When Glaswegian musicians Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton reconvened as art-rock duo Arab Strap for the ethereal new “As Days Get Dark,” their first album in 16 years (released March 5), they had one caveat: They didn’t want to keep living in the past. They wanted to make a record that sounded thoroughly modern, giving them solid new material to tour on in the future. Moffat, 47, said an album wasn’t even a consideration initially. The band had become active again in 2016, a decade after breaking up, for a handful of one-off Scottish concerts. But they enjoyed the experience so much, they resolutely composed “Dark” dirges like “Sleeper,” “Kebabylon” and “The Turning of Our Bones,” with Moffat’s shadowy, sometimes murmured vocals sweeping across Middleton’s windblown-heath soundscapes. Ironically, they recruited Paul Savage — producer of their 1996 debut “The Week Never Starts Round Here” — to update their classic sound.
Have you, like many others during lockdown, picked up any new hobbies?
No. And to be honest, I keep trying to work. That’s the only thing that’s kept me going. I mean, I started a cassette label last year. It’s on my Bandcamp page, and it’s called A Little Box of Hiss. And I also made three albums last year because I was really at loose ends a bit. So I just keep my days busy by working on stuff. That’s the only way I can keep sane. And I think you need that to survive these days, because it’s getting harder and harder to make music now. Especially since there are no concerts.
In 2014, you made a full-length film and live album with director Paul Fegan, “Where You’re Meant to Be,” where he followed you on tour across Scotland, reinterpreting your country’s traditional folk songs?
Yes. And it certainly changed the way that I looked at history through the lens of folk music. And the sad conclusion of the whole thing was that it just doesn’t exist anymore. Folk music can’t exist anymore, because practically everyone now has access to all the classic music for free. And the folk that wrote those songs were the working classes, and they don’t write those songs anymore because they don’t need to. So it’s something that’s got to be kept alive as more of a traditional thing, because I don’t think there’s such a thing as modern folk music in Scotland.
In the documentary, you got to meet Scottish folk legend Sheila Stewart, 79 at the time, who was not pleased with your updating of “The Parting Song.” And you wound up arguing about it in a tiny car?
Yes. And that car ride was terrifying. And every reaction in that movie was absolutely genuine. Paul was very good at putting me in situations where I would absolutely shit myself. So I was a big fan of Sheila’s stuff, and I knew she did that song. And I told Paul that I was a big fan, and he said, “Well, I want you to meet her.” But I didn’t know that that was going to be in the front seat of a car! But he set it up as a wee surprise, and he made sure that there were cameras on in the car, and she was driving — it was a genuine drive. But then the car broke down so I had to sit in the car with her for about an hour while we waited for someone to come and fix it, so there was so much that they didn’t put in that film that was quite funny to look at.
At your performance at Glasgow’s Barrowlands, Sheila joined you onstage to show how “The Parting Song” should really be sung?
That was absolutely incredible. I genuinely had no idea she was going to do it. So I started singing “The Parting Song,” and she interrupted it at the end and then sang her version, solo, and it was absolutely amazing. And no one was going to dare tell her that she couldn’t go onstage. But it was an amazing thing to have happen, and a beautiful moment. But she was very determined to do things. And I don’t think she’d mind me saying this, but she was quite a tough lady, and she didn’t take any shit. So the film became something much bigger than we’d ever intended, especially in light of Sheila dying before the movie came out. But we had plans to do a lot more filming with her, and obviously that couldn’t happen. So then we felt that we had a duty to give her more of a story.