the legendarily boozy Aidan Moffat, who now performs under the moniker Lucky Pierre, meaning the fellow in the middle of a homosexual threesome - it was Aidan who came up with Arab Strap as well.

The two first met one night in Falkirk, when Malcolm left with the girl that Aidan Moffat had been hitting on. After a decade and multiple solo projects, the band had reached exhaustion by 2006.
“It'd been ten years and we'd had enough. I think both myself and Aidan were enjoying what we were doing outside of the band more than we were enjoying what we were doing with the band. We could have kept it going, but we both wanted to try something different and take a risk. We were sick of being stuck in the Arab Strap format and it was becoming a bit of an albatross. It's an ego thing as well, but after doing an individual record it was hard for me to go back to working with Aidan, because I had to compromise again, and he had to listen to my ideas, which he might not have liked, and I had to listen to his, which he might not have liked, and it was really hard work when you've been given free range to make a record. I loved doing my last records, and I just didn't enjoy doing the last Arab Strap record. I suppose it had been drifting that way for a few years, and Arab Strap were selling fewer records, and less people were coming to see us. So, as Aidan said, it was better to get off the ship before it sunk completely.”

“I'd say all the Arab Strap albums are definitely 100 per cent about Aidan's relationships. Aidan chose to do that, it's nothing I'd ever do, my songs are never specific, I never give details or names, and I don't give so much away about people I know.' Philophobia extensively detailed Aidan's relationship, she also appeared on the front and back sleeves of the album art. Being quite so explicit eventually caught up with Aidan. There was loads of stuff in the papers, because of what was on the albums, we had lawsuits threatened against him, and people generally being upset with him but that died down years ago.”

Middleton describes his music as 'pop music for people who hate pop music.'

“When I think of pop, I mean choruses and melodies. I like good pop music, but I don't like the way it's marketed nowadays, I don't like the image, the lyrics. It's basically pop music, not for adults, but for people who want something deeper from their music, so you're going to get a catchy chorus, but if you go a little deeper, there's something lyrically with a little more fibre, someone expressing themselves rather than just writing a good song.”

That means that he sounds a little like a more depressed Badly Drawn Boy - who he's supporting in February.

“I'm definitely not folk. It's a tag everyone's using these days. Real folk music is very traditional, and there's a certain style of storytelling in the songs. People use it today to describe acoustic guitars. In a few years, because people'll be sick of indie, and the underground will definitely be strong.”

'I've always been a fan of really cheesy pop music, I grew up listening to Madonna and Pat Benatar and Eighties pop music. The way things went with Arab Strap it's just not what we did. As a band our thing was to be minimal and strip everything back. I got tired of that, and I wanted to do what I enjoyed musically rather than what was expected by people inside the band or outside. On my last album I could just make the music that I wanted to make.”

After Stuart Murdoch appeared on Arab Strap's Philophobia, the band famously had a spat with Belle & Sebastian over their album, and song, 'The Boy with the Arab Strap.'

Whilst the song isn't explicitly about the band, the popular reading of Arab Strap wasn't that it was about a leather cock ring. Despite the lines like 'we all know you're hard because we've all seen you drinking from noon until noon again,' referring to Aidan, Malcolm denies that there really was a spat.

“I think Aidan got drunk in the pub and said he didn't like them using the band name in the album title, even though he'd previously said yes to Stuart, and I never really fell out with anyone.”

In light of that, A Brighter Beat was co-produced by Belle & Sebastian collaborator Tony Doogan, who also brought in Mick Cooke from the band. The album also features Barry Burns of Mogwai and Paul Savage of the Delgados.

In an interview with NME in 1998, Malcolm said to Aidan, "You can't just have a sociable drink without throwing up in the toilet the next morning. When was the last time you said, 'This is my sociable limit'?... Personally, if I was happy I wouldn't need it."

Malcolm dismisses the remark saying 'we were probably doing it whilst drunk or hung-over, so I wouldn't put any relevance on that at all,' but it certainly strikes a chord with his sentiments on the title song of the new album; “The lyrics explain at the end that if I could move to a different beat things would be better, but the fact is that I don't, so it's not really about me after all. It's kind of like a contradiction that I can't fix.”

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