Mogwai: Five go fearless

Never slow to scorn other bands - or heads of state - the quintet are now moving their music way beyond the post-rock boundaries. Godspeed you, Mogwai! says Kevin Harley
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Mogwai aren't known for keeping quiet about the things that rattle them. So it comes as some surprise to hear Stuart Braithwaite, the guitarist in the Glaswegian quintet who find chiming beauty in gales of guitar noise, fretting about his band's new merchandising. Take your pick: one T-shirt proclaims that "Blair: is a pie", the other that "Bush: is a..." - well, put it this way: it's not complimentary. "I do have worries about that," Braithwaite frowns. "Maybe I'm overdramatising, but look what happened to Johnny Rotten with the Queen. That kind of mob mentality is scary, and George Bush is one of the most dangerous people on the planet. We don't want our tour-bus windows smashed."

Mogwai like a challenge, though. Their debut album, 1997's Young Team, closed with a 16-minute avant-rock blizzard called "Mogwai Fear Satan", but they've never seemed scared of much else. They emerged in the mid-Nineties, making long, loud and luminous instrumental music, independent and gloriously out of step at a time when Britpop was the rage. On tour for their magisterial 1999 album Come on Die Young, they invited fans to buy T-shirts with the slogan "Blur: Are Shite".

They've found success, too - to a degree that goes well beyond the curiosity value generated by rattling cages. Their friends and collaborators include the cream of alternative music, including the producers Dave Fridmann and Steve Albini, David Pajo of Slint, the Canadian soundscapists Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Gruff Rhys of the Welsh psychedelic popsters Super Furry Animals. Having curated the All Tomorrow's Parties alt.rock festival in 2000, they're back to help with the assembling of the festival's Best Of weekend next year. They also now run Rock Action, the record label named after their third album, whose roster includes their fellow amp-worriers Part Chimp. All of which puts them somewhere between underground figureheads and a refreshingly wayward, fractious law unto themselves.

Mogwai's new album, Happy Songs for Happy People, arguably finds them even more out on a limb than in the Nineties, given the music press's current fixation with guitar rock of a short, punky and Seventies NYC bent. "I do like some of these bands," Braithwaite shrugs, over a beer with the drummer, Martin Bulloch, before a Part Chimp gig at the Garage in London, "and I don't think all music should be deadly serious. But there has become a real acceptance of retro-ism, and it's a bit bewildering. We all used to laugh at Ocean Colour Scene, but then The Strokes come along, who are no less retro, and people think it's amazing! I think it's healthy for kids to make music, but ripping off your dad's record collection isn't so great."

"What I find weird", Bulloch nods, "is that they probably like the bands that we do, but in a photocopying way. I like to think we take influence from The Stooges without trying to sound like them, because they were perfect. We're not going to be as good at it, so what's the point?"

"The thing about The Stooges", Braithwaite adds, "is that Iggy Pop listened to those great old Chicago blues-players, and he wanted to do what they did but incorporate the sounds of the machines in the car factories." He tuts in disgust. "To think he put so much nous and wisdom into that, and that, a whole generation later, bands think that just to do the same is acceptable!"

You can hear the ghosts of Joy Division and The Stooges, as well as the drone-rockers Spacemen 3 and the noiseniks My Bloody Valentine, stalking Mogwai's music. To date, though, they've matched their fighting talk with music that keeps raising the bar, never merely regurgitating their influences - or, for that matter, their own benchmarks. At the close of their 2000 ATP set, they aired the last word in their patented stormy, slow-build dynamism with "My Father My King", a hair-raising 20-minute take on a Jewish hymn. Instead of milking that angle, their third album, 2001's Rock Action, presented a set of half-quiet, mostly concise songs: some lullabies, some with strings, singing and a banjo, and all finding a new pitch for their trademark levels of intensity.

By contrast again, Happy Songs... has them experimenting with laptop electronica and vocoders to create new sounds. Their soft-loud-soft-louder schtick has been wholly integrated: on the album's centrepiece, "Ratts of the Capital", a pretty wash of glockenspiel-ish guitar harmonics sits alongside a thunderous lead guitar. "We stopped doing the 'quiet-loud' thing," Braithwaite shrugs. "We only did it for our first few singles and album. It was just about enjoyment. It was kind of adolescent, but then we were young." For the record, he's 27.

Despite being brazenly outspoken, Mogwai are self-deprecating in interview and understandably circumspect about describing themselves. Braithwaite leaves it at "unpretentious people who happen to love making music - it's not in the Scottish nature to be introspective." Besides, the music speaks loud enough, especially live. At the Reading Festival in 2001, they blew the PA during Rock Action's "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong", so that all the crowd could hear was the (perfectly listenable, mind) sound from the monitors. "It's like a cross between being in a band and a circus," Braithwaite grins. "At one Manchester gig, we got to the point in 'Mogwai Fear Satan' where the distortion kicks in - which is supposedly the grand part of the song - and the electricity went! It was just Martin there, playing the drums without the PA on."

As for the "post-rock" tag they get lumbered with, it carries too many chin-stroking connotations for the band. "Post-rock, for me, is getting drunk," Braithwaite shrugs, in a reasonable confusion with the term "after-show".

"Aye, it's really pretentious," says Bulloch, "and kind of silly, too. If you listen to a band like Tortoise, who are also, apparently, 'post-rock', they're like a jazz band and we're heavy metal. It makes no sense."

Indeed, Mogwai are wary of pretension's pitfalls. Most of Braithwaite's answers end in a self-mocking laugh. As for their often-opaque song titles - "Oh! How the Dogs Stack Up", say - they're not necessarily meant to be taken seriously. The working title for Happy Songs... was Bag of Agony, and when that generated rumours that it was tortured-soul time for Mogwai, they swiftly nixed them by requesting other suggestions via their website. "Some were outrageous," Braithwaite laughs. "They'd taken things we'd said and really carefully thought it out. Things like Dark Clouds Shine on the Eye of My Evil Shoe. One was something like Easter Leaps, after our song 'Christmas Steps'. But 'Christmas Steps' was just a street name!"

Far from charting some dark night of the soul, Happy Songs... was recorded in a fraction of the time it took to make Rock Action. You can hear it, too: it doesn't want for dynamics, but it's fresh and direct, even boasting a near-pop song in "Hunted by a Freak". "It is a pop song!" says Braithwaite, proudly. "We're going to make a video for it... The album's chock-full of hits."

"Aye," grins Bulloch. "We should name it Now That's What I Call Mogwai." The album won't break sales records, of course. "We've never had to worry about that kind of nonsense, which is freeing," says Braithwaite. "When we played our first gig, we thought it'd be our only one. We thought no one would like it. Then we sold 10,000 copies of Young Team, and we couldn't believe it. Rock Action sold 150,000 copies, but we'd be making music if nobody bought it. If nobody bought it. Because we like it. That's the reason we do it."

'Happy Songs for Happy People' is out on 9 June on PIAS Recordings