“My reply was immediately, this is two bananas, there’s two bananas there”, a throwaway response to suggestions his new album cover may have been inspired by the famous Andy Warhol cover of The Velvet Underground’s eponymous debut, and equally an introduction to the treacle black wit that is Malcolm Middleton, “it wasn’t deliberate, I’m quite stupid sometimes. I didn’t think about that until someone pointed it out to me.”
The album cover that Malcolm is referring to is the one of Banana’s, his seventh album, and in his own words, “a stupid fucking name for an album”. It’s that album that we’re sitting down with Malcolm to discuss, among other things. Not least on Malcolm’s mind is his new found love of sketching, “the last few years I’ve started sketching, I mean I can’t draw to save my life, but I started doing it and I was really bad but I found a lot of pleasure in doing it and the first thing I drew was these bananas, so I hung onto the picture and then I was thinking of album titles, I mean what do you call your seventh album? You can’t really call it something important, it’s a bit throwaway, but I liked the picture”. Where does this enjoyment of sketching come from? “The small amount of work and vast amount of pleasure I get from drawing little pictures is mental. Even compared to writing a song. I mean it sounds like a cliché, but when I’m sitting doodling with a pencil I’m not worrying about what else is going on, so it’s a nice little, peace and quiet time, it’s good”. Talking to Malcolm, it’s clear for all the difficulties he’s faced, he is someone who increasingly understands who he is, and what brings him those little moments of joy.
One place you won’t often find these moments of joy though is in the songs Malcolm writes; humour sure, a wry smile perhaps, but Malcolm’s songs have always trod the darker side of life. Banana’s is no different, tracks like Love Is A Momentary Lapse In Self Loathing and That Voice Again, with its claustrophobic multi-voiced refrain, “that voice again: you’re shit”, are a clear reflection of a dark period, “most of the songs on this record were written in two different days…feeling a certain way, feeling like shit and just mental things, that’s when words tend to come out for me. I don’t normally sit and write when I’m really happy”. We ask if he finds it easier to write when he’s feeling these lows, and does it play into the archaic stereotype of the dour Scotsman? “That’s really the only thing I want to express: when I’m feeling a certain way. I think nailing it down and saying what it is to myself, help me gets through it. I’ve thought loads of times over the last few years, I can’t write about this because I don’t want to talk about it and I don’t want to have to go and sing these songs on tour. It comes to a point where I think, fuck it, I can’t write about anything else so I need to get these songs out. Of course it’s miserable, I think it’s just what I do. I think I was trying to run from that and hide and say, I don’t want to be tarred with that brush. There’s a line, “fuck off with your happiness” (from Love Is A Momentary Lapse In Self Loathing) it’s like piss off, I’m not going to pretend to be happy when I’m not”.
It was perhaps that feeling of not wanting to be tarred with a certain melancholic brush that led to a seven year gap between 2009’s Waxing Gibbous and his 2016 return, Summer Of ’13, “I think I was just a bit sick of myself. I wasn’t feeling creative about finding words, or the words I was writing were all the same, so I fancied a break. I did the Human Don’t Be Angry stuff which is mostly instrumental. There was something like seven years between Waxing Gibbous and Summer Of ’13, in 2016, so that just came naturally, it felt like a good time to be writing a record again. I felt at the time songs were about the same thing coming from the same place, so I went through a time not doing that, then I just accepted it and thought fuck it, this is the kind of stuff I write about don’t shy away from it, just do it. Bananas came quite easily”.
Sonically, if not so much thematically, Bananas is quite a departure from Summer of ’13, a record Malcolm feels went a little under appreciated, “I love that record, but I think it’s misunderstood, not many people liked it and I don’t think people realised there was irony in the production. It’s probably not really a good influence to have, but Flight Of The Concords was quite a strong influence on that record. Just being tongue in cheek about stuff. Maybe because the lyrics weren’t ironic it didn’t really work with the music. Not many people liked it”. Did he feel that people missed the jokes? “Yeah but probably because it wasn’t really that much of a joke, because I like cheesy pop music as well, so I was being ironic but enjoying it too much”.
Banana’s is perhaps more recognisably Malcolm Middleton than its predecessor, back to guitars, double-bass, piano and drums. The album was recorded at Chem 19, Paul Savage’s studio, where he’s worked with the likes of The Twilight Sad and Mogwai. We ask whether he enjoys the process of recording the tracks, “I find that really stressful. You’ve written a song that you’re happy with and you think it’s good, and you have to do it justice, it can be quite hard work. The best part for me is writing the song, then you get a little bit of elation if it’s a good thing and it’s summing up how you’re feeling, and you’ve got a good melody going to a good line that’s there, that’s the best part, but then that doesn’t last long, it fades quite quickly and you have to do the next one”.
Celebrating the release of Bananas, Malcolm will be heading out on tour. Like many artists he has a love hate relationship with the process, “I do like touring, there’s bits of it I really enjoy. Usually it’s acoustic gigs with nice rooms and a good atmosphere. I think I don’t like the thought of touring, but I know usually when I’m on tour, when I come back from tour I miss it. It gives me, it’s a horrible thing to say, but it does give me some self-worth being out there singing songs and people liking the songs I’ve written. That’s the good side of it, the bad side is being away from home, and travelling, and having so much time during the day not doing the thing you’re there for. It’s still a good thing to be able to do for a living. There’s a difference between a showman who wants to be on stage singing songs and has a good voice, and then someone like myself or Aidan, people who just go out and try and sing the songs they’ve written about certain things”.
It’s clear Malcolm remains close with his old Arab Strap bandmate, a bond they recently explored further with their re-union shows. 2016 marked twenty years since their formation, they initially planned to do one show, which became four shows, then a series of festival dates. We enquire if there’s plans for anything else in the pipeline, “we really enjoyed it, it’s good to appreciate something that we didn’t appreciate at the time when we were younger. The band were sounding great and it was nice to play the songs again, then we kind of hit a wall. It was nice to do, but we didn’t want to be the band who just did old songs, so we’re writing at the minute, with a view to recording next year and releasing in 2020. We’ve no idea if it’s going to work, or if it’ll fit with the band or just be myself and Aidan”.
With Banana’s being his seventh solo-album, meaning there’s now more Malcolm Middleton records than Arab Strap ever produced, we wonder if he ever tires of being, ‘that guy from Arab Strap?’ “It’s what we’re known for but I do cringe quite a lot, it makes me seem like an old man. I still don’t think we’ve made the perfect Arab Strap album. I don’t want to start criticising everything, they’re good songs, but we didn’t make a coherent piece. So it’ll be nice to try and do that but that’s weird as well, because I’m trying to think of bands that you like that get back together, do they ever do anything else good? I think the kind of music we were making was for young people, and was what young people listened to at the time. It’ll be interesting to see what we do together, we’re going to give it a go”.
What’s equally clear is that Arab Strap has set Malcolm up for the solo career he’s been able to have. He remains a professional musician, when many others you’d perhaps imagine to be on a similar level have struggled, “a band like Arab Strap back in the day, weren’t selling loads of records, but we were still making money and there was lots more money flying about from record labels, it’s a lot more difficult these days. Which I think is good in a way, because I think a lot of the 70’s and 80’s was about record labels just throwing huge advances at bands, and the bands never making them back, so they’d never get asked to do another album and stuff. I think it had to come to an end eventually, and be more realistic about what was coming in and going out”. The diverse income streams now are enough for him to make a living, whether that’s royalties from an Arab Strap song, or touring, “I don’t make the money off albums. The money that comes in from Bananas will just go to pay for studio time”.
With Christmas just around the corner, we’re reminded of Malcolm’s one moment of almost being a pop star, when back in 2007, his track, We’re All Going To Die, came from nowhere to be as short as 9/1 to take the Christmas Number One slot, eventually falling to number 31 in the final reckoning. Does he still get a bumper pay-cheque each December? “No, surprisingly not. I was kind of hoping it would go on the Now Christmas album at one point. That idea just makes me cringe. It’s quite funny, I’ve got a song called Burst Noel, that’s on Into The Woods, I had an email this week from Spotify saying it had been added to their acoustic Christmas playlist, and I was like wow this is great, and then there’s like 200 songs on there”. With Banana’s initially set for just a vinyl release, we wonder what Malcolm makes of the modern streaming services, “I don’t have an ambition to write a song, to make it and put it on Spotify, it doesn’t give me any sort of satisfaction doing that, but you realise, or I’ve realised this time, you have to play the game to a certain extent. A lot of people that’s how they consume their music. I mean, I love Spotify as a fan, it’s just horrendous as a musician”.
As our conversation draws to a close, we come back-around to sketching, “when I was younger I couldn’t draw, because I’ve got this perfectionist thing, and when I was drawing and I realised it wasn’t what I was seeing, I’d just give up. My friend’s an artist and he was saying, it doesn’t matter, whatever you draw, don’t try and make it the perfect recreation of what you’re looking at, just enjoy it, and that changed things”. We ask if that same perfectionist streak also runs through his musical career? “It’s a weird thing, perfectionism is probably the wrong word, it’s more like whatever I do, no matter how good or confident I am about it at the time, there’ll be a moment afterwards where the self-doubt kicks in regardless of what I’ve done. I think that’s maybe mistaken for perfectionism sometimes, it’s not perfectionism I’ll think it’s shit because of self-doubt issue and stuff like that”. So even if it was perfect he wouldn’t believe it, “yeah even if it was perfect, I’d still be able to convince myself it wasn’t”. Convincing everyone else of that, well that might be another matter.
Bananas is out on vinyl now via Triassic Tusk, with a full digital release to follow. Click HERE for more information on Malcolm Middleton.