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The War Against Intelligence

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March 2008

Foals

Queen Margaret Union, Glasgow

There is much to admire about a band as unlikely as Foals, and their elevation to ‘next big thing’ status remains, simultaneously, a delight and a head scratcher.

While others may trawl similar musical territory for inspiration, none of them manage to turn raw materials that extend from Krautrock to post-punk via. hardcore, into something both memorable and adored by 16 year olds. The relative youth of band and audience can obscure a complexity and intelligence in the music, which sounds like Big Flame as produced by Xenomania.

This jerky, rhythmic and intense recipe could produce cold and unappealing results, but it does not account for their ability to come up with memorable lines – both musically and lyrically – that make so many of the songs on their debut album, Antidotes, a triumph. ‘The French Open’ and current single, ‘Cassius,’ are cases in point: accessible enough to just about appease Bloc Party or even Placebo fans, while still satisfying those who crave something more artful. The sheer energy of the relatively brief performance is equally endearing, and there is none of the stand-off cool that frequently translates as tedium.

Nevertheless, Foals’ ascent may be down to their conformity with other aspects of the currently depressingly homogeneous British “indie” scene: they are, after all, blokes with guitars and good haircuts, and their music, seems almost entirely bereft of any non-Caucasian influences.

Though they have hit on a relatively unique sound and made a vibrant, refreshing album it is proper to question how much further it can be stretched given its limited sources.

While well ahead of their contemporaries at this stage, the real challenge might be keeping up with themselves and fending off the challenges to their creativity in the wake of inevitable commercial success.

Aidan Moffat

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“It’s weird doing interviews again,” laughs Aidan Moffat. “I kind of swore when Arab Strap split up that I was never doing it again, but it’s alright – it’s actually easier to do without Malcolm! There’s no arguing, but it’s odd having to just talk about myself.”

Moffat is back – both from a brief sojourn in West Kilbride (where he bought a house, but returned to Glasgow within weeks) and from a period of relative invisibility – and talking about himself and his new record, ‘I Can Hear Your Heart.’

It is a collection of spoken word snippets, poems, songs and short stories juxtaposed with samples of threatening sounding lounge music that somehow makes for a coherent, engaging and funny whole. Despite the context, it is not easy listening, but seems to complete a circle that goes back to the earliest Arab Strap releases.

It was December 2006 when Arab Strap called it a day when a batch of touring concluded with a celebratory show at the ABC in Glasgow and a few Japanese shows. The compilation, ‘Ten Years of Tears’ made for a fitting bookend and the Glasgow finale seemed like a band achieving that rare level of self-awareness in knowing when and where to stop.

“The thing about that gig,” he explains, “I discovered afterwards, was that a lot of people travelled to it. There were people from Japan, even someone from Australia, and also from around the U.K., people knew it was Glasgow, the last show in Britain and it was going to be the best one.”

“It did occur to us in the dressing room ‘where were these people six months ago?’ But it was a great gig, it just seems that you earn your respect when you split up. I think with the next band, I’ll just make one record and then split up!”

Though his former Arab Strap partner, Malcolm Middleton, enjoyed prominence and acclaim shortly thereafter with his third solo album, ‘A Brighter Beat,’ Moffat seemed to be lying low, with only occasional sightings.

Even so, his last year has been more low profile than inactive. January saw the release of his third instrumental album as L.Pierre and his new band, Aidan Moffat and the Best Ofs, performed live for the first time. He also appeared with Ian Rankin on the ‘Ballad of the Books’ album, but, in the immediate aftermath of the band’s split, he admits to doubts about his future direction.

“I’d saved money for that purpose – so that I could take some time off and see what I was going to do. I got a wee bit of money from signing a publishing deal with Domino, but career-wise, I did go through a period when I was quite confused. I’m glad I waited – I think if I had done this album two months after Arab Strap split up, I don’t think people would have cared, but there was a point last year, when everyone I knew in a band was doing really well and I was sitting on my arse. It was my own decision, but you start to get really bored.”

Indeed, boredom appears to have been something of creative spur, at least during the period in his early and mid twenties when the majority of the tales recounted on the album took place.

“Really, it was less to do with age and more to do with being in a band. For much of the time, you have nothing to do. For the first few years of Arab Strap we were broke, but once you have a bit of money, like we did after we signed to a major, you start to make it more seriously.”

“Even then, there are periods when you are at a loose end. So you go to the pub. The weekends don’t exist when you are in a band, you can do what you like.”

If the narratives that make up ‘I Can Hear Your Heart” originated in this period, it is one that Moffat will simultaneously claim that he has grown out of, though he can still connect with and laugh at his (sometimes thinly disguised) former self.

“I suppose, in a way, the album has taken years,” he says. “There were things that I had written specifically that weren’t supposed to be songs and I wasn’t ever quite sure what to do with them. When I went back to read them, it was like going back to reading an old diary. Basically, it was me being a bit of a prick when I was young.”

“I thought it would be good to write from the point of a young man who thinks he is smart, the cock o’ the north. Obviously, the guy in the story is me, and by the end of it, I haven’t learned anything! I’d like to think I am different now, of course, but it is only with retrospect that you can joke about yourself. Everyone goes through that phase, and it is a great phase to go through – you can tell I had a great time.”

Though he talks of this part of his life ending in the period when he met his girlfriend, turned thirty and the band split, the most interesting aspects of the record are the way in which, lyrically and in terms of production, it harks back to the earliest Arab Strap records. This was something that concerned Moffat as it came together:

“What worried me the most was that in some ways it is a step back,” he says, “and I thought that people would think it was just an album of moaning from that whinging old beardy guy from Glasgow who is obsessed by sex.”

“Exactly the opposite seems to have happened, people seem to say that it is what I do best. Which is odd as well, because nobody was interested in Arab Strap! Suddenly we’re quite revered in all these posh papers, but if all these people had bothered to buy the records or go to the gigs at the time. . .”

The sound of ‘I Can Hear Your Heart’ also reflects a change in the process of Moffat’s record making – the outcome being a record that sounds like it could either have taken years to make, or been recorded in one drunken late night session. The truth is somewhat more prosaic.

“It was a mixture of both techniques,” he claims. “ I had always wanted it to have a lot of cheesy sounding, lounge samples, and I did collect them and plan it over a long period. On the other hand, a lot of the vocals were done in one or two days, and I think that’s what gives it the coherence.”

“Normally, I wouldn’t even dream of drinking in the studio, but this time we would go to the pub and decide that maybe it was for the best, as I needed to relax – I was reading them too quickly. A few of them were recorded under the influence, but the last track, ‘Hilary and Back’ – I had to be very sober for that one!  It does have that sort of rambling effect – but it has been planned over a long period and I’ve been chipping away it for years.”

The nature of the record has also presented Moffat with a problem in an age of digital downloads – paying 79p for one minute poem hardly sits comfortably with the current record industry model for delivering music. It is something Moffat and his label, Chemikal Underground have worked hard to circumnavigate:

“I know – it doesn’t really work,” he laughs. “but we had always wanted to do something special with the packaging of this record, but not purely to sell it. It is going to come in one of these book style packages and there’s a five-track bonus CD, a bonus short story and a glossary of Scots’ words. It’s a brilliant package and I hope it is the sort of thing that will be desirable to people who want the album. You have to do that these days – a standard ten track CD in a jewel case isn’t enough anymore.”

Indeed – beyond the album release, Moffat intends to play a small number of live shows and finish work on the first Aidan Moffat and The Best Of’s album. He won’t be invisible in 2008.

I Can Hear Your Heart is released on Chemikal Underground on 11th February

Laura Marling

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Oran Mor, Glasgow
For such an assured songwriter, this show marks a very tentative step on the road to an almost assured stardom.

At eighteen and with considerable financial backing behind her talents, it would surely be possible to present the show in a less controlled environment. Here, the tickets have been distributed to fans only online, resulting in an adulatory, if undersold venue. By the end of the ten songs, Marling admits that “you made it too easy for us.”

Nevertheless, there is much to admire in the way she handles the circumstances. The mood is homely and understated, the band’s admirable restraint belying the fact they have only recently been aquainted with the songs. Marling projects an air of confidenced, without ever being complacent or arrogant.

The use of fiddle and harmonium to augment her acoustic guitar produces a warmth in songs that are often bleak, frequently portraying messed up male characters in a manner that suggests experience beyond her years. Indeed, the songs frequently start with only Marling’s voice and guitar, building into a fuller sound. Though there is little in the way of killer hooks, the melodies of the best songs – ‘Night Terror’ and ‘My Manic and I’ are nevertheless insidious.

Skipping the soul pastiches of Duffy and Adele and opting for a more subtle approach than K.T. Tunstall and her many less convincing clones, Marling seems musically more in synch with American songwriters despite the English references in her lyrics. The early, folkier work of Shawn Colvin and Natalie Merchant springs to mind, and while this is not necessarily a blueprint for instant commercial return, it does hint at a durability and longevity. In time, she will hopefully become less cautious with her live presentation.

Edited version appeared in The Herald

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