Happy songs for happy people: Mogwai and the space between melody and chaos

Happy songs for happy people: Mogwai and the space between melody and chaos

By AKHIL SOOD | | 30 October, 2015
Masters of a unique and stunningly cinematic sound, Scottish instrumental rockers Mogwai have completed 20 years. Akhil Sood talks to their guitarist Stuart Braithwaite about playing in India later this monthand their approach to music & noise.

Between my Apu-like Indian accent and Stuart Braithwaite’s thick Glaswegian inflection, we barely understand a word the other says in our brief, 15-minute-long phone conversation — it’s like we’re speaking in different languages. It’s fine, really; communication has, for the past 20 years, been an elemental part of the music written by Mogwai, the Scottish instrumental, sort-of-post-rock band Braithwaite plays guitar for, and words matter very little, if at all. Marking their 20th anniversary is Central Belters, a new three-CD compilation album that released in October. “We were just talking and we discussed all the songs over the years… we roughly chose a few songs from each of the records. That was for the first two CDs,” he says. Those two feature a best-of list of songs from the perspective of the band, including classics as Summer, Auto Rock, I’m Jim Morrison I’m Dead, Mogwai Fear Satan. “The third CD has more rare songs… maybe songs people haven’t heard too often. That was actually more difficult. It was an enjoyable process.”

Mogwai are all set to make their debut in India, playing three shows at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender editions in Delhi, Pune, and Bangalore in November/December. “I’m very excited about playing in India; it’s a country that we’ve never been to,” Braithwaite says. Their recent live sets have featured songs from their last full-length, 2014’s Rave Tapes, but he says they intend to play a retrospective set, spanning their back catalogue, since it’ll be their first performance here. The thing is, Mogwai’s live sets tend to get ridiculously LOUD — they’re deafening, apparently. I wonder out loud whether that volume is reserved only for the audience, but Braithwaite confirms that the onstage sound is also “very, very loud”, that it’s not just the PA system that’s cranked up. “I think it just sounds better. The kind of music we play… it’s physical. Even very basic things like the guitar amp sounds better the louder you crank it up. It works on many levels.”

A song like, for instance, Like Herod seemingly meanders on a soft register with no discernible purpose, exploding in a split second and disintegrating into utter chaos. Into brilliantly grotesque chunks of noise. So that physicality plays a strong role in Mogwai’s identity — the music seems to reside exclusively in that delicate grey zone between soul and bedlam. “The melody is more important in our music, but the noise still adds something. I think when we add noise to the music, it creates a definite atmosphere, tricking your brain into thinking there are melodies that aren’t actually there… so it’s something we like to incorporate.”

Over the years, though, there’s been a gradual, fairly logical transition from the radical dynamism of their early works — Come On Die Young, for starters — to a subtler, more internalised sense of interplay within the music. The intensity remains as formidable as ever, don’t get me wrong — a song like Remurdered off Rave Tapes stands as glorious testament — but it seems more implicit in a way, certainly more introspective. The big guitar moments, the pummeled-to-death drums atop monumental basslines remain, but the piano and synthesisers — larger orchestration — have come to the forefront a whole lot more.

A  big fat sheet of strings carpets the atmosphere, gently brushing against the soft plonks of the piano on Music for a Forgotten Future, a contemporary piece of music Mogwai wrote in 2011 for an art installation by their friend Douglas Gordon and Olaf Nicolai in Germany. The absence of words is never felt; the piece speaks out with an almost spiritual quality.

It’s, in a way, a foreshadowing of what was to come next. They’d gotten into film scoring before — recording for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain and scoring the soundtrack to the avant-garde Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait — but their 2013 soundtrack to the first season of Les Revenants, the French zombie TV show, seems a watershed moment in their evolution. To this writer at least, that score features some of the most moving, moody, soulful, and melancholic passages of music ever written. “We were conscious for the music of the show — or other things, like Atomic — to not be overbearing… to be a little more low-key. I think we’ve incorporated that into our music too.” A prime example of that influence would be Deesh, off Rave Tapes, and Braithwaite concurs to its cinematic qualities.  

The music resides in that delicate grey zone between soul and bedlam. “When we add noise to the music, it creates a definite atmosphere, tricking your brain into thinking there are melodies that aren’t actually there…”

Atomic, Living in Dread and Promise is their most recent soundtrack; it’s a BBC film about the destructive after-effects of the atom bomb, directed by Mark Cousins, that released last month, and features Mogwai once more heading in an experimental synth-and-piano driven direction. All five members of the band tend to write songs, with one person bringing in an idea and the whole band expanding on it; and multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns’ role seems to have expanded as well. “I think a lot of that has been kind of driven by Barry; he writes a lot of music, and he’s been writing more on synths. I’ve played a lot of synths on Atomic as well. It’s definitely a good sound, a sound that works well with our music.” The follow up to Rave Tapes is planned for next summer, but up next is the full release for the Atomic soundtrack. “We’re actually going to go to the studio to start working on it for a record from next week. The plan is to release that next year and do a few concerts playing live to the film also.”

Beyond their own creative forays, Mogwai have also, as they’ve grown in stature and influence, played the role of mentor to younger bands, setting up their own record label, Rock Action, to release music for bands. (Rock Action is, of course, named after Scott Asheton, the drummer for The Stooges who changed his name to Rock Action.) Braithwaite recounts: “We were very lucky when we started. We put out our first two records on Chemikal Underground, run by another band, The Delgados. And they helped guide us and gave us a lot of good advice and a lot of opportunities. We feel we can provide that role for other musicians too.”

Braithwaite, while impeccably polite during our chat, speaks in short, concise sentences, with an almost steadfast refusal to elaborate on ideas. He often trails off, abandoning thoughts mid-way. A charming sense of mystery surrounds Mogwai as it is — even the few songs of theirs that have vocals usually feature Braithwaite’s voice in a distant timbre, far out at the back of the mix, or Barry Burns running his indecipherable vocal melodies through a vocoder to merge the voice into the instruments, and they’ve never been particularly vocal about explaining the thought behind the music. Then there’s the notoriously obfuscating sense of humour they have, evident most of all in song and album titles: there’s the delightful Happy Songs for Happy People; You’re Lionel Richie apparently came about as a result of a hungover Braithwaite muttering those words to Lionel Richie after spotting him at an airport; I also remember reading that the album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will was christened so after band members overheard a kid say that line to a record store owner.  “Very early on, we stopped trying to give the songs any kind of deep message… yeah, they’d always end up being silly things we’d hear people say.”

That said, the music itself exudes a sublime sense of depth and meaning, regardless of what the band members tend to say in interviews, so it’s easy to wonder if there’s some sort of contempt that they have for the music press. All the more so given entertaining past mini-skirmishes with major music publication Pitchfork, with whom they share an almost estranged-spouse-like relationship. But Braithwaite assures me that’s really not the case. “I think it’s just the kind of people we are. We’re not very analytical people,” he laughs. “Over-analysing the music can make it a little bit dry; I don’t even think it’s a conscious decision or anything like that. We’d probably rather just let the music be — exist — and let people enjoy it.”


Mogwai perform at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender Delhi (28-29 Nov), Pune (4-6 Dec) and Bangalore (5-6 Dec).


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