It’s over a decade since Malcolm Middleton recorded his debut solo album, the difficult-to-say 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine, and the memories of that breakthrough are evidently a little hazy for its protagonist.
“Was it 2002? Aye it was, sorry,” says Middleton on the phone from his new base in Fife.
The reason 39-year-old Middleton, who released 5:14 at the height of his success with cult indie outfit Arab Strap, is now trying to recall his late 20s is that the album of the time is getting a vinyl reissue on his original label, Chemikal Underground.
It also coincides with a reprisal of his solo career after he went off-piste with 80s-influenced side project Human Don’t Be Angry, but more of that later. For now, he’s still trying to cast his mind back to 2002.
“It’s weird thinking about this now, I never think about this stuff at all…
“Since 1996 I’d been busy with Arab Strap and had started making records and touring. That came to a head in summer 2001 after a massive tour for The Red Thread [Arab Strap’s fourth studio album] throughout Europe, Asia and America and I came home and we had a bit of a break…
“It’s such a lo-fi record and it’s quite intimate, and I cringe when I hear my voice, because it sounds like a wee guy trying to sing, and it’s quite open and honest. But it did much better than I thought it ever would.”
For the quietly-spoken Middleton, 5:14 was the sound of him coming out of his shell as an artist. Despite his relative success with Arab Strap, he had until that point been happy to cede the spotlight to his forthright accomplice Aidan Moffat.
“It seemed like the right time,” he says. “I didn’t have much confidence at the time for releasing things but it just seemed to be the right moment to go and do something.
“The spur was probably the song ‘Devil and the Angel’, which is the last song on the album. It’s a song about not having the confidence in your songs, and thinking everything you write is shit. So that song, being so negative, was actually quite positive. I let a few people hear that and got some alright feedback and that gave me a little boost I suppose.
“I had thought about doing it a few years before. Aidan had been doing Lucky Pierre albums on the side and that started before I joined the band with him. I’m not sure… I couldn’t let anyone hear the song until I was drunk and then it was a few friends.”
Although the album came from a low point in his life – “things happened, like relationship wise, and I started writing these songs” – Middleton recalls that it was also a reaction to his own frustration with the compromised life of a band member.
“I remember at the time when Philophobia [Arab Strap’s second album] was being recorded I let Aidan hear ‘Devil and the Angel’ and he didn’t like it and it wasn’t going to go on the album, which kinda pissed me off a little bit, because I think I’d had four or five songs on the first album. But then it started veering more towards Aidan’s lyrics, which was fair enough at the time, because Philophobia was such a strong record for him. I think I must have just needed to express something and write some words and do my own thing.”
While there were obviously underlying tensions in having two such potent songwriters in one band (Arab Strap eventually split in 2006), Falkirk’s most celebrated musical sons are still on good terms. They reunited for a one-off gig at Nice n Sleazy in Glasgow to mark the bar’s 20th birthday in 2011. Was that a one off?
“I don’t know. Ask Aidan,” is Middleton’s curt answer.
When pressed, he is a little more willing to consider another Arab Strap reunion.
“We’ll definitely do something like that for a laugh. That was funny… after we did that, or maybe before we did that, we got offered a bit of money to do a gig. And we turned it down, and we ended up doing a gig for free in our favourite pub. So I think we’d only ever do it if it was fun…
“I think, with Arab Strap, it was good at the time. But we could only write songs of that ilk at a certain age. So I don’t think we’ll ever record again but it might be good to do a gig.”
Meanwhile, Middleton’s solo career has continued through bursts of activity and fallow periods since 5:14. The follow-up, Into the Woods (2005), was a critical success, then a couple of years passed before three albums followed in quick succession – A Brighter Beat (2007), Sleight of Heart (2008) and Waxing Gibbous (2009). But when he was making 5:14, Middleton did not have a solo career to reflect upon, and he acknowledges that the album was the catalyst for what was to follow.
“The right people reviewing it seemed to like it, and I got letters from people saying they’d been through similar situations, and it’s helped them. It was really good getting something postive from something negative that I’d written all these songs about. It gave me enough confidence to go away and write Into the Woods, my second album, which I couldn’t have done without doing 5:14 first.”
The passage of time has changed the way Middleton approaches songwriting, but he recognises that there was something innocent and inimitable about his debut.
“I definitely couldn’t write songs like that today. And it was good that I was living in that wee bubble at the time that I could be honest, especially when there were songs that I wasn’t expecting anyone to hear. It’s a completely different thing when you’ve done a couple of records and you’re writing songs, no matter how isolated you try to make it you still have some kind of end result or audience in your mind when you’re writing the song, which ruins something about it, which you can only capture on your first record.
“It can mess with your head a little but it can be good and bad. By the time I was writing my third record, A Brighter Beat, I’d almost embraced it and I was writing these similar songs that I’d done on the first two records but I was almost incorporating an audience more – saying ‘we’ a lot more than just’I’, which borders on cheesy but I think I did it OK.
“By the time Waxing Gibbous [Middleton’s fourth solo album] was done I was confused about what people thought about me. I’d almost become a bit of a caricature of myself, or what I’d been doing for the past five years.”
A retrospective of Middleton’s career to date cannot neglect to mention that Christmas single attempt – as much as Middleton would prefer it if we did. This most unassuming of characters was pushed into a maelstrom of national publicity in 2007 when Radio One DJ Colin Murray championed Middleton’s ‘We’re All Going to Die’ for the festive top spot – at odds of 1000/1, which were promptly slashed to 9/1. Middleton made it to No. 31, while fellow Scot and X Factor winner Leon Jackson (remember him?) got the top spot.
“Oh God. It’s kinda like a minor embarrassment I think,” Middleton groans. “It would have been something to be proud of if I’d actually pulled it off a bit better. But it felt a bit weird – I was doing so much press and all these shitty things that I wouldn’t normally do. I tried to embrace it but I was still quite grumbly about it. Like I said at the time, it was a joke that got out of hand. It’s Colin Murray’s fault for taking the idea and running with it.”
Moving swiftly on then, and after his last solo album, 2009’s Waxing Gibbous, Middleton took some time away from the circuit again, only to return under a radically different guise.
Human Don’t Be Angry is an instrumental project whose self-titled debut has just made the longlist for this year’s Scottish Album of the Year Award. Middleton is “really proud” of the album, and wants to revisit the project again in a few years. The alter ego intermission in his career has clearly done him good.
“Where I am now, it’s good to just sit and write, and know there’s an audience but just not think about it…
“It’s good to have a break, and I’ve been writing again loads recently.”
The reissue of 5:14 seems like good timing then. A chance for Middleton fans to listen back to his fledgling material, as he prepares to return to the microphone – even if the artist himself could have waited longer.
“Yeah it’s too early for me for that album to be reissued but it’s really nice it’s coming out on vinyl so that was the main thing that made me go for it,” he says. “It did feel a little too early to be revisiting it.”
Despite the intensely personal subject matter, Middleton’s debut benefits from the considerable talents of his friends in the Scottish music scene. Collaborators included Aidan Moffat, Barry Burns of Mogwai, The Delgados’ Paul Savage and Jenny Reeve of Strike the Colours, who Middleton credits with transforming the tone of the LP.
“It must have been late winter, early spring,” he recalls. “I’d done the bulk of the stuff at home and then taken it into Chem 19 studio to do the drums with Paul. It was great having people like Jenny and Barry coming in – especially Jenny, it lightened the whole thing up. It wasn’t just me moaning all the way through the record. Her really nice, warm voice came in like a hug. Barry did what Barry does – he turns songs around just by playing keyboards over the top.”
Now Middleton is ready to revisit that raw early work on a solo UK tour. While he’s happy to return to his solo debut, he stresses that it’s equally about looking forward to where he’s going next.
“It’s good to go out and do some dates around the reissue but I didn’t want to do a, dare-say-it, silver 60s-type tour, just going around doing old stuff,” he says. “So I’ll play some songs off the record because I will be selling the record at gigs but the main thing will be doing new songs and some back catalogue stuff.
“I enjoy playing live now,” he adds. “It’s a bit of hassle with bands, but if you’re not with a band and you’re a solo guy and have to get a backing band it’s a pain. So it’s good to go out and do acoustic dates. I enjoy playing to people that way.”
Malcolm Middleton plays the following dates, with support from Seamus Fogarty:
29 Apr – Edinburgh, Electric Circus
30 Apr – Newcastle,The Cluny 2
1 May – Winchester, The Railway
2 May – Reading, South Street Art Centre
3 May – Cardiff, Clwb Ifor Bach
4 May – London, Dalston Victoria
5 May – Hull, Adelphi
6 May – Sheffield, The Harley
7 May – York, The Duchess
8 May – Kirkcaldy, Adam Smith Theatre
5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine is reissued on vinyl on May 20, available via Chemikal Underground.
Interview by Nick Mitchell