Aidan Moffat is exhausted. Sounding as though he's been put through the wringer, the gloomy vocalist of the Scottish band Arab Strap (named for a sexual aid which prolongs erections), is talking via phone from the offices of his label in Scotland, where he's most likely nursing an afternoon pint. Having played three shows in Australia and three in Japan in the last week, Moffat laments, "The time difference is catching up with us quick." (Then again, it could also be due to the solid lager consumption his band is renowned for.) The band's latest release, The Red Thread, is a deliciously morose record best suited for rainy days spent in bed. As for his recent trip to Japan, Moffat observes, "The audiences there are quite odd. They always look like they're enjoying themselves, but they don't really applaud." Not that he seems to mind all that much.
Moffat and guitarist Malcolm Middleton found a common interest touring the pubs of Falkirk. Known for their penchant for booze as well as their short tempers, they developed a reputation as drunken hooligans spoiling for a scrap. Channeling this energy into music, they were soon a fixture at local clubs, where Middleton's stark guitar and Aidan's confessional, raw lyrics built the group a following.
In 1996, Arab Strap's first album, The Week Never Starts Around Here, was released. Its first single, "The First Big Weekend"--a song about two lads out for some fun on the town--received serious local airplay. The song, which features Moffat reading the lyrics in his monotone brogue, was, ironically, just an afterthought. "We'd recorded the entire album already, and we still needed a single," he recalls. So Moffat ad-libbed the story, using his own sketchy activities as inspiration. However, documenting one's illicit activities in song can cause a snag when friends are mentioned by name, resulting in words between Moffat and some of the people he's written about. But he's quick to dismiss the notion that his stories have ruined friendships. "There's very rarely been songs that I've written about someone and worried about what they might think. I think if I did that, I probably wouldn't be writing songs," he says.
Garnering an instant critical buzz, they continued to create sulking, drone-rock a la American bands Slint and Smog. Their sophomore release, Philophobia (which means the fear of falling in love), continued down the drugs-sex-alcohol and self-loathing highway, but 1999's Elephant Shoe found Moffat softening due to a blooming romance. The Red Thread continues this theme: loving, but in a sort of destructive sense, as if he fears that being happy might end his creativity. He explains that the title is taken from a concept he picked up in Japan: "They believe you're connected to your soul mate by an invisible red thread, so you'll always find each other because of that."
However, he's just ended a three-year relationship with the woman who served as his muse for the last two records. You can hear the beginning of the end of his romance in the song "Love Detective," a tune about the discovery of a lover's sex journal and the fury that you're nowhere to be found in it. "The next [album] certainly won't be happy," Moffat says.
The next CD found Arab Strap rekindling their relationship with their former label, Chemikal Underground. Disillusioned with the way their records were being handled, they bolted to a major label, Go! Beat, in 1998. "They had no respect for our audience or our marketplace or what we had done to get where we were," Moffat says when asked about Go! Beat. "They had no respect for our opinions about promotion and advertising, which are things we feel very strongly about." But he isn't entirely down on the experience. "I think we would have been stupid not to take the offer and see what happened, but I'm not surprised it went wrong." Once they got a taste of how things were done in the big leagues, it only made sense to go back to what felt natural, and Chemikal Underground was glad to have them.
Eyeing a two-week tour of the States, Moffat shrugs off the idea of road weariness. An avid comic reader, he looks forward to haunting the New York comic shops, especially Forbidden Planet. "I loved the Hellraiser series. It's all quite brilliant," he says. He enjoys New York, and America in general, at least as fits his drinking habits. "They have a different way of sitting at bars in America," he says. "I had a great time just sittin' at a bar, gettin' pissed and watching the TV."
The Red Thread is a mumbled, sprawling, elegant mess, and--as their star continues to rise--Arab Strap might find themselves once again growing beyond their comfort zone. As Moffat puts it, "The new album seems to be doin' very well, so I just take it as it comes. It's very strange; I never thought I'd be in this position. I'm just happy that it's happening now, and hope that it lasts." For today, he'd just be content to get rid of his hangover.