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The Welcome Return of Arab Strap

Returning with 'As Days Get Dark', their first new album in 16 years, a reformed Arab Strap have unveiled one of their finest records to date.

When Scottish indie-rock outfit Arab Strap released The Last Romance in late 2005, few could have imagined that it would be the last that we’d hear of them in many years. With records arriving with almost clockwork regularity since their 1996 debut, The Week Never Starts Round Here, it would’ve made sense to assume that the next big announcement from the group would’ve been the arrival of album number seven. Instead, 2006 brought with it news of their untimely split.

Though devastating for the indie scene, the duo – made up of Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton – did reunite in 2011, and though a recording of a cover song (which was clearly noted as not being an Arab Strap performance) surfaced, the future remained uncertain. However, following a few years of rumour, innuendo, and conflicting reports in the music press, it was announced in 2016 that the band were back together.

Reuniting for a number of performances in celebration of their 20th anniversary, Arab Strap’s return to the stage was critically acclaimed and well-received, though the future again remained uncertain. In 2019, news of a new record came forth, and in September of 2020, Arab Strap shared their first new song in 15 years, “The Turning of Our Bones”. A dark composition that, while mature in its sound and composition, was still definitely the Scottish duo many had come to know and love, also preceded news of the group’s first full-length release since 2005.

Now, more than 15 years since their last record, and more than 25 years since the duo of Moffat and Middleton began to collaborate, Arab Strap have released their seventh studio album, As Days Get Dark. More refined and seasoned than previous recordings, it’s arguably one of their finest and most concentrated albums to date.

In anticipation of the record’s release, Rolling Stone spoke to Moffat and Middleton to learn more about the album’s arrival, their reunion, and what may come next.

Firstly, congratulations on the new record. It’s a really great album and one I’m assuming you’re feeling a bit excited to finally get out there.

Aidan Moffat: Yeah, we are. I haven’t listened to it in a long time, but I remember it being quite good when we finished it six months ago, I think it was. But we’re more looking forward to getting out there and playing the songs.

That sort of leads to the standard question lately: How did you both manage to cope with the events 2020? Did you get through it alright?

Malcolm Middleton: Yeah, we got through it okay. I think the album helped. We were nearly finished the record, last March, when lockdown happened in Scotland and lots of other places. So that kind of delayed everything by six months. The album was supposed to be out in August, and we’d be touring in September, but none of that happened.

But the delay gave us a bit more time to sit back and look at what we’d been doing so far, and I think the album sounds better because of it. That kind of kept us busy, and kept us sane a little bit. And we’ve been working – music work – so it’s been good for us, I think.

AM: Well we all work from home as well, being musicians, so we’re quite well equipped to deal with being at home and stuff, but certainly this is the longest I’ve been in Scotland in 25 years or something. I can’t look at pictures of European cities because I get upset. Not only can we not tour right now, but there’s also Brexit [laughs].

Going back a bit before we get to the new record, how has everything been since the reunion in 2016? Was it an easy thing for you both to get back into the groove of after so many years off?

AM: Yeah, I think… It’s strange, I don’t think I ever really thought about it too hard – we just wanted to play some shows and celebrate. What we did to start with was to get as much of the previous live band together as we could, and it felt great to work with people we’ve known for so long. I think everybody was really happy.

There was only one new member; Graham Smiley on the bass. Everyone else had played with us before, so it was great. They were great musicians as well, so it was really great in the rehearsals to hear the songs being played again, but being played much better than they used to be [laughs].

I would assume then it felt almost as if no time had passed at all, then?

AM: Yeah, I mean we were all certainly a bit wrinklier and greyer [laughs]. But I think we all came together pretty quickly, I think. Because the band were so good, they’d pretty much learnt all the parts before we turned up, so it was almost instantaneous just playing the songs again.

When the reunion kicked off, was it just for the point of playing shows, or had you discussed new music from the start?

MM: I think from the start, it was just to do the gigs. Just to have a celebration of what we’d done before, and that kind of led onto a year later, doing loads of festivals. Then at the end of that run, we’d decided, “Well, [let’s] try and do some demos and see what happens”. If they sounded good, we’d carry on, and if not, we’d just call it a day again and let it go.

“It was obvious to us that we still had something to offer.”

But we started demoing some songs, and the first couple – I think it’s the first three on the record, actually: probably “[The Turning of Our] Bones”, “[Another] Clockwork Day”, and “Compersion [Pt. 1]”. Basically after “Bones” it was obvious to us that we still had something to offer, that we enjoyed the music that we were making, and let’s just try and make a record. And it worked.

If those are the first three that you come up with, it obviously bodes well for everything coming after, because those are some amazing songs.

AM: Well thank you. We were lucky in that… Well “Bones” was the first one we finished, and it was one of the first demos. “Clockwork Day”, that might have been the first lyrics I finished as well. So, yeah, the stuff that we started with, we were pretty happy with. If we’d started with… Well, there isn’t a song on the record that we wouldn’t have been happy with, but the ones that you haven’t heard, the ones that aren’t on the album, if we’d started with them it might have been a different story [laughs].

The first song folks heard of this new material was indeed “The Turning Of Our Bones” last year. It’s a dark song, but one that is so typically you. What was the reaction from fans to hearing something like that after so long?

AM: It was pretty much exactly what we’d hoped for. Obviously it’s quite a nervous thing to release new music after 15 years. There’s not a lot of bands I can think of… except Suede; Suede’s the only band I can think of that’s made a genuinely great record after they’ve reformed. It’s not something I listen to much myself, when bands reform. I understand it, it can be quite a difficult thing, so it was great. We didn’t want to try and recapture anything, y’know. It was important to make it sound like it was a modern record. So yeah, the response to “Bones” was what we’d hoped for, really.

“We didn’t want to try and recapture anything.”

MM: We were confident, but I don’t remember being nervous as such. Like, the one thing that I felt was that if people liked the first album, the lo-fi kind of scratchy stuff, they might hate this because it’s more advanced, it’s polished. [“Bones” is still reminiscent] of the same stuff that we had, like lyrics and guitars and stuff, but I think we were confident it was a good song, but whether diehard lo-fi indie fans might hate it because it’s got a fucking saxophone in it. But most people have been quite positive about it, which is good.

By the same token, folks who liked the first album might have hated the last Arab Strap album, since there’s a big evolution between the two as well.

MM: I just realised I said saxophone, but there’s probably some people who loved the first album that hated the second one because it had a trumpet [laughs].

On the topic of making new music, you mentioned there was no desire to recapture the past. Meanwhile, “Bones” has the lines “I don’t give a fuck about the past, our glory days gone by“. Was the idea then to be more forward-thinking, or was there no real plan at all?

AM: We never really speak about things like that, so it was… Well, what happened was that we chose a setlist for the reunion shows and a compilation for Chemikal Underground, and the stuff that we chose tended to be the more electronic stuff, the drum machine stuff, and the disco beats. And I think that it helped inspire the sound of the album to some degree. We found that we were moving away from the more traditional rock setup; the guitar, drums, and bass stuff that we did quite a lot of.

Obviously there’s still some drums, bass and guitar, but there’s not a lot of live drumming on this, for instance, because I think we felt that our favourite things were the more electronic songs. But we never discussed it, we just let it happened naturally [to] see where we get to. There was no focus on any particular sound, no agenda we had; we just took it as it came and hoped it would go okay.

Did the fact that you had time spent apart beforehand sort of give you a chance to reappraise what it was that made Arab Strap work? The record feels like the band at its peak: it’s all the strong points, minus anything that could’ve been considered ‘weak’ points beforehand.

MM: Yeah, I think the time away definitely gave us… It was almost like we had a cheat sheet. We could look back on the good elements of the band and pick those and use them for the new songs. But again, that makes it sound like it was calculated. It was more like instincts of what we liked about each other’s music and what worked in the past. So it just kind of came together, and it was quite easy.

What’s the mood in the studio been like for the pair of you? There were definitely some stories in the old days of tensions being high.

AM: Aye, I mean, it was fine. The exciting thing about it was doing it with just the two of us and Paul Savage as well, who recorded the first album. As Malcolm mentioned, the first album was pretty lo-fi, and it was where we all started. Paul wasn’t much of an engineer at that point, he hadn’t started very long [ago], so the exciting thing was getting back with exactly the same three people. I mean, I was just happy to be with them half the time.

I think there’s a level of trust – you just let people go on with things. Whereas, the arguments about things… For instance, if I was having an argument about a guitar part, I don’t do that anymore because it’s not my department. I think we’ve got our departments sort of sorted out [laughs]. The only time we argued was about what was going on the album, that’s what was a very tense, fraught experience [laughs].

Well that makes sense – it’s the first album back, so you want to make sure it’s the cream of the crop, so to speak.

AM: Yeah, I mean, there was a couple of songs that we dropped because they sounded a bit too much like the old stuff. Y’know, we were trying to focus on the ones that sounded more modern and different.

Will those songs see the light of day?

MM: Yeah, they’ll come out at some point. They’re good songs, but in the overall scheme and flow of the album, they kind of didn’t work. They’re good songs, but as Aidan said, a couple of them sounded too much like ‘Arab Strap by Numbers’. Not intentionally, but they’re a bit too obvious. They’ll come out at some point.

AM: There was one that would’ve sounded great on Elephant Shoe or something like that, but yeah, we’ll release them. There’s lot of B-sides as well. We were supposed to release a few seven-inches this year, but because of the COVID and then Brexit, we just didn’t have time to get them manufactured. So there’s quite a lot to be worked with later on.

You mention that some of the songs sound too much like the early days, that also proves the point you made about not wanting to capture the ’90s or anything like that. Obviously the idea would be to keep things as fresh as possible though, because you’ve even mentioned in the past how you dislike being tied to that early lo-fi sound. It also feels like this album is a good way of showing newcomers there is a lot more to Arab Strap than just “The First Big Weekend”.

AM: Yeah, I mean if we still sounded lo-fi after 25 years [laughs]. But yeah, I think every record sounded better as they went on, regardless of the songs, we were getting better at working in the studio – and we’ve kept working in the last 15 years, doing our own stuff. It’s very much an album of the skills we have now rather than trying to sound anything like our old sound.

MM: Saying that though, we just recorded a song for a flexidisc. It’s lo-fi as fuck and we really enjoyed it. [Aidan] is probably the same as me, where you do one thing, then the next thing you do is a direct influence by trying to do the opposite. So we’ve done this quite lavish album and we’ve recorded one lo-fi piano vocal track and it felt great, so we might do more stuff like that.

AM: That was the thing about it – I think it’s the first time we’ve actually written a song on piano. Malcolm sent me a piano part, which I don’t think [he’s] ever done before. So that was quite interesting. Maybe that’s the way… We’ll make an album with all the instruments we never normally play – that could be quite interesting.

You don’t exactly seem like the sort of folks to worry about it too much, but was there any thought given to the high expectations a record like this – after so long away – might inspire?

MM: I don’t think we’ve had that because, even though we’d done the shows, no one expected a record because we didn’t say we were going to record again. So we had like, unlimited time to try, and I think it worked. It’s exactly the same as everything else, like our first record and the early demos. I think we started recording and there was confidence in them that these songs were good, so that kind of put any nerves to the side.

I think if it had been going along the lines of not working and we hadn’t been getting anything decent, I think our gut would’ve told us to just quit and not try anything. But like we said, “Bones” was the first song we did and that really helped the momentum of doing more because we loved that song straight away and it’s still one of our favourites. I mean, it seemed quite easy because of that.

AM: I was thinking about it the other day, when we eventually get to do gigs, and I was thinking what’s great about having the old records as well [is] you can get away [with playing the new ones first]. I think if we were a new band, you couldn’t play “The Turning of Our Bones” at the start, you’d have to build up to it. I was thinking we could start with that song because we’ve still got “The First Big Weekend” and “The Shy Retirer” to come later. That’s probably a band discussion we should have between ourselves [laughs].

The record is also coming out on Mogwai’s record label. With a close relationship with the folks behind the label, did that make the comeback and release process easier in that it removed the struggle of finding a label to share the music?

AM: I’m not sure we would’ve bothered if we didn’t have friends that were going to put it out. We knew that we didn’t want to make a record and then try and shop it around to labels. We couldn’t be bothered with that. Chemikal Underground are kind of concentrating on the back catalogue now, they’re reissuing LPs. It’s great to have friends that we can work with.

And also, we hardly even spoke to Stuart [Braithwaite, Mogwai guitarist] and that. They weren’t involved in the process in any way. They liked for us to make a record and put out the record that we sent them. They didn’t try to get involved in any decision at all. I can’t think of one thing that they even checked on. They were just happy for us to make a record.

With the record out, what’s next? You’ve got tentative touring plans, but do you have any prospective plans to return to Australia?

MM: It’s up in the air, but we’d love to come. We just want to get the record out and tour as much as we can, and come back to places that we love.

AM: We’ve not played with a full band in Australia. Because it was expensive to come over, every time we came over it was an acoustic show or a three-piece band. So it’d be great to come over with a full band.

Arab Strap’s As Days Get Dark is out now via Rock Action/Best & Fairest.