Arab Strap: ‘The songs are about what people turn to when they’re in need, usually under the cover of night’

Sixteen years have passed since Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton’s last dispatches from the murky world of Arab Strap. But on their new album, As Days Get Dark, their gallows humour remains as potent as ever.

Arab Strap. Picture: Kat Gollock

The process of making records has actually got easier with age, says vocalist Moffat, now 47.

“When we were younger we were definitely a lot shoutier, but after time you just leave each other to get on with the jobs that we’re good at. I think there’s more of an element of trust than there was back then,” he reflects.

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“It’s natural to have arguments about music. I was glad there was only two of us, because if there were more it would be different.”

Now both fathers, Moffat believes he and Middleton have changed as people since they emerged out of Falkirk in the mid-1990s. “I was going to say we’re definitely more mature but I’m not sure that’s true, I’d like to think so,” he chuckles. “We do have responsibilities, we’ve both got children, that certainly changes your output a wee bit.”

Advances in musical technology have helped them flesh out their songs too. “A lot of the things we wanted to do back then we couldn’t do because we couldn’t afford them. If you wanted to use an 808 drum machine you had to either rent one or find someone who had one. Synthesisers, which were not ludicrously expensive but we couldn’t afford at the time, are now practically free, and being able to record a lot at home is good for the arrangements. The way we write songs is exactly the same but the way we put them together is a lot more efficient and a lot quicker.”

Having a familiar team behind them is also a boon. Paul Savage produced Arab Strap’s 1996 debut Philophobia and has worked with Moffat several times over the years. “We didn’t always agree on everything but that’s the point of these things. We get there in the end,” he says. Then there’s Rock Action, the label run by their long-time friends Mogwai. “The most exciting thing I’ve ever done with Mogwai is when they played the Hydro (in Glasgow) one December and they had me come on dressed as Santa to introduce them,” Moffat gleefully recalls.

As Days Get Dark seems the ultimate title for an Arab Strap record. Moffat says that while he didn’t intend to venture into deeper and darker lyrical territory than ever before, “it did kind of end up that way”. “It’s just the way I am, it’s what I find interesting,” he says. “The songs on the album are about what people turn to when they’re in need, usually under the cover of night. There’s a hint of desperation and it’s all kind of furtive and in the dark. We had quite a few titles for it that referenced the night and some of them were quotes from other things, but it turned out the obvious title was just in one of the songs, it’s a line from the last song, Just Enough. It just seemed to sum everything up: dark and a sense of night, but also metaphorically. Often the easiest answer turns out to be the right one.”

As a songwriter often drawn to bleak themes, Moffat feels “the times have just caught up with us” rather vice-versa. “It should’ve been out last October so (the Covid pandemic) didn’t influence it,” he says. “I was quite conscious of not mentioning the pandemic. By now I thought it was going to be over. I mistimed that a wee bit.”

Opening song The Turning of the Bones was inspired by a ritual from Madagascar. “It’s called Famadihana where they exhume a corpse and dance with it and dress it up and have a party because they don’t believe the spirit leaves the body until it’s decomposed,” Moffat explains. “It started as a metaphor about love and relationships and then I suddenly realised I was probably singing about Arab Strap as well.”

Fable of the Urban Fox is an allegory about the treatment of migrants. “I was reading about foxes and how they were demonised by the press and it was exactly the same story of migrants,” Moffat says. “One fox attacks a child and suddenly all foxes deserve to die; if a migrant commits a crime in Britain then all migrants are bad...It’s patently ridiculous. I suppose what the song is really about is the way in which papers can inform public opinion.”

Arab Strap are commemorating 25 years since the release of their first record. At the time, says Moffat, their ambition was simply to do a John Peel session. “That happened after our first gig. Everything after that was amazing. I’m not sure we ever fitted in. At the time there happened to be some good bands in Glasgow that we knew and we ended up being part of it, we ended up on the same label (Chemikal Underground) as a few.” Today, Moffat detects a greater appreciation of the band. “Also as well in the 15 years we’ve not been there I suspect more people have discovered us.”

As Days Get Dark is out now.