“People often make the mistake of thinking what they hear in the music is how I am every day, when generally speaking I am a pretty happy, affable person.” Notes Aidan Moffat in his unmistakable Scottish brogue, before continuing “I reserve the mood for the song; it’s a way to get it out of your system, usually to yourself, then to other people…” The former Arab Strap man is on good form, and it’s no wonder it’s his birthday today. He has reached the grand old age of 42 and sounds at home in his position as spokesmen for people who don’t quite fit in, though some may mistake his darkly, at times filthy, expletive strewn monologues as always directly relatable to the man. However, he sees his work as a form of confession; in a way, a way to clear the mind. The passage of time has imbued his work with a deepening maturity and wider outlook but still with that striking ability to surprise and subvert the every day experience, but as he puts it he’s moved on a little from just singing about ‘shagging’. Today he graciously granted us forty five minutes of his time on his birthday to tell us about his latest collaboration with Bill Wells, a potential Chic inspired single to be released, the Mekons, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits, plus his first band the Angry Buddhists, and Where You’re Meant To Be the film about Scottish folk tradition that he hopes will see the light of day by the end of this year.
His recently released second album The Most Important Place in the World, his second long playing collaboration with Falkirk musician Bill Wells, comes wrapped in the handiwork of Moffat’s six-year-old son and titled after an IKEA slogan. It is even more varied, musically diverse and thematically layered, than their 2011 album Everything’s Getting Older whose majestic piano decorated scenes meditated upon the passing of time. From jazzy flecked, 70s porn theme tunes to shrieking horns of gypsy punk and a sing-along agnostic hymn it is a superlative album once more given light by Aidan’s trademark, confessional and at times tender at times bitter half-sung, half-spoken vocal contributions depicting sharply the growth in his writing to the level of great poetry and literature.
Aidan Moffat has a unique ability to imbue each lyric with a knowing humanity and grandeur that triumphantly taps into wider existential themes. So on the face of it some of the more mundane subjects like being a father, a husband and wanting to break free of those responsibilities are given a universality of the everyman. There is the tussle between devilry and domesticity (‘Another Mirror’, ‘Lock Up Your Lambs’); the bountiful temptress of the city that can ‘chew you up and spit you out’ (‘This Dark Desire’); darkly graphic self disgust of the pathetic middle aged drunk (‘The Unseen Man’ ); and how the film Grease could be a metaphor for a dream that’s never fulfilled (‘The Motorway’).
“Lets let the dishes sit there/and forget the filthy high chair” sings Aidan Moffat on the jazzy, wonky shuffle of the delightful ‘Any Other Mirror’. He draws out creeping kitchen sink drama with acerbic self admonishing wit and an impish wink “Pop music is historically the preserve of the young but I’ve always just written about what’s relevant to me” explains Aidan “But I’m very proud of the words. I have to say I am more proud of the lyrics on this record than on any of my other albums.” before offering candidly “If I had said that about a record from ten years ago it would be a bit pointless going on.”
Whilst domestic imagery might not be the most glamorous or fashionable of themes in popular music, it is this tension that is present throughout this record. “You can sing about being old and domesticity, you just have to be a bit more careful with your turn of phrase. Maybe the mid-life crisis album will come soon or maybe I’ll go back to singing about shagging and desire..” He laughs. “I don’t think anyone wants to hear a 42 year old man singing about shagging. Although I think Nick Cave’s best album of the last few years was that second Grinderman album and it was about nothing but shagging…but he must be nearly 60 now, which is a scary thought..”
“You know what you are good at and you understand your strengths. What we could improve on is the song writing elements of it. We could spend more time on the writing.” Aidan notes about the recording process for ‘The Most Important Place in the World’ at Chem19 in Blantyre and Castle of Doom in Glasgow with producer Paul Savage (Mogwai, Franz Ferdinand, King Creosote) during September and October of last year. “What we did with this one was we wrote all the music beforehand. Sometimes Bill would give me a piano piece or say an idea for the song, he would give me something and I would send it back.” Aidan explains “Whereas with the first one it took us around seven years from the first session to the last and when it finally came out it was written over a long time. With this one because we knew it was more focussed we knew it going to be an album we had more time to work on it with that in mind. Whereas the first album we had recorded pieces and we’d go away again and I’d come back with the words. For instance, the second to last song on the last album ‘The Second Greatest Story Ever Told’ was the last vocal I did and it fitted a couple of the scenes I was talking about. With this we knew a lot earlier where it was going lyrically. There’s a lot of stuff we tried out musically on this one, we had a lot more room to manoeuvre: there’s quite a lot of stuff we didn’t get time to finish too.”
“We had plans to do a disco song that sounded like Chic. There was a doo wop song that just didn’t make it in the end”, he tantalisingly reveals. “The disco thing might actually still happen. We are still talking about it as a single. Thematically it would have fitted but it would have been a shock. I’ve always been a disco fan, plus Bill has all this back catalogue of stuff he’s worked on for years. I just joked maybe we should do a disco song then within an hour he sent me something. It is very good to hear Nile Rodgers back on the radio again I must say.”
Which in a way isn’t surprising. For instance, a song like ”Street Pastor Colloquy, 3AM’ has this bittersweet late night barroom sing-along hymn element to it that the best Disco songs possess. “Yeah, that’s our atheist hymn. That was a good one to record. We had to make sure we had 20 people in a choir who weren’t religious.” Aidan laughs “that’s a good example of what we couldn’t do with the first record. When you are organising a choir like that you need to know what you are doing beforehand, a lot of planning goes into it.”
‘This Dark Desire’ is a brooding majestic beast that along with ‘On The Motorway’ is perhaps the closest to Arab Strap territory this album gets. It’s shifting percussion is laced in brass and shot with intense vocals that speak of the cities murky depths, illusions to prostitution (“Nothing sounds sweeter than a stolen sigh”), the temptations that lie in its backstreets “It was inspired by a old TV series called ‘Naked City’ and at the end of each episode there would be a narrator that said ‘There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them.’ It was inspired by that film noir idea that the city is this wanton temptress who will chew you up and spit you out.”
When he released his 2009 album How To Get To Heaven From Scotland under the moniker Aidan Moffat and the Best Ofs, Aidan talked about trying to write love songs for the first time in his career. Again, themes of love are tackled in Aidan’s inimitable way throughout the album, but ‘Any Other Mirror, Far From You’ and ‘Tangle of Us’ are perhaps more compromised and lascivious in their imagery. ‘Any Other Mirror’ is literally a kitchen sink love song; ‘Tangle Of Us’ is more of a lustfulness. “The best Ofs album was probably the chirpiness I’ve ever got on record, I am still proud of that record. But it just depends on the music. When I write to Bill’s music I write what comes to my mind when I hear the tune.” The track ‘Vanilla’ too sounds like a 70s porn theme, with its suggestive Serge Gainsbourg-like sighs and luxuriousness suite. “When Bill sent me that the loop that you hear it is pretty much what Bill sent originally. As soon as I heard it I knew what to do with it.” Aidan doesn’t handwrite his lyrics or even use a laptop. He captures his thoughts in the moment rooted in part fact and part flights of fancy and crafts them to match Bill’s musical bed. “Writing lyrics these days I do have a couple of note books. I tend to find I don’t really bother with handwriting these days. I have an iPhone and the voice memo function on the iPhone is great. That’s possibly my favourite bit of technology.”
It turns out Aidan has always written this way right from his nascent teenage fumblings with music “My first band which was named posthumously the Angry Buddhists which were me and my wee brother. He was only nine or ten and he was rapping on it and stuff, there’s actually a lot of that stuff I didn’t realise I had, it’s just daft and silly stuff,. There’s a few I didn’t release because I didn’t have contacts for the other members anymore.” Back in the 1980s it wasn’t an iPhone it was a cassette recorder though. “I had a tape player and recorder. It wasn’t like a four track but you could record something then record something on top of it, I would just build on stuff like that. Back then all I could play was the drums, I was fucking terrible. I was in a band at the time the guy in the band was very kind to me. I feel guilty as I fucked up his songs.” He laughs. “I do feel guilty about that, but we were young…”
Emerging around the same time as label mates and collaborators Mogwai, Aidan’s work with Malcolm Middleton in Arab Strap spawned a back catalogue which is revered by those in the know. Their best of Ten Years of Tears documenting these compositions that may have been raw and difficult to listen to at times, shot through with a brutality of confessions. They were such an important and unconventional group that spoke to people in words they could understand in the late 90s, in an area of ever commercialised guitar bands. I wondered if Aidan ever listened back to those records or if it was a painful experience now, like looking at old school photos? “I only listen back to it unless I have to. The only reason to listen to older music for me is for reference or playing gigs.” He admits “I haven’t listened to the new album since it’s been released. We finished this in October and November this year and during the referendum so we took the week off….”
He’s earned his place as part of Scottish musical firmament, (‘Everything’s Getting Older’ even won a Scottish music award in 2011). Aidan spent part of last year touring Scotland for an as yet unreleased film called ‘We’re Your Meant To Be’, an exploration of the folk music tradition in the highlands and ultimately a sad tale. “I did a tour last year of Scotland and rewrote some folk songs. I think come August we should have it ready but it might not come out till the new year….” He reveals “We toured the cities and the Barrowlands in Glasgow. It’s difficult to see what the film is going to be about. It’s about he relationship between the real world and real folk music, not that folk revival. We had a woman called Shelia Stewart who was in the film; a big folk musician and traveller and she died in January.” He sadly recalls “The final thing is going to about the relationship between myself and her, and how that represents the old and new cultures. Ewan MacColl discovered her mother. She had such a rich knowledge of songs she knew by heart. She’s the last in the family who sang as well, so there’s nobody left now. She was the last of the Stewart singers….”
The insistent pianos, sighing strings of ‘We’re Still Here’ are defiant declarations of resistance in the face of high-street foreclosures, growing poverty and decay of what once was. It speaks to a feeling of uncertainty that despite the prevailing tide, sometimes tradition trumps so called progress. “I just thought the obvious metaphor that the world around you is constantly changing but we’re not.” Aidan notes “But I didn’t want to make it clear if I was saying if that was a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t know if ‘We’re Still Here’ is saying everything is bad because it’s changing or if we’re moving on but we’re still here…”
Jarvis Cocker recently wrote about Nu-Troglodyte movement, how taking time away from technology sometimes can be a healthy thing, Aidan talks about how his obsession with Twitter may eat into his creative time at points “The worst thing for trying to get any writing done is the internet. I read a good comment by a comedian I follow on Twitter Brian Gallivan – what’s the best advice you can give to a writer he said “Never write on a computer with the internet” Then again the internet is fantastic for research.” Looking at Aidan’s Twitter one can find everything from his barbs about politics and the state of Scottish Labour to his love of pop music and cult bands like the Mekons who he posted up a video for a few days before we spoke.. “The Mekons, I love that album the rock n roll album, they are very much a cult band, I’m not really bothered by their early work it was that period between ‘Blast’ and when they released that ‘Rock n Roll’ album it has got quite a pop sound and there were folk elements….They’re still going too.”
I wonder whether Aidan is influenced by artists and albums he’s heard whilst writing his songs but it turns out he takes the old Michael Stipe approach of clearing his mind of music and allowing his own ideas to emerge. “Usually when I’m working on a record I try not to listen. You don’t want to absorb other people’s ideas, you just have to try and isolate yourself in a sense, at least I do.” He says “When I hear bands talk about what they are listening to in the studio I always think what the fuck are you doing listening to other people’s music in the studio? Also you’re wasting your money on a studio!” He laughs caustically before continuing “The demos Bill sends me I was going over and over again.When you are working on a record I tend not to listen to more music. When you’ve been working on music all day you need a break from it. I think I must have watched a film a night or read a few books. Anything that wasn’t music.”
That’s not to say Aidan’s influences don’t come out from time to time but it’s less contrived and more a reflection of his experience “For instance ‘Lock Up your Lambs’ has been compared to Tom Waits and I’m a big Tom Waits fan so I guess you could say that seeped in there.” Before drawing a distinction between pastiche and natural creative process “But I think if you listened to a record and you can tell who influenced a band then the band haven’t been very successful. If you listened to a band and you can tell they have been listening to Talking Heads, you start to think why am I listening to this? You need some kind of spirit of yourself!”
On the eve of a run of dates finally his thoughts turn to the forthcoming tour of Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells tour of ‘The Most Important Place in the World’ and the logistics “The problem we have is a lot of the musicians we used on the last record aren’t here anymore or a lot of them are busy all the time. We have a pretty small band, just a five piece including me and Bill. It will probably sound a bit different. I love singing the songs and I know Bill does too. We haven’t rehearsed yet I usually have some drums and other instruments, Danielle who plays the tuba adds a really great element, it’s such a meaty brass sound. She did a lot of good stuff on this record.”
Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells will be performing songs from their new album at the following venues this Summer.
Thu 28 May 2015 – Newcastle – Mining Institute
Fri 29 May 2015 – Leeds – Brudenell Social Club
Sat 30 May 2015 – Bristol – The Lantern, Lau Land Festival
Tue 02 Jun 2015 – Brighton – Komedia
Wed 03 Jun 2015 – London – Wilton’s Music Hall
Sun 21 June 2015 – West End Festival, Oran Mor, Glasgow
Wed 12 August 2015 – Fringe Festival, Summerhall, Edinburgh
Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells’s second album The Most Important Place In The World is out now on Chemikal Underground Recordings.