by / August 22nd, 2011 /

Top Story: Interview with Mogwai: Travels and constants

Fifteen or so years into a distinguished career, Scottish five-piece Mogwai remain as busy as they’ve ever been. Having toured solidly all year in support of their seventh studio album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, they’re now set to release a new EP of non-album material: namely Earth Division, which is due for release on September 12th. Before that, they’ll be playing their fourth Irish show of the year at Electric Picnic.

It’s been a long trip since the band first formed in 1995, bang in the middle of the Britpop craze. Their approach was the very antithesis of that short-lived and much-hyped scene: where other bands were raiding the songbooks of The Kinks or The Jam, the Glasgow five-piece took their cue from the likes of My Bloody Valentine or The God Machine, combining deafening feedback-drenched noise assaults with subtle, emotive atmospherics. It soon bore fruit, with tracks like ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ and ‘New Paths To Helicon, Pt. 1’ redefining the possibilities of instrumental guitar music. While numerous Britpop suspects have floundered, reformed, or gone their separate ways again, Mogwai have quietly got on with things, evolving their sound throughout successive releases but always retaining their essence: a peculiar mixture of irreverent tongue-in-cheek humour and a serious-though-unpretentious musical aesthetic.

In comparison to its predecessor (the melancholic and sorely underrated The Hawk Is Howling), Hardcore Will Never Die... is overall a pretty sprightly and upbeat-sounding album. Shimmering, airy workouts like ‘Death Rays’ and ‘White Noise’ mix with the kraut-pop rhythms of ‘Mexican Grand Prix’, while the bone-crunching, metallic ‘Rano Pano’ is one of their finest moments. The new EP is a whole other ball-game: as per the press release, it’s a “recontextualised domain of hazy electronic distortion, accompanied by spiky wafts of violins, violas, cellos and double bass and jagged keys.” Lead track ‘Go To France’ provides a taster, and it’s certainly a bit of a curveball, more akin to a classical composer than a thunderous rock band.

State catches up with guitarist Stuart Braithwaite from his temporary base in Finland, where they’re playing the Flow Festival in Helsinki that very day.

The new EP is a bit of a departure by all accounts – was it recorded at the same time as the Hardcore sessions?
Yes it was, we did that all at the same time. When we were compiling the songs for the album, most of them were more concise and maybe faster, and I found that these songs…they were good songs, but they definitely didn’t fit in with the whole feel of the record, so we decided to put them out as a separate release.

The more minimal, atmospheric stuff that the band has released has always been a bit underrated compared to your louder stuff.
Yeah…I don’t know about underrated; I guess it’s probably not what we’re best known for. It’s certainly a side of our music that I’ve always been really fond of, but I think you’re probably right – most people associate us with really loud guitar songs, but we’ve always had that element too.

Hardcore… would be one of the more uptempo albums you’ve released. Has it affected the live dynamic?
I think so. It affects what other songs we can put in: we can play different kinds of songs alongside the new ones. The concerts for this record and the ones for The Hawk Is Howling have been really quite different. I mean I’ve enjoyed both, and they’ve both had a different edge to them because of that.

How have the new songs translated live? Have they evolved from the recorded versions a bit?
Yeah, I definitely think they have. It’s the only record we’ve ever done where we’ve played every single song from it live…so yeah, it’s worked out well.

‘Rano Pano’:

When you’re playing the festival circuit, do you tend to soak in other acts as well?
Yeah, I’ve seen a bunch of bands (this summer)…probably my favourite one was seeing Low in Poland. I’ve seen Oneida – not all of it, but they were great, and Liars were really good. If there are good bands we always try and watch them. The frustrating thing is that we tend to only be at the festivals on the day we play, so we always miss some really good bands that are playing at the same festivals on different days. But yeah, it’s always good to check out other stuff. Battles are playing today actually, I’m looking forward to seeing them.

Rock Action Records (the Glasgow-based record label set up by Mogwai) is one of the labels that were affected by the recent destruction of the SonyDADC warehouse in London (a distribution centre for PIAS). How badly is Rock Action affected?
To be honest I don’t really know, we’ve been on tour. I know that everything was destroyed but I don’t know how much was maybe in the PIAS warehouse in Europe. The main thing is the back catalogue – the records that came out eight years ago that we had only a few hundred of. That’s the problem because I don’t know if we’ll be able to get those back…so yeah, it’s not great. Our EP was destroyed – I think it’s getting remade just now – and the new Remember Remember album, so that’s a problem…yeah, it’s a massive pain in the ass, to put it simply (laughs).

Do you think the reaction of the music community since it happened has shown how much goodwill there is towards independent labels?
Yeah, I was really quite taken aback by that. And I guess people realise that labels are really swimming against the tide now…so many people are getting records for free, and it’s a bit of a thankless task. There’s a few labels doing really well, but most labels are just struggling to get by – so I think people know that and recognise it, and the reaction’s been great.

Bit of a cheeky question. You played the Levant Stage at this year’s Primavera Sound festival right after the Champions League final, which was shown at the same stage beforehand. Any truth to the rumour that it was in your contract to play that particular slot?
(amused) Nooo…no, that’s not true! I wish we had that kind of power! It was good, but no, we didn’t stipulate that. Actually, we had to play a John Peel session the night Celtic were in the UEFA Cup final (the band are from Glasgow and are keen Celtic fans). We have no power to dictate when we’re playing in relation to football games, sadly.

‘Friend Of The Night’:

You’ve been notably supportive of younger bands like Errors and Fuck Buttons. Is there an element of sharing your wisdom and experience or is that reading too much into it?
…No, I would share any advice with anyone who asks me. Certainly with Errors – because we work with them too – I probably give them more advice than they want, to be totally honest. I know that when we first started quite a lot of musicians were giving us a lot of good advice. And I think it’s quite important to pass these things on. Whether they listen to it is up to them, but yeah it’s always nice to help people out if you can.

Both of those bands seem like acts who are in it for the long haul – they’ve followed up impressive debuts with second albums that evolve their sound nicely and mix things up. Do you think it’s harder for bands these days to achieve longevity or to hold people’s interests when there’s so much music to consume?
I think there’s an obsession with newness; with bands that are brand new. I mean I even seem to notice – I don’t know if I’m just getting old and jaded – but people have almost lost interest in some bands by the time their album comes out. When they’ve got a few singles or whatever, there’s excitement, and then when the album comes out it’s like “oh….” But that’s their body of work, that’s what they’ve been working towards getting to do…you should be more excited about that than a few mp3s on a blog or something. But yeah, I guess that’s just the nature of the internet world now: everything’s instantaneous and people need to have an opinion on something within an hour.

I mean, I’ve noticed that with our records, I notice it with loads of records: people have an opinion within an hour of hearing it, and that wouldn’t have happened before. People would listen to it for a week or so and then go “yeah, it took a few listens” or “yeah, I definitely don’t like it” – it’s not as if you always like things more having heard them more, but I mean you need to hear it a few times to decide what you really think about it. Yeah, that does my head in a bit…but what can you do?

The video (and background projection during live shows) for the song ‘How To Be A Werewolf’, which features footage from Antony Crook’s short film 30 Century Man, really enhances the music and vice versa. You’ve also done the Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait soundtrack. Do you regularly get soundtrack offers, or is there anything on the cards?
We don’t regularly get offers, but we do have a plan actually to do something for Antony who made that film – he also did our album cover. I think we’re definitely on the same page as him in a lot of ways. He’s got a plan to make a film this autumn, and hopefully we’re going to write some music for it at the start of next year, but yeah that’s definitely something we’re up for doing.
‘How To Be A Werewolf’:

When you started out, bands like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine would have been a major influence on you. In many ways you’re now just as influential as those bands. Did you think back then that you’d end up at this point?
I’m still not sure we really have…

Well, close enough!
That’s very kind of you (laughs) … No, I don’t think we did. I don’t know if we envisaged being around for that long. I wouldn’t say that we weren’t confident in our music, because we always were, but I don’t think anyone expected the band to be playing for 15 years. To be honest one of the reasons we had such a hard time doing our first album (the recording of Young Team was famously fraught) is that we never really considered doing an album: we were always so wrapped up in the live scene in Glasgow and just releasing 7″s – the sort of pinnacle was maybe getting to London and maybe getting on the radio or something like that. A lot of what happened after that was a surprise at the time. But no, we definitely didn’t ever think things would get to this point.

You’ve outlasted Blur.
Yeah…although they broke up and reformed for a lot of money, which seems to be a really good idea (laughs)…I just don’t know what we would do in the meantime!

Was there a particular song back in the early days where everything came together, or where you thought “we’re on to something here”?
Yeah…well this is just my personal opinion, I don’t know what the rest of them would think – but when we did the ‘New Paths To Helicon’ single, that was round about the time we first went to London and supported Pavement and started doing our own shows. Yeah, that was sort of a moment where it started to make sense and people maybe started to take us more seriously, rather than just as a bunch of guys making a bunch of noise. When would that be? The end of 1996, start of 1997. (the 7″ was released in February 1997)

‘New Paths To Helicon, Pt. 1’:

Are there any memorable Irish shows you’ve played?
Yeah, I remember one of the first times we played Whelan’s with The Wormholes, who were a band we used to play with a lot back then; they were a great band. I remember that being really good.

You’ve done the odd collaboration or remix with people like Konx-Om-Pax and Regina. Would a solo record be something you’d consider?
I’d consider it, yeah. If I wrote a bunch of songs that I didn’t think were going to fit on a Mogwai record, I would. It doesn’t feel like anything would happen very soon, since we’ve got plans for the foreseeable future. But yeah, I probably would.

Mogwai play Electric Picnic festival on Sunday 4th September. The Earth Division EP is released 12th September on Rock Action Records (or Sub Pop in the US).

  • Excellent interview, Daniel. Good questions. Agree entirely that Hawk Is Howling is very underrated – I think it’s their most complete album and contains no filler whatsoever, a melancholic masterpiece.

  • Excellent interview, Daniel. Good questions. Agree entirely that Hawk Is Howling is very underrated – I think it’s their most complete album and contains no filler whatsoever, a melancholic masterpiece.

  • Electricwhipcrack

    thank you kindly! i read your blog post there, went to the first of those Academy gigs, it was amazing.