Fringe interview: Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat – ‘I’ve always written about the things people don’t really talk about’
Their touring schedule may be calmer affairs now, but Wells and Moffat still produce music of the seamier side
This article is from 2015.
Before he started writing the lyrics for album number two with Bill Wells, Aidan Moffat got stuck into some academic research. The troubadour tracked down copies of What Do Women Want, The Erotic Mind and Men Loving Themselves, a series of texts on sexuality, desire and psychosexual therapy. The last, by pioneering San Franciscan sex therapist Jack Morin, is a black and white photographic study from the 1970s of, well, the clue is pretty much there in the title. ‘It was homework!’ blurts out Moffat in faux-protest, laughing hard before there’s a chance for any gags from anyone. ‘I decided this time I’d actually do some research.’
Moffat, a professional over-sharer, dour sentimentalist and mucky-maudlin poet with a devoted fanbase who would never want him any other way, has written for 20 years now about what he neatly nutshells as: ‘the things people don’t really talk about’. Eternally fascinated by the things which make the world go round, sex and love still feature heavily in his songwriting, as does being a failure, a fake, and more recently, a father.
‘I suppose that’s what got me started in the first place,’ he muses, casting his mind back two decades when he first began making demo tapes with Malcolm Middleton as the duo, Arab Strap. ‘I was trying to find a more honest approach to the love song and a more Scottish one. Using language that people really use. My feelings behind the words are still the same; I don’t want to poeticise things too much.’
Music partner Bill Wells, who is responsible for the meandering, skronky, soporific jazz / orchestral pop arrangements on their recent album, The Most Important Place in the World, actually had to remind Moffat not to poeticise things too much at one point.
‘He was trying to cut out some of the swear words, and I told him we should really be keeping them: it was starting to lose its effect!’, Wells chimes in. ‘I’ve had to encourage him a few times to keep the language fairly foul. That’s something Aidan does which is very unique; where others waffle, he confronts something directly.’
The Most Important Place in the World is named after an IKEA ad campaign, and comes with album artwork drawn by Moffat’s six-year-old son. It’s the follow-up to 2011’s Everything’s Getting Older, Wells and Moffat’s first album together, which won them the inaugural Scottish Album of the Year award for its dark, loungey, often achingly beautiful take on the encroachment of age.
‘Getting that award 15 or so years into my music career: aye, it was a surprise,’ says Moffat. ‘I’m glad it came when it did though; if it had happened after my second album I’d have turned into a right prick. You see it happen to young artists all the time: they get attention, they start listening to their own press, they produce less, and it can end up rubbing all the edges off their music.’
Both Moffat and Wells have what seems to be an unfillable hunger, and devoutly catholic taste when it comes to discovering music. Chatting with them, they mention Kendrick Lamar (Moffat brings him up as a good example of avant-garde, exciting music that can also be popular), Taylor Swift (‘I like her, but maybe not quite for exactly the same reasons as Aidan,’ jokes Wells), bad jazz (‘it’s so easy for a bad collaboration to turn corny and clichéd’) and writing music for unborn babies and expectant mothers (that’s one of Wells’ many current side-projects, with members of the revolving line-up from his ironically-named National Jazz Trio of Scotland).
In The Most Important Place in the World, mortality is still very much on their minds, but this time the lyrics bring in tawdry taxi rides home, filthy high chairs, vanilla sex, cautious longings and fatherly pining. Bombs are casually dropped in inimitable style: with ‘VHS-C’, the discovery of a forgotten home sex-tape leads to a dilemma on whether to watch it or not; in ‘Far from You’ (a song written while getting drunk with his brother in Tokyo for his 40th birthday), Moffat drops his guard for a tender confessional lullaby to his children, written off by many, he points out, as a sappy love song to a woman.
Translating the songs effectively for a live audience is important to both musicians. ‘For listeners, the live thing has way more value than the recorded version,’ reckons Moffat. ‘You’re getting something unique on the night, and for the musicians, it’s just much more fun.’ He admits to be finding it ‘harder and harder’ to remember songs, so always takes the lyrics onstage with him. ‘I figure I’d rather watch someone up there with a bit of paper in front of them than watch them fuck it up. Curiously though, I still remember every Arab Strap lyric somehow.’
Wells and Moffat have honed the live show into a small-scale affair, something they both enjoy more and more. ‘I’m not as hung-up these days as I once was on the big production,’ says Moffat. ‘It’s really just about the folk up on the stage. Our favourite tours recently have had some of the simplest set-ups.’
‘The tours are pretty calm affairs these days,’ says Wells. ‘No real mental stuff backstage or anything. After a show I’ll probably go to bed as quickly as I can!’ If it sounds like they’re getting older, they are. But there’s still a fire in their paunches to make music that’s exceptional. ‘We both share this thirst for contemporary music,’ says Wells. ‘Sometimes even the really awful stuff! We can still find interesting sides to it or we want to subvert it.’ To that end, the pair have made numerous pastiches and mutated versions of jazz standards and pop covers including Stooshe’s ‘Black Heart’, Bananarama’s ‘Cruel Summer’ and the Twilight Sad’s ‘Alphabet’.
‘The most surprising thing is, I can give Aidan a huge range of things to play around with – doo wop stuff, a piano ditty, a viola solo, some wee loop that I like – and it just grows into something,’ says Wells. ‘Aidan’s writing has definitely changed over the years. I’m pleased I can still hear some of the old Arab Strap stuff in there too, though.’
Moffat’s son was hoping to take the new album into school to show off his handiwork on the front cover to his classmates, but his dad didn’t think it was such a good idea. ‘Aye, maybe this album deals with parenthood and domestic life, but fuck’s sake, I’d still not want wee kids to be hearing it.’
Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat, Summerhall, 0131 560 1581, 12 Aug, 8pm, £16 (£14).