Arab Strap were formed in 1996 and split up in 2006. And with the same punctuality, ten years later, they have reappeared in 2016. These days, you will probably read many of the band’s reflections on their comeback, but this is what they said right at the moment of their splitting up in an unpublished interview done exactly a decade ago, during their farewell tour. That night, in after their concert in Barcelona, Aidan and Malcolm looked at each other askance and openly talked about their goodbye. They were right in the middle of the final countdown: it was their last years together.
In autumn 2006, Scottish duo Arab Strap started their European farewell tour, made up of thirty-six concerts in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, England and Scotland. They played four times in Spain. On November 19th, at Razzmatazz 2 in Barcelona, Aidan Moffatt and Malcolm Middleton reflected upon and joked about what a last tour implies. We talked backstage minutes after their last gig ever in Spain while, paradoxically, the audience cheered a re-born Violent Femmes, the band with whom they shared their Spanish tour.
Why wasn’t The Last Romance your last tour and why have you decided to do a Farewell Tour instead?
Aidan Moffatt: Because when we did that tour we didn’t know it was going to be the last. Midway we decided to split up and it wouldn’t have been honest to finish it, go back home and forget all about it. On the other hand, it was the band’s tenth anniversary, so there was also something to celebrate.
Malcolm Middleton: We thought we should do something special.
A. M.: Something like splitting up. (They laugh)
M. M.: We also thought that the album was a good finale for the band.
When did you discover that The Last Romance was a good epilogue?
A. M.: Right after the tour. Besides, since it was the band’s tenth anniversary, we’d also planned on publishing the compilation album (he’s talking about Ten Years of Tears). And, in any case, after ten years it’s a good moment to stop. It will be tough playing the last gig and telling people there will be no more. I don’t know if we’ll enjoy it very much, but it needs to be done.
I’m sure you’ll say you both agreed on the decision, but one of you must have said it aloud first. Who was it?
A. M.: Me. But I’m sure Malcolm had the same thing in mind.
M. M.: I remember having thought about it, but you said it one day. You called me up.
A. M.: Then we met at the pub, talked about it for around ten minutes and got drunk. And then we went on talking about life, God and the afterlife.
When was that? What was your mood when you went to the pub to discuss it?
A. M.: I think it was a couple of weeks after the tour ended. It was summer I remember that. And then and there we came up with the idea of a farewell tour. I went to the pub shitting myself, thinking that I might regret that decision for the rest of my life. My idea is recording other albums, but I need to earn some money first, because I haven’t saved much. And I’ve no other job qualifications apart from these ten years making records.
M. M.: Same with me. I don’t know what will happen from now on. And I know it sounds like a cliché, but we need to discover who each of us is away from the band.
Do you see this like one of those couples who instead of splitting up completely take a year to…?
A. M.: …to fuck other people? (They laugh)
M. M.: No, we all know that alternative never works.
Have you seen any farewell tours of bands you like?
A. M.: I saw the Big Black one, but I was very young. Back then I was still listening to Belinda Carlisle.
M. M.: People who go to those farewell gigs think there will be a lot of emotion and magic moments, but it’s just another concert, really.
A. M.: I’ve already read some review of this tour in which the author was offended for not having felt anything special or moving during the concert. Fucking hell, we’ve been touring for six weeks, what do you expect?
Before going on this tour, were you more nervous or restless than usual? What was in your head two days before getting back on the road, while you were packing your bags?
M. M.: It hasn’t been so different. We’ve been touring for ten years, never knowing if there would be another tour. I started this one quite excited, actually.
A. M.: Tours always follow the same pattern: the first two weeks are fun, the two middle ones you’re a bit more lost and bored, and the two last ones you know you’re going home and you start feeling ashamed and worried. In fact, a tour is like a six-week holiday: there’s always a week in between when you’re really bored.
M. M.: The novelty in this tour is that I’ve bet money on who will be back home first. Stewart Henderson, from Chemikal Underground, has organised a sweepstake to see who of the two will abandon the other first mid-tour.
Don’t you feel more and more nervous or sad with the final date approaching?
M. M.: No. I think all that will pop-up after the last gig.
A. M.: I can’t talk for Malcolm, but to me this is a bit sad. It’s positive having been able to record albums for ten years and also deciding when to stop, realising we’ve reached a certain peak. I don’t think there are any great territories left to explore that we haven’t explored already, technically or musically. To me it’s very positive that the end of Arab Strap coincides with the band being in top shape.
I had a look at the merchandising stand. I see you’ve designed more T-shirts than usual. And a farewell single with the song There Is No Ending and a remix of The First Big Weekend, the first song you ever published. It’s a farewell with quite an attention to detail.
M. M.: Last year, The Delgados split up and I know they talked about doing whether they should do a farewell tour or not. Some wanted to, others didn’t. It was August and in the end their goodbye was just like slamming the door and leaving.
The Delgados splitting up was an inspiration to…?
A. M.: …to do just the opposite? (He laughs). No, no. I’m joking. We’re very sorry about The Delgados splitting up. But the reasons for it were completely different than ours. In their band they had a couple of people who were sick of touring.
Have you talked to other ex Scottish bands to find out how was their farewell tour?
A. M.: Apart from The Delgados, the other band I know well is Mogwai. And they’re very close.
M. M.: Well, they haven’t done anything in a while, so…
A. M.: True! There’s also a sweepstake about which Scottish band will be the next one to split up, Mogwai or Belle & Sebastian.
M. M.: Mogwai should split up soon. If they go on they’ll end up being like Pink Floyd or something like that.
Do you feel closer in this tour or is there something that you know it’s already distancing you and you’re getting ready for the new situation?
A. M.: Another reason why we’re splitting up is that we get on better when we’re not on tour. A tour is not the best place to develop a friendship. The two of us are quite well on our own, alone, so it’s a bit weird to have shared so many years of touring.
Both of you agree London was the best concert. Was there a really bad one?
M. M.: Bergen?
A. M.: Bergen! Those bastards! There were two fans at the front, really drunk, singing all the songs and they ruined it all.
Was there a moment in these first weeks when you thought it was a bad idea to have set up this Farewell Tour?
M. M.: Yes, the third time our van was robbed. During the first three weeks of the tour we were robbed each week.
A. M.: We’ve been robbed three times! And we’ve decided that if it happens a fourth time, we’ll go back home. Fuck it!
This only proves Arab Strap is becoming more and more popular.
A. M.: I’m glad you managed to see the positive side to it.
M. M.: It also proves we should be more careful.
Are you looking forward to the Scottish gigs in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow?
A. M.: I don’t think anyone in the band is looking forward to playing Aberdeen. (They piss themselves)
During tonight’s concert I noticed a couple of very weird things while you played There Is No Ending. The first one is that you, Aidan, opened your eyes before playing the piano… and you looked at the audience!
A. M.: It’s the only song I have to look at the keyboard so as not to play the wrong note!
It’s something I hadn’t seen you do before and I imagined maybe you were trying to guess from people’s faces whether they were conscious or not this was the last Arab Strap song they’d ever hear live.
A. M.: I was looking at the girls. One of the few pleasures I can allow myself while I play piano is looking at the pretty girls down there.
But the thing I found even weirder is…
M. M.: I know what you’re going to say! Aidan smiled at me!
Exactly! Aidan smiled at you! But only because you smiled at him first!
A. M.: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! We need to make sure there are no smiles in Glasgow, or people will go home really pissed off!
Yes. You’ll have to practice your control a bit more so you can give a really serious performance.
A. M.: It’s not performing. I enjoy the music we play very much, but we’re not cute. I smile enough when I’m offstage. A lot of people ask Malcolm to give them a smile, but it’s not easy to feel comfortable on a stage.
M. M.: We’re really getting better in that aspect.
Who do you think more of these days, Arab Strap’s fans or enemies?
A. M.: I’ve never thought about our enemies. I’m sure we have many, but you need to have something very clear when you start a band: a lot more people will hate you than love you. And if you don’t realise that you end up going mad.
M. M.: These weeks I’ve started to think that I’m going to need a couple of years to realise what Arab Strap was all about. Being part of the band is very difficult to reach any conclusions. And I’m curious to see what is Arab Strap’s legacy.
Do you think the Glasgow gig will be the most important one in your career?
M. M.: Absolutely not. The most important gig for Arab Strap was the first in our career.
A. M.: I think it will be, actually, because in that first concert we sounded shit. It’s important for all the people we know to come to Glasgow’s ABC and leave with a good memory of us.
Is there anything you haven’t been able to convince each other of during all these years that you’re trying to in this tour?
A. M.: I’m trying to convince him to wear a kilt for the last gig. It would look really cool if the whole band wore one in Glasgow.
M. M.: We’re not a Scottish music band! I would if it was a black kilt. In fact, I’d dress all in black: black kilt, socks and shirt.
A. M.: And what about wearing a kilt for the encore only? C’mon…
Is there something worrying you about the Glasgow gig? Apart from the kilt issue…
A. M.: It’s not I’m worried about it, but I don’t want people to start bugging me. I think I’ll keep my mobile off the whole day. And the day before as well. I’m going to focus on not letting people bug me.
M. M.: What worries me is not the fact of it being the last gig, but people asking me what do I think about these ten years and stuff like that. I’d rather finish the concert, get over with it and that’s it.
Six months later.
In May 2007 Malcolm Middleton was again in Razzmatazz presenting his album A Brighter Beat. Arab Strap’s last tour was still fresh, so we went on with our talk where we left it half a year before.
When I saw you in Barcelona, you said you didn’t think that tour was so different from the previous ones, that you felt nothing special. There were still days to go before the final gig in Glasgow. Did your feelings change as soon as you reached England and Scotland?
Yes. During the last week the heartbeat got stronger and stronger. And when the Glasgow day came I had no clue as to how I would react. I didn’t know whether I’d start crying or what. I didn’t know if I would feel happy or sad. But it was a great day. And everything that happened was real. We enjoyed ourselves very much playing and a lot of friends showed up.
How was the first Scottish concert, the Edinburgh one? Was there something that made you feel different from when you played some days before in Italy?
Yes, of course, it’s always different when you play for a Scottish audience. But even there, all the thoughts and wishes were put in that last concert, in Glasgow. The tickets for Glasgow had sold out a couple of days before and that was going to be the last concert, for real.
And the Aberdeen one? Aidan said no one from the band wanted to play there.
Me neither. In fact, I can’t recall having played there.
Could you describe the mood backstage in Glasgow before jumping onstage to play the last encore?
We were all very happy. The whole night was a celebration. There was no sign of sadness at all backstage or during the gig.
Where did you have the farewell party after the concert?
In a bar in the same venue. John (Mauchline), the guy who gives a speech on the first album (The Week Never Starts Round Here), was the DJ.
What time did you leave?
Around four. In fact, I had problems to leave the bar. The promoter gave me a framed tour poster as a thank you present and when I got out of the backstage the bouncer thought I was stealing it!
What did you feel a few days after that concert?
Since some days after that we went to Japan, it wasn’t until January when I started to think about it all being finished and not playing those songs ever again. I was sad, but I always thought that we split up at the right time, so I was also happy.
But… What? Japan? What for?
We toured Japan for ten days. We gave six concerts.
Then, the Glasgow one wasn’t the last Arab Strap concert?
No. It was meant to be, but we got this proposal from Japan. We had only been there in 1998, and we couldn’t say no. We took Japan as a kind of holiday. We never sold many records in Japan. We have very few fans there, so it was a bit weird. The concerts were OK, but very different from Glasgow, of course. We did one in someone’s cellar!
Months earlier you said in Glasgow people were betting who’d split up first, Mogwai or Belle & Sebastian. Who did you bet for?
What I said was stupid. I hope both will go on playing for many years.
Malcolm told me you weren’t robbed again during the rest of the tour. What did they steal exactly?
The first time they stole a suitcase with most of my clothes and my passport. I had two cases, so I still had clothes, but without my passport I couldn’t go back home. And the second time it was the van’s GPS. The funny thing is we had been very lucky up to then. We hadn’t ever been robbed, but during the last two years of touring all sorts of things happened.
I remember you didn’t feel like playing Aberdeen at all. I don’t know if I should ask you about that concert.
It was OK, but we were all looking forward to Glasgow. ABC is one of my favourite Glasgow venues. And a lot of people came, for Glasgow, 1,200 or so. It was probably our biggest audience, because we used to get around 400 or 500 people there. And it was our best concert, no doubt. It’s a great memory to finish. All bands’ farewells should be like that. And then we went to Japan for a week! Fuck’s sake!
I know, I know. Malcolm told me about the surprise tour. It might be one of the weirdest things you lived as Arab Strap: saying you split up and, then, you get booked to go to Japan!
We all thought the Glasgow gig was going to be the last, but right before the farewell tour we were offered to go to Japan for some days. We’d have lots of free time to visit places, eat weird food… It was an amazing way of celebrating our end. And the rest of the band thought it was a great plan. Should we have rejected that tour, they would have murdered us!
It was a happy ending, right? Not like when you’ve split up with your girlfriend but you’ve already bought tickets and you have to travel together knowing it’s the worst idea in the world. Mmm… When you think about it like that, it almost sounds like an Arab Strap song.
No, no. Not at all! We had a great time. Those last concerts in Japan were amazing. It’s impossible those people understood the lyrics, but they were very enthusiastic.
As soon as the Glasgow concert approached, did you feel sadder?
The decision was made and we all had agreed on it. I can’t remember feeling sad during those last days. We were convinced we had done the right thing. There were no reasons to be bitter.
And after that?
It was strange. I was very sad and sensitive after the Glasgow gig. I guess I was afraid of announcing the end. Arab Strap had been something very important in my life. Leaving any job you’ve done for ten years is quite terrifying. But I’m glad I did.
What was the last song you played in Glasgow?
I’d swear it was the acoustic version of The Shy Retirer. And it was also the last one of the last gig in Japan. That concert was shot in video. And we recorded an audio of the Glasgow one. One day Malcolm and I will have to sit down to see if we can publish an Arab Strap live album.
By the way, did you finally wear kilts in Glasgow?
We decided not to. Let’s say I changed my mind. I don’t know if you’ve ever worn a skirt, but it’s not comfortable at all once you start sweating.