True Confessions of Malcolm Middleton

As Malcolm Middleton commiserates the end of Arab Strap and readies his third solo album, Milo McLaughlin gets out the Smash Hits annual for a bit of levity

Feature by Milo McLaughlin | 10 Feb 2007

Malcolm Middleton is infamous for being a bit of a dour bugger. As if it wasn't enough being one half of the now defunct Arab Strap - perennially described by the media as Falkirk miserablists (despite being one of Scotland's most original and important contemporary bands) - his first two solo albums were full of heartbreaking songs of depression and self-loathing.

Of course, as with Arab Strap, a dark, elegant humour courses through the veins of these records and the quality of his songwriting is up there with the likes of the similarly misunderstood Leonard Cohen. After the first album steadily built a reputation through word of mouth, the follow up, Into the Woods, was a far greater commercial success, giving a financial boost to Glasgow's Chemikal Underground records.

Now, with Arab Strap's recent farewell gigs behind him, Middleton is about to release his third solo album, A Brighter Beat, this time through Full Time Hobby. As well as a cover photo by his pal David Shrigley - of a balloon face smiling at us from under the bedcovers - it features his most uplifting and well crafted collection of songs yet, with the addition of beautifully arranged strings, horns, and synths to complement his already accomplished guitar and piano based songs. Lyrically too, although the same themes remain, there is a new sense of positivity. In fact, when The Skinny dug deep into our Smash Hits annual to come up with some classic posers for Malcy, he was only too happy to oblige.

Did you enjoy the final Arab Strap gigs?

Yeah it was good, it was a long tour but it was a bit strange towards the end cos I was a bit unsure how I was going to be feeling when the last chords struck out - but we've done the right thing. With hindsight I would have left a bit more space between that and the new album - it's a bit weird finishing that tour and going straight into doing my own stuff.

Are you pleased with the new album?

Yes I am. I finished it in October and for the first couple of weeks I couldn't decide if it was better than my last album or not but that was just because I'd spend so much time recording it. But I listened to the album again after Arab Strap finished and now I'm really proud of it. Tony Doogan was amazing, it was the first time I'd worked with a producer and it was good for me, he basically brought a lot to the overall production.

Did you have an aim in mind before you started recording?

Musically I wanted it to sound bigger and better produced because although Into The Woods was a good, fun record, some of it was recorded in the house on a computer and then just mixed in a proper studio. This time I wanted to start off in a proper studio and song-wise I didn't want to be so miserable. At the same time I'm aware that the only stuff I write about is along those lines - depression, or anxiety about stuff, or just general day-to-day shite. But I wanted to make that a bit more palatable, and I think the record's got a lot more hope than the last album, it's not as self-flagellating.

Is it important for songwriters to acknowledge their darker sides?

I'm not sure if it's important for a songwriter to acknowledge it, it's just something I seem to be drawn to when I'm writing about stuff. One of the elements of the last song on the album, 'Superhero Songwriters', is the fact that my favourite singers and songwriters go through those feelings and do the work so other people can listen to it and say "that's how I feel too" and be comforted by it.

Which songwriters are you referring to?

In that song I was talking about Jackson C. Frank - then there's King Creosote, James Yorkston, people like that.

You've got a number of excellent Scottish musicians guesting on the album. Jenny Reeve (Reindeer Section) in particular, sounds fantastic on the song 'Fight Like The Night'.

I'd worked with Jenny before in Arab Strap and stuff - we're mates - she came in and I hadn't really heard her sing for a couple of years but she's so confident now and her voice is so strong it was amazing to hear.

Where did Mogwai's Barry Burns come in?

Most of the keyboard stuff is Barry, with the exception of a few bits I did myself, but any stuff that sounds good or complicated is Barry! It's great because I think I've finished a song and I'll get him in, he writes the hook on top of the one that I had, and it blows it away.

Songs like 'Up Late All Night Again' are surprisingly epic.

That song's weird, it almost didn't make the album cos I thought it was a little too much like Keane. It's quite a soft song, it's quite romantic, and there's not the usual twist in it anywhere, but at the end of the day, the message I wanted to give to a certain person is in that song and so it went on - there's nothing wrong with being nice...

Don't worry, it doesn't sound anything like Keane! Do you think you'll ever go back to more pared-back stuff like the brilliant 'Cold Winter' from the first album?

I wouldn't want to go much further in terms of bigger production, with full-scale orchestras and stuff, but having listened to a lot of singer-songwriter stuff like Davy Graham and Jackson C. Frank, I would like at some point to do an album that's just voice and guitar. 'Somebody Loves You' is kind of going in that way but I'd need to write songs that hold up without any other instrumentation.

What are your plans for touring the album?

I'm doing quite a bit; a couple of acoustic tours supporting a band called Sophia in Europe and Badly Drawn Boy in the UK next month, then in March I'm doing a UK tour with a full band. It's going to be pretty much everyone who was in Arab Strap's last line-up, and Jenny's going to be there as well.

How about the new song, 'Fuck It, I Love You' - were those words really sent on your mobile phone?

It's something that happened.

Finally Malcolm, is it alright if I ask you some Smash Hits style questions?

That's fine- I used to buy Smash Hits every week.

Which Pet Shop Boy do you prefer?

The keyboard guy.

What would you do if you were Prime Minister?

Get rid of the Government.

Have you ever belonged to a fanclub?

No, but I almost joined the Frankie Goes to Hollywood one.

If there was a sandwich named after you, what would the filling be?

I'm going to play you at your own game here; Brighter Beatroot and Cheddar.

Which celebrity/pop star do you fancy?

Erm.. I don't read the tabloids or anything... I'm gonnae have to go on fucking Google here... no - just put Karen Carpenter.

A Brighter Beat is released on 22 February through Full Time Hobby. Malcolm Middleton supports Badly Drawn Boy at Queen's Theatre, Edinburgh on 13 Feb and plays Classic Grand, Glasgow on 24 March.