Drawing inspiration: Middleton and Shrigley’s album

Malcolm Middleton and David Shrigley. Picture: Contributed
Malcolm Middleton and David Shrigley. Picture: Contributed
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MUTUAL appreciation between musician Malcolm Middleton and artist David Shrigley has resulted in an album that perfectly combines their talents, writes David Pollock

‘We’re similar in some ways but I don’t completely understand the guy,” says Malcolm Middleton about his new collaborative partner, artist David Shrigley. “I haven’t figured him out yet. His sense of humour’s quite dry. Mine can be too, but I guess I’m a bit more, I don’t know… a bit more immature?”

On record, however, Middleton and Shrigley are a perfect match. Falkirk-raised musician Middleton is the taciturn guitarist in Arab Strap turned solo artist, whose highlights include the jovial bleakness of attempted Christmas number one We’re All Going To Die. The Macclesfield-born, Glasgow-based Shrigley, meanwhile, is best known for creating simple but highly stylised pen and ink cartoon drawings which veer between the bleak, the psychotic and the devastatingly funny. They appear on greetings cards, in books and on last year’s Turner Prize shortlist.

Together, the pair will this month release Music And Words, a collaborative album which sets Shrigley’s words, as spoken by actors, against Middleton’s dense, eclectic instrumentation. It begins with the memorably insulting A Toast, a surging, partly electronic piece in which voice actor Gavin Mitchell does some monumental swearing (“Greetings, and good f***ing wishes to you…”), continues with a whiny tale of home invasion in Houseguest and features Shrigley himself haranguing his male listeners to “bong your dong upon the gong” in Sunday Morning.

“We were thinking of it very much as an album,” says Shrigley, reflecting upon a project seven years in the making, “so there’s light and dark, there’s loud and quiet, there’s comic and more austere things. We probably only worked on it for about three weeks in total in that time, plus all the emails and phone calls.”

He recalls that the first time he became aware of Middleton was “around 2001” and the launch of Middleton’s debut solo album 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine, when a friend took him along to see the live show. “I totally got into him,” remembers Shrigley now.

Their first meeting came shortly after the artist met the guitarist’s old Arab Strap partner Aidan Moffat. He presumes it was Moffat who told Middleton of his appreciation of his music, but Middleton recalls simply looking up Shrigley’s work on the internet when he was looking for cover images for A Brighter Beat. The balloon with a face drawn on resting happily in bed on the front of the album is one of his lesser-celebrated photographic works.

“I asked him after that if he’d do some drawings for my website,” says Middleton. “He said yes, but rather than pay him for the artwork, could I just give him some music for his spoken word work?” This was shortly after Shrigley had released the 2006 Shrigley Forced To Speak With Others album. “It just went from there. He would send me recorded dialogue. There wasn’t a plan to do a record or anything, it was just messing around. It was quite slow and gradual but it was good fun.”

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For the first few years of the collaboration Middleton describes being incredibly busy and only having brief periods to work with the material, although ironically it was the first couple of months after his son was born almost two years ago when he found time to take things further. “I managed to get 12 songs in that time,” he says. “You know that feeling [as a father] when you’ve got no time, so you cram in whatever you can? I’d grab three hours of recording what I could, then I sent the files to him and we got more serious about actually making an album.”

Shrigley recorded the trio of actors in three sessions and the record was tidied up at Mogwai’s Castle of Doom studio earlier this year.

“I came from a starting point of really liking what Malcolm does and liking his tone, the way he expresses a sentiment in the music,” says Shrigley. “I suppose my stuff’s quite comic as a rule, and I guess with Malcolm’s stuff the comedy’s buried a bit more deeply, although there’s a lot of irony there. You just want to work with people who you like, and on each of Malcolm’s records there’s something which I think is really great.

“I’d hesitate to identify one track that I particularly like,” he continues, “although we were talking about Dear Brain recently, and that’s a good one. It was kind of unexpected, you do these things ages ago and you don’t even remember it, then Malcolm’s written this really beautiful piece of piano to go with it and it somehow has some resonance that I never expected. As a whole it’s something really good that we’re really happy with. When I embark on a project my criteria is ‘as long as it’s not rubbish, it’s all right’. And it’s probably not rubbish, so that’s good.”

It certainly isn’t rubbish. Instead it’s a smart, partly electronic music collection whose intent is rendered blunt by Shrigley’s amusing rhetoric and deliberately mundane rage.

“I enjoyed the collaboration,” says Middleton. “I enjoy listening to it more than I enjoy listening to one of my own records, because the music I made was like nothing I would make normally, because it was bouncing off David’s words. You get stuck in your own boring box, and you don’t notice until you get shown a bit of perspective. It’s good to know you can change the way you do things, and I think the next record will be different because I’ve done this one.”

Described by Middleton as a piece of art, partly because of Shrigley’s involvement and partly because he’s excited about the handmade heavyweight vinyl sleeves, the record will never be performed live – about this, frustrated early 90s musician Shrigley is adamant. “Being able to stand up and play guitar and sing at once was about the limit of it really. Once I’d achieved that, I wasn’t that bothered about doing it anymore,” he says of those times.

“Once I’d started to get exhibitions I couldn’t be bothered with drummers who didn’t show up to rehearse and stuff, so it died a death.”

“I’m proud of the music, and David’s artwork on it looks amazing,” says Middleton. “When you’re doing digital singles and things like that for a few years, you lose perspective. You don’t enjoy the music you’re making so much when it feels like you’re not so proud of the finished thing. When we finished here there was a sense of: wow, where did these come from? How did that happen? We’re not a band, we wouldn’t perform it unless someone said something ridiculous like, ‘Do you want to put on a production of it or a play?’”

Impresarios with a taste for the different, it’s over to you.

•Music And Words is out on 15 December on Melodic. Malcolm Middleton plays King Tut’s, Glasgow, 13 and 14 December

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