5:14 Revisited: Malcolm Middleton reflects on his debut solo album

One time Arab Strap man Malcolm Middleton speaks about the re-release of his debut album, his ever maturing muse and falling foul of the Mayor of Falkirk

Feature by Colm McAuliffe | 03 Jun 2013

It’s been eleven years since Malcolm Middleton tentatively broke cover from his day job with Arab Strap to record and release his debut solo effort 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine. In the interim, he has maintained a prolific output as a solo artist; his searing, mordant honesty is an all too rare commodity in the music business. But such candour hasn’t always proved positive for Middleton and his musical cohorts. “The Mayor of Falkirk wanted us run out of town after we said the place was full of alcoholics and junkies”, he reflects as The Skinny meets him prior to a rare solo performance in London. “And one of Aidan’s ex-girlfriends went to the Citizens Advice Bureau to stop an Arab Strap song which said some things about her. But, as someone pointed out to her, it was all true!”

While the decision to re-release 5:14 is purely to satiate vinyl aficionados, the album provides a fascinating, occasionally harrowing document of Middleton during this era. While his erstwhile bandmate may have focused his ire on those around him, Middleton’s gaze is relentlessly inward. The album sounds like a postcard from the depths of human emotion, sparse and fragile, the sound of a man at the very end of his tether. But he is ambivalent when it comes to revisiting this period. “I've come on as an artist [in the intervening years] but I've also lost a lot,” he now says. “I didn't write it as a record, I wrote it because I needed to, I wasn't even planning on releasing it. And because there wasn't an intended audience, there's an honesty that I'll never get again because I'm making records regularly. I could never make a pure, honest record like that again. I've lost the innocence, the naivety, the ability to express myself without trying to hide something. I mean it's a cliché but I wrote it because I was feeling so shit at the time. I needed to get it out and laugh at myself, see how bad it was. And it worked, it helped a lot. It helped when people started hearing the songs, it created a bond with what I was saying and people going through the same thing. It's funny playing these songs now; I do like them, but some I cringe at... I have to sing them and not expect to be feeling that again.”

But 5:14 isn’t all dour desolation. The melodies dance and shimmer with a pop luminescence and his ramshackle, barely-there vocals are warm and empathetic. Although Middleton doesn’t necessarily agree. “I’ve hated listening back to the vocals,” he exclaims. “It was done really quietly in my house so the neighbours wouldn’t hear. My voice sounds like I was fifteen years old! But I was actually twenty seven, an important year for a lot of people between being an adult and becoming a proper adult with responsibilities. You get a life shock. And I didn’t think it would lead to any more solo albums – I couldn’t even open my mouth to sing if there was another person in the room. But I’ve moved on. I see them as songs rather than part of my everyday life. The record was a massive step for me.”

"I couldn’t even open my mouth to sing if there was another person in the room. But I’ve moved on" - Malcolm Middleton

The relative accessibility of the music can be ascribed to a resolutely commercial range of influences which Middleton was listening to during this period. “I had just discovered Bob Dylan whom I’d hated for years. And I was listening to John Lennon. Pat Benatar. Nick Cave. I discovered traditional things that other people I knew had been listening to but I was always put off by their status! But I’m a really lazy songwriter. I don’t use a lot of words. I read recently about Jason Molina giving advice on how to write songs: get up at 8am in the morning, sit down, open the dictionary, write and not leave the desk for an hour. I’m so not like that!”

It seems odd to think Middleton has now spent nearly more time as a solo artist than a member of Arab Strap. “Well, I do miss it sometimes,” he says. “I miss having a band, the atmosphere, I miss playing with Aidan. I like not being at the centre. We did a reunion gig in Nice N’ Sleazy’s which was really enjoyable because we didn’t even rehearse. By the time we had finished the band, we hated each other and there were so many business things going on… so just to sit down and play guitar was really good. You can appreciate the strength of the songs. But I don’t think we will make another record again because we’re not those young guys anymore. And I definitely don’t think we’ll be offered lucrative deals to reform, we weren’t a big band!”

Middleton’s own brush with the big time peaked when his single We’re All Going To Die made an unlikely push for the Christmas Number One, only to stall at a still-respectable 31. “It was funny at the start – it was my idea, I mentioned it to the record company who ran with it and Colin Murray then heard about it and it went crazy. At the end, I did want to back of a little but I was lucky in that it seemed to have no positive or negative effects. I seem to have come out unscathed. The only thing I’m disappointed about it that it’s not been added to the NOW Christmas albums. I might have to remix it with sleigh bells.”

About this time last year, Middleton appeared to have had some form of identity crisis and disavowed recording under his own name, adopting the Human Don’t Be Angry moniker. The resultant mélange of heady electronics and instrumental sideswipes was arguably the Falkirk man’s best yet. “I’m gonna do another record [as HDBA] but I want to do another solo album first. The reason I did the Human Don’t Be Angry album was because I was sick of writing songs. I just wanted to do music. I did it for a while, there was no pressure and I started to enjoy it again. I’ve also finished a collaboration album with David Shrigley so hopefully that will come out this year. I’ve finished writing the solo album although probably won’t record it until summer 2015. This will be my seventh solo record so it’s important I do something different. I don’t want to become a caricature of myself.”

Middleton’s relentless productivity is a necessity in an age of markedly reduced earnings for musicians. “I’ve been doing okay since Arab Strap started. It’s getting harder and harder to make money for music but that’s also a fair thing. Before you’d get money from record companies for albums which wouldn’t sell. And CDs were overpriced, the record companies were making so much money. It’s levelled out a bit now.”

Nevertheless, if things do go belly-up, Middleton can always fall back on his alternate career route as Falkirk’s answer to Indiana Jones. “Egyptology!” he sighs. “That was just an evening class I took in Glasgow that I mentioned in an interview before and it was blown up massively. I was bored and wanted to do something different – I was thinking, 'if this stops what am I going to do? I’m not qualified in anything.' But, obviously, there’s no money in Ancient Egyptology! I just thought I’d do it to exercise my brain. I got a certificate…and a whip and a hat. But I’d have been better off doing something that had a job at the end of it. Definitely not Egyptology. What should he have done instead? Middleton lingers on the thought “…Fuckology! Actually, that sounds like something Aidan would want to call one of his records!”

5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine is re-released via Chemikal Underground on 3 Jun. Malcolm Middleton plays The Fruitmarket, Glasgow on 17 Jun, The Wee Chill, SWG3, Glasgow on 29 Jun and Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival, Inverness on 3 Aug. http://www.malcolmmiddleton.co.uk