This interview originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on Dec 14 2011, under the heading HOW MIDDLETON’S ALTER-EGO FOUND A VOICE.
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Malcolm Middleton knows how to talk up a record. “It’s a cross between Jan Hammer and Iron Maiden,” says the Falkirk singer-songwriter and former Arab Strap guitarist of his forthcoming album, Midnight Noodles*.
While such a pledge will no doubt set pop loins aflame across the land, the one-time trainee Egyptologist won’t unveil the aforesaid record, his first under the moniker Human Don’t Be Angry, until 2012. He will, however, preview songs at his imminent Glasgow and Edinburgh shows. Whether they truly fuse the thrills of heavy metal and Miami Vice remains to be seen.
Middleton will play two separate sets at the gigs. He’ll headline as Malcolm Middleton, the acclaimed solo artist who has released five studio albums since 2002. And he’ll support himself in the exploratory, semi-instrumental guise of Human Don’t Be Angry. “It wasn’t until this morning that I realised it’ll be quite weird going off-stage and then coming back on,” he says over lunch the day before a UK tour. “I don’t know if I should adopt different personas, like the desperate support band and the moody headline act.”
While Middleton’s career with cult-pop stars Arab Strap saw him re-map the Scottish music landscape between 1995 and 2006, his solo works positioned him (reluctantly) centre-stage and affirmed him as a formidable talent in his own right. 2005’s Into the Woods and 2007’s A Brighter Beat brilliantly attest to Middleton’s way with electro-folk, alt-pop and deadpan self-disdain. But a recent two-year sabbatical prompted a re-jig of Middleton’s muse. “I wasn’t writing anything new. I felt like I was stuck in a rut, to be honest.” And lo, a fascinating alter-ego, Human Don’t Be Angry, was born.
“I think I had this idea that Human Don’t Be Angry was going to be this obtuse, experimental, really minimal thing with like ten, 15 minutes per song,” he says. “But when I tried to do that, I felt like I was ripping people off. I don’t know a huge amount about avant-garde music, or experimental music, and so the pop aspect always comes out.”
Middleton may be a post-rock trailblazer, but he has covered Girls Aloud, his first concert was Bryan Adams with T’Pau, and he worships at the altar of Pat Benatar. “I want a tune, or a chorus, you know?”
Both artistes have produced a CD to tie in with the shows. Human Don’t Be Angry will flog “official bootleg” Live at Leeds (recorded on tour with ex-Arab Strap brother-in-arms Aidan Moffat earlier this year). Is it representative of forthcoming studio LP, Midnight Noodles? “Well yes, and no,” he says. “I did Midnight Noodles with [Chemikal Underground ace-producer] Paul Savage. He kept turning round saying, ‘will we put some drums on this?’ and I kept thinking, ‘stop it, it’s supposed to be ambient’. But the more we added, the better it got. I’m really happy with it.”
Malcolm Middleton has also compiled an LP for the tour, in the shape of the cheering A Quarter Past Shite. It’s an anthology of early solo recordings that have hitherto been kept under wraps. “It’s a weird album. I’m not sure if I could stand up in a court of law and defend it,” he laughs quietly. “It was recorded in 2001 and I think it was supposed to be my first album, but it sort of got left by the way.” Was it hard to revisit, given he’s previously said the songs were “too negative and depressing” to release? “Oh no it’s funny, it’s hilarious,” he shrugs. “It feels like a different person.”
Middleton tends to mark the festive season by issuing records. Last year yielded the live double-album Live in Zurich / Long Dark Night, but it was his 2007 bid for the Christmas number one slot with We’re All Going To Die that hit the headlines, from Radio 2 to Lorraine Kelly’s couch. It saw bookies slash their odds from 1000/1 to 9/1 largely due to championing from then-Radio 1 DJ Colin Murray. In the end, it charted at 31.
“Even though it was a joke, it got a bit out of hand. I was reeling after it, and I felt a bit exposed,” he says. “But I was also a bit deluded. I was actually sitting thinking, ‘when they release Now, That’s What I Call Christmas next year will I be on it?’” He shakes his head and laughs.
Its aftermath, teamed with the exertion of making three solo albums in as many years, prompted Middleton’s song-writing sabbatical in 2009. “I feel like I’ve done nothing for two years,” he says, which suggests that the following recent events have slipped his mind: a handful of sublime HDBA shows; a “nearly finished” collaborative album with electro-sorceress Mira Calix; an “almost complete” MM solo album; a joyous one-off Arab Strap reunion gig; a terrific split ten-inch with FOUND’s River of Slime.
Middleton has never been one for kicking back. Even while simultaneously operating as a solo artist and a member of Arab Strap, he decided he needed something to fall back on. He chose Egyptology.
“When I was doing my second album, I went to night classes at Glasgow Uni,” he offers. “Next to philosophy, it’s probably the worst thing you can do as a fall-back subject, but I finished the year.” To his litany of charms we can thus add historian. “I’ve a beginner’s certificate in ancient Egypt.”
* Since this article was first published, Middleton has announced that the Human Don’t Be Angry album will now be self-titled, with a Midnight Noodles EP following later this year).