Still Kind of Hanging On – Malcolm Middleton interview

malcMalcolm Middleton returns this week with the release of his sixth solo LP ‘Summer of ‘13’ on the reactivated Nude Records on Friday (27th) – his first record under his solo guise since ‘Waxing Gibbous’ in 2009.

The release of the album is supported by a U.K. tour including 4 Scottish dates starting on Wednesday night in Aberdeen before coming to Beat Generator Live in Dundee on Thursday 26th for the Cool Cat Club.

Ahead of the album’s release Andy and myself met up with Malcolm to discuss the new record, the changes that have happened in the music industry since he last released a record under his own name and squash!

The two singles released so far from the LP, ‘You & I’ and ‘Steps’, suggest  that ‘Summer of ‘13’ will be headed in a more explicit pop direction than his previous releases, but Malcolm didn’t originally set out to make a pop record.

“Not straightaway. Actually it’s just about the songs that were made at that time. I’ve always loved pop music but this is the first time I’ve been more blatant about it.”

Malcolm reckons that the gap between albums has had a positive impact on the record.

“Without aiming to release anything or make another album it let me write songs in my own time and made me aware of what ones were good and what ones were bad.

“It wasn’t like I was desperately trying to get 10 songs. It was more like that one’s crap, that can go to the side and I can use this one.

“I wasn’t feeling the pressure that an audience was going to listen to it at any point. So I was having more fun at home doing stupid dance things and using R&B presets that I wouldn’t normally be associated with.

“I was having a laugh and making the sounds that I liked rather than thinking that I had to make an indie album or something. It’s still an indie album but it’s got those sorts of elements.”

If the lack of a definite release schedule helped Malcolm sift through his songs the long gap between records did bring a different kind of pressure

“It’s weird because the more years that went past without releasing a record the more anxious I was – the next one had  to be really good otherwise it’s not worth the wait of seven years. But I’ve been trying not to think about that!”

When the direction of the record became clear Malcolm decided that he needed help to finish the songs so he turned to Julian Corrie from Miaoux Miaoux partly because Julian had remixed the Human Don’t Be Angry single ‘1985’ as he explained.

“I’d asked him to do that. His remix is amazing – he used one bit of the song, the vocal sample and did his own thing. But it sounded great.”

Malcolm was clear on the qualities that Julian would bring to the new record.

“I needed someone to take my songs and finish them, sculpt them a little more because they were a bit of a mess. There were good ideas for songs there but I didn’t know how to finish them. I thought that if I didn’t ask someone to do that, I’d still be here now with demos.

“That’s when I thought of Julian coming in to produce it in a pop way because I love his records – they’re very pristine and pure and there’s no fluff in them. They’re all really sculpted well and that’s what I wanted to do with my stuff.

“I just gave it all to him and let him finish it over 2 months last August/September and the songs would come trickling in. It was quite exciting to see what he was doing with the stuff.

“About half the songs were what I did and he’s polished them. But the other half he added loads of bits and cleared things out. ‘You and I’ the first single wasn’t even going to be on it because I thought that I’d ruined it and it sounded crap but he fixed it.

“Then there’s another song ‘Brackets’ where he got rid everything apart from my voice and rebuilt it and that was quite interesting. I wasn’t sure about it at first but it sounded really fresh so it was nice to have it and it makes the album flow a certain way as well.”

Malcolm is pleased with the final record – even now he’s got a little distance between finishing the album.

“I wasn’t happy with the way that my last album ‘Waxing Gibbous’ sounded. I was quite negative about the whole recording process and with the way the label was.

“But with this one it’s completely different. I’m proud of it and I’m excited about it. It doesn’t mean it will stand up in 10 years time but right now I think it’s good.

“Usually round about this time, coming up to the release, I listen to it loads just to get the band together. Then I fall out of love with it and can’t appreciate it anymore.

“But right now it’s basking in the glow of things, I’ve made a good record.”

With no reviews of the album out when we met, Malcolm only had the response to the two singles by which to gauge public reaction to the new material.

“I think it’s been OK. But it’s hard to tell. You only really see what’s in your goldfish bowl of social media, whoever you like and are following. You don’t see outside that.

“There’s not been any bad reaction. It’s been positive but it’s not been ‘wow, this is great’.”

Malcolm reckons that the album is another eclectic mix of songs as was the way with both ‘Into The Woods’ and ‘Waxing Gibbous’ but again, that wasn’t by design.

“It’s never fixed, it’s never an idea at the start. It’s just seeing what songs I’m writing, what things I’m interested in. It’s always just seeing the way it goes.’

The new video for ‘Steps’ from ‘Summer of ‘13’

However the way that the record turned out presents particular challenges for the upcoming tour.

“I was thinking I’ll never have to tour it or play these songs live so I didn’t have to worry about who would play what. So I just threw everything at it. Which is kind of coming back to haunt me now as I’ve got a tour coming up and a four piece band to try to play these massive big textured layered songs.

“There’s no way we can play it all live so I’ve been stripping it all back again.  If you’ve got headphones on there’s lots of good little ear bits on the record on that no-one will care about live – a little drumbeat that comes in and goes from left to right then disappears.

“But the live version’s almost like a caricature. I’m struggling with that just now – listening to a song for the main bits I hear and that people might want to enjoy. And it changes every day! You’ve got to try and make it worthy.”

Although it’s been seven years since the last Malcolm Middleton band, the four piece line-up will include a couple of familiar faces.

“Scott (Simpson) on drums played with Arab Strap, Human Don’t Be Angry and on my solo stuff, and there’s also Johnny Lynch (a.k.a. the Pictish Trail) and Suse (Bear) from Tuff Love.”

Johnny was a member of Malcolm’s band that toured Europe after the release of ‘Waxing Gibbous’ a gig that came about after the pair’s paths crossed for the first time in the East Neuk of Fife.

“I met Johnny the first time I played Homegame in 2006. He was the stage manager. Kenny (Anderson) had toured with Arab Strap the year before and he’d suggested that I should come and do Homegame solo.

“I didn’t know what Fence was, I didn’t know what Homegame was, I think I was demanding my hotel room key and where the backstage area was, where my rider was before I realised that it was this kind of little home-made lo-fi indie festival. So that’s when I met Johnny – shouting for my hotel room key!”

Malcolm has specific memories of Johnny on that European tour in 2008.

“He’s a really nice guy to hang around with but he drinks Coke for breakfast, which I thought was a bit weird.

“On that tour he was playing bass guitar on a guitar a pitch down. I needed a bass player but he said he’d rather do it on guitar.

“On some songs he was using a backing track for the bass and playing guitar lines. But he’s not doing that this time!”

By a curious twist of fate when Malcolm moved to the East Neuk in 2012, Mr Lynch was going in the opposite direction.

“The week when I moved to Fife was when Johnny moved to Eigg. So I took that a bit personally!”

Malcolm and his’ band in a box’ performing ‘Box and Knife’ at Homegame in 2009

As someone who had previously lived in towns and cities, Malcolm isn’t sure how, or even if, the move to a more rural location has affected his songwriting.

“Honestly, I don’t know. It must have, because I definitely wrote a lot in my last house. I never felt like Falkirk or Glasgow had an effect but they must have done on a foundation level.”

With seven years between records Malcolm is surprised at how different the music business is compared to how it was at the end of the last decade.

“I’m only just finding this out but in 7 years it’s changed so much.

“There’s the social media side of it. I used to enjoy doing newsletters and mail-outs and stuff – it was fun – but now it’s just a chore. It’s something that the record label say you have to do and you have to do so many. I’m really not enjoying that side of it.

“Making money from music is harder these days but I’m still kind of hanging on. I’m lucky that I can still do it.

“So I don’t want to moan about it, but there’s been a whole generation of people since my last solo record who have never bought records and who don’t think they have to pay for music. It’s the way it’s been going and I can’t complain about it.

“From a fan’s point of view, I love Spotify but from a musician’s point of view it’s horrendous where you’re getting £4 for 10,000 plays on Spotify.”

Malcolm admits that he would never have anticipated making a living from music for 20 years.

“I didn’t think that, no. I thought I was going to be in Guns’n’Roses or a metal band. Me and Aidan were in different bands and we did Arab Strap as a side project and as a joke band that took off. It was fun.

“But even last year, I wasn’t expecting to be doing this this year. And right now I can’t imagine what I’ll do next year.”

One change in the intervening 7 years has been the rise of the crowd funding websites and Malcolm has used this avenue to help with the new record at the same as signing to a new record label (Nude Records).

“I know one of the guys who works at Pledge, he’s from Falkirk, and I spoke to him maybe two years ago when I didn’t know when I was going to release a record and what I was going to do with it.

“He gave me ideas about different labels and stuff, whether to do the Pledge on my own or get a label involved.

“I made the record myself then signed to Nude and we decided to do a pre-order. It’s been OK so far.”

The Pledge route depends to a large extent on an artist having an established following to fund new records. So it’s perhaps a little surprising that Malcolm isn’t sure that he still has a following from either his solo career or his history in Arab Strap.

“I don’t think there is. There’s always people who have bought my music and who might be interested in buying the next one but it’s never a guarantee.

“There’s cycles of people buying music, like when they go to uni and go to gigs. But then they stop.

“So I’ve never felt that I’ve got a fixed, solid fanbase like Stephen King has readers. There’s always people who will see ex-Arab Strap and will be interested but it’s just not a guarantee.”

On a lighter note, since moving to Fife Malcolm has developed an unusual sporting rivalry – on the squash court with James Yorkston!

“I wouldn’t call it playing squash with James – he beats me every week. But it keeps him happy.

“He’s been playing for eight years and I started last year. But he gets such a kick out of beating me! I’d never seen him smile before til he beat me for the first time!”

‘Summer of 13’ is released on Nude Records on Friday 27th May. The pre-order is still open on Pledge Music.

Malcolm’s dates with full band are as follows:

25/05 Aberdeen, Lemon Tree
26/05 Dundee, Beat Generator Live
27/05 Glasgow, The Art School
28/05 Edinburgh, Electric Circus
31/05 Gateshead, Sage
01/06 Oxford, The Bullingdon
02/06 London, The Lexington
03/06 Liverpool, Leaf
04/06 Manchester, Deaf Institute
11/06 Wakefield, Long Division Festival