Think you know what to expect from this lot? Think again, because over the last two decades a subtle sound evolution has been at work. We lift the lid on the secret electronic life of Mogwai
Throughout their 26-year history, Scottish sonic adventurers Mogwai have had a reputation – forged in their very earliest recordings – as an alternative rock group who make mountainous instrumental songs in the tradition of Slint and peers such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Listening to their signature ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ bark into guitar-powered life after a passage of near-quiet during a live set, it’s clear this isn’t an image they’re desperate to shake off. Yet for the past two decades, their increasing use of electronic equipment has changed their fundamental character.
Influenced by bands ranging from Kraftwerk to Aphex Twin, a different Mogwai has evolved. And it’s a side of the band that’s easily discernible on their new album, ‘As The Love Continues’.
Those with a fixed vision of the group in mind are unlikely to recognise the synthesised melodies of ‘Dry Fantasy’, the first single from ‘As The Love Continues’ and a song that would sit comfortably on any Oneohtrix Point Never or Rival Consoles record. Nor the vocoder and analogue synth backdrop of the cataclysmic ‘Fuck Off Money’ and the electro-symphonic elegia of ‘Midnight Flit’, its orchestral parts courtesy of Nine Inch Nails’ Atticus Ross.
The electronic element of Mogwai’s work has grown over time, but it surged to the fore on their eighth album, 2014’s ‘Rave Tapes’, featuring the sinister John Carpenter-like pulse of ‘Remurdered’ and the exultant analogue melodies of the Neu!-inspired ‘Simon Ferocious’.
‘Atomic’ followed in 2016, the score to filmmaker Mark Cousins’ evocative documentary mood piece ‘Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise’. Almost all traces of non-electronic instruments were subdued in favour of a Kraftwerkian futurism, providing the perfect complement to the film’s Cold War-era aesthetic.
Since then, the electric and electronic Mogwais have lived in balance across all their output. Witness their acclaimed and fiercely contemporary soundtrack to the 2020 Italian crime drama ‘ZeroZeroZero’. It didn’t dispense with guitars entirely, but it certainly gave them far less prominence amid some powerfully sparse electronic atmospherics.
“When I was a teenager I was mostly into rock, but a load of electronic stuff too,” says Stuart Braithwaite, the group’s lead guitarist, an avowed fan of Joy Division, The Stooges and especially The Cure. “I was taken with acid house in the late 1980s, and stuff like A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State in the early 90s. I really got into Aphex Twin and I was obsessed with The Orb. I like music that sits in both camps, like Cluster and Harmonia, and even Boards Of Canada. I think that’s probably where we fit too.”
Born and raised in the Lanarkshire countryside to the east of Glasgow, Braithwaite met bassist Dominic Aitchison in the city. Drummer Martin Bulloch and guitarist John Cummings were soon recruited. After a couple of independent single releases, they found their way to hot Scottish label Chemikal Underground, which brought out their 1997 debut album, ‘Mogwai Young Team’.
Named after the graffiti calling card of the era’s Scottish teen gangs, it featured ex-Teenage Fanclub drummer Brendan O’Hare and wore its alt-rock influences with pride. From the start, though, Mogwai have sought to avoid being placed in a category. The post-rock label they were given by the press back then still follows them, but they roll their eyes if you mention it.
“I don’t really think about instrumentation,” says Braithwaite. “I play guitar, but I put it through so many effects processors that it could quite easily be something else. My favourite guitar solo is Robert Fripp’s on ‘Heroes’, which sounds like a Hoover from two rooms away. I like to not know exactly what I’m listening to, and I think that bit of confusion just adds to the fun with music.”
Back in the 1990s, Germanic groups like Neu!, Harmonia and even Can were a rarefied taste. Appreciated back then primarily by proper vinyl crate diggers, their impact was only really felt years later, but Mogwai were already tuned in.
“We’d been going for quite a while before I actually heard Neu!,” says Braithwaite. “At first, we were influenced by it secondhand, through techno, Aphex Twin and The Orb – people who probably had way better record collections than us, because they were a bit older.
“Also, a lot of the things we’d try would be equipment-based. Whenever we were in a studio with a Moog, it would end up on the record, but none of us actually had one. It wasn’t until Barry joined us that we had someone who could play a keyboard, and that made a massive difference.”
Ask any other Mogwai member a question about their electronic direction, and the answer is often a variation on Braithwaite’s response – “Ask Barry!”.An integral part of the Mogwai sound for more than two decades, Barry Burns was born in Stirling and brought up in the Glaswegian suburb of Uddingston, a short distance from the pub where both his girlfriend and Stuart’s worked.
Burns played in bands too, although his tastes were perhaps not as cultured at a young age as Braithwaite’s. His first group did Rolling Stones covers in pubs, and he later became involved in the same scene around seminal Glasgow indie bar and venue, The 13th Note, which had brought the original Mogwai line-up together.
The band’s only classically trained musician, Burns studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music And Drama – now the Royal Conservatoire. He and Braithwaite were friends, and after he’d been asked to play (somewhat improbably) the flute at a couple of Mogwai’s live shows, an invitation for him to become a fully fledged member seemed inevitable.
“I had a piano they borrowed for ‘Mogwai Young Team’, and I joined about a year after that,” recalls Burns. “We were getting quite pally, and I remember Stuart took me into the back room of the flat I was living in. He said, ‘Do you want to join the group?’, and I was like, ‘Aye! Get me out of these doldrums, please’.”
“It was definitely a case of the ‘Lanarkshire Mafia’,” says Braithwaite. “Everyone knows everyone, everybody went to school with someone’s cousin. We wanted a keyboard player and he was the best one we knew. It was that simple. There are actually quite a lot of keyboards on ‘Mogwai Young Team’, but me and John had been doing them and neither of us could play properly. It just seemed like Barry would be good for the band.”
Burns joined in 1998, midway through the recording of their second long-player, 1999’s ‘Come On Die Young’, and was immediately flown over to producer Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios in upstate New York. Impressed with Mogwai’s openness to new ideas, he was encouraged to record his self-composed ambient piano piece, ‘Oh! How The Dogs Stack Up’, for the album – a taste of things to come.
If the addition of Burns was the first significant shift towards greater use of synthesised sounds, then the acquisition of the vocoder, used on 2001’s ‘Rock Action’, was the second. It was first heard on the track ‘2 Rights Make 1 Wrong’, adding a detached, alienated tone to the barely recognisable vocals.
“There was no debate about it,” says Braithwaite. “We’d spent thousands of pounds on that thing, it was getting fuckin’ used! Kraftwerk are a huge influence for me, especially ‘Radio-Activity’, and when we got the vocoder, it was a game-changer. It added a human element without having to do the whole rock-star-standing-next-to-the-microphone thing, and you can use it with a guitar or keyboard as well. On the new album, it’s straight through a pedal that’s kind of broken.”
‘Rock Action’ was also where Burns’ writing really came to the fore. From this point, all songs would be credited simply to Mogwai, although he writes most of the electronic pieces and is known among the band for completing fuller compositions. Braithwaite and Aitchison are also prolific, but every song goes through a collaborative process in the studio.
“When we were doing ‘Rock Action’, I’d start playing a tune and everyone else would join in,” says Burns. “There was no, ‘Let’s write a song now’. You’d just sneak in. I got loads of stuff written really quickly, and I sort of knew what would work and what wouldn’t, simply by playing along with everyone. I can’t remember how many songs I wrote for ‘Rock Action’, but it’s been more and more with each record since. I think ‘Sine Wave’ might have been one of the first – it was a little sine wave patch I made up, then we put vocoder on.
“I think that’s when it took off. It’s just what I was good at – I was always buying little synthesisers, really cheap stuff in those days as we couldn’t afford much. I started off with the Fender Rhodes, then we got a Roland Juno-60, which was all over ‘Happy Songs For Happy People’. I must have 15 or 16 synths now, and it shows because we use them all the time.”
Now based in Berlin, where he and his wife own a pub – Das Gift in Neukölln – Burns feels his proficiency as an electronic producer has grown since his 2017 collaboration with Kangding Ray, as SUMS. The band as a whole have also been on the other side of the desk, working with artists including Nils Frahm and Blanck Mass, who they remixed on 2014’s ‘Music Industry 3. Fitness Industry 1.’ EP, and whose output shares much in common with Mogwai’s these days.
“Getting into Boards Of Canada was a stepping stone into electronic music for me, followed by Detroit techno and Chicago house,” says Burns. “It fascinates me how you can fashion an interesting song from four or five tracks. There’s something really simple about it, and I think there’s a lot of simplicity around Mogwai’s music as well. One of our engineers said we’re one of the easiest bands to mix live, because there’s not much happening. I know it sounds like we’ve got a lot of noise going on, but that can come from a single guitar track. Just because it’s noisy doesn’t mean it’s not simple.
“We always did electronic stuff, but it wasn’t at the forefront of what we were doing. ‘Rave Tapes’ had to happen. It moved us on to something we prefer to do, which is to integrate as many influences and sounds as we can. That doesn’t mean we’re going to become fuckin’ Autechre on the next record. That’s proper – they know what they’re doing. There’s a lot of trial and error for me. I’ll sit in my studio for four hours trying to get a little bleep sounding right. It drives you mad. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s just nice to have the electronics there. It improves the palette a bit.”
‘As The Love Continues’ is Mogwai’s 10th studio album, excluding their film and television scores. It was recorded over the summer of 2020, once again with Fridmann, although remotely via Zoom due to the constraints of the pandemic. Unable to travel to New York, the band were in their studio in Worcestershire, while Fridmann listened via a high-quality transatlantic audio link. The album is arguably weighted more towards guitars, but for Mogwai in 2021, it’s not an either/or situation.
“Even with the guitar processing, we almost always have something new,” says Stuart Braithwaite. “You don’t want to sound exactly the same as you did in 1997. You want new sounds. But it’s also important that the music itself is strong enough to play on anything. It’s about finding a balance.”
Their singular live show is a good barometer of how well these subtle alterations have worked over the years. Many of Mogwai’s most devoted fans hadn’t even been born when they were recruiting Barry Burns into the band, an indication of just how much their slow evolution has maintained a sense that they remain both timeless and of the moment.
‘As The Love Continues’ is out on Rock Action