Malcolm Middleton talks Human Don't Be Angry: "The less lyrics and singing for me just now, the better"

Malcolm Middleton explains the premise behind his Human Don't Be Angry alter-ego and the lengths he'll go to have a bit of fun

Feature by Chris Buckle | 05 Apr 2012

In the early 1900s, German clerk Josef Friedrich Schmidt made a fortune flogging his take on a game best known on these shores as Frustration. He christened his version Mensch ärgere dich nicht – which translates roughly (depending on who you ask/where you Google) as ‘Man, do not get bothered’, ‘Don’t get annoyed, buddy’, or, indeed, ‘Human, don’t be angry’.

“When I heard that the first time I thought it was a funny name for a board game, and then I thought, ‘it’s as shit as any other band name.’ So I took it,” says Malcolm Middleton of his new moniker. “I was asked to play the Fence Away Game on the isle of Eigg a couple of years ago, and I said I’d do it as long as I was under a different name. I had two months in which I wrote most of the songs that are on the album, in a creative burst of enthusiasm that seemed to come from not having to write ‘Malcolm Middleton’ songs.”

Using a loop pedal, he built up largely instrumental, atmosphere-heavy sprawls, gradually defining Human Don’t Be Angry’s less song-based aesthetic. The Skinny asks if it's important to him that listeners make the distinction between his previous solo albums and this new guise. “Not really. I do think some people will just say it sounds like me but with less words. But I’d still rather some distinction was there, that it’s not just viewed as this miserabilist record by some guy who’s written those sorts of songs in the past. I think this is a lot lighter.” Was he aiming for a lighter mood? “I didn’t consciously think about it, but now I kind of regret that I didn’t make the album completely instrumental. My favourite songs on [the album] are the happier, upbeat ones,” he reflects, “and I’m aware that the ones with lyrics do tend to fall back in line with what I’ve been doing in the past.”

Of those ‘happier, upbeat’ tracks, the playful 1985 stands out, with twinkly glockenspiel and smooth guitar atop Penguin Café Orchestra-style wordless prettiness. “That one was originally called ‘Shit Summer’ – not because it was a shit summer in 1985, just because it reminded me of a summer-time tune, with a bit of a downward slant to it. But then I thought that was too negative a title.” If he was aiming to avoid negativity, how did the album's last track, Getting Better (At Feeling Like Shit), end up with such pessimistic parenthesis? “That’s the big faux-pas of the record,” Middleton sighs. “That kind of gives it away that it’s a Malcolm Middleton album I think. I wish I’d just called it Getting Better… If people still use the ‘miserabilist’ tag for this record, it’s my own fault for calling the song that.”

Middleton has previously described Human Don’t Be Angry as “a facade, a front so I can have fun again musically.” Has it worked – is he having fun? “Yeah, completely,” he enthuses. “I did the first band show for this record a couple of weeks ago and really enjoyed it. There’s a different dynamic being in a band with other people playing along. The policy was not to just rehearse songs; the band can learn the songs, figure out what to do, then change it. I’m not stuck on structures, so I think saying that to people from the start has made them relax and realise that they’re not just session guys. Songs are changing already. It can get a bit noodly, or more dynamic. So yeah, I’m definitely having fun. I enjoy just playing guitar – the less lyrics and singing for me just now, the better.”

Why does he shy away from that? “I’ll be honest: it’s writer’s block. In the background from doing this I’ve got maybe seven or eight songs written for my next solo record which are coming slowly. I’m trying not to force it, because I find that when I do I end up writing a caricature of what I’ve been doing before, and I’m determined not to do that. Of course, I will sometimes, because I can’t change my past experiences and my current personality, so I’m still going to write songs in a certain way, but right now there’s nothing I can say about anything that’s coming out in songs… When they come, they come, but I don’t want to rush it, and I don’t want to repeat myself.” Human Don’t Be Angry, it seems, has been the perfect tonic. “This album was easy to make – it wasn’t a struggle because I didn’t have any expectations,” he says. “I just thought ‘fuck it, I’ll try this’.”

Recorded at Chem19 with studio-boss and ex-Delgado Paul Savage, another familiar friend was also on hand when recording the album. “I did all the music, Paul produced and did all the digital drum programming, and Aidan Moffat did live drums,” Middleton explains. “My original idea was really simple and I thought I’d record it in a week – have it an hour long, almost completely ambient from start to finish with songs bubbling out of noise then fading away. I thought that would be great – I even thought it should be a double album at one point. Then I realised that, personally, I wouldn’t put that on; I’d maybe like to hear it for a short time, but I’d never play the album twice. It wasn’t until Paul started doing the drums and stuff that I realised the album should be shorter and not over-indulgent, which is what it was going to be.”

The shift in approach meant some material was shunted off the tracklist, onto an EP due later in the year. “The album was initially going to be called Midnight Noodles, which was one of the first songs that I wrote; ten minutes long, with three or four guitars and background noises and wanky solos. It initially was on the album but then I let a few people hear it, and they were like, ‘well it’s good but I don’t know…’ And even I was listening to it and thinking, ‘I’m going to skip this song every time that I get to it now.’” You’re not exactly selling the EP… “The EP’s great!” Middleton laughs. “It’s four brilliant songs, plus a long ten minute one at the end. I don’t know, I’m quite impatient with music. I like pop songs, short things…”

Speaking of short things, did Middleton enjoy the all-too-brief Arab Strap reunion? “I loved it, I thought it was great,” he smiles. “I think Aidan talked me into it because I wasn’t that keen at first. We’ve always thought we’d do something else at some point, but neither of us are interested in doing it now. We should wait until we’re ready – or until he gets chucked again…”

A single rehearsal the afternoon before the gig was all it took to reawaken dormant dynamics. “It all came back really easy. I must look different when I’m onstage with Aidan, because I can relax, whereas when I’m onstage myself, playing my own songs, I can’t.” Did it feel peculiar revisiting the old material?Not for me – I don’t know, maybe Aidan was in pain while he was singing about his old girlfriend, but for me it was fine.”

Does the same go for solo shows; is it possible to divorce less-than-cheery songs from the context in which they were written? “It’s weird – you can certainly put a wall up, but then you feel like you’re out singing that song every night and people think that’s what you think now. You just want to go, ‘naw, I’m alright.’”

With the benefit of hindsight, does Middleton ever look back at earlier songs and compare new with old? “Not really,” he shrugs. “In my head, the best thing I’ve ever done was Brighter Beat, but I like Into the Woods because it’s such a funny record. But I don’t listen to those records now and compare them – I’m sure if I did sometimes I’d think ‘oh, I can’t do anything as good as that again.’ But other times,” he adds, in typically self-critical fashion, “I’d think ‘that is shit, was that really released?’” There’s just no pleasing some people.

Human Don't Be Angry is released via Chemikal Underground on 16 Apr. Playing Glasgow's Monorail Records to celebrate Record Store Day on 21 Apr; Edinburgh Electric Circus on 15 Jun and Glasgow King Tut's on 16 Jun.