Pop artists tend to be identified by their musical stylings. But some, like Scottish duo Arab Strap, are associated more with specific themes.
Arab Strap specialize in alcohol-induced sexual anxiety, characterized by Aidan Moffat’s slurred, sotto voce ramblings about women bedded in a haze of beer and Malcolm Middleton’s delicate, atmospheric guitar work.
Over a decade they moved from ambient electronica to real pop songs with choruses and bridges, and now the evolution is complete: They announced in September that they’re calling it quits.
“It’s a good idea we end where we sound good instead of continuing to make records that don’t interest anybody,” says Moffat over the phone from Manchester, one of the final stops on their farewell tour of Europe. “There are other bands who would benefit from the same thing, but I wouldn’t want to name them.”
The breakup has also resulted in the inevitable career retrospective, but “Ten Years of Tears,” a title that pokes fun at the pair’s depressive reputation, isn’t the usual greatest hits collection if only because Arab Strap, who named themselves after a sexual aid, didn’t have any bona fide hits. “It was going to be a B-sides/rarities compilation,” says Moffat. “Then we decided it would be better to tell the story of how we began and follow through.”
Moffat and Middleton were both 21 and disillusioned with their respective musical projects when they joined forces in their hometown of Falkirk. Their first single, “The First Big Weekend,” which was written and recorded in an afternoon, earned instant notoriety when it was named by the late DJ and tastemaker John Peel as one of the best songs of 1996. “To this day I don’t understand why people like it so much,” says Moffat. The song is a monologue about what he did the previous weekend, and it set the pattern for his uncomfortably personal lyrics, which were sometimes described as being misanthropic or even misogynistic.
Close listening reveals a romantic at heart, albeit a brutally honest one. Over time, sexual malaise gave way to thoughtful meditations on the meaning of commitment and the elusiveness of connubial happiness.
In addition, the music itself became more evocative. The tunes on their last proper album, “The Last Romance,” are almost upbeat. “We were getting stuck in a formulaic Arab Strap sound,” Moffat says. ” ‘There Is No Ending,’ which ends both ‘The Last Romance’ and the compilation, was released as a single, and one review said, ‘Typical of Arab Strap, they release their most commercial single on the eve of their destruction.’ “
Moffat has already started a solo career under the name L. Pierre. “It’s instrumentals made up of old record samples that I’ve found, almost easy-listening type of stuff, though by the time I’m finished with them they may not be that easy to listen to.”
He’s also working on a spoken-word project in which “every track is a minute long, and there are like 30 tracks, so you get this half-hour story and there’s a booklet that you read while listening or it doesn’t make any sense.”
Given his distinctive narrative style, has he ever considered just writing for the page? “It’s something I want to pursue, but writing takes up an incredible amount of time. People who write for a living have to get up at eight o ‘clock in the morning.”
The farewell tour is supposed to end in their home base of Glasgow, where they are central to an internationally recognized music scene. (Belle and Sebastian’s “The Boy With the Arab Strap” was written about Moffat). However, these won’t be their last dates. “The Japanese tour is a secret tour,” he says, and adds with a raspy laugh, “at least as far as the Western world is concerned. It wasn’t finalized until after the Glasgow date was advertised as our final show. I don’t want people to get pissed off, so I don’t see why they need to know.”