forsaking post-rock austerity for dynamic noise and adventurous technology, mogwai doesn't let its youth go to waste, sculpting music that's both ambient and explosive.
if rock 'n' roll is the universal language, its longevity hinges on the constant arrival of new accents, new forms of phrasing. glasgow's mogwai, barely four years and two albums old, is up to the challenge. sculpting grand slabs of quietude from fury's eye, mogwai aims to restore artistry to rock. more importantly, the group passionately believes in its cause.
"call us an art-rock punk band" insists guitarist stuart braithwaite, "i don't think that we play traditional punk music, but pink wasn't ever really about tradition in the first place. plus, any rock should be thought of as art. if you're well into yourself and into something, then you've got to think it worth of other people's attention. that's what art is, and i wouldn't want to do anything that was so throwaway that people wouldn't care about it two weeks later".
the mogwai story begins traditionally enough: young glaswegians weaned on 80's diets ranging from the cure, joy division and jesus & mary chain to the pixies, slint and my bloody valentine get packed off to college, where they favor learning chord changes over chemistry formulas.
"i first met stuart at a neds atomic dustbin gig" recalls bassist dominic aitchison, "and my best pal was there with stuart's pal, who came up to me and said, 'all right, you're a bass player, meet stuart, he's a great guitarist.' so one night both our bands were playing the same venue and we just hit it off. one day, we decided to form a band".
in mid-95, after pinching drummer martin bulloch from another local outfit, mogwai started rehearsing, and by the fall the group had secured its first gig. as rumblings from scotland's indie scene - bands like urusei yatsura, bis, delgados, belle and sebastian and arab strap - were just starting to be heard, mogwai was well-positioned to capitalize on the buzz, and with the recruitment of second guitarist john cummings, the mogwai sound - a shotgun wedding of my bloody valentine vertigo, sonic youth overdrive and spacemen 3 drone - was complete.
the band scraped together enough money in '96 to press 500 copies of a single, and a succession of hip indie labels (che, love train, wurlitzer jukebox) lined up to do the mogwai honors. this, in turn, led to a succession of hyperbolically inclined british reviewers heaping "single of the week" praise on the band.
"back in 1984 we would have waffled on about 'curlicues of sound' and 'imploding cathedrals' or some such guff. it is now 1997, so we shall say, 'painstakingly classy pseudo-experimental glasgow guitar womblings... utterly majestic. oh, and grrreat curlicues, by the way'".
-from nme review of the new paths to helicon single, march 1, 1997.
the group consensus of its press accolades now tends to be bemused, we've-been-lucky attitude, although aitchison notes that the honeymoon may soon be over: "one reviewer of a live gig said we were just going 'wank, wank, wank' and that we should all be tortured horribly and deserved to die in a really painful manner. another one recently said that we were 'soulless'. and we get the term 'heavy metal' a lot, too. when we play live, we play loud - and we've toned it down a lot lately, anyway - but we could never be metal if we tried".
"it could very well be time for the mogwai backlash" braithwaite adds. "we're well aware of the cyclical nature of the british press. thing is, if these fuckers say any shit, i know where they live". he laughs. "i'll go to their fucking house and burn down their door".
mogwai dived headlong into 1997 by touring - including high-profile dates with pavement - and preparing its first full-length, having signed to glasgow-based chemikal underground in the uk and to jetset in the us (ten rapid, a collection of single tracks and re-recordings of early material, was issued by jetset to preemptively establish mogwai on these shores). mogwai added a fifth member, brendan o'hare (ex-teenage fanclub, ex-telstar ponies), whom they met when his new group, macrocosmica, opened for mogwai. yet by the time mogwai young team was released in october, o'hare was out of the band, reportedly due to his committing the heinous crime of excessive loudness at a gig bv arab strap, braithwaite's favorite band. it's more likely that o'hare, older than the others and additionally involved with both macrocosmica and fiend (his solo project), neither fit in nor fully committed. nethertheless, mogwai clams up when o'hare's name is mentioned; braithwaite begs amnesia regarding the circumstances of the departure.
mogwai yong team revealed the workings of a rapidly maturing band. still intact was mogwai's signature soft-to-loud dynamics scheme, as evidenced on numbers such as the bone-rattling concert favorite "like herod" (its telling original title "slint"). but also present was a newfound sense of tranquillity that crept into the mix via expanded instrumentation (glockenspiel, strings) and some outright balladeering, most notably the graceful "r u still in 2 it" which features arab strap's aidan moffat as guest vocalist. this time, reviews on both sides were rapturous.
like the year before, 1998 brought nonstop work for mogwai. there was extensive touring across europe and to america's east coast, including a sold-out headlining gig at new york's cmj convention. additionally, the group commandeered the remix-culture bandwagon. first came a mauling of david homes' "don't die just yet" which, veering from the original's funky ambience, sounds more like a derailed train slamming at top speed into a crowded martian shopping mall (holmes was reportedly so smitten with the treatment that he christened his new belfast bar "mogwai"). next was a pair of discs aimed at shaking up its own material: kicking a dead pig and mogwai fear satan assembled an array of sonic alchemists including kevin shields, third eye foundation, dj q, arab strap and u-ziq to bang out reinterpretations of mogwai young team. braithwaite reckons the remixes "worked really well. a lot of the stuff is totally different to the original, and that's what we wanted to do. we didn't want to just add hip-hop beats or something. like the 'mogwai fear satan' one by surgeon - i don't understand what the fuck it is. it's like the scene in 2001 with the apes and the monolith, just an exciting piece of music.
the band also took aim at glasgow politics with the no education=no future (fuck the curfew) ep. in order to curb youth crime and drug abuse, the glasgow city council had imposed a nightly curfew for teens, a strategy that mogwai felt was unjust and misguided. "they just missed the whole point of things" complains bulloch, "thinking if they licked up the kids after nine o'clock each night, it would solve all these problems. but they weren't dealing with the actual problems, just trying to sweep things under the carpet".
by the tail end of '98, the members of mogwai were ready to make the transition from upstart sonic youths to skilled post-post-rock craftsman. first, barry burns became fifth wheel no. 2, bringing his flute, guitar and keyboard talents to the already-bulging mogwai instrument locker. secondly, the band signed with matador in america, joining a storied roster that includes arab strap and belle & sebastian (mogwai remains on chemikal underground in the uk). then plans were hatched to record the second proper mogwai full-length in america with dave fridmann (flaming lips, mercury rev) producing.
"we'd done our singles and first album at mcm studios with paul savage from chemikal underground doing the recording" explains bulloch. "we knew all the people there and it was really handy, but we didn't want to stay in glasgow this time. we wanted to go to the country and take up residence someplace where we could be there all the time with no distractions. the delgados suggested fridmann, and chemikal underground arranged it all".
getting back to nature turned out to be an understatement: fridmann's tarbox road studios is located in cassadaga, ny, about 50 miles from buffalo and 500 miles from the nearest manhattan bar. during the three winter weeks the five mogwais were there, they encountered everything from curious deer to overeager hunters toting high-powered rifles. but the band has nothing but good marks for the experience and, in particular, fridmann's bedside manner.
"we had done a lot of preparation back in glasgow, so when we got to his studio we sort of knew what we were doing" say braithwaite. "but he had a lot of ideas, like stuff with the computer, making things go backward - basically, anything we could do to keep people from being able to place what instrument was being played".
"dave used a lot of digital stuff we'd never used before, played samples, added keyboards on one song, used a lot of effects" adds bulloch. "when we arrived, he had all these effects boxes there, and we looked at them and just went, 'what does that do? that one? what does that one do?' getting to play with all these different toys was great".
"and he didn't put any pressure on you" notes aitchison, "he just made you comfortable, listened to your point of view and gave his opinions in a way in which you wouldn't feel like you were playing badly. when you're not uptight, you can do it really good".
the sessions that yielded come on die young struck gold by steering mogwai clear of the past. whilst dynamically rich, notions of "heaviness" were virtually jettisoned, with only an abrupt guitar/bass vamp in the otherwise hushed "christmas steps" and an orchestral swell at the end of "ex-cowboy" referencing earlier exploits. the album is as elegant and expansive as any concept piece from 25 prior, yet it's forward-looking enough to signify the arrival of a major, unique player. at times it sounds resolute, if slightly lachrymose (the yearning ballad "cody"), stately and dignified ("helps both ways" is a slow ballet marked by newcomer burns' oboe) and even enticingly ambient (the minimalist piano and deep mix effects swirling throughout "chocky").
all of this was deliberate, for as braithwaite quickly points out, "we didn't want to repeat ourselves. also, it was just a feeling that was more what we are, more than what we did before. we didn't want to do that kind of [soft/loud music] just because that was what was expected of us".
the band opted to hang on to one mogwai trademark, however. never big on vocals, the group is fond of employing found sounds; on mogwai young team, the listener encounters taped phone conversations and backward-running studio chatter. come on die young includes a tv broadcaster's play-by-play commentary of an american college football game.
"there was originally to be a single done with (nfl broadcaster) john madden dialogue, but we weren't allowed to use it" chuckles aitchison. "we had the option of buying it, but they were asking for 10,000 pounds. so we wound up using the college football dialogue instead".
significantly, there's another american voice heard on come on die young. the album opens to the sound of iggy pop on a talk show, earnestly describing what rock 'n' roll does to him: "that music is so powerful that it's quite beyond my control. and when i'm in the grips of it, i don't feel pleasure and i don't feel pain - do you know what i'm talking about? have you ever felt like that, when you couldn't feel anything? and you didn't want to, either? do you understand, sir?".
braithwaite understands, saying iggys manifesto is mogwai's too. "it really is" the guitarist explains. "sometimes, when we're playing, i forget where i am, just lose myself. it's hard to put in words, and i wouldn't want to place ourselves above our station, so it was better to let iggy say it. but i think we really believe the things he said".