After a ten-year hiatus, Falkirk duo Arab Strap are planning two 20th anniversary gigs at Glasgow’s Barrowland, writes Fiona Shepherd
On the very morning that teenybop pop siblings Bros announce their not entirely feverishly anticipated reunion, another pop duo of an altogether different persuasion are considering their imminent live return. Two decades on from The First Big Weekend, Arab Strap, the Falkirk duo with the naughty name and the lurid lyrics, are braced for another big weekend, this one a 20th birthday celebration to be enjoyed among fans, friends and family at Glasgow’s Barrowland.
Save for one brief acoustic get-together five years ago at Glasgow venue Nice’n’Sleazy (celebrating its own 20th birthday at the time), Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton have not played together since disbanding Arab Strap ten years ago.
Both forged solo careers using their own names and aliases – Moffat as Lucky Pierre, Middleton as Human Don’t Be Angry – and Moffat partnered up with the likes of composer Bill Wells and filmmaker Paul Fegan for various acclaimed adventures. Neither gave their first band much of a backwards glance, until an offhand remark that they would reform the band ten years down the line started to gain traction, a reunion was seriously broached, rehearsals were afoot and journalists were asking them to reminisce...
“The first half of our career was arguments and blazing rows and the second half was tiptoeing on eggshells which was even worse,” reflects Middleton. “When we split up we didn’t speak for about a year. Then we started socialising again and that’s when things started picking up.
“There’s stuff that’s different now and stuff that’s comfortably identical. It wasn’t until the third practice that Aidan turned up 40 minutes late and hungover, and it suddenly felt like we were a band again.”
The only act ever signed by Glasgow’s esteemed Chemikal Underground Records on the strength of a demo tape alone, Arab Strap stumbled blinking into a mid-90s musical world where only The Proclaimers sang in their natural Scottish accents. Actually, frontman Moffat mumbled more than sang (“I always had a tune in my mind,” he says now, “I just couldn’t really convey it…”) and what you could make of the vernacular often wasn’t pretty, shabby tales of messy encounters relayed with merciless candour, sardonic humour and relatable eloquence, like Irvine Welsh set to a lo-fi musical backdrop.
“The reason Aidan could write those words was because we didn’t at first expect anyone to listen to them,” says Middleton, “and then he discovered he could say what he wanted because it was just a song. It’s only years later that I appreciate Aidan for what he was doing.”
“I suppose it is the sound of youth,” says Moffat. “I was still learning about life when I wrote these songs. No one’s going to be a fully-functioning mature adult in their early 20s, especially when you are handed this job that is nothing but a carry-on.”
Some of that caper is captured and revisited by the forthcoming documentary Lost In France which takes as its starting point a chaotic Chemikal Underground field trip to a festival in Brittany in the late 90s. Founded by Glasgow band The Delgados in 1994, the label was at the dead centre of Glasgow’s influential 90s indie scene, which birthed many of the titans of today, from Mogwai to Franz Ferdinand. Belle & Sebastian, though not part of that roster, were also friends and admirers of Arab Strap, so much so that they immortalised their name in their song and album The Boy With The Arab Strap.
Each of those bands were united in spirit rather than musical style. As a result, Arab Strap chimed with the times while not being defined by them.
“Aidan’s influences were American DIY stuff like Smog and Palace Brothers,” says Middleton, “and I was more heavy metal and Madonna
stuff so he was always reining me back. It kind of worked and I really admire it now because we did sound different.
“A lot of more musical bands thought we sounded crap because we couldn’t play properly but we were always giving something that was different from being a straightforward musical experience. I’m probably a better guitar player now, but I’m enjoying keeping it simple. Let’s not let talent get in the way of youthful enthusiasm.”
“It’s funny going back to these songs,” says Moffat. “I sometimes have difficulty remembering the words of songs I wrote two years ago but these Arab Strap songs are really engrained. It is interesting how the songs don’t leave you.”
A batch of their best tracks, including singles, “secret hits and rarities”, have been compiled on 20 Songs For 20 Years to mark their birthday. At the moment, there are no specific plans to record together again, so these gigs could well be the last opportunity to heckle for your favourite Arab Strap singalongs.
The duo have been involved in what Middleton only half-jokingly refers to as “the setlist war” for a few months but have now reached a common agreement. “I just don’t know if our idea of our best songs is the same as people who like listening to us,” he says. To address that potential dichotomy, there will be a Bruce Springsteen-style request slot at the end of each show. Fans can post their vote in a ballot box and Moffat and Middleton will play an acoustic rendition of whatever is drawn out. Which is the kind of random element that has always given Arab Strap gigs their unpredictable edge.
“I feel like it’s almost a second chance to do the songs better than we did before,” says Moffat. “There’s a few lyrics I’m not necessarily keen on repeating but we’ll see how it goes, I’ll take them as they come. I can hold the microphone out to the crowd…to a room of utter silence and let the audience wince for me. It’s starting to sound a bit like a mid-life crisis, isn’t it?” n
*Arab Strap play Barrowland, Glasgow, 15 and 16 October. Arab Strap: 20 Songs For 20 Years is out now on Chemikal Underground Records.