During their 15 years together, Mogwai have been revered as the most electrifying instrumental-rock band on the planet, and justifiably so. Emerging from Glasgow’s indie scene, just as “post-rock” was wafting over from across the Atlantic, these wild-eyed Scots were, from the off, a far more volatile and often ear-damaging prospect than those vocal-free colleagues Stateside.
After self-releasing the inaugural “Tuner”/”Lower” 7-inch, the band unleashed two epochal albums, Mogwai Young Team and Come On Die Young for local shoestring operation, Chemikal Underground. Where post-rock lynchpins such as Tortoise took Slint‘s influential post-hardcore stylings, and tossed in fresh elements from jazz, Latin and techno, Mogwai blasted them heavenward with punk-metal energy, alongside simmering and blissful passages, which touched upon film music, and even modern classical. Their music is by turns savage and tender, dark and dazzlingly bright.
On record, across four further albums for pan-European indie Play It Again Sam, the five-piece have never failed to startle. On stage, though, they’ve always somehow gone further, towards some kind of bowel-evacuating higher state. Now, finally, they’re unveiling their first-ever live album. Captured across three nights at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg in April 2009, Special Moves showcases the full rollercoaster Mogwai experience.
As their ever-wisecrackin’ guitarist, Stuart Braithwaite, proudly explains to eMusic’s Andrew Perry, they’re releasing it on their own label…
It’s almost a cliché to rave about Mogwai’s live show. How come you’re finally documenting it now? And why on your own Rock Action imprint?
We’d always wanted to do it on our own label. This was the first opportunity we had, since before we signed to Chemikal Underground, where we didn’t actually have a record deal. We’d decided we were gonna release the next studio album ourselves, so it’s almost a dry run or a dress rehearsal [laughs], to prove that we can actually put out a Mogwai album ourselves, and it doesn’t all fall apart.
It just all fell into place with the Brooklyn thing, because we’d thought about filming the gigs with [director] Vincent Moon. Originally we wanted to do a film in Japan, but it was gonna cost too much, so we abandoned the idea. Then when we got the U.S. tour dates, and there were three shows in Brooklyn, I knew that was where Vincent Moon was living, so it was like, “Well, that can’t cost much, surely?”
You just had to stump up his subway fare!
We were playing just round the corner from his house! John [Cummings, fellow guitarist] sorted out all the audio stuff, and mixed it. I was amazingly proud when I actually got a CD in my hand — like, “My God, we’ve actually made a Mogwai record.” Because it used to be — apart from writing and recording the songs, and saying that you like the sleeve or whatever — like, everything’s always someone else’s problem. It was good to do it ourselves.
The Burning movie, which comes free in the CD package, features mostly different tracks, in a completely different order. How come?
With the film, they actually said what songs they wanted in it, so we made sure we played all of those songs. They were songs we were playing on the tour anyway — it wasn’t like they were asking us to do a cover of “I Should Be So Lucky” [by Kylie Minogue] or anything. For the album, because we did three nights, we changed the setlist around quite a lot, then listened back to it, and chose the best songs, almost like choosing a setlist from a setlist. It’s like that movie, Inception — a dream within a dream!
Burning is a remarkable concert film, particularly for some of the glimpses of people in the audience: some are deep in thought, others seem to be in rapture.
I don’t know where they found all the pretty girls. I think they probably went to some other gig to get all the shots of the pretty girls.
Is your live show about achieving that state of rapture? What goes on when you’re up there, through your eyes?
I have no idea. That’s one of the reasons why everyone loves music. Music is one of the last realms left in our lives of real magic. You can have musicologists who’ll say, “Well these notes will make you happy, and these will make you sad,” but there’s more depth to it than that. One of the things about how people experience our music (and maybe other people’s music, but I don’t spend as much time thinking about it as ours) — it really is totally personal to whoever’s hearing it. It can mean something totally different from one person to another.
When you’re actually first creating the music, are you aware of what you might be channeling, of the energies you’re putting out there?
At those stages, when you write music, it has to affect you in some way. It has to make you think or feel, or change you in some way. But then once you get past that, we tend to be quite mechanical about things, just thinking things like, Are we playing too many loud songs? [laughs] Or, are we playing this too fast? When you’re actually playing the music, if it’s all working well, that’s when you can become overwhelmed by it, or really involved in it.
The first thing a Mogwai virgin would notice about your music is that it’s largely instrumental. Where vocals do appear, say, on “Hunted By A Freak” and “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong,” they’re heavily treated.
The vocals there are more like an instrument, triggering a sound with the voice, than having traditional singing. That comes down to practicality, and shyness. None of us are very fond of singing, or convinced that any of us are good singers. Actually, Barry [Burns, multi-instrumentalist] is a good singer. He never really goes out of tune or anything, but I don’t think he wants to do it. He’s a lot better at playing the piano than he is at singing. I’m probably better at basketball than I am at singing!
Mogwai tend to get lumped in with bands described as “post-rock” or “math-rock,” but you don’t come across as mathy at all, rather very instinctive and free. Does that bother you?
I don’t think we are very mathy, no. Even when we do something unusual with timing or something, it has to sound natural. Otherwise, you’ve failed. It’s like, if you’re making a film and it’s really obvious when the special effects come in, then you’ve failed. I always think of “Heart Of Glass” by Blondie: They add a crazy extra beat every four bars or something, but it sounds great, and you’d never think anything of it. It’s only musicians who ever mention that. Most people wouldn’t notice, which is why it works.
There are sequences of pounding fury in your music: is that an expression of the rage frustration of Glasgow city life?
I don’t know, it’s probably just…fun? Hahaha.
But those bits are usually contrasted with moments of serenity, or simmering menace, as on “Mogwai Fear Satan” or “Like Herod.” Were you influenced originally by what Kurt Cobain called the “quiet-loud” dynamics used by the Pixies?
Yeah, without a doubt. Those were the bands who formed our musical upbringing: Nirvana, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, the Pixies. Especially the dynamics in songs like [Nirvana's] “Endless, Nameless” or “Lithium.” They were massive, and Dinosaur Jr. Amazing bands.
Other places, it seems you might almost be influenced by Michael Nyman, or Yellow Magic Orchestra — abstract, beautiful, cinematic music.
Without a doubt, all that stuff’s immense. It’s all in there, pretty much.
Has it been difficult for you to survive in the indie sector, after your initial splash?
Not really. When we first started, obviously we were totally skint. But we were just kids, so we didn’t even think about it. We were just sleeping on people’s floors and having fun. We didn’t think that was something to complain about. Then we signed to Chemikal Underground, and we were really lucky in that we sold quite a lot of records. Suddenly we were doing okay, and our luck continued, because when we signed to PIAS, it was when there were still no problems with the music industry, so they gave us a good deal, for four albums.
Now we’re at a point where the music industry, as a source of finance, has moved from records to gigs, and because we’ve always played a lot, we can rely on that. We’ve been quite fortunate, and I look at quite a lot of my friends and they’ve made maybe some less lucky decisions — and I really wouldn’t say that a lot of this has been due to wisdom, because, especially in the early days, we didn’t really think about anything. We’ve really landed on our feet in a lot of ways.
Your four-album contract with PIAS is up, and now, in a time of world-wide financial ruin, and with file-sharing apparently killing the record industry, too, you’re starting to put out your music yourselves. Isn’t that slightly insane?
To be totally honest, I think we just want the control. Even if the record did horribly, we’d probably do better than we would if it did really well on someone else’s label. Because we’ve been running the label for other bands, and we’ve got all the infra-structure there already, I’m not worried. Not making a good record would concern me much more than it being a commercial disaster.
While your actual music can often have an almost apocalyptic intensity, there is a very visible sense of humor to Mogwai. I’m thinking of your legendary “Blur: Are Shite” T-shirts, and some of your song titles…
It’s always been quite important that people realized we weren’t pompous twats.
“I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” is one track title. Explain that one.
It was really funny, someone put that song on YouTube, with a montage of Jim Morrison pictures, like they thought it was some kind of mega tribute. It’s not that I’m not a fan of his, I don’t even really care. [Thinks for a moment] I mean, no, I’m not. I suppose he was a good singer, but he was a bit of a pompous twat.
I met an old ’60s groupie once, who claimed to have slept with him. She said, as many others have, that he was a brutal and rather abusive lover.
That makes me not feel guilty about poking fun at a dead man! It makes me almost pleased.
I’ve read that “Scotland’s Shame” refers to a certain football club?
It was on a banner at a Celtic-Rangers game [Braithwaite is an ardent Celtic fan]. It was at the Celtic end, and it just said ‘Scotland’s shame’, with an arrow pointing at the Rangers end. A few people took it a bit seriously, they obviously didn’t know anything about any of our other song titles.
So, you start recording your seventh studio album on Monday. Is the music written?
Oh yes. Twenty songs. We’ll probably ditch about 10 of them, hahaha!
Do you ever feel pressure to change or redefine the band’s sound?
I do worry whether something is gonna be good or not. It’s when people say things like, “Why don’t we become a ska band?,” that things go horribly wrong.
Not tempted to go Brooklyn electro, then?
That’s maybe one good thing about getting out of your 30s — that doesn’t even cross your mind. I’m not gonna try and pretend to be young and cool, because that’s not gonna be a good look. That’s the good thing about my hair falling out — I avoid the embarrassment of getting a really tragic haircut. Which I probably would’ve done.
Are you ever amazed at what the Mogwai young team has grown up to become?
It’s kind of funny when I look back to years ago, when our tour manager’s main job was making sure we got back to the bus after a long night’s partying. It’s funny now, because we’ve got the label, and we have all these other young bands doing all the same stupid shit we used to do. That’s definitely not us anymore. We don’t need people to phone our houses and wake us up. [laughs] We’ve achieved a slight modicum of…adulthood, maybe?