Strap-on Serotonin

On fashioning a more comfortable Arab Strap

I can't!I don't want to go through the misery again," stutters Aidan Moffat in his thick Scottish accent, as thorny ex-girlfriend memories tear through his mind. Each time Moffat, lead singer and songwriter of the alternative-folk duo Arab Strap, enters the studio with his guitar-toting partner, Malcolm Middleton, it often means documenting the traumas of his amorous adventures. Over the course of four albums, the duo has made a reputation for writing gritty love songs seething with insecurity, cynicism, and regret.

Philophobia, Arab Strap's second album, and its U.S. debut on Matador Records in 1998, garnered much praise for its bold antilove songs, which stripped desire down to its ugly essence. The songs ticked to the pulse of electronic beats while strings and horns crawled through their minimal melodies decorated by sparse, groaning guitars. Subsequent records continued to explore love in a stark fashion, attributed to Moffat's vivid recreations of the painful, true-to-life scenes of his affairs. A highlight of these low points appeared on Arab Strap's last album, The Red Thread, when Moffat preserved the experience of discovering his then-girlfriend's sex diary on "Love Detective."

But, on the duo's fifth album, Monday at the Hug & Pint, a distinct shift in tone has blossomed. "Malcolm says that I say this every time we make an album, but I want to try and write a -- not necessarily cheerful -- but a beautiful sort of romantic record," says Moffat. "I think the new one's got the happiest and most upbeat songs on it. I was looking at the words for the new album, and I think some of the more delicate moments are the better ones. I just really never felt comfortable expressing myself like that."

Moffat (left) and Middleton are loched and loaded
Moffat (left) and Middleton are loched and loaded

While Arab Strap's early work resembled the gloom of Joy Division, Monday may earn the band comparisons to the lightness of New Order. The album opens with "The Shy Retirer," a song that bounds along on a perky electro-beat. "You know I'm always moanin'/But you jump-start my serotonin,"sings Moffat with lighthearted aplomb while what he likes to call "disco-strings" swirl about. "It's something we've been trying to do for years," says Moffat.

Preparing to follow up 2001's The Red Threadhas been all about finding the right comfort zone. It began with the two songwriters taking a break from each other's company for solo releases. Middleton succeeded in releasing his debut solo album 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine, and Moffat completed his solo album, Hypnogogia, under the pseudonym Lucky Pierre. "I think it made a better atmosphere when we went back to do the Arab Strap record," says Moffat. "We were both a bit happier in the studio, and we work very well with each other now."

Moffat quickly quashes any hints that the hiatus for solo projects might have threatened Arab Strap's continuity, adding that there was never any intention of a permanent break-up. "That was never the case," he says. "I think it was just good to have a break."

Moffat feels no shame in exploring the emotional states that have accompanied him during the recording of Arab Strap's catalog, since he bares his soul on every song he writes. He offers parallels between the moods of the band's albums with his state of love affairs at the particular time. "The second and certainly the fourth album were rather dark," he says, "and that was when I was in a relationship with someone. That's not to say she's a bad person. She was just the wrong person, and it's reflected in the mood of the albums, I think. I wrote the new stuff when I was looking for someone else, and I think you can tell. It's a lot more fun to listen to. I seem to be writing much more fun records when I don't have a girlfriend." He punctuates the end of this sentence with a small laugh.

This doesn't mean his former loves have stopped haunting his songwriting. "There's two or three songs on the new album about my ex-girlfriend: 'Loch Leven,' being one, a story about me and my ex-girlfriend trying to restart the fire," he says, "and 'Act of War' being another. I was a lot more gentle and a bit careful about what I wrote, but more because I wanted to have a far more mature sound to the songs. In the past, I would have called her names. There really isn't much point in that. I don't think she really deserved any sort of aggression, as such." Could this mean Moffat has grown up? "Well, you cannae' be a miserable cunt for all your life, now," he says with another cynical cackle.

One reason misery may not have as strong a hold on Moffat as it used to, could be accounted to his new girlfriend. "It's early yet," he says about the relationship. "I think in the past -- and this will be reflected in our records for sure -- I was getting desire confused with genuine love. As I said, it's very early yet, but every time I've had a girlfriend before, or went on dates with someone, I've been very cautious about what to tell them about what we do, but the girl I'm seeing now, I'm very, very confident that she's grown-up and intelligent enough to understand the way that I work and know that, regardless of anything, whatever she might read, it doesn't really bear much on how I feel now.

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