Pop: Come on, feel the noise

Mogwai play loud. (And very quiet.) And they have a few sordid myths they'd like to dispel.

Ben Thompson
Friday 19 March 1999 01:02 GMT

Before this interview can get properly underway, there is something Mogwai need to get off their chests. It concerns what can only be called "The Sanitary Protection Incident". This is one of those stories which follow bands around - like Led Zeppelin and the fish, or 911's pact with Satan - getting repeated in various forms in everything that's written about them. The King James version unfolds along the following lines.

Trapped in a European tour environment where alcohol was hard to come by - it is hard to know quite how to put this in a family newspaper, but frank and fearless seems the best approach, so here goes - Mogwai briefly soaked tampons in vodka and inserted them into their rectal cavities in order to facilitate the swift and efficient entry of the small available stock of alcohol into their bloodstreams.

"It's terrible," says lanky bass-player Dominic Aitchison, "I can't ever let my mum read anything written about us because that story always crops up."

"Sometimes they say it happened in Poland," is guitarist Stuart Braithwaite's more practical objection, "which would be ridiculous because alcohol is really cheap there - it only makes sense in Scandinavia."

In the interests of Dominic's mum's peace of mind, Mogwai would like it to be known that they never did this strange and deviant deed, merely referred to the practice in an innocent conversation with a journalist, whose own alleged drunkenness caused him to misremember it with the band as participants rather than narrators. They told the story in tandem with another - even more gruesome - about shaven-domed Russian ravers splitting their heads open with razors, covering the wounds with masking tape, then putting woolly hats over the top so that when they sweat on the dancefloor the glue goes straight into their brains.

Mogwai would like it to be known that they have never done this either. Even though, some of their more brutal music - the giant dinosaur-grunt guitar in "Like Herod", or the mighty vortex of "Mogwai Fear Satan" - could be said to offer a similar level of cerebral disorientation with a less explicit risk of agonising death. Named after the endearing creature in Gremlins, which became demonic on contact with water, Mogwai essay a similar blend of impish mischief and heart-stopping sheer destructive potential. Other band's drummers use the rhythmic water-wings known as "click tracks". Their drummer uses a pacemaker.

From an early London gig, in September 1996 at the Monarch (a horrible little room, like watching a band play inside a kidney) to this January's triumphant sold-out appearance in the wide-open spaces of the London Astoria, it's the intensity of their music that has set Mogwai apart from their peers. Their sound is largely instrumental, with moments of exquisite delicacy alternating with huge swathes of noise, to create an overall effect that is simultaneously beautiful and daunting - like walking underwater through a school of whales.

"We were never a muckabout band right from the beginning," insists the diminutive but abundantly charismatic Braithwaite. "We always had a serious intent to rock... we blew up an amp at our first practice!" The healing power of noise is one thing all four of this young Scottish quartet are firmly agreed upon. "The thing about noise is it confuses your brain," Stuart continues, "so if tunes are hidden in it, that makes them more rewarding. There are a lot of bands tighter or more technically proficient than us that don't get the same kind of reaction."

The tingle which runs through a Mogwai audience in the opening moments of a song people recognise is more than a ripple, it's a susurration. This collective expression of pleasure is more reminiscent of a club than a gig. Only the feeling in the crowd as Underworld launch into "Born Slippy" live comes close to it, but even that generation-delineating anthem has words in it for people to latch on to. To elicit the kind of emotional response Mogwai do with music that - excepting the occasional taped spoken word interlude, one guest vocal turn from Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat, and the title track of the new album on which Stuart makes a notable singing debut - has no truck with the human voice, is a truly imposing achievement.

Mogwai's new album, Come On Die Young, attests to their rapid evolution. It was recorded with Mercury Rev's Dave Fridmann at the studio controls, in Cassadoga, upstate New York. The reasoning behind this choice of location was not, as might have been expected, an attempt to touch psychic bases with obscure American bands such as Slint and Bardo Pond who are Mogwai's primary inspiration; it was far more practical. "We were hoping to all turn up for work every day," Stuart explains, "because we were so far away from home there'd be no escape."

The fruit of their heightened concentration is a record which, on first hearing, seems almost pathologically low key, but then swiftly twines itself around your heart with the rogue tenacity of a wild strawberry. "We knew the whole thing was going to be dead quiet - we didn't want to do the quiet/loud thing again, because we'd done that pretty well on the first album [1997's deliriously bracing Mogwai Young Team] but then when we started to record all the songs together, every single one was in a minor key and we began to think `Jesus Christ, this is really depressing'."

It's very pretty though, isn't it? "I don't think sad music is depressing," Stuart affirms, his mood brightening, "it's bad music that's depressing: good music is uplifting, however sad it is." "Punk Rock," Come On Die Young's opening track, bleeds a speech by Iggy Pop into a sombrely meandering guitar line. "I don't know Johnny Rotten," the great man notes, "but I'm sure he puts as much blood and sweat into what he does as Sigmund Freud did." At times like this, Mogwai's blend of pure sound and found voices seems to have established direct access to the unconscious.

Like their last release, the polemically self-explanatory No Education = No Future (Fuck the curfew) EP, the title for Mogwai's new album came from a graffito near their homes in Lanarkshire. Those uneasy about the band's instrumental bent have been inclined to exaggerate their social realist tendencies - as if proximity to dour Scottish housing estates somehow excused them from lyric duty.

"That's rubbish," says Stuart cheerfully. "We're all middle class. Just because we swear a lot and get pissed occasionally doesn't stop our families living in nice houses..." He pauses for a moment, his thoughts turning mischievously to a fellow countryman even more notorious for drinking and bad language. "You might be interested in having a look at Aidan from Arab Strap's house, by the way - it's the biggest one in Falkirk!"

`Come On Die Young' (Chemikal Underground) is out on 29 March

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