THEY HUNG OUT WITH HELENA CHRISTENSEN; THEY were run out of their hometown: they scared off the metropolitan A&R squads. The papers have had us believing all these stories and more about the lives ofArab Strap. To their credit. the hacks fell short of suggesting that Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton used their leisure time eating children and selling their bodies to feed some heinous narcotic addiction. But only just.
‘Bullshit'. ‘embarrassing‘ and ‘set-up' are some of the phrases used by co-founder and guitarist Middleton to describe the media’s portrayal of a band who created the rawest album of ‘97 (The Week Never Starts Round Here). the most surprisingly accomplished of ’98 (Philopholna) and the most eagerly awaited of '99 (Elephant Shoe).
“We were doing an interview with Caitlin Moran and she asked us what Falkirk was like.. he recalls. ‘And we were just going. it’s the usual kind of smalltown dump — when you're there you hate it. when you're away you miss it and it feels like home. Then some guy at a news agency picked up the story and sold it to every tabloid and everyone picked up on it and. well. you can just imagine . . .‘
We can. The tabloids went crazy (albeit very briefly) with condemnations from Falkirk‘s municipal representatives, pint-pullers and regular townsfolk. Not that interviews alone were likely to raise the tabloids‘ hackles. The band‘s name came from a sexual aid spotted in a ‘raunchy' publication (on discovering the moniker. Middleton‘s gran suggested they would have been better off calling themselves Central Belt) and. while their sound may have grown lusher to the point of sophistication, the lyrical content has never been less than frank.
The new album contains gems such as these: ‘Now you always say terminated, I never hear you say aborted/You just have to accept mistakes happen and sometimes they have to be sorted.” (‘Pro-(Your) Life‘). Or this: ‘It doesn't matter how hard you try to deny what I can see clearly with my drinking eye/You know I‘d never stop until I see you cry. make you insist through snot and tears that you'd never lie.‘ (‘The Drinking Eye’).
It makes you almost too terrified to ask what the album's title — Elephant Shoe — can possibly mean. ‘lt‘s actually a kids‘ thing that people had when they were growing up but I’d never heard of,‘ states Middleton to some relief. ‘Basically, if you’re in love with someone. if you've got a kiddies’ crush and if you say “elephant shoe" across the classroom. it‘s the same lip-synch as “I love you".‘
So. through the lovelorn bitterness. emotional brutalism and physical loathing. it seems the Arab Strappers are diehard romantics at heart. Though their work can’t be too high up on the list of first dances at a wedding. Nor can you imagine a candlelit dinner doing anything other than grinding to a quizzical halt at the sound of Aidan Moffat’s mournful delivery. So where on this earth is the best environment for hearing a Strap song?
'Actually, Helena Christensen was a really nice woman
and hopefully she thought we were OK as WEI“ Malcolm Middleton
‘I remember when the last album came out. someone came up to us in Manchester and said he’d listened to it on poppers and a bottle of red wine. late on a Friday night. and it was great.‘ Middleton recalls. ‘That was more of a solo thing. listening to it on your own. But with this one. I don‘t know. I think it‘s got a good party atmosphere: like maybe fifteen people in a room. loud music and drink.‘
Or going shopping in Paris. Helena Christensen spotted the glory of an Arab anthem as she went about her beautiful business one sunny day in the French capital. ‘Apparently. she was buying some clothes in a boutique and they were playing our record which she then bought off the guy behind the counter.‘ notes Middleton of the circumstance which eventually led to a bizarre three-way encounter within the pages of a style mag. ‘Actually. she was a really nice woman and hopefully she thought we were OK as well. but it was just such a set-up.’
While he may not have the glamour of a Scandinavian sultress. John Peel was among the first to realise that there was more to Falkirk than one broken-down football stadium
their debut single ‘The First Big Weekend'. released in autumn I996. meant exposure to the critical elite. The use of the song in a Guinness ad (the one with all the statistics) brought them to the clambering masses.
‘The First Big Weekend' dropped references to the England v Scotland Euro96 clash. a poignant episode of The Simpsons and a messy night at The Arches. But the debut album proved there was more to them than just an aural Trainspotting. as the mainly London-based media were keen to section the ‘Glaswegian’ duo.
At that point. it was pretty much the two of them. By the time Phi/()phObia had come round in early '98. they had added a permanent core (Gary Miller on bass and David Gow on drums and organ) and some star chums to help lubricate the melancholy — Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch for one. But. as the bookish sleeve notes insisted. Arab Strap were still ‘Malcolm Middleton — most things musical: Aidan Moffat — most things not‘.
Now the third studio album is here and it‘s simply ‘all songs by Arab Strap”. But the public image is still the original brace who. Middleton insists. are no dictatorial duo. ‘A pair of dicks. perhaps. No. but we take things and look at them separately because we sound different live than we do in the studio. That‘s all part of the one big Arab Strap fiasco.‘
A ﬁasco it may be. But it is one of the few projects to truly enliven and enrich a 90s Scottish music scene which was threatening to limp towards the next century more in debt to 80s hipswayers than Mary Chainers or Primal Screamers. The ride is never totally smooth with them. but it’s always worth getting strapped in.
Elephant Shoe is released on Go Beat on Mon 13 Sep.
and two railway stations. His love of
9-23 Sep 1999 THE lIST15