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Arab Strap’s Malcolm Middleton hopes ‘beautiful barmaids of Dundee’ will come out to celebrate 25 years of Philophobia

The Anstruther-based singer and his partner in crime Aidan Moffat will also play Dunfermline's PJ Molloys in a string of homecoming gigs.

Arab Strap released their popular sophomore album 25 years ago. Image: Arab Strap.
Arab Strap released their popular sophomore album 25 years ago. Image: Arab Strap.

When any musician plays a particular town or city on tour, it’s customary to ask about previous experiences.

Handily, an early visit by Arab Strap to the City of Discovery inspired the title to one of the indie outfit’s lo-fi instrumentals, The Beautiful Barmaids of Dundee.

Ahead of dates at the V&A Museum and Dunfermline’s PJ Molloy’s, this celebrated duo’s multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton admits he never got to meet them.

It was his bandmate, vocalist and lyricist Aidan Moffat, who sneaked away from the Westport Bar venue.

Aidan Moffat sneaked away to meet the ‘beautiful barmaids of Dundee’. Image: Paul Savage. 

“After soundcheck, Aidan and our bass player Gary went to the pub across the road and came back telling us about the beautiful barmaids.

“I personally didn’t witness them, not that I haven’t seen any since,” he chuckles. “I’d love to find out more.”

Arab Strap dubbed ‘Proclaimers from hell’

Arab Strap are on the road to mark the 25th anniversary of second album Philophobia, a remarkable landmark for the duo that formed in Falkirk during the mid-nineties.

Then members of other bands, they soon became infamous for deadpan tales of lost weekends told in a defiantly homegrown accent that saw them dubbed the “Proclaimers from hell”.

Playing the whole album in order is not an easy task, Malcolm explains from his Anstruther home (bandmate Aidan now lives in Glasgow).

The quirky duo were dubbed the ‘Proclaimers from hell’. Image: Arab Strap. 

“It’s a weird one, as it’s quite slow and intense,” he says, “But people have been enjoying it. I think it’s one of our most cherished albums.

“In terms of strength of songs, I don’t think there’s any other that’s as consistent. There’s always ones we thought shouldn’t have been on later albums.

“Musically, it’s never been one of my favourites, mainly because we were still figuring out how to work studios.”

‘We weren’t trying to be Britpop’

Malcolm and Aidan first got together in 1995 and a year later created a splash with debut single, The First Big Weekend.

Radio One DJ John Peel became an early supporter of this original sound: Malcolm devised woozy soundscapes with drum machines backing guitars that veered from scratchy acoustic to fuzzy electric.

Malcolm Middleton in the studio. Image: Paul Savage.

Over the top, Aidan told tales of sex and drunkenness, hinting at a post-Thatcherite desperation at odds with Britpop’s swagger.

Signed to Glasgow-based label Chemikal Underground, also home to Bis and Mogwai, they released debut album The Week Never Starts Round Here.

This freewheeling, often ramshackle, affair hinted at the flavour of the duo’s demos, so in some respects Philophobia was Arab Strap’s first proper attempt at a studio recording.

Rather than high-pressure second-album syndrome, Malcolm fondly remembers working with members of Belle & Sebastian to flesh out their sound.

Arab Strap will play in Dundee and Dunfermline next week. Image: Kat Gollock.

“It was a good time,” he says. “We were coming off the back of an album that had been reasonably well-received, so we were quite confident.

“Proper musicians would have thought we were s***, but it was all about expressing yourself to your mates with a four-track, guitar and drum machine. It works, because it’s not trying too hard. We weren’t trying to be Britpop or as musical as Mogwai.”

Duo ‘became better friends’ after band split

Following 2005 album The Last Romance, Arab Strap separated, claiming the band had reached the end of its road. They reconvened in 2016, though, to mark their 20th anniversary and despite success with solo projects agreed to record together again, Malcolm remembers.

“After we split up, we became better friends, because we kind of lost touch with each other when we were in the band, annoyed each other and got on each other’s nerves.”

They released As Days Get Dark in 2021, their first album in 16 years hailed as a triumphant return. Details of its follow-up are due in the new year.

Although they originally planned to tour Philophobia as a full band, the twosome have scaled back to a duo, to better represent the Arab Strap sound, Malcolm reveals.

Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton make up Falkirk-founded duo Arab Strap. Image: Paul Savage.

“It’s how we started,” he says. “In the studio it was always the two of us. Now and again we got session musicians in, but we haven’t done that for the last album or the new one we’ve just finished.

“We thought about doing Philophobia stripped back, initially just acoustic guitar and vocals, but we thought that would be dull, so we’ve got some backing tracks and electric guitar. It’s a bit truer to the album. There’s a good dynamic, it sounds like more than two people on stage.”

Malcolm is fan of Dundee’ Andrew Wasylyk

Arab Strap end their Philophobia Undressed Tour with a run of Scottish dates having completed its European leg. A break following gigs in Scandinavia and Germany allowed Malcolm to watch Scotland take on Norway.

Coming up are two Courier Country venues, both unfamiliar to Malcolm, even though PJ’s is long-established.

V&A Dundee, meanwhile, rarely puts on music – all the guitarist knows is from their agent showing fuzzy shots of a previous show.

Last December, Dundee’s own Andrew Wasylyk played a brilliant set there, though Malcolm can’t be sure if it was him.

The pair have left behind full band performances, preferring to play as a twosome. Image: Kat Gollock.

“Possibly, but the photos were quite blurry and no one was mentioned,” he replies. “I’m a big fan of Andrew’s music though.

“I haven’t been yet, but it looked really nice. I’m looking forward to having a rummage around after our soundcheck.

“I think the Scottish tour is going to be like a homecoming thing, the atmosphere’s going to be great.”

And just maybe, he hopes, the beautiful barmaids of Dundee will come out for a reunion.

Arab Strap will play V&A Dundee on December 4 and PJ Molloys, Dunfermline, on December 5