FFS Interview: Malcolm Middleton

Malcolm Middleton, once half of Arab Strap along with Aiden Moffat, denies being a grump, but his website is adorned with wee unhappy faces and he wants to start a miserabilist girl band in which “a bunch of young lookers with great voices sing all the black shit that comes out of me during my worst depression”. Sounds pretty good actually… here he answers our “above average bunch of questions”.

FFS: You’ve been making music now for almost 15 years, both as a solo artist and with Arab Strap. How do you feel your music has developed from the start into your fifth solo album Waxing Gibbous?
Malcolm Middleton: Erm, well, I’m probably a lot more aware of what I’m trying to do now and what I want it to sound like. When we started Arab Strap we were having a laugh but also avoiding all the clichés and rules about making music, inspired by a DIY/anyone-can-do-it ethic. We made nice raw music that way. I’m a better musician now but I still find recording to be a stressful struggle. I can play guitar better but I’m still shit on the piano and a crap singer. That’ll never change.

You’ve said that you’ll be going on hiatus after touring Waxing Gibbous. Is this for creative reasons or something else?
Um, creative reasons. I feel it’s time to try something different. I don’t really like myself as a solo artist, I don’t like the image that has grown around me since my second album Into The Woods. Whither I projected this myself or whither it’s grown from other peoples expectations and opinions, I’m not sure. But I don’t like it and it makes me unhappy.

You sing in your broad Scottish accent. Do you feel that more artists do/should be encouraged to maintain their native voice when they sing and not try to achieve a more unrecognisable tone in an unnecessary search for acceptance by a mainstream market?
Broad? Have you ever heard Mogwai or The View speak? I sound like the Queen by comparison! I used to think that more people should sing in their own accents but after hearing Lily Allen, Kate Nash et al, I take it back. There’s a line in my new album which goes “songs these days are too wordy and the accents are all shit”. That’s kinda about them. And me.

You seem to be regarded as a miserablist in regards to your musicianship. Do you think this is a fair label to be put on you?
No. I think my songs make people happy and smile sometimes. But because I’m not going down the sunshine lyrical road I get called miserable. Um, what about Blues? Do you ever hear the old blues players being described as miserable? Their lives sounded like complete hell. Not fair is it?

In regards to your tag, do you actively strive to discourage this, or do you play with the notion, as in your bid for a Christmas single with ‘We’re All Going To Die’?

I’m not fussed, depends what mood I’m in. Tags aren’t really what I’m about, and I don’t think about things like that when I writing songs, which is really the only part of me you ever see.

What on earth does Waxing Gibbous mean?

Google it. [ED — Just did. It’s the lunar phase between a half moon and a full moon apparently. Good.]

Sleight Of Heart was a more stripped back album to Waxing Gibbous (although it does have its moments), would you say that this is your most accessible album to date? If so, why did you try and make it this way?
I’m not sure if it is, I think maybe A Brighter Beat was more accessible, which is what I was aiming for. With Waxing Gibbous I think I was maybe closing the door on the mainstream a bit. It’s probably a more awkward and obtuse album that SOH or BB.

Over the 15 years you have been creating music so far, have you achieved a sense of accomplishment with your work and the industry, or is there a sense of anger/disappointment which drives you on?
I haven’t achieved any sense of accomplishment or disappointment. If anything I wish I was more of a perfectionist and worked harder.  The only real difficulty I have is when I start to think about who I’m writing songs for, or who I expect to listen to and appreciate them. That’s when things get a bit cloudy for me. Thinking that the reason I do this is to get a small pat on the back makes me feel a bit needy and sick.

‘Red Travelling Socks’ was written on tour and is about touring. Is being on the road something you enjoy to do, or is it an obligatory part of releasing a record?
I enjoy it a lot. But I’m saying that now after being at home for months. Ask me again when I’m on tour and see what my response is.

If this is your last tour for a while, what can the Middleton fan expect when they come to watch you play?
The utter same as usual.

Are there other styles of music which you want to explore as an artist, perhaps under a pseudonym which you feel restricted from doing at the moment?
Not really. I think musical styles come from within and if you try something that isn’t part of your background then it’ll sounds false. Saying that though, I have listened to most musical styles and feel it’s well within my right to dip into them all.

What would you like Waxing Gibbous to do for you as an artist? Make you mainstream? Multi-million seller? Change people’s perceptions?
Hmm. No. If my intention was any of your points then I’ve made the completely wrong album. I’m not sure what WG will achieve. Probably part of the reason I’m changing direction after this is because I have a sense that I’ve already done as much as I can with this voice.

Can you give us a run down of the themes explored on some of the tracks on Waxing Gibbous such as ‘Carry Me’ and the superbly titled ‘Ballad Of Fuck All’?

Carry Me is just a rant about the false hopes and priorities given to us as kids, and coming to terms with these as adults. I think. Ballad is funnily enough about nothing. Just singing and howling for the sake of it because I felt a bit down that day. Comforting myself because I didn’t want to be in my body anymore.

Ever thought about jacking it all in and writing for Madonna instead?
Yes. But not for her. I’d like to create my own miserablist girl band and have a bunch of young lookers with great voices singing all the black shit that comes out of me during my worst depression. Watch this space.

If an acoustic guitar didn’t exist, what would you be making your music with today?
Anything. I’d make a new instrument from knives and nooses, accompanied by a set of paracetamol-cup maracas.

There are countless ‘reunions’ of bands getting back together to tour the country. Would you ever be tempted to get back together with Aiden Moffat and start a reunion tour as Arab Strap?
That will never happen. Over his dead body.

If you do decide to permanently stop making music, do you worry that people will remember you most for the Radio 1-backed attempt for number one in 2007 with your track ‘We’re All Going To Die’? How would you like to be remembered? (Not that we want you to go, far from it.)
I don’t think that’d be the case. But I’m quite keen on the idea of being a one-hit-wonder. Two years ago I couldn’t even have imagined that.

Waxing Gibbous is a great accomplishment. How do you know when an album is complete and ready to release?
Just when it’s finished. Joking. Eh, the battle is between studio time running out and my to-do list for songs getting shorter. It always seems to work out. My stress and worry usually motivate me to the point that I take this stuff seriously at the last minute. It took me about 8 months to write and record so I wasn’t really in a rush.

If one of your songs were to sum up your life at the moment, which one would it be and why?
It would be ‘Subset Of The World’. I do feel a bit insular sometimes.

Would a happy Malcolm Middleton make a different sounding record to the ones previous to Waxing Gibbous?
Yes, but I am happy a lot of the time. Just not ever when I’m writing songs. Writing words and playing guitar are the things I do when I need solace, hence most of my songs sounding the way they do. It’s nothing to worry about or change, I feel lucky that I have a release and don’t know what I’d do without it. The fact that other people can take something positive from what I do is an added bonus that also helps me feel of some worth, and happy.

Interview: Peter Clark

Malcolm’s new album ‘Waxing Gibbous’ is out on 1st June followed by some live date in the UK. Visit his MySpace for more details.