Mogwai: Album By Album

The Scottish experimentalists on their noisy career – featuring soundtracks, synths and “wild wolves on chains”…

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Founded in 1995 and initially a trio, Glasgow’s Mogwai made their debut with “Tuner/Lower”, a self-pressed seven-inch in thrall to Slint and Codeine. They went on to synthesise post-rock, metal, slow-core, instrumental soundtracks, Krautrock and electronica into something distinctively their own, moving well beyond the “quiet/loud” aesthetic that dominated their early years. Their reach has encompassed a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf”, on obscure, absurdly titled split single “Two Sonic Scratches Of The Big Bad Rock Arse”, substantial remix projects and scores for art movies, such as the cultish and acclaimed Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. As they release their latest studio set, As The Love Continues, Mogwai reassess the highs and happenstance of an impressive career.

YOUNG TEAM
CHEMIKAL UNDERGROUND, 1997
Demonstrating from the off a disregard for recording conventions, Mogwai wrote a set of brand new songs for their debut, defining the formidable quiet/loud dynamic that was their early trademark
STUART BRAITHWAITE: We made it really hard for ourselves, because we’d done a lot of singles but since we were all really obsessed with Joy Division, we didn’t want to put any of them on the album. Plus, we gave ourselves a deadline with a release date, which makes no sense for a band’s first record, but I was 20 and John [Cummings] was only 18, so everything was new to us. We should have realised that if all those early seven-inches had only sold 500 copies, then it didn’t really matter if we re-recorded some of the songs, like “New Paths To Helicon, Pt. 2”, which was one of our best. After making a load of seven-inches, we were excited
by being able to have these long songs and “Like Herod” is a bit like Nirvana’s “Endless Nameless” – and like Slint. It’s still fun to play live; we always get a laugh when people aren’t paying much attention to begin with and then shit themselves.
JOHN CUMMINGS: In terms of being aware at the time of whether “Like Herod” was a “stayer”, I don’t think then we’d even considered that the band was a stayer. Just the fact that we were being allowed to record an album was more than we could have hoped for. It’s not the kind of thing you presume when you’re selling 500 seven-inches – that someone’s going to give you a few thousand pounds to go into the studio for a month.

COME ON
DIE YOUNG
CHEMIKAL UNDERGROUND, 1999
Producer Dave Fridmann steered the experimentalism that quickly became vital to Mogwai’s sound, but this was a powerful set of surprisingly spare and fx-free songs.
DOMINIC AITCHISON: I was very happy with getting Dave Fridmann in, because I was a huge Mercury Rev fan at the time and also it gave us the opportunity to go off to America to record. It was painless to make, because we had it finished before we went out there to record, the only time we’ve done that. A lot of the songs are sparse and downbeat and he didn’t really mess with them at all; he was quite hands-off. But my abiding memory is Dave recording something onto what was practically fence wire; it was the most odd-looking, antiquated stuff ever and produced really low-grade recordings that made everything sound incredibly distorted and quite primitive.
JOHN: Dave’s very quiet, pragmatic and a really nice guy – not what we were expecting. Yes, it was a wee bit disappointing, but it doesn’t make the record sound any less good. That wasn’t due to magic, it was due to someone knowing what they were doing and that was very inspiring.
STUART: At the time, we thought we could have done better with the first album and that we were flying by the seat of our pants, so we really had a mission with the second record, to make it something pretty special. As ill-prepared as the first one was, this was meticulously prepared and we wanted it to be different. We’d been doing the quiet/loud thing and wanted to show we could do more than that. The reason we went with Dave was because we heard Deserter’s Songs and it sounded really lush and special, and Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space had just come out. In our heads we thought we were doing something a bit like that, but to me now, the point of comparison for CODY is the early Cure records – very dark and kind of frosty. Dave’s studio is in upstate New York, in the middle of nowhere. I remember saying I was going to go for a walk and he told me to watch out. So I went out and someone had these wild wolves on chains in their garden. I saw a snake… I never went out again. Wayne Coyne would apparently go out with a stick and just bash things, but he was running. I was not running.

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ROCK ACTION
PIAS/SOUTHPAW, 2001
A big budget saw (some of) the band going bonkers. Multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns made his mark and a strong electronic/synth element was introduced. As was a banjo.
DOMINIC: We went to Dave [Fridmann]’s studio and recorded all the band stuff, then Martin and myself went back home for three weeks and Barry, John and Stuart went down to New York City to do all the overdubs. They did the best partying ever there, but they didn’t do much recording and everybody reconvened three weeks later to mix it. Me and Martin got sent CDs of what they’d done in that time and we were both so pissed off. It was clear they’d done nothing. I told them to their faces I was pissed off they hadn’t done any work, but I was actually just pissed off I’d missed out on three weeks of running around New York having a right old laugh! Looking back, it’s utterly mortifying the amount of wastage around that album.
STUART: You can’t make music in Manhattan, unless maybe you’re from there and you’re oblivious to what an awful amount of fun there is, constantly happening. We recorded a lot of songs, but the record’s really short – around 38 minutes. It’s got some good songs on it and it’s really lovely sounding, but the sound we started out making had become kind of predictable and there were an awful lot of bands around making wash-y, long instrumental songs, so we did have a plan, which was to do something different. But we needed more of a plan than that.

HAPPY SONGS FOR HAPPY PEOPLE
PIAS, 2003
Label personnel changes, a departed manager and a shift in the musical climate disturbed the picture. Mogwai moved even further towards a more subdued sound
JOHN: The making of this was more influenced by what we’d done with Rock Action, in terms of the size of it [41 minutes] and the time spent on it, the best part of three months. It’s an interesting bridging record. Stuart got a laptop, I was messing about with sequencers and bleeps and bloops. There’s more of that on the albums that followed.
DOMINIC: I think we all realised that Rock Action should have been a lot better than it was and I felt we’d blown it a bit. We had quite a lot of songs for this album and not a lot of it was fully formed beforehand. We had no idea what it was going to be like until it was mixed and it’s probably one of my favourites. It could have turned out absolutely shite and I’m the pessimist; I always think a record’s going to be terrible until it’s done, so it was a brilliant surprise that it came together.
STUART: I was fairly conscious that people weren’t as excited about what we were doing as they’d been before, because the musical climate had changed. People became interested in more overtly retro music, like The Strokes, and it felt like at this point in particular, we had to make a really good record. We’ve always felt that, of course, but around that time we did feel the pressure, though I wouldn’t be surprised if that was only me. But we stood firm and it actually worked out well.

MR BEAST
PIAS, 2006
A curiously hybrid creation, heavy on the ambient instrumentals, lighter on the vocals and too long in the cooking, although it featured Cummings’ monstrous “Glasgow Mega-Snake”
STUART: It was our first time recording at Castle Of Doom, which is owned by us and [producer] Tony Doogan and has been in three different locations. This time, it was in a weird building in Glasgow’s West End, where the control room was up a floor from the live room. It worked very strangely – I think we had those baby monitors – but it was fun. Mr Beast seems to be the LP people like more as the years go by, but it’s not my favourite; it’s very polished. I’m immensely fond of Alan [McGee, Mogwai’s then manager] as a personality and he’s quite like us, but the way he projects himself is utterly dissimilar to us. I wasn’t very happy when he said Mr Beast was “possibly better than Loveless”, because I’m friends with Kevin [Shields] and the last thing you want is to be used as some point scorer between two of your friends who aren’t getting on. It’s certainly not the kind of comment any of us would ever make, but…
DOMINIC: We had a long time to work on the album – about two months – so we ended up really messing about with the songs. I can’t listen to it now, it seems so over-produced and slick. It’s not the way we sound, which is not a reflection of Tony’s recording skills – it was our decision to keep tinkering and we’ll never do that again. We’ve realised that strict deadlines work well for us, because we are inherently quite lazy.

THE HAWK IS HOWLING
PIAS/WALL OF SOUND, 2008
Entirely instrumental and the product of a failed commission, but Mogwai delivered some compellingly heavy tracks – and comically deadpan titles
DOMINIC: We’d been asked to do the music for a South American film and had been given a time frame of five days, so we pulled this music for it out of thin air. We were happy with what we’d produced, but they hated it and sacked us, so we reworked a lot of that music for The Hawk…. We had a brilliant time recording it and it’s really good fun to play live, although it’s really dour
and probably a little bit too one-note.
STUART: The track with Roky Erickson [a Japanese bonus track] was supposed to be on Mr Beast, but it took a lot longer to organise than we expected. I went over to Austin and went into the studio with him, so that was a really special thing to happen. He was lovely; he’s been in the wars, but he was really nice. And he’s a proper legend.
JOHN: “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” was a concerted attempt to come up with a song title that mentioned Jim Morrison, without being too base. “Jim Morrison, American Prick” was a phrase we’d enjoyed, although it hadn’t been assigned to any piece of music, but we thought it was too childish. And there’s no need to be so vulgar.

HARDCORE WILL NEVER DIE, BUT YOU WILL
ROCK ACTION, 2011
All things are relative, but some surprisingly poppy tunes surfaced on Mogwai’s seventh album and their love of motorik grooves kicked in seriously
STUART: By this point, Barry had moved to Germany and we had quite an intense period of getting together and rehearsing, so that was a factor in that we didn’t really have much time to think about what we were doing. Dominic said he thought that my guitar on “George Square Thatcher Death Party” sounded like The Killers. I remember playing it to Arthur Baker before we finished it and he was totally adamant that we should have proper vocals on it. He said it was the only song we had that could ever possibly get played on the radio.
JOHN: What strikes me about it now is its relative poppiness. Certainly a few of the songs I had written I hadn’t written for Mogwai, particularly; I’d just been messing about and didn’t think they were appropriate. “Mexican Grand Prix” was just a wee Casio, Krautrock-sounding thing and when I was playing about I managed to get a computer to sing, although I can’t remember how I did it. You can put a Neu! drumbeat on anything, so I hadn’t really expected us to make much of that.
DOMINIC: I have absolutely no idea where these upbeat songs came from, but again, we don’t really know the direction a record’s taking until it’s nearly done. I definitely raised my eyebrows when I first heard “George Square Thatcher Death Party” because I thought it was too straight-ahead and not like us, but it was fun to play and it sat well when we were sequencing the album. A lot of long-term Mogwai fans absolutely hate that tune.

LES REVENANTS, OST
ROCK ACTION, 2013
The French television series (The Returned) about a mountain town visited by a number of dead former inhabitants was given the moody and minimalist Mogwai treatment, to stylishly spooky effect
JOHN: The director and writer had wanted music in advance of filming, to set the tone and make sure we were on the same page, so we were writing blind. We’d read the first couple of episodes in English, plus a rough synopsis of the rest of the series, but that was really all we had to go on. It was difficult to put a finger on until they’d started filming, but by that point they’d already decided in large part the kind of music that they wanted. We’d just been writing stuff and sending it to them and they’d been saying either, “That’s not quite right for this” or “Yeah, that’s perfect”. Maybe of the 40 things we’d send them, they’d be into 10 or 15 of them, so we’d work further on those. It certainly fell into place once we had seen the first four episodes and heard how they were using our demos. We only formed the complete pieces on the album after we’d done the music for the series. We didn’t want to have a soundtrack album with a minute-and-a-half crescendo that just stops, but nor did we want to have a badly edited piece of music just put onto a random scene. We wanted to make music tailored for the scenes it was being used on and also to have songs that you could put on an actual album, so we did them separately. It could have ended up being cobbled together pretty badly, but it was very satisfying that it all came together. It was great.

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RAVE TAPES
ROCK ACTION, 2014
The horror! Mogwai source ’70s Italian prog and video nasty soundtracks alongside Krautrock, via heavy use of Burns’ vintage modular synth
STUART: I think the feel of Les Revenants seeped into Rave Tapes a little bit, and because we did them both in Castle Of Doom it felt like part of the same thing. We were listening to an awful lot of horror film soundtracks – Goblin, Fabio Frizzi, John Carpenter, Morricone’s theme to The Exorcist II… we’re not good enough to do anything like it, but it’s amazing stuff. I think Boards Of Canada are of the same mind; I can hear a lot of that on their latest record. The title “Repelish” is a word that Martin [Bulloch]’s mum uses when she wants another drink; she means “replenish”.
DOMINIC: Barry had recently bought all of this absolutely demented keyboard equipment and he has his own studio space in Berlin, where he’d go and record all of these demos, so we’d get these really crazy, John Carpenter-esque… squelches, basically. We’d all been listening to a lot of ’70s horror soundtracks and although I’d seen most of the films, I’d forgotten about the music, but ever since Death Waltz started putting out all these soundtrack vinyl reissues, I’m hooked. It’s like football stickers when I was a kid; it doesn’t matter what label it’s on – if it’s on lurid vinyl and it’s from a video nasty, I’m buying it. Because they were recorded quickly, there’s a chaotic charm to a lot of these soundtracks. They’re quite rough around the edges and that’s a big part of the appeal for me; they’re the complete opposite of big Hollywood soundtracks.

AS THE LOVE CONTINUES
ROCK ACTION, 2021
25 years since their first EP, their 10th album is a career peak
STUART: 
We were due to go over to [producer] Dave’s [Fridmann] studio in New York in May, but obviously that couldn’t happen.
So we found an amazing place in Worcestershire [Vada Studios] instead. Dave was still really involved, on a live Zoom call, while we were playing, which had a weird Wizard Of Oz vibe about it. In a funny way, I think it kind of helped the record. Dave wanted us to do at least one thing that we wouldn’t normally do for each song. So if we were going up one avenue, he’d want a complete U-turn and try for something completely different. He definitely kept us on our toes, so as not to make the same record again. We were talking about getting some other people in too. We’ve already collaborated with Atticus [Ross] on the Before The Flood soundtrack [2016 documentary about climate change], so we knew that was something that was going to work. The one with him on it [“Midnight Flit”] is quite a big production, with a full string section. Quite epic. And we’re all really big fans of Colin Stetson [Arcade Fire, Bon Iver], so he’s on the record as well. “Ritchie Sacramento” has vocals on it. Bob Nastanovich put up a post a year after David Berman had died. The first line of the song is based on something that David had said when they were all drunk at college and he threw a mop at a sports car.
I asked Bob if he’d mind me using it in a song.

Thanks to Rob Hughes

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