A taste of the Strap

Scottish band Arab Strap tell it how it is, even if it means saying unforgiveable things about the drummer's sister.
It's your first proper London gig. The room is packed, but you have an uneasy feeling that this is only because you are supporting Belle And Sebastian, the widely touted Glaswegians. Two or three songs in, the bass amp starts to overload - crazily, of its own accord. The volume control keeps switching itself to maximum, so the rudimentary playing of the newly recruited bassist drowns out the gruff, mumbled vocals and surprisingly intricate guitar playing. You exchange looks of disillusionment and impotent rage. Later on, a terrible argument breaks out over the singer's inability to remember the words, and someone says something unforgivable about the drummer's sister.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Arab Strap. Always a magnetic spectacle, this Falkirk quartet gel into the most caustically exhilarating live band in the country on a good night. On a bad one, they're the closest you can get to paying to watch a fight in the street and not having to feel bad about it. The harder that Arab Strap mainstays Aidan Moffat (vocals, flowery shirts, industrial-strength sarcasm) and Malcolm Middleton (guitars, ginger hair, inner rage) strive to look as if they don't care which way things are going, the more painfully apparent it becomes how desperately they do. "We have had reviewers say they enjoyed us because we were drunk and it was a shambles," Malcolm admits. "I hate the idea that we're some kind of circus act. We do take it all very seriously; we want the songs to get through to people".

Oh yes, the songs. Arab Strap's second single, "The Clearing", featured three different versions of the same strange, hypnotically sombre piece of music, the lyric of which might have been about falling for someone or discovering a corpse. The last one ends with a poignant whispered message, recorded by a friend called John under his bedclothes in the early hours of the morning, fearing that his sister might wake up in the next room and come in and give him a slap. "That's it, I've got nothing else to say", John concludes. "If I did, I'd just be talking shite."

Upon hearing Arab Strap's debut recording, "The First Big Weekend", a lot of people leapt to the misapprehension that it was Irvine Welsh making his spoken-word debut. In fact, this hilariously matter-of-fact account of four days and nights of downbeat debauchery (the band's loyalty to the song's documentary spirit is such that it gets updated every time they play it, even when the best "big weekend" experience Aidan can come up with is "We wandered aimlessly round the shops for a bit") introduced a new voice of Celtic disaffection every bit as compelling as Welsh's, and - so far at least - a good deal more consistent.

Released at the turn of the year, Arab Strap's first album, The Week Never Starts Round Here (Chemikal Underground), mixed the claustrophobia of Tricky's Pre-Millenium Tension with the taut intimacy of American lo- fi eminences such as Slint and Smog. From the oddly jaunty fin de siecle folk of "I Work in a Saloon" ("I work in a saloon pulling shit pints for shit wages") to the hilarious acapella pleadings of "General Plea to a Girlfriend ("I know you find my habits sickly, I know sometimes I come too quickly"), it was the most striking and resonant showcase of new Scottish songwriting since Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque.

"I wish more people would use the same language in songs that they use in everyday life," muses Aidan. "I hate it when people who obviously aren't poets try to be." In contrast to the dewy-eyed romanticism of their Glaswegian forbears, Arab Strap adopt a bracingly warts-and-all approach to affairs of the heart. Can Aidan understand why people might be unnerved by his tendency to refer in song to his ex-girlfriend as a "fickle disco bitch"? "Anyone who finds that shocking or offensive is a fucking hypocrite," he says cheerfully. "I don't do it to shock people. I do it out of spite and the desire for vengeance on the individual concerned. Besides, the more people moan about the language, the more extreme I'm gonna get."

Arab Strap's imminent third single - a profoundly entertaining 20-minute concept EP called The Girls of Summer - exhibits a more celebratory attitude to femininity. Not only can it boast an instrumental called "The Beautiful Barmaids of Dundee", but the sleeve of the disc is adorned with individual snapshots of the young women the band presently share their lives with. "They're embarrassed," Malcolm admits, "but I think they like it really." How do they feel about the opening lines of the title track - "We're sitting drinking fruity alcopops from pint glasses with ice and watching the girls of summer, with their bare legs and trainers and their white strap-lines from yesterday's tops"? "Don't get the wrong idea," Malcolm insists, "We're not sleazy old men - you only have to see the looks on our faces to realise that there is a certain innocence at work."

Arab Strap's unspoiled naivety has already survived a first attempt at corporate co-option. Earlier this summer, the backing track for "The First Big Weekend" was picked up by Guinness to provide a backdrop for their TV and advertising campaign, in which a Scottish voice (supplied by an English Spitting Image regular) recites a series of lame made-up statistics over a series of annoying black and white linages. Why did the band agree to this, especially given their professed disdain for the product in question? "We were skint and we needed some new amps," Malcolm explains.

How do Arab Strap think their second album, which they are currently half way through recording with a motley assortment of guest cellists and trumpeters, might turn out? "I don't think anyone in Britain since Joy Division has known how to make seriously depressing music," Aidan says enthusiastically. What about Radiohead? "They're more self-indulgent," he grins, "and you've got to have a sense of humour about yourself if you want to communicate something quite depressing n"

Arab Strap play Edinburgh Cas Rock (0131-229 4341) tonight and King's Cross Water Rats, London (0171-837 7269), next Friday. The Girls of Summer EP (Chemikal Underground) is out on 1 Sept