When you’ve made a career of writing lyrics as openly and graphically as Aidan John Moffat, it’s difficult to pull back and attempt to build yourself a level of mystique. Certainly, he’s one of the most affable people I’ve ever interviewed, but the record I’m phoning to discuss, The Island Comes True sounds tailor-made for deep exploration.
His fourth under the L. Pierre moniker, The Island Comes True is a lyricless patchwork of found sound, tape hiss and downright odd noises; opening track ‘Kab 1340’ blends the sound of a string quartet tuning up into clanging metal and seagull squawks before (un)settling on a dramatic violin refrain, while on ‘Dumbum’, a woman’s idle humming gets shaped into a compulsive rhythmic pattern.
Amusingly, however, the album’s origins are a little more prosaic than its contents: “It was really just a result of being a bit bored,” Moffat explains. “I’d been working with Bill Wells on the album [Everything’s Getting Older], and he’d been doing something else. I was looking through some old boxes, and I found some old cds with old samples on, and I just started playing around.” The sense of play is a big part of what makes The Island Comes True such an interesting listen, and inspired the album’s title, which comes from a chapter in Peter Pan. This was inspired by what Aidan describes a his “first real engagement with literature.” “It’s full of themes and images that stick with you,” he elaborates. “Everyone knows who Peter Pan is, everybody knows the story. I was thinking about the idea of leaving the album quite vague so people could use their imaginations. And it led to that – it was quite an obvious thing for me to reference Peter Pan in some way, because of course that’s what the whole book’s about.”
Yet, the album is far less innocent than Moffat suggests, and the inspiration for the sinister orchestral stylings of a track like ‘Harmonic Avenger’ come from much different sources, in particular, the recently reissued Eraserhead soundtrack – “not really a record that you sit down and listen to for fun!”
Everything’s Getting Older – winner of the inaugural Scottish Album of the Year award – was an album which took a long time to put together, and it shows; however, while it may sound meticulously crafted, the theme of ageing fell together pretty much by accident. Far from drained, though, Moffat has used The Island Comes True as “a good way to clear the mind before I get back into writing lyrics,” and its soundscapes – taken from the aforementioned boxes of CDs and “public domain films that no one really cares about” – take the listener on a strange journey. Much like the album with Bill Wells which preceded it, the way Moffat pieced the record together is reflected in its sound – “You might have a vague idea,” he states, “but I think it’s very rare that it ends up how you expect it to.”
When it comes to Moffat’s lyrics, he’s no slouch, but the notion of treating writing as a full-time hobby (like, say, Nick Cave, who writes nine-to-five style in an office) doesn’t exactly appeal: “I work at home, obviously; I’ve got a room to myself, with all my stuff in it, and it’s a fucking mess. My way of thinking is, if my desk is tidy, I’m not working enough.” And Moffat is a guy who tends to have a lot of writing projects on the go at any one time, which may explain why overlabouring a song doesn’t quite ring true as a working method, “I want it to seem as natural as possible, so I let it come as naturally as possible.” This, in turn, fed into what winds up coming out of his mouth throughout his whole career.
“The whole reason I started writing songs the way I do is because I never heard anyone writing songs in the voice that I spoke with, or the voice that I knew from Scotland. Most Scottish artists were always putting on American accents and writing terrible, terrible lyrics that didn’t reflect the country at all. I mean, the Proclaimers for instance, are often the butt of many jokes – which is very cruel, because they actually had such a strong Scottish identity. I wouldn’t say they inspired me in any way, but I’ve always admired them for the way they write and what they do. I remember someone described Arab Strap as ‘The Proclaimers from Hell’ which I thought was fair enough, aye.”
And he seems to have no intention of leaving the place; he occasionally envisions himself living in rural England “in my retirement years”, but even this is more inspired by his English girlfriend – “I hate saying ‘partner’ because I’m not a fucking cowboy, but we’re not married but we’ve been together ten years and we’ve got a son, so it seems a bit silly calling her ‘girlfriend’” – than anything else.
Indeed, having previously covered the traditional folk song ‘I Belong to Glasgow’, and referencing specific areas of the country throughout his lyrical career, Scotland is a constant backdrop to Moffat’s work. When I ask him what makes Scottish misery so distinct from that of other nations, however, he shuns the very idea: “I don’t want to speak on behalf of my country, but as a nation, we’re very very quick to laugh at ourselves, and I think that’s very important.” Indeed, from Arab Strap onwards, his lyrics have been very much rooted in self-deprecating humour (“our records often got dismissed by people who don’t really listen to them as miserable records, but no one would buy an album of just sheer misery”) and any album beginning with the line “It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen/But you’d no idea where that cock had been” – the peerless opening gambit from 1998’s Philophobia – isn’t exactly going to be short on laughs.
Yet, surely he must have trouble reconciling his body of work to his newfound parental duties? “I do fear the day when my son asks me about the old lyrics… but I’ll deal with it when I get there.” Indeed, Moffat insists that he’s in no hurry to foist his back catalogue on his little boy – “I’ll wait until he gets his first really bad broken heart. Then I’ll give him the six Arab Strap albums – ‘There’s nothing I can say to you that hasn’t been said in there!’”
One thing that Moffat and son have been able to bond over recently is pop music. Proper pop music. “I watch a lot of pop music on telly. I don’t have that snobby attitude to music – everything’s valid, and if music sounds good, then there’s no reason not to celebrate it. [A lot of pop songs] say something that might not be apparent, and a lot of pop music is like that.” It’s not too much of a surprising sentiment coming from a man who has, in the past, covered songs by the likes of Atomic Kitten and Bananarama, but there are still new hits that catch him unawares. “I was never that keen on Katy Perry,” he continues. “I thought she was a bit shallow. But when I was watching the telly – now, I’d been drinking quite a lot at that point – but ‘Firework’ came on, and it sounded fantastic. It’s a beautiful sentiment.” One, indeed, which he was able to share with his son (who is “at that age where he only likes songs that he’s heard in films”) during Madagascar 3.
The production line element of pop music seems to genuinely appeal to Aidan, and he was apparently once approached to write some lyrics by Madonna’s former producer (unfortunately for me, Moffat forgets his name); “Obviously I never heard from him again, probably because I replied.” Yet, in spite of it being pretty much his calling for the last fifteen-odd years, working with a producer having the word “Lyricist” printed on his passport remains his dream job.
Which leads to my final question – having covered so many classic pop tunes, which Proper Pop Star would he most like to tackle one of his own songs? “Ohhhhhh,” Aidan muses, sounding like he’s truly relishing the question, “this requires thought!” After a while and, inspired by the “sheer joy” the man’s latest single gives his son, he settles on an answer.
“Let me hear Robbie Williams do ‘Packs of Three’.”
Probably best he keeps that away from his son for a while, eh?
The Island Come True is out now on Melodic.