Mogwai’s current purple patch looks as if it could become their defining era – and after 22 years together, the mainly instrumental post‑rock Glaswegians are ready to enjoy it. But they don’t really have time to sit back and reflect on their recent achievements because there are so many more to be worked on in the months ahead.
Their ninth studio album, Every Country’s Sun, arrives on September 1. And the work is likely to be heard by many fresh ears as a result of 2016 soundtrack album Atomic, which appears to have settled in the minds of many just how powerful and provocative Mogwai are.
“It’s good just now,” says guitarist and vocalist Stuart Braithwaite, while the female staff of a vegan pub in Glasgow fall in love with his dog, Prince. “I can’t remember a time we were so busy doing such interesting stuff. It’s exciting putting out another rock record and going out on tour. Soundtrack stuff is great, but it’s nice just to be in a normal band. We played Tasmania last weekend – a normal gig, an hour and a half, half new songs, half old songs. It’s good being out there.”
Mogwai’s work for the movie Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise provided an effortlessly emphatic backdrop to the story of how atomic energy could either save or destroy humanity. And while the band were able to channel the understanding of the Cold War era (they live within the quick-death zone of the UK’s nuclear fleet), it was the way they managed to express that feeling globally that’s turned so many listeners on to them. (The experience of performing the soundtrack, while the movie played at Hiroshima in Japan, has left a permanent mark on every member.)
While they began work on their official next album, to follow 2014’s Rave Tapes, they were thrown into the maelstrom of working on the soundtrack for Before The Flood, alongside Trent Reznor and his collaborator Atticus Ross, and composer Gustavo Santaolalla. That was another momentous experience and profile-raiser – although it was a struggle to remain focused on what would become Every Country’s Sun.
“This process has been so elongated,” says Braithwaite. “When Before The Flood came up, it was literally like, ‘It needs to be done in three weeks. Do you want to do it?’ ‘Aye!’ It was a great cause, although it completely failed. The point of the film was to make sure Donald Trump didn’t get elected. Our record was originally going to come out in June, but it’s ended up in September. So the whole process will have taken a whole year. It’s a much bigger gap than we’re used to. It feels old, even though hardly anyone has heard it.”
There were a couple of advantages to the incredibly stretched schedule, however. For one, Braithwaite notes that as a result of having to work quickly, everything they had that was “soundtracky” was already used up, and so they could focus solely on Mogwai music for their own release. For another, they learned the value of working to different timescales. And for yet another, they realised just how confident the band had now become as a creative force.
“We ended up having a lot more time to think about Every Country’s Sun,” says Braithwaite. “The discussion about the running order lasted a month, whereas it usually lasts about three days!
“We had time to do it, and we took other people’s opinions, like Jeremy DeVine from Temporary Residence [who put the records out in North America]. We didn’t even ask him – he was just like, ‘Here’s what I think the running order should be!’ Normally we’d go, ‘We’ll do it ourselves,’ but it was done in such good spirit that we took it on board and a lot of his suggestions are what we went with.
“That’s 100 per cent to do with confidence. That was the case even when we were recording. When we’d recorded with our producer Dave Fridmann years ago, we probably didn’t let him produce as much. It was, ‘He’s going to make this sound great… but everything that happens is our idea!’ But we loosened up. This time it was more, ‘What do you think should happen?’ His ideas were bang on. We were in a confident mood, making a rock record in upstate New York with Dave Fridmann – it seemed like great fun and nothing to worry about.”
One crossover moment comes with lead track Coolverine, which appears on the Before The Flood soundtrack (but not the album) and was then redeveloped for a starring role in Every Country’s Sun. So what, in Braithwaite’s mind, differentiates a Mogwai soundtrack record from an official Mogwai release?
“When you do a soundtrack, you’re augmenting something that’s already happening. When you make a rock record, it has to exist in its own right. You need to be able to put the headphones on and it amuses you for an hour or so.
“Weirdly, a lot of people use our soundtracks while they write those kinds of things, so they sort of exist in both ways. But I think they’re more passive. I’d like to think our normal studio records work on their own, without needing to be passive or needing to be part of something else.”
Mogwai multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns previously described Every Country’s Sun as “heavier” than Rave Tapes, featuring more guitars. Braithwaite says, “I agree. I think everything has guitar on it, but I guess it depends on the song. A lot of songs are only guitars, but a lot are synths and pianos with less guitar.”
He also agrees that the upcoming album could be said to have more flow than earlier releases. “The last song, the title song, is probably my favourite on the record. It combines a lot of elements that are on the record earlier, and it’s quite full‑on but also quite spacious. Everything builds towards it.
“A lot of the songs surprised me as they went on from being rough demos. They started to make sense in a different way than they had at the time. I guess that’s one of the things about having made so many records – you learn something every time.”
This time it was a lesson about speed of work: “You learn what you’re good at and not good at, and we’re in a position where we’ve made a bunch, and done the soundtracks, and we know we can work fast. In the early years, we felt everything took a long time. But things don’t take a long time.
“That’s one of the lessons we’ve learned. I see bands who have spent five years making a record and I think, ‘What have you fucking done? What have you been doing? Tuning drums?’”
In another new move – and another sign of maturing confidence – Mogwai performed Every Country’s Sun in full at the Primavera Festival in Spain in early June.
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“To be honest, we were persuaded to do it,” Braithwaite admits. “It was concocted between the people at Primavera and our booking agent. There weren’t arguments, but it was more that we weren’t sure. We weren’t convinced it was a good idea.”
But the Atomic experience gave them the kick they needed. “There was a bit of weirdness when we played the soundtrack in Japan – none of that came from Japanese people, but American people in Japan seemed to think it was such an insulting thing to do. Which, considering they come from the country that… did it!
“But maybe they didn’t know what was going to happen. It’s hard to convey on a poster what’s going to happen. Maybe it was people who thought we were just going to play a gig, and they got a different experience than that. But one thing I took from that is that people are prepared to be challenged and presented with something they weren’t expecting.
“When your band has been going a long time, you almost think, ‘How many new songs can we play?’ and these kind of thoughts. When we played the whole new record at Primavera, I don’t think we’d have had the confidence if we hadn’t done Atomic.”
We need to talk about Mogwai’s titling. Like the band themselves, the names of their compositions appear throwaway, almost childish. For example, the name Every Country’s Sun comes from a dinner conversation in which a friend revealed they thought every nation had its own sun, which is why it’s hotter in Spain than in the UK. Then there’s Don’t Believe The Fife, a pun on an area of Scotland (with an underlying joke that only central-belt Scots are likely to get) and 1000 Foot Face, written down after Braithwaite’s mum tried to use the phrase “thousand-yard stare”.
Braithwaite reflects: “Now people realise we’re unpretentious, but when the band started, when people didn’t know anything about us as people, they would extrapolate from the songtitle and the structure that we were trying to tell a story, or have some message. When they find out that’s not the case, they’re a bit bummed out.
“But I almost think, ‘If that’s what it means to you, it doesn’t matter what I think.’ That’s just humanity and our need to process and understand everything. Maybe it’s good not to understand something, and roll with it, and just say, ‘I like it.’”
That doesn’t mean there’s no meaning to what Mogwai do. (Braithwaite wouldn’t try to avoid naming songs if they could, noting: “I think it’s part of giving up a bit of yourself – even if what you’re giving up is really shite!”) And even though the band never discuss their influences, he’s sure that certain events in the world around them have infiltrated their combined work.
“It’s hard to know what, exactly, but Brexit, definitely. There was a very weird atmosphere. There still is, God, aye. I think this country is on the verge of some kind of uprising. I think this might be Hurricane Katrina.
“Barry [Burns] is absolutely spewing because he’s an EU citizen, exercising his right to work in another EU country, and Brexit has potentially ripped it away from him. Boris Johnson went around the country with a big lie on a bus and it’s personal to Barry.
“I think we’re all agreed, especially because it’s not about specific things, it’s about a mood. There’s been a huge rise in xenophobia and all these things that have been kind of justified. It’s being encouraged by the state, things like the BBC promoting UKIP way beyond their actual popularity. But people who voted for Brexit, they’re not bad people – a lot of people thought they were voting to give more money to the NHS. Absolute bollocks. It’s never as complicated as you think. There’s a war on truth – we’re seeing it in the language, like ‘alternative facts’.”
Classic Mogwai: a powerful idea downplayed by a dismissive title, and it’s up to the world what they make of it. But with the success associated with Atomic and Before The Flood, it’s looking like a lot more people will understand that now. The release of Every Country’s Sun, and the associated tour dates, will tell.
Braithwaite, for one, feels match fit, especially after recording and touring with side project Minor Victories. “I went straight from touring that to rehearsing these songs to recording them. I never stopped. So for four or five months I had been playing a lot… and I’m a lazy bugger! I’m just excited about letting people hear the record now.”
Every Country’s Sun is out on September 1 via Rock Action. See www.mogwai.co.uk for more information and tour dates.
Digital minor victories
Stuart Braithwaite on making music via the airwaves
Although Braithwaite has met Trent Reznor, they collaborated purely by email when it came to Before The Flood. And while digital connection offers greater collaborative opportunities, Braithwaite is still a fan of traditional band work. He cites the example of side project Minor Victories and their self-titled 2016 album to make his point.
“Rachel Goswell and Justin Lockey put the band together to make a record, and it was mastered before Rachel ever met James Lockey, one of the main guys on the record. When we all went on tour, I’d only met James two days earlier. I didn’t really know Justin and I knew Rachel a little.
“It was like a weird social experiment – a lot of people with very different personalities. If the band had formed organically, like most bands do, meeting people at gigs and pubs, that band would never have got together. I’m being totally honest. But it was totally fine.
“There’s a lot more to being in a band than music! The magic comes when people are sparking off each other. A lot of bands pay to be together to record.”