CITY BOYS: For their second collaborative album, Aidan Moffatt and jazz multi-instrumentalist Bill Wells worship the city and all its possibilities. Daniel Dylan Wray stayed up all night with them


The music of Aidan Moffatt stinks. That isn’t to say it’s bad, of course, but it is pungent. Ever since forming Arab Strap almost twenty years ago, Moffatt has been one of the most consistently interesting and candid lyricists in contemporary music and this is where the smell comes from. He can transplant a situation into a song with such force and reality it places the listener in that very location and awakens and tingles the senses – his songs are dirty sheets, dank with the smell of cum and stained with week-old takeaways; they are the morning boozy breath from late nights spent drinking; they are the taste of hairspray in the back of your throat from snorting that last pill; the gut-churning pain created by too much heartbreak and too many hangovers.

After doing this for ten years with Arab Strap, Moffatt has undertaken various solo projects, but in 2011 he released a collaborative record with Scottish multi-instrumentalist Bill Wells. ‘Everything’s Getting Older’ was, as the title suggested, a reflective depiction of life through the eyes of someone leaving their 30s behind them, of exchanging three-day benders for direct debits, school runs and shopping for suits to wear to the never-ending series of weddings, christenings and funerals that now take up the weekends. It was an immensely beautiful record, primarily accompanied by Bill Wells’ sparse piano lines, and it was clear the pair had locked into something quite special. Having just released their follow up, ‘The Most Important Place in the World’, the duo have expanded upon the foundations laid by their debut and made a sonically rich record (one we awarded 9/10 to in our last issue) that sees them hit a glorious stride with Wells’ musical experimentations sitting perfectly alongside Moffatt’s lyrics. The record is an ode to the city, the feeling of possibility once within the flurry and enormity of a bustling metropolis. So, with that in mind I travelled up to their home city of Glasgow to spend the night with them.

At first we hole down in my hotel room to discuss the new record.

“It wouldn’t be out if we didn’t think it was better than the first one,” says Moffatt. “I’m quietly proud of it and it’s much better than the first one, and certainly my part of it, which is mostly the words, I’m very proud of. Of all my lyrics I’m most pleased with these ones. I can’t listen to Arab Strap lyrics – they’re fucking terrible!” The room fills with laughter, something that will become a recurring theme of the evening.

Wells says: “For me, musically, it’s expanded an awful lot since the first one. The first one it was just like a CDR of music I had around – it wasn’t like I had hand-picked anything, they just happened to all be together and I was thinking that if one or two things could come from that then fine but pretty much a whole album’s worth came from that.”

Moffatt: “I think what he’s trying to say is that he had some shitty old CD lying around and was just like, ‘Take that and fuck off – you’re not getting the good stuff.’”

The new record is a tough one to pinpoint. There are flutters of minimal jazz, melancholic piano, triumphant brass, choirs, twitching and bubbling electronics. I wonder if they can describe what they think the record actually sounds like themselves.

“Fuck knows!” says Moffatt. “There is both more of a jazz element and less of a jazz element than the last one. I suppose one of the most obvious things is more electronics, which was designed to represent the sounds of the city. Whenever you hear a drum machine or a keyboard it probably signifies that there’s something to do with the city going on. I’ve no idea; I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a faintly jazz… fuck knows. We should watch what we’re saying, folks are really scared of the jazz word – it’s not jazz at all! Fuck that, forget it, it’s got a piano in it but that’s it!

“Bill’s actually ostracised from the jazz community,” says Moffatt, “he’s more indie than I am.” I presume it to be a joke, but it turns out to be somewhat true. “The last time I tried to get on the jazz programme in Scotland they basically told me I was too indie,” confirms Wells, “that I’d be more suited for the gallery show. They had had me there before but wouldn’t again. That’s one of the things I find about the jazz world and that I don’t see eye-to-eye with – that their view point is near sighted and it’s what they immediately see, but what I enjoy about working with artists in the so-called indie scene is that they’re a little bit further back from that and can see a bit more.”

“There is a broader palette in the – want for a better word – indie world,” says Moffatt. “I experienced the same thing last year when I did the folk tour [Moffatt went on a tour of some of Scotland’s further flung parts to perform some traditional Scottish folk songs he had re-written, as part of the commonwealth games celebrations] it can be very insular. Although if you come from an indie background nobody really gives a fuck about what instruments to use or sounds to use, it doesn’t matter. There isn’t a protective thing about it. The spirit of jazz was about experimentation but now there are fucking rules that you can’t step out of. It’s the same with folk music, it was music for and about folk, the working classes, and now it’s become this middle class thing that people are trying to preserve and they don’t really engage with the people that it was written by. In the indie scene, as it were, there’s no rules; nobody is going to tell you can’t do something, it’s a very inclusive scene.”

Talk soon turns to the city/cities that feature at the heart of this record and what it is about them that still excites Aidan so much. “It’s about the city as a temptress and the potential and possibility of a city. Although most of the action will take place in Glasgow, I get the same feeling from visiting places like Newcastle and London. I don’t know why but I’ve always been attracted to Newcastle. I think because it’s basically just Scotland with a different accent. For the internal artwork I wanted to use a photo I took from Hiroshima. My brother is out there doing a teaching thing and it was my 40th birthday and I took loads of pictures but they were all blurred because I was steaming when I took them… it’s where stuff happens and I just get excited. New York is a perfect example; you just get sucked in, you can walk the streets all night and I have done.

“There’s also an anonymity to it as well – Bill and I are both from Falkirk and it’s a big town but not that big of a town – it was a closed off scene. I knew everyone that was into the same stuff. It didn’t matter if you liked each other you just had to get on. I think it’s maybe something to do with that, the idea of being anonymous, you can hide yourself in a city a little better.”

As Moffatt attests on album highlight ‘The Unseen Man’: “Fuck going home / Give me chip shop scuffles and screaming sirens and romance among the rats”

“I still get the same feeling from all cities,” he says. “I have a great difficulty going home once I’m here. I mean, I have literally begged friends to stay out with me, so you’ll see me at five past midnight, quite often with Stewart from Chemikal Underground [Aidan’s record label] saying, ‘please, just fucking stay out. I’ll pay for your taxi home. I don’t want to go home.’ Well, it’s not that I don’t want to go home; it’s just that I don’t want the night to end as soon as it does. [Glasgow bar] Nice’n’Sleazy has a lot to blame. That’s been open 22 years now and in the ’90s that is where we all went and it’s still there but it’s not really a place where the bands congregate anymore because there isn’t really a place like that in Glasgow any more because there’s so many pubs and venues but back then it was where bands would meet and play. It’s inevitably where I always end up. I could be at the other end of the city at 1.45am and then jump in a cab to make the last hour but will then end up in a casino or something. I’m just a boy who can’t say no!”

Importantly on ‘The Most Important Place in the World’ the city is presented as a female, as Moffatt explains: “It’s like that idea that you get in film noir and detective novels – the city is always talked about in the sense of it being this wanton women who will chew you up and spit you out. The first song on the album was the first one we demoed and with that line about spreading legs it was clear the city was going to be a woman.”

Four years ago everything was getting older and now things are older still, so I ask if age is something the boy who can’t say no has grown more comfortable with?

“I embrace it,” says Moffatt. “I never really enjoyed being young to be honest. I certainly had a lot of fun but I think you get to a certain age and you just stop giving a fuck – you stop caring about how people perceive you. I’m a lot more confident about the music now and I don’t really care what people think. When you’re young and you’re making records you’re terrified people aren’t going to like you and I suppose these days you have things like that online, kids worrying how their online persona is perceived but you then reach a stage in your life when you realise these things are not important at all. You just do what you do. So yeah, as far as age goes, I’m very happy, I’m very comfortable… I think.” He chuckles. Similarly, Bill feels he’s sitting in a sweet spot.

“I’m glad to have done a few things in music that I can say I’ve done and there was a big stretch in my life being involved in the jazz scene where I didn’t really feel like I was going anywhere. It’s nice to have people know what you’re doing. I think unless you’re naturally brilliant, which I’m not, you have to work away at it.”

So you’re in a period of being able to reap the rewards from years of hard work now?

“I guess so, yeah.”

“Just at the time when no-one is fucking buying any records!” says Moffatt.

Bill heads home and Aidan takes me to the aforementioned Nice’n’Sleazy where we stay, as you would expect, until closing time. Moffatt recalls experiences and memories, such as seeing Mogwai play some of their earliest shows in the basement and he is something of a celebrity in the place. We are ushered to the front of the queue where our entrance fee is not accepted. We are bought pints and shots from groups of admiring strangers. Once the club kicks us out we retire to my hotel where we drink my mini-bar dry and watch and analyse the final scene from The Sopranos on YouTube until 5am, until it really is time for Aidan to go home. I awake with fingers still sticky from Sambuca and a raging, eye-throbbing hangover that threatened to exit my breakfast all over the hotel bar floor. As I sit myself down on the train, dreading the five-hour return leg, the woman next to me pulls a soured and disapproving face. I stink. Booze is seeping out of my pores and cloaking my every breath. But Aidan Moffatt stinks too.


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