Going Nuclear: Malcolm Middleton on Summer of '13
With Summer of ’13 – the first album under his own name in seven years – about to hit the streets, Malcolm Middleton tells us why he went away, why he came back, and why that isn’t the whole story.
April Fool’s Day, a nuclear bunker tucked away in a remote corner of Fife. Just your average subterranean complex buried innocuously beneath a farmhouse, the rooms and corridors decorated with cold-war trinkets of a strangely kitsch variety – it’s not the first place you’d expect to bump into a pop star.
“Ah, I was also here last weekend,” confesses this particular pop star, his sheepishness subverted with a grin. Could it be that he appears somewhat at home amidst the exhibits?
Well, it’s not like he’s invited The Skinny to his neck of the woods as a joke. Nor to examine metaphors around an artist we haven’t heard from for quite a while (at least in his own guise); with the first Malcolm Middleton album in seven years ready for release, not once are clumsy allusions to emerging from bunkers referenced.
Breaking up with himself
“It was deliberate at the time,” he explains of his sabbatical as we sit in the coffee shop, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird dribbling from the PA system. “It was always something I knew I was going to come back to… but I wasn’t going to be ready for seven years, it seems.”
“I was writing songs all the time, but there was nothing that made me think: these are good, I should go and do another record. I was appreciating the space, because in the years after Arab Strap finished I was really busy – I did three solo albums, and tours and stuff, and the labels I was on before had me on a bit of a treadmill; they were saying, ‘When’s your next one due?’ So I just had to split up.”
Which isn’t quite the entire story; Middleton the brand may have been on hiatus, but he kept himself busy, releasing two albums of predominately instrumental lo-fi post-rock as Human Don’t Be Angry as well as providing the musical backdrop to David Shrigley’s misanthropic storybook Music and Words.
What this period does hint at, however, is a realignment of relationship with the music industry.
“It’s so much different from when I started,” he admits. “It’s harder now, but also easier. I think it’s a lot more honest, because you could probably make more money 20 years ago when there was still the old method of recording advances and publishing deals. Even for a band like Arab Strap you still got money, and that was money you didn’t necessarily have to pay back – or you couldn’t pay back, because you didn’t get the sales. Now, there’s not so much of that, but it’s more like a cottage industry, and you don’t expect money for nothing.”
Teaming with Miaoux Miaoux and Lone Pigeon
Which brings us to Summer of ’13. It’s a warm, engaging record, the arcs of lyrical candour graceful and erudite (“Some words weren’t made for singing, just like some people weren’t made for songs,” he confesses on You & I).
Yet where the material does divert from back catalogue is via an unashamedly pop setting, guitars replaced by rippling keyboards and bouncy, lithe production from Miaoux Miaoux’s Julian Corrie. It arrives a little unexpected, hinting at reinvention – not that Malc sees it that way.
“To me it’s natural because it’s the music I’ve always listened to. I remember when someone first heard the album, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, there’s no guitars, it’s too poppy.’ But this is what I was doing before, with the last few records. It’s the way it’s been going.”
“If anything I was conscious of trying to embrace the spirit of [second solo LP] Into The Woods, because when I did that record I didn’t think about it; it was just recording songs for fun, and with Summer of ’13 it was the same idea. And the fact that I was writing the words and making up the musical parts without thinking of the listener, it freed me up a little to do daft things. I like some R'n'B stuff, so I started doing bits of that, which a Scottish guy in his 40s shouldn’t be doing. I wasn’t expecting anyone else to hear it, so it frees things up – there was no pressure.”
Middleton's songs in the key of Fife
It’s also a record influenced by location, Middleton having exchanged the big bad city for coastal Fife.
“We lived with nothing nearby, nothing to do, and I had a clock-tower room – a stable/quad/courtyard thing with an old clock tower – which I had for writing and doodling in. It was good, but it was bit too isolated sometimes, and that probably made me write more than I usually would. I wrote lots of songs, but … the older you get – and I write more than I ever did – I say to myself that…”
Your quality threshold increases?
“Yeah. If I see a song repeating what I’ve done before, adopting the same sort of caricature of myself, I tend to bin it and move on. But the location was important, especially with having Gordon living next door. He moved in after I’d been there for about a year, and we got on really well, enjoying each other’s company and music – he’s quite a character.”
Gordon being Gordon Anderson, a.k.a. Lone Pigeon, whose influence and attention to detail (however quirky that detail may be) is another important aspect of Summer of ‘13’s charm.
“There’s a couple of tracks that Gordon’s on. With the first track – Steps – I had the song acoustically, and it came together quite quickly in the studio. But then Gordon heard it and started getting enthusiastic. So he grabbed it, wanting to take the whole song into his studio to start doing things, and I just thought, 'Fuck it, why not? Let’s see what he does.'
“It’s always better when I hear someone else on my songs. I don’t like listening to my songs, but I like the music I make. I like hearing other voices on it. One day I’d just like to make music and have other people… although I’ve been saying that for years.” And he smiles as we mentally fill in the blanks.
'There’s parts of me I wouldn’t put on stage'
In fact, Malcolm smiles far too frequently for someone more often associated with miserabilism; an unfair label that has much to do with his lyrics as his quiet, thoughtful persona. How much of the real Malcolm Middleton does he put on display?
“There is a barrier. In the past it’s always been 100% me on stage, but as that’s evolved it’s almost like I step into myself, which I don’t really want to do as that’s becoming a caricature of myself. But there’s parts of me I wouldn’t put on stage. If you look at my lyrics and the song titles, you’d think: what a miserable bastard, but day-to-day I’m pretty happy."
And is there an element of catharsis to his lyrics? He pauses. “Probably none. I’ve been asked this before and I always think – well, I never think about this stuff until I’m being interviewed. It’s a good question, but it’s more… I just want to answer it honestly…
“Catharsis would make you think there’s some kind of finishing point at the end of the record, when it’s not that at all. When I go back to the old stuff it doesn’t feel like me that wrote it, but it seems very wise, when at the time it didn’t feel wise – I was just writing lyrics. This album’s been done over such a long time that it doesn’t feel like there’s some kind of fruition at the end of it. The lyrics are just me, spouting, expressing, seeing how I was feeling at the time. Sometimes, if you write something you’re thinking or feeling you don’t necessarily feel like that again, or every day, but then you’ve tied it into song. It’s kind of a postcard.”
And with that, it’s time to investigate the rest of the bunker – you never know when the four-minute warning will sound (plus there’s a tour to rehearse, Johnny Pictish Trail accompanying him on a jaunt across the UK). It’s a unique, fascinating place – just as Summer of ’13 is a unique and fascinating record.
“I know I’ve got history, but I would prefer this album not to be associated with indie, or alternative, or my music,” Malcolm admits. “I’d rather it went out as a bigger thing.” I think we might concur.