Some musicians like to keep their secrets. Ask them how they write their songs, and they'll tell you, "I just did it, we didn't even think about it," as if the idea sprang forth spontaneously from their head like Athena jumping out of Zeus' brain.
With Arab Strap, a Scottish band consisting of singer/songwriter Aidan Moffat, multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton and a rotating cast of side musicians, it's all about context. Moffat says that most of his band's songs are autobiographical. "I believe in fiction, but I don't really think I'm good at fiction, so I only sing about something that I know," he says in a thick Scottish accent that is often difficult to understand. "They are [true stories in that] they have an element of truth in them. But it's not as though I just blurt it out as some sort of confessional thing. You have to be very careful with what you choose to write."
When you hear Arab Strap's music, however, you'll realize that Moffat's explanation is accurate, but far from complete. Its songs are sometimes painfully raw, even when Moffat sings of pleasure. Middleton's arrangements vary from the sadcore and trip-hop on 2001's The Red Thread to jumped-up rock and folk on the band's most recent album, The Last Romance, evoking feelings of tension and melancholy.
"We used to do it to ease the tension, pretend that sex wasn't our intention/Even months later when they all knew, it always helped to have a few," sings Moffat on "Last Orders" from The Red Thread. He describes a relationship that's not even a romance, just a convenient sexual pairing that quickly sours: "I was the walls as you pack your stuff/I've had too much and you've had enough."
"Confessions of a Big Brother," a standout piece from The Last Romance, is another uncomfortably honest example. "I used to be so proud of thinking I was such a liar/In the covert world of romance, brother, I was just a trier/Women was the enemy and victory the point/We'd have success when we'd knock someone's heart out of joint," he begins. But then he admits, "You soon get sick of microwaving low-fat meals for one." Though he admits, "Sometimes there's nothing sexier than knowing that you're doomed," he tells his brother, "I don't want to spoil your fun, but you don't have to hurt someone."
Throughout Arab Strap's oeuvre are songs about getting drunk (its 2003 album is cheerfully called Monday at the Hug and Pint), getting fucked emotionally by your lover, fucking with your lover's emotions, and fucking. "If you take a sock off, then I'll take a sock off. We'll do one for one until we're both bare," sings Moffat on The Last Romance's quietly intense "Fine Tuning." But there are no jaw-dropping admissions of childhood traumas, recent marriages and/or divorces. For all the mise en scenes within Moffat's caustic tales, there are few details adding up to a distinct biographical portrait.
One could assume these are just the ravings of a crazed romantic or a debauched depressive, but Moffat quickly dismisses that claim. "No, I'm not like that. I think people who relate to our songs are probably the most cheery and well-balanced people," he says, adding that people who can express dark thoughts easily are subsequently less troubled by those thoughts. "There are aspects that are quite funny as well. There's a strong degree of humor to them as well," he adds.
The band's name itself is something of a joke. An Arab strap, says Moffat, laughing, "holds up your cock, and it separates your balls, and keeps them nice and tight so it keeps you erect."
"We named the group that because we were young, stupid and infantile," he continues. "I just liked the way it sounds." Moffat says that, after 10 years, the name doesn't mean much to him anymore.