“MOGWAI STILL sound like the future, their five-strong core membership still the coolest gang in town.” So wrote Scottish crime fiction author Ian Rankin of the band that make their Galway debut on St Valentine’s Day.
Since they first emerged in 1997 with Mogwai Young Team, the Glasgow instrumental rock quintet has carved a place for itself as one of the very finest in its genre. Their music can go from dramatically loud and crushingly heavy to stately and elegant often within the same piece, while always being infused with a strong sense of atmosphere and mood.
Mogwai are Stuart Braithwaite (guitar, vocals ), John Cummings (guitar, vocals ), Barry Burns (guitar, piano, synthesiser, vocals ), Dominic Aitchison (bass ), and Martin Bulloch (drums ).
Given they are a mostly instrumental act and that their combines music aspects of heavy metal, alternative rock, indie, and avant garde, the band are usually labelled ‘post-rock’ - a somewhat bizarre pigeon hole that they (and indeed all so-called post-rock bands ) find frustrating and meaningless.
“I’m not a big fan of the term,” Stuart Braithwaite tells me during our Tuesday morning interview. “The worst thing about it, is that it implies a superiority which the bands don’t claim. It has also become a term for a very predictable kind of music when originally, it was applied to music that was unpredictable. It’s a term that’s caused problems.”
Hardcore Will Never Die...
Since Mogwai Young Team, the band have released five studio albums - with a sixth due next month - while 2010 saw the release of the powerful live album/DVD Special Moves, recorded in concert in Manhattan.
A tour de force performance featuring such pieces of music as ‘I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’, ‘Hunted By A Freak’, and ‘Glasgow Megasnake’, it is the closest thing Mogwai has come to a ‘best of’ collection. Indeed live albums/greatest hits are usually a signal by a band that they are closing a particular chapter of their career.
“I don’t think we did see Special Moves like that at the time,” says Stuart, “but now in retrospect it does seem to mark the end of an era as the new album is due out and it does sound a little bit different.”
That new album is Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will which will be released on Mogawi’s own Rock Action Records label on Friday February 11.
“It’s probably more up-tempo and has a few different sounds we have not used before,” says Stuart, “more electronic sounds, but it still sounds like a Mogwai album. We’ve always been big fans of electronic music and we’ve been listening to a lot of German 1970s music like NEU! and Can and that played a part.”
Hardcore Will Never Die... is certainly something of a departure for the Glaswegians. It is less pulverisingly heavy than previous albums, with more space this time given over to synths and atmospheric textures. A violin features prominently on ‘Too Raging To Cheers’ while Krautrock rhythms underpin and define ‘How To Be A Werewolf’ and ‘Mexican Grand Prix’.
Another Scottish group whose sound owes much to Krautrock is The Phantom Band, who played Galway last week. “They’re a good band,” says Stuart of his fellow Glaswegians. “We have the same producer as them, Paul Savage, who produced both their albums. We have a lot in common with them.”
Scotland has a rich history when it comes to producing important and influential alternative rock and pop, but it seems as if the past few years have seen a definite revival, particularly in Glasgow: Mogwai, Teenage Fanclub, and Belle and Sebastian are all still going strong; The Phantom Band and Dananananaykroyd are exciting new voices, while The Vaselines made a triumphant comeback with last year’s Sex With An X album.
“I think the scene has always been quite consistent,” argues Stuart, “it’s just a case of who was getting publicity or not. Glasgow has a very energetic music scene and I’m enjoying it definitely.”
So how has Scotland’s ‘second city’ impacted on the individual members of Mogwai and the music they produce together? “It’s hard to answer that as it is the only place we come from,” says Stuart, “but the aspects of Scottishness and the people of Glasgow that we would most associate with would be a sense of humour and - though many will disagree with me - a bit of humility.”
Coming from Glasgow inevitably leads to the obvious question: are you Rangers or Celtic? “Me, Martin, and John are all football fans and we all support Glasgow Celtic, very much,” declares Stuart.
Given that, does the band have any Irish connections? “Martin has a lot of family in Ireland and a lot of Irish roots, I’m not sure about John, and my families roots are more from Yorkshire,” he says.
Returning to Hardcore Will Never Die... is impressive but will take a few listens to get used to. Nonetheless Stuart feels fans will still “react positively” to the album. “I don’t think it’s so different that people would be turned off. I think it will go down quite well,” he says.
Certainly long time fans will revel in its epic closer, the extraordinary ‘You’re Lionel Richie’ - an instrumental that in its dynamics, sense of drama, and atmospherics is definitive Mogwai. Where though does the track’s humorous moniker come from?
“The title comes from something that happened to me in an airport,” says Stuart. “I was very drunk and just sitting around and I looked up and saw Lionel Richie and that’s all I could think to say to him - ‘You’re Lionel Richie’. I told the band about this and they were very amused.”
Freedom and distortion
Mogwai have a long tradition of giving their tracks often strange, sometimes humorous, titles, and Hardcore Will Never Die... is no exception. The most striking title on the album is easily ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’. Would it have anything to do with former British prime-minister Margaret Thatcher?
“Yes it has everything to do with her,” says Stuart. “It’s the anticipated reaction in Scotland to her demise. I would say the vast majority of Scottish people would have a very poor opinion of her. A handful maybe had a similar world view to hers and might stick their head above the parapet, but their view is not a popular one in Scotland.”
As the New Statesman said in a 2009 feature on Thatcher and Scotland: “Nearly 20 years after she fell, Margaret Thatcher still occupies a prominent place in Scottish political demonology. Gordon Brown may have invited her for tea, but there are precious few homes in Scotland that would take her in, even now.”
That article also stated: “In 1997, after every single Scottish Conservative seat was lost, Labour held its promised second referendum on the constitution. Scots voted by a decisive three to one in favour of a Scottish Parliament with tax powers, bringing to an end three centuries of debate about home rule.”
More than a decade after the establishment of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, do Scots think devolution has been a good thing and would it encourage them to take the next step towards independence?
“I think people have noticed an improvement since the opening of the parliament but I don’t know if people realise that the next step to independence is not that difficult,” says Stuart. “So much of the media is controlled from London and makes it seem like a bigger step than it is. Personally I would love Scotland to be independent but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
The issue of Scottish independence and the Scottish parliament are prominent in Ian Rankin’s 2007 novel Exit Music. Rankin has a long association with Mogwai, having name checked them in his work and writing the press release for their 2008 album The Hawk Is Howling. Their next collaboration is also coming up soon as Stuart and Rankin are “doing a joint interview in a couple of weeks”.
Rankin’s description of The Hawk Is Howling succinctly sums up Mogwai’s music as a whole: “There are no lyrics on this album, so all the potency, texture and variation of moods come from instruments alone. Mogwai paint pictures in sound; no words needed.”
Stuart says Mogwai’s attraction to mood and texture over guitar solos comes from the bands all five members cite as inspirations - The Cure, Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine - that and the love of a good effects pedal. What would be Stuarts’s effects pedal of choice?
“Distortion,” he declares without a moment’s hesitation. “A distortion pedal was the first one I got. There are a million great distortion pedals like the Danelectro, the Bigmuff, it’s always fun playing them.”
However it is not just enough to have one or two distorted guitars, Mogwai employ a ‘bigger is better’ philosophy by unleashing three guitarists in studio and on-stage. It is an approach taken by only a few other groups such as The Phantom Band and Iron Maiden.
“Barry originally joined to play piano but I think that when we found he could play guitar, we thought ‘The more the merrier’,” says Stuart. “It’s just good to layer the guitars and layer the sounds. It’s the same with Iron Maiden I’d say.”
Mogwai play a ‘Róisín Dubh presents...’ show at the Radisson Blu Hotel’s Live Lounge on St Valentine’s Day, Monday February 14 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and www.roisindubh.net