Monday, 27 July 2009



Perhaps the only band ever to appear in both this magazine and Sex and the City, Mogwai have been pursuing their singular muse – often elegant, sometimes crushing – since 1995. On the eve of the release of their latest album, The Hawk is Howling, Rock-a-Rolla cornered guitarist Stuart Braithwaite in Glasgow’s 13th Note to chat about longevity, living in a dystopian future, and Batman.

London ULU, circa. 1997. Mogwai pop in while touring their debut Young Team. Five unassuming Glaswegians pull down the heavens and reach down our throats to squeeze our souls dry. Right now, their shimmering, ultra-dynamic instrumentals seem like the most exciting music that it’s possible to make. Their balancing act between unabashed beauty and extreme physical brutality is so precarious that it seems impossible that it could be sustained for any length of time. We few here in this room ought to revel in every moment, as we may never get the chance again.

Eleven years on, in June 2008, Mogwai headline a cavernous room on the Glasgow leg of the Triptych festival. Older, wiser, the band exert greater control over their powers, are far more adept at wielding that vast, glorious sound. Arguably they’re more restrained now than in the old days, but is that really true when chugging new single ‘Batcat’ crushes all before it right from its opening moments? The most striking aspect of the gig is how utterly adored Mogwai are – every opening drift of notes embraced en masse like a lost lover by the sold-out crowd. At times it feels like being at a stadium-rock gig, where this kind of response would usually be reserved for anodyne but catchy power-anthems that express supposedly universal themes with artless, moronic bombast. But Mogwai’s is an unlikely aesthetic to find itself so dearly beloved – sombre, sensitive, full of yearning, with a flair for the (melo)dramatic and, most significant of all, wordless. It’s remarkable that a band with what seemed over a decade ago like a very special and select appeal has now become something approaching a treasured national institution.

Stuart Braithwaite is as surprised as anyone that a thoughtful, sometimes wilfully deafening and occasionally mischievous instrumental guitar band could achieve Mogwai’s degree of success. Especially when you consider that of those from their mid-90s Glasgow scene – Arab Strap, the Delgados, Ganger, etc – Mogwai are among the last men standing.

“Really, if you’d said to us after we’d made even our first album, which went down pretty well, that 11 or 12 years later we’d be playing even bigger places, we’d definitely have been surprised. You can’t be anything other than happy about that. But I suppose we’re stubborn. We refuse to admit defeat. We all still like it. And we never fell out. I think the only reason to stop making music would be because you didn’t enjoy it or you got completely fed up with the people you were making music with. Maybe we’ve just been doing stuff so long together that we’re just kind of stuck with each other. But I think all bands kind of have to have a siege mentality, that they have to be immune to stuff from the outside and stick up for each other.”

But surviving that long and achieving that kind of status that can make a band feel bulletproof, which brings with it the risk of complacency. Is this a danger for Mogwai?

“Aw, no. No no no no. I’ve seen bands go from complete adulation to a running joke after one bad album. Or another band comes out doing the same style of music a hundred times better. Definitely not bulletproof. I’d imagine that there’ll always be a fondness for the records we’ve made, but whether that will always translate into people being excited about what we do now – who knows?”

Of course, the flipside is that not being bulletproof carries its own dangers, i.e. stagnation, an unwillingness to transcend that which made you a success in the first place. Do you feel under pressure to continue to be the Mogwai that people expect you to be?

“If you mean do we want to do a jazz record, then not really. To be honest, I think that we sound the way we sound completely naturally. We certainly don’t have to try hard to sound like this. When the five of us start playing that’s just what we sound like. And even when we think we’ve done something amazingly different, no one else seems to notice! So we stopped worrying about what it sounds like, and just hoped that it’s something that we’re all happy with.”

An infectiously enthusiastic chap, Stuart seems very happy with Mogwai’s new baby, The Hawk is Howling, and quite rightly so. The sublimely massive ‘Batcat’ stands out as one of the band’s most immediate and ferocious tunes, while unusually bright, almost krautrocky avenues are explored by ‘The Sun Smells Too Loud’, and the wrenching ‘Scotland’s Shame’ should and will massage tear ducts not only in Caledonia, but beyond.

“We recorded some of it last year,” says Stuart. “But most of it this February. One of the songs on the Batcat EP was one from the last album that we didn’t get finished because we got Roky Erickson from the 13th Floor Elevators to sing on it, which was quite a long process. The Elevators are one of my favourite bands, but I don’t think he’s done anything for a long time.”

Getting Erickson, a famously reclusive and troubled figure, to sing on your record is a challenge, to say the least.

“It was quite complicated really… I thought he was completely off of the radar, but I heard he’d played some shows in Austin. He played the most surreal show at half time in a basketball game in Austin. Apparently it was amazing. And there was a recent photograph of him in Mojo magazine. I have a friend who works for Mojo, so I got the details of the photographer from Austin, got in touch with her, and she put me in touch with Roky’s brother. I sent him some music and we just to’ed and fro’ed until it actually happened. It took quite a long time. But his singing’s absolutely perfect.”

“It was all done remotely, but there were a few changes, so I went over to Austin and went into the studio with him. He’s a nice guy, and his brother’s really cool. It was a good experience, especially to meet someone like that, who hasn’t continued to make records. He really had kind of disappeared. He’s pretty delighted that people are still excited about the music he makes and the music he made.”

Although entirely devoid of lyrical content this time around, The Hawk is Howling continues the Mogwai tradition of irrelevant but oddly evocative song titles: the aforementioned ‘Scotland’s Shame’, ‘I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’ and ‘Thank You Space Expert’. They outdo themselves on the Batcat EP with ‘Stupid Prick Gets Chased by the Polis and Loses His Slut Girlfriend’. Where do these titles that sound like snatches of overheard night-bus conversation come from, and are they at all relevant to the music?

“They’re just silly things people say. ‘I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School’ is based on a very ridiculous anecdote that I’ve been told not to tell anyone. None of them have any significant meaning. They’re nothing to do with the music. I hate all these instrumental bands that – well, I don’t hate the bands, but I don’t like the tendency of having these airy-fairy fifth-year poetry kind of titles. Personally, I think if you have something to say you should probably have some singing. We do it once in a while, but there aren’t any songs on this record that sounded like they’d be made any better by having singing on them. Otherwise, just let people evaluate for themselves how they feel about the music.”

Mogwai’s reputation to some extent is built upon their devastating sonic weaponry, the potency of which will be only all-too familiar to all those who ever experienced their monstrous live rendition of a Jewish prayer (which was later released as ‘My Father, My King’) – the merest mention of which may well produce painful Proustian twinges in the eardrums. In truth, the bulk of their music has always been subdued, intimate and tender. The occasional crushing riffs and/or head-cleaning noise provide punctuation, contrast, drama – all that simmering tension needs a release somewhere. So while Mogwai are sometimes written about as the quiet-REALLY LOUD-quiet band, this really is an unfairly simplistic reduction of their dynamic approach to melody, based on a relatively small sampling of their work. However, it is true to say that some people still associate Mogwai with that one trick, and to some extent expect to hear it on every release. Is that frustrating?

“Not really. It’d be churlish to complain about that because I suppose that the reason people remember us for that is because we’re pretty good at it, or that it was the first time that they’d heard that kind of thing.

During the tours for Rock Action and Happy Songs, the Mogwai live shows were growing more and more intense and brutal at the same time that the records were becoming increasingly subtle and more delicate. At this point, it almost seemed as if Mogwai was in fact two bands with conflicting aesthetics.

“I think one of the main reasons that that happened was that we felt – especially after Mogwai Young Team – that we hadn’t managed to record what it sounded like when we played like that. So we almost thought ‘why bother?’ So that’s why we got Steve Albini to record ‘My Father My King’, because that’s what he does. He records bands that can play live and makes it sound like you’re in the room with them. But then I suppose that coming up to Mr Beast we did think, well that’s why people like us. That’s the band. We might as well make a stab at it.”

Whereas a more concise approach has characterised much of Mogwai’s recent output, ‘My Father, My King’ stretched to 30 minutes, the live versions of ‘Like Herod’ clocked in at around 20, ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ was 16. Do you miss doing the longer, epic pieces?

“Not really. There are a few longer tracks on the new one. But to be honest we’ll probably start completely ripping the arse out of these ones as soon as we start playing live. It’s good fun. It never feels like we’re playing for a long time. Although on Happy Songs and Mr Beast we did edit quite a bit. I know ‘Ratts in the Capital’ was a lot longer. And it probably did make it a lot better…it probably would have been absolutely mind-numbing to listen to.”

This year also saw the reissue of the band’s debut album. The label, Chemikal Underground, deemed that a fresh buffing and boosting was required, as they were never happy with the original mastering of Mogwai Young Team.

“I haven’t got very sensitive ears, to say the least!” confesses Stuart to an astonished world. “But I was told by a lot of people that this was the case. So they went and did it again and we found some other songs from round that the time and some live stuff, so people are getting something new. I was going to say that most people wouldn’t notice mastering, but I dunno… people seem more conscious of these things these days.”

To mark the re-release, Mogwai revisited their youth by playing Young Team in its entirety at the Spanish Summercase festival.

“It was pretty weird, because there were quite a lot of songs on the record that we’d never even played, and because quite a lot of that record was done in the studio there were songs that one person had done most of the instruments, so it was like learning new songs. And there were songs that we looked back and thought ‘why did we put that on the record?’, which hit home even more when you had to play them in a room. All five of us were just like ‘Jesus Christ…what were we thinking?’”

“But ‘With Portfolio’ [Young Team’s excursion into white noise and stereo madness] was fun, actually. It started on the piano. Me and John played noise and faded it in and then we got the sound guy to pan it. I don’t know how it worked out front, but it sounded pretty fun on stage.”

“The second night that we played in Barcelona they put the stages far too close together, which happens at festivals quite a bit. And in the big quiet bit with the flute in ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’, all you could hear was ‘Belsen was a Gas’ from the Sex Pistols on the stage next door. I kind of liked it. Maybe if it had been any other band it would have been annoying. If it’d been Nickelback or someone it might not have had the same charm.”

Unlike the sometimes hectoring Godspeed You Black Emperor!, with whom they shared an audience and certain basic aesthetic similarities, Mogwai were as overtly political as you might expect for an essentially instrumental band. However, they were moved to make a statement for 1998’s ‘No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew)’ EP, an angry response to Lanarkshire Council’s imposition of a 9 PM curfew on the local kids.

“We got really wound up that they were trying to tell kids when to go home. Now they want everyone’s fucking DNA. It seems like such small potatoes. It was contextualised amazingly by Alan Grant, the Judge Dredd writer, who said he’s never doing it again because it’s beyond parody – everything that Judge Dredd said would happen in the future has happened now. There’s CCTV cameras everywhere watching what you do, the government spying on you to make sure your dog doesn’t shit on the pavement. It’s horrendous. Absolutely horrendous. I do think the way that the state controls people is pretty terrible.”

Does that make you want to do anything more explicitly political?

“I dunno… firebomb Downing Street? We try and get donations and make a bit of money for things like CND, Amnesty International, that kind of stuff. But I don’t really know what we can do. I guess in certain circles we’re pretty well known but we’re not famous. If we suddenly said that we hated ID cards it’s not going to get on the news. So there’s only really little bits and bobs you can do. But we’re open to offers.”

Mention of Judge Dredd leads, inevitably, to Batman. Allusions to the Dark Knight have cropped up once or twice in Mogwai’s history…

“I just really like Batman! Me and Dominic [Aitchison, bassist] really like comics. Aidan Moffat [of Arab Strap] is a really big Batman fan too. His girlfriend had a kid and the kid’s middle name is Batman.”

The extensive comics-related chat that ensued has been excised in order to spare the scorn and bewilderment of non-geeky readers. This is what happens when grown men who spend far too much time in Forbidden Planet find themselves in the same place.

“I actually did think about a Batman concept album,” says Stuart. “But I think it’d be better to do something involving really good comic writers. I really like Alan Moore’s spoken word stuff. It’d be great to do a record with him. The Hawk is Howling is the last record on our contract, so all of these mad ideas are now within our power to do.”

Once emancipated, Mogwai’s future releases are slated to be on their own label, Rock Action. A live album is tentatively mooted, but sadly no superhero-themed post-rock odysseys or collaborations with iconic Northamptonshire comic creators could be confirmed. Rock Action’s current residents include Remember Remember, whose compositions resemble a dream about a dream about a lost childhood kaleidoscope; the unlimited caustic guitar fury of Part Chimp; and the incredible DeSalvo, an unlikely cross between Botch and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

“DeSalvo are unbelievable. It’s frightening. They recorded their album in four days – it’s a record label’s dream. It sounds amazing. And the cover’s all nuns and pigs and stuff – so that’s exciting!”

Though clearly passionate about his own band, Stuart is equally obviously a gushing fanboy when it comes to the music of others. The recent (and astonishing) My Bloody Valentine reunion gigs at Glasgow Barrowlands set him all a-flutter.

“I’ve still got my free earplugs in my pocket! When they did the big noise part in ‘You Made Me Realise’, my wife kept miming ‘IT’S TOO LOUD’, and every time I’d smile and sound would get in. It was unbelievably loud. Kevin [Shields] had 20 amps on stage. You can’t get much louder than that. It was 135 decibels – that’s like the end of the world. It was crazy.”

When someone from Mogwai talks about excessive volume, it carries a lot of weight. And it’s oddly appropriate that, as a man who has spent the last 13 years inducing various degrees of deafness in his audiences, Stuart should receive the mother of all aural pummellings at the hands of one of Mogwai’s prime influences, one of the main reasons this band exists at all. But what’s the point of forming a band? Why make music in the first place?

“I dunno. Just…fun. It’s fun to make music. We just wanted to make a bunch of noise. And I really don’t think the fundamental reason we do it has changed at all. Obviously it’s completely different now – we’re not rehearsing at Martin [Bulloch, drummer]’s parents’ house any more. It feels like a privilege. Especially to be able to do it and make a living from it, it’s amazing. But even just to get to do it and have anyone give a shit about it, it’s brilliant!”

It’s become all too easy to take Mogwai for granted. They’ve been around for a long time now, and unlike My Bloody Valentine, they’ve never been away long enough to be missed. They’ve become relatively omnipresent – in video games, as bed music for televised football, even cropping up in Sex and the City. And they inhabit their style so completely that it’s easy to mistake immersion and evolution for inertia. But, despite their numerous imitators, they remain unique, a band who’ve succeeded on their own terms through continually developing a huge, beautiful and theoretically uncommercial sound that’s truly their own. Revel in them while you can.

(originally published in Rock-a-Rolla)

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