Siobhán Kane interviews Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai, who play a three date Irish tour in February.
In mid-nineties Glasgow, Mogwai was born – the band name was supposed to be only temporary, as so many of their song titles, but they have always been too busy getting distracted with the great work they were producing to go revisit those choices. From their first record Young Team in 1997, and the excellent Rock Action (2001), to this year’s intriguing, beautiful Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, Mogwai have always produced a dense, layered, mainly instrumental sound; a kind of post-rock for dreamers that evolved within the context of Slint, Mercury Rev and My Bloody Valentine, but then, being very comfortable there, they pushed further, into collaborating with Clint Mansell on the soundtrack for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), to then (in the same year) scoring the film Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait. The drifty, ambient nature of the soundtrack elicited the more elegant, subtle aspects of Zidane’s talent, and managed to expose the vulnerable loneliness that can come with the weight of expectation in that sport.They managed to make one league match (Real Madrid vs. Villareal CF) seem completely epic, for Zidane most of all, because they have a gift for exhausting the issue of internal conflict in a way that makes so much sense – beyond words.
However, this is part of their talent, their obsessive compulsion to reflect, terms laid out in their first record Young Team, on tracks such as ‘Like Herod‘ and ‘Mogwai Fear Satan‘, with the swirling, progression of Aitchison’s trademark melodic bassline aching for completion, along with the way they constantly create an almost overwhelming atmosphere that glows heavy with distortion, insistent percussion, and a kind of physicality that sometimes masks their sensitivity, though never betrays their ever-present soulfulness.
Their continued and quietly forceful presence in the musical landscape helps bands like Explosions in the Sky and Sigúr Ros feel less alone, but their most recent work on installations with Douglas Gordon, and live film and record Burning and Special Moves, respectively – make them feel the most alive. They have always effortlessly joined the dots between shoegaze and art rock, over the bridge to more seemingly faraway lands such as metal and classical, bringing their sound to a disparate audience, who somehow find an almost meditative comfort that drowns out, even for a brief moment, the din of the conflict within, whatever it might be.
Siobhán Kane talks to Stuart Braithwaite.
This is your seventh record in over fifteen years of being together, you seem as full of life and inspiration as you were when you first came out.
Yes it’s quite strange, not so much the fact that we have made so many records, just that so many people don’t make so many records! It definitely makes me feel lucky that we have been able to do it and that people are still interested. It is a cause for a minor celebration, a reason for a small party [laughs].
Your new record seems such a complete document of the diverse influences and aspects of Mogwai, though less obviously – a song like ‘White Noise’ is markedly different from ‘Rano Pano’, for example. Were you consciously wanting to create songs this time around that were not seen as typical of you?
I think once we had all the songs recorded we realised that there was something different happening, and in the selection process it was something we discussed. It’s strange because there was no committing to it, but I wonder if touring so long with the last album and the live concert film, that we reached the idea of doing something new a little bit. I think that is what happened.
Barry and John are living in different countries now, did that affect the writing process hugely?
I think it did, because we usually rehearse as we write, and practically we couldn’t do that,so it maybe stopped us going into areas of familiarity. I think it had a positive effect, and that’s another reason why it feels different, because of the way it was written.
There is going to be a limited edition CD with a twenty minute piece called ‘The Singing Mountain’ for an art installation by Douglas Gordon and Olaf Nicolai, could you tell me a little about that?
It is for an installation called ‘Monument For a Forgotten Future’ and is showing in Germany, we haven’t actually been to it yet. They recreated a mountain, it originated in California [the Joshua tree national park in Los Angeles] and they broadcast our piece ‘The Singing Mountain’ from there. It is a really abstract, cool thing – the premise was to create something nice in a bit of wasteland, which I approve of, and Douglas and Olaf just went for it!
This is the second time you have collaborated with Douglas, since he directed the Zidane documentary, you have a real shared vision it seems.
I think that we have got quite a lot in common to be honest. He has another idea of something that we might be talking to him about in the future, I probably shouldn’t say in case I jinx it, but hopefully it will happen.
How did you find working on the Zidane film?
It was really varied, perhaps because of the vagueness of it, but also because we had to do it quickly, a lot faster than we usually do anything, we had a really short deadline, but we made it.
Did you ever see that ’70’s film that followed George Best in a similar way – Football as Never Before? It was directed by Hellmuth Costard and several cameramen followed George for an entire game against Coventry, it is really good.
I have heard loads about it, but I have never seen it, if you’ll believe that. When the Zidane film first came out, they showed it in a double-billing with that film in Glasgow, I heard it was really good. I’ll have to see it.
I would say George was probably more erratic to follow than Zidane.
Maybe more off the field [laughs].
There seems like a new vitality to the band; last year was full of positive change for you – moving to Sub Pop, producing the live film Burning and your live record Special Moves – was that in some way a kind of closing of one period in the band, in order to free yourself for unexplored territory?
I think that could be true, and for example, outside of America we are putting this record out ourselves, which really focused us. I think a lot of things happened that made us take a big step back, and we made a few big decisions, but we were feeling quite confident – so far so good [laughs].
You chose to focus on your Brooklyn shows for the film, why there?
It was a happy coincidence, as we had planned to do it in Japan, but it was going to cost us more money than we could possibly make back, but then when the tour dates came out, the dates coincided for around when we wanted to make the film, and Vincent [Moon, the director] was living in Brooklyn then as well, and we thought ‘hmm, this won’t cost us a lot of money’, and we always enjoyed playing there, so it just seemed like a really sensible thing to do, and we were also doing three nights there, it really worked out well.
Your music has always slowly revealed itself, but something like ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’ from this record almost seems like a techno song, it’s quite fast for Mogwai.
Yeah, it’s a bit faster! [laughs] It makes us laugh when we are playing it as well.
Do you ever get nervous taking new records out live? It looks exhausting.
We get pretty tired, but I am sure there are a thousand jobs that are much more tiring than playing music, so it’s hard to complain. We are touring up until May, but it doesn’t stop there [laughs], we will be doing some festivals as well, all that is getting finalised at the moment.
You are working with Paul Savage again, you haven’t worked with him since your first record, what drew you back?
We had heard a few more records he had done recently, with bands like The Twilight Sad and Phantom Band, and we just like Paul. We wanted to use someone else again, and none of us really had an appetite for a completely new person, we don’t take well to strangers [laughs], so it seemed like a really good step to get Paul back.
You often translate a radiant feeling of hope amidst so much darkness, and you mainly do it without words. Do you ever remember making a conscience decision for an absence of lyrics, or was it just a very natural thing? I remember once you saying that you heard My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ when you were around thirteen and it changed how you thought about music and where it could go, what it could do.
It definitely did, but it was much more of a practical decision when we started the band, as half the songs were with words, and half the songs were without, and the ones without were just better! It sat with the way we played naturally. I think that moment hearing My Bloody Valentine did have a big influence on me though, because it was the mood of the music, and feeling what it can do to you, to acknowledge that. I think I first heard My Bloody Valentine on a mixtape, that one of my friend’s big brothers had made or something like that, back in the eighties it was how so much music was swapped around.
You have always surveyed so much in your compositions, from classical to shoegaze, there is a real symbiosis there, I keep thinking of composers like Arvo Pärt in the context of bands like you and Slint, and musicians like Ben Frost, there is so much common ground there.
Yeah definitely it’s there. I am a big Arvo Pärt fan too, I actually came over to hear the Arvo Pärt performance by the Latvian State Choir in Dublin last year [in St. Ann’s Church], I thought it was really wonderful.
Mogwai play Belfast, Galway & Dublin on February 13th, 14th & 15th.