Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat on As Days Get Dark
Aidan Moffat talks to us about male fragility, optimism in spite of darkening days, and the return of Arab Strap
Speaking to us during the dual restrictions of snow storms and lockdowns, Aidan Moffat has no idea what day it is, but is resolutely chipper in the face of delayed release dates, postponed gigs and another weekend stuck inside. “Perversely, it's actually a really good time to be releasing a record,” he says. “People are at home, and without gigs they're maybe starting to readdress the value of recordings, I think they're engaging more.”
The value of the music industry and the importance of its survival has been discussed at length recently, though most efforts at helping have had to be at a grassroots level, from venue Crowdfunders to Bandcamp Fridays. “There's been discussions in parliament over the last year about Spotify rates and things like that. Obviously I'd rather be out playing gigs – we've got everything crossed for the September dates – but it's worked out okay.”
As Days Get Dark is the first Arab Strap album since 2005. Both Moffat and Malcolm Middleton have been busy in the interim, with dozens of collaborations, albums and projects between them, remaining active in the Scottish music scene as well as further afield. But the acclaim and love for the duo's original, superlative ten-year run never seemed to disappear, with their fandom increasing as a new generation of listeners were able to discover the band through the wizardry of the internet.
This cultish devotion was confirmed when the pair reunited for a string of ecstatically-received gigs in 2016 and 2017, while the hunger for new material can now finally be sated. Despite the album being a clear sonic continuation, Moffat is clear on the desire to move forward instead of dwelling on nostalgia and trying to recapture the 90s. “This album feels like its own new thing to me,” he says. “It's a completely different world [now]; when I grew up, the idea of a mobile phone, that was just for Star Trek. The way that technology and society have progressed in my lifetime is phenomenal. It happens so quickly, but you get used to it so quickly. Even in the past year, with something like wearing a mask, it's amazing how quickly we adapt to these new things.”
Fortunately, the creative process was relatively unscathed by COVID. “We started recording in 2019 and when the pandemic started we had three weeks left that we had to cancel and move to summer. Malcolm would go in one day and do some guitar parts, then I'd do a drum day, a vocals day... a lot of the later recording we did separately to keep our social distance. By the time we got to the mixing stage we could be in the same room (it's a pretty big room). It made the album late; it should've been out last October and we should've finished our tours by now, that's the only real downside.”
Windows are a key recurring theme in the album, beginning with the album artwork: two open (digital) windows, one showing a 19th century painting (The Night escorted by the geniuses of Love and Study by Pedro Américo), the other a mostly-hidden, suggestively lewd photo, with a block of flats in the background. “At first [the painting] was just in a frame but we thought it was a bit boring... we also wanted a theme of windows, at one point we had a cover that was a sort of tower block, suggesting stories behind the windows, but we realised it looked a bit like the first Streets album.”
Strangely, one of the album's most prescient lyrics – 'We gab with ghosts in windows' – was the only one written before the album was conceived; “that's something I wrote a few years ago, I'd been writing something for a dance actually, and it just seemed to fit the song perfectly.” Bluebird, the track that line is taken from, explores our relationship with technology and social media, settling for an ambivalence that Moffat sums up neatly: “I do enjoy social media but I wonder why I put myself through the pain sometimes.”
Given the title, the other key motif is the night/darkness: “The night [in the painting] is a seductress, there's a look on her face saying 'you will enjoy me', not in a sexual way, but the night is a place where exciting things happen... it's a time when maybe we think too much, and a time when romance could happen.” Each of the album's songs involves darkness or takes place at night, giving it a remarkably cohesive feel, although the arrangements are some of the most varied and eccentric Arab Strap have made (“the saxophone's my fault,” Moffat quips).
That saxophone makes an appearance in the infectious Turning of Our Bones, the first single released back in September, along with what sounds like synthesised bongos, setting out the album's experimental stall early on. Second single, Compersion Pt. 1, provides some stellar guitar (see also: Tears on Tour) and “strange timings” that Moffat managed to work into something resembling disco. “It's 7/4 but you can still dance to it – I was quite pleased with that.”
The murkiness of the lyrical concern is particularly prominent on Kebabylon, which is “not necessarily a place, but a time, from 3am to 7am in the city when the streets are full of secrets (back in the old days). It was inspired by a book I read about London street sweepers and there was a line, something like 'we're there to keep your secrets', because of the things they find, y'know, knickers, drugs, condoms etc, all manner of stuff. They're some of the lowest paid workers in society, but in some ways they're like guardian angels, which I thought was great.”
One of the album's bluntest songs also has an unlikely literary inspiration. Fable of the Urban Fox is a (very) thinly-veiled statement on the media's portrayal of immigration, but actually came from an earnest effort to learn more about foxes after noticing some roaming about near Hampden Park. "I was reading a book called Foxes Unearthed by Lucy Jones. There's a couple of chapters on how the media started to demonise them when they came into urban areas from the countryside (where they were being murdered).
"It's an obvious metaphor, but I don't see the point in being subtle with these things. It's really about the papers and the media and the way they control public thought. One fox attacked a child, didn't do any particular harm, and suddenly all foxes were pests and had to be destroyed. And it's exactly the same attitude that the right-wing papers have on immigration and refugees, and it just seemed to me that it's the same thing.” Ultimately, Moffat doesn't think of it as a political song, though: “it's about kindness!”
On the flipside of that, Tears on Tour is much more comfortably in the Arab Strap wheelhouse, taking an adolescent idea about being an anti-comedian as a starting point and making an important comment on male emotional fragility (or the supposed lack thereof). I thought I'd detected a streak of dark humour in all this, an idea Moffat rebuffs with a laugh: “I just really wanted to upset people; genuine grief and sadness. When I was growing up, in the 80s, men still didn't really talk about their feelings, and when I was a young man in the 90s it was all lads mags and Britpop and all that kinda shit, and it always struck me as interesting – why don't men get emotional? [...] There was never any humour intended, just sheer bleak darkness.”
As Days Get Dark may revel in a crepuscular fervour, but things look bright for Arab Strap as we (hopefully) move away from lockdown and the snow starts to melt, which may be just in time for Moffat: “I went sledging last week and nearly fucked myself right up – I'm no use at it, I can't balance, went straight into the bushes every time.” Hopefully we'll be at a healthier place as a nation by September to allow a return to live music as Arab Strap hope to hit the road, including an already sold-out night at the Barrowlands.
“I feel like we're right on the cusp of possibility (the September dates),” Moffat muses, “we're definitely going to play them, but we'll push them back if we need to, who knows maybe we'll make another record before then.”