Visiting New Zealand in May, Malcolm Middleton opens his doomsday pamphlet to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM, talks Arab Strap, and about becoming a One Hit Wonder.

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THE CHRISTMAS charts in the UK are usually dominated by shite like Westlife or some other manufactured pop outfit. Last Christmas however, a rank outsider was being pushed by some influential touts and internet buzz towards the top spot. Even bookies William Hill got on the act by dropping the odds from 1000-1 to 9-1. It only made it to number 31, but you’d hardly expect a song titled ‘We’re All Going to Die’ to really do that well. The singer of this exploration of loneliness (the content of the song was ignored in the literal readings of the title) was none other than Malcolm Middleton, half of the legendary, now-defunct Scottish outfit, Arab Strap. Middleton describes the whole kafuffle by saying “it was fun. It was shite. It was an experience. I did find myself worrying at one point about becoming a One Hit Wonder, but then I had to check myself. It was like sticking my head into someone else’s reality. I made it back in one piece though. I think. Well, my ego is probably a little healthier. Fatter.”

However, he’s far from a one-hit wonder. Of course, those who have been following Arab Strap and Middleton’s solo albums wouldn’t be surprised at the sentiments expressed in the near-hit song, and the music he’s been associated with does have a dark, moody reputation. Some might even say pessimist. Some might also say cathartic. “It’s definitely a form of self-expression for me. I start to itch if I can’t describe the despair of everyday life within the confines of a four minute indie pop song.” And he doesn’t seem bothered by the pessimist tag. “My lyrics make light of “dark”, pessimism, depression etc, so I consider that to be positive. Self-help songs, for me and for ‘you’.”

It’s a far cry from when his “friends were starting a band and needing a bass player” back when he was fourteen growing up in Falkirk, Scotland. “By the time I’d saved up for a bass they already had someone else. Thus began a career involving abandonment issues and being shat on!” His parents had a couple of guitars too “from when they played at a Labour Party meeting in Aberdeen in the ’60s. They couldn’t really play but I would mess around occasionally. During my wild teen years I think I sold both guitars in order to buy cheap booze for parties.” He ended up forming Arab Strap in 1995 with Aidan Moffat, the two having bonded over a mutual love of Will Oldham. While Moffat wrote the spare, confessional lyrics and provided the vocal stylings, Middleton devised the arrangements. The pair split up amicably in 2006, with the pair casting off into other projects.

I ask Middleton if he worries about the shadow of the Arab Strap – after all, writers and fans have a predilection to equate the sad-sack nature of Arab Strap with Middleton’s work. “Nah, I don’t feel that at all. What I do is different from Arab Strap and I’ve never associated the two. When Into The Woods came out it pretty much attracted new listeners, not just people looking at me as a side project. I’m proud of everything Arab Strap did but I still think it’ll take me a few more years to fully appreciate.”

“It was fun. It was shite. It was an experience. I did find myself worrying at one point about becoming a One Hit Wonder, but then I had to check myself. It was like sticking my head into someone else’s reality. I made it back in one piece though. I think. Well, my ego is probably a little healthier. Fatter.”

Yet it shows the success of Middleton’s approach that he can win over fans with songs titled ‘Death Love Depression Love Death’, ‘Fight Like the Night’ or the Christmas ‘hit’ (all from Middleton’s excellent 2007 album A Brighter Beat) and ‘Devastation’, ‘Loneliness Shines’ and ‘Break My Heart’ (from Into the Woods). His directness is what’s most appealing. “Everyone has self-doubt, it’s a modern myth probably generated throughout the 80s that everyone is confident and secure. Since writing my first solo album it’s really helped me knowing that people relate and feel the same. Likewise if someone hears in a song that I feel the same then it helps them. Kinda like a big free for all Aural Surgery. Jesus... Saying all this though, I still have to write songs in a vacuum and not think ahead to what people may think or relate to. The exception to this however is the song ‘A Brighter Beat’ which was the first song I’ve written with an audience in mind.”

The title track to the 2007 album is a song that Middleton is justifiably proud of – a menacing beat, jangly guitars, hopeful lyrics – it’s also an excellent showcase of one of Middleton’s most compelling aspects which is his sense of rhythm. “Not that I really consciously work on, but when I’m messing around I guess my brain always latches onto the same kind of thing. I’ve been influenced a lot recently by Jackson C. Frank’s guitar style, it’s really relaxing, simple little repetitions and patterns.” The rhythms and guitar playing are arresting stuff, and like a lot of great work, it tickles while his lyrics also throw blunt homilies straight at you.

Middleton pays tribute to US folkie Jackson C. Frank in his latest offering, Sleight of Heart, and the album features covers of Frank, Madonna, and Scottish singer King Creosote. Frank is famous for being unlucky, and spending the last decades of his life living it pretty rough. Middleton however is not tempted to get caught up in the mythologising. “I can’t really comment on Jackson’s life, all the stories out there seem to be for the sole purpose of creating a myth, so I don’t trust them. Notice how none of them mention his good times! He still feels alive to me and I’m sure his time here burned brighter than most.” He chose the songs simply because they were “just songs that I love and which I thought I could sing honestly and without turning them into karaoke.”

The new album was “supposed to be an EP, just me and a guitar. That got boring quickly though.” However, Middleton was reacting to the “toil of Brighter Beat”, suggesting “it was nice to do something fast (four days to record and mix) and simple”. Another song on the album ‘Blue Plastic Bags’ (which was one of the originals on the album, and he didn’t want to wait to release it) takes a beady eye to the drinking culture, a culture which both New Zealand and Scotland have frothing around in their national psyches. “I’m very critical of this culture, but it’s also something I’ve embraced rabidly at times. The first verse in this song is less about binge drinking on cheap alcohol, and more concerned with the slow, daily poison of it that seems to happen when we get older. It’s a personal issue that I’m currently dealing with. For some reason people only worry about extreme alcoholism and forget about the other 99% of drinkers who just slowly dull themselves into submission without the exciting decline and flamboyance.”

Malcolm Middleton is heading down to New Zealand for a couple of shows in May – bringing his compelling, detoxing lyrics, his indie pop arrangements, and his winning songs over. While New Zealand may have missed his brief dalliance with pop fame over Christmas time in Britain, he deserves to be heard here for his wider work, and his background. It’s the type of work that might tell you things you’re uncomfortable about, but like a successful detox, leaves you feeling pretty good afterwards.