'True freedom would be horrible'
Aidan Moffat is no miserabilist – his work is about personal freedom, writes SIOBHAN KANE
AIDAN MOFFAT is possibly best known for his work, with Malcom Middleton, in Arab Strap, the seminal, singular band that helped shape the Glasgow music scene from the mid-1990s for a decade. It cleared a new space in alternative rock, the kind that contained tales of melancholy, excess, heartbreak and isolation, all distinguished by Moffat’s Falkirk-inflected vocal.
The reconciling of disparate emotions is not only something he crafts into songs, but different projects, which explains why records can take years to evolve, for example his collaboration with Bill Wells , which took eight years to complete.
“I’ve always got at least two albums on the go. I like to keep busy, otherwise I get bored and miserable.The record with Bill took a while because I really love and respect what he does. But we always had other things to do too. I think I released about five albums in that space of time, but neither of us wanted to rush it.”
Moffat’s sense of care is married to a black humour, the kind that speckles his often deeply painful subjects, and his life, to the point where he can write a wrenching song like The Sadness in Your Life Will Slowly Fade and enjoy a surreal stint as agony uncle with his I’m No Expert column at the music and culture website thequietus.com.
“That was fun, aye, but some folk weren’t really taking it in the spirit it was intended. There were a few emails from people with very serious problems that I’m not remotely qualified to answer, so that’s when we decided to end it.”
Those who didn’t “get” it included some furious Adele fans who wrote against his deconstructing of her song Someone Like You, which, Moffat concluded, was “psychologically troubling and emotionally stunted”.
“Some of her fans thought I was gravely serious. I especially liked the ones who called me a misogynist, they were fucking hilarious.”
Moffat has always been something of a contrarian, so it makes sense that he constantly explores the notion of personal freedom in his work. Perhaps this is why he likes superheroes – particularly Batman. “I certainly still find him a very interesting character. My son’s middle name is Batman too. Seriously.”
Ideas of freedom permeate his record with Wells, with Cages as a companion piece to The Sadness in Your Life Will Slowly Fade, with its lyric, “Are we ever truly free?”
“Aye, exactly. Sadness is about being with a friend of mine and trying to escape from a cycle of sadness by using drink and drugs, but it never works. It’s an extension of the idea in Cages about freedom and routines. We’re all creatures of habit, and I think we need routine to survive. We all need a place to fit, sometimes that means settling down, sometimes it means going out every night of the week. You just swap one set of restrictions for another. I think true freedom – a lack of structure and purpose– would be horrible.”
Perhaps his creative work is more like structured chaos – flitting from the spoken word of I Can Hear Your Heart (2007) (which featured a Bruce Springsteen cover, and Dorothy Parker poem), to his recent art project with inventive Edinburgh collective Found. The project, part of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, is “a reactive sound installation through which the audience will attempt to unravel the truth about the narrator’s life by playing records from his collection”, and which required Moffat to write 10 original short stories with many variations. Writing, in all its forms (he likes Tom Waits, BS Johnson and JM Barrie), is key to his creativity, and something he feels he is getting better at.
“I’d like to think I’m the same guy I’ve always been, but a little more thoughtful and articulate, with a much longer fuse. The lyrics I’m most proud of are probably the words on Everything’s Getting Older – I seem to be getting better with time.
“Stevie [Jones], who plays bass with me and Bill, came to see a small Arab Strap reunion that we did in Nice ’n’ Sleazy’s in Glasgow last year, to celebrate their 20th birthday. Afterwards he told me some of the old lyrics were a bit shit compared to the new ones, which would have offended me if it wasn’t true.”
Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat play Dublin’s Grand Social tonight