the following article is taken from the birmingham post, the daily newspaper published in birmingham, uk.
continuing our occasional reputations series reassessing the status of works of art or performers, music fan simon harper makes a plea for a wider audience for favourite band mogwai
anyone who's read high fidelity or 31 songs by nick hornby will know that music fans obsess about lists: endless top fives or 'best bands you've never heard of'. in a perfect world, scottish avant-rock troupe mogwai would be on that list.
after performing in europe with the reformed pixies earlier this summer, mogwai are currently journeying to enormodomes across the breadth of america as part of the curiosa tour, with their heroes the cure, along with black-clad rockers interpol, and the rapture. with a bbc sessions album due out in the autumn, mogwai are probably best heard in this semilive context. a tenth anniversary dvd is scheduled for next year, when a new studio album is also slated for release, suggesting that the band are currently at the peak of their powers.
emerging from glasgow in 1996, the quintet have been hailed by ex-pavement frontman stephen malkmus as the 'best band of the 21st century'. since then, they have released four excellent albums, while retaining their fiercely independent status, taking instrumental rock in a new and refreshing direction.
with their current line-up of guitarist and occasional singer stuart braithwaite, guitarist john cummings, bassist dominic aitchison, multi-instrumentalist barry burns, and drummer martin bulloch, mogwai have received rave reviews from a music press which can be notoriously difficult to please. switching from very quiet to ear-splittingly loud in nanoseconds, mogwai take their cue from sonic youth, slint, the cure, joy division and my bloody valentine, but also veer towards electronic and ambient styles, creating music that is both for the heart and the head.
deliciously out of step when they formed, the belligerent five-piece made their first tentative steps into the world when the music-buying public was still enamoured with britpop; a time when they felt hugely embarrassed by a scene where 'everyone was too busy pretending to be in the small faces'. mogwai are still at odds with musical trends today, producing the kind of music which bridges the gap between melody and noise, beauty and aural violence. forming alliances with likeminded artists, such as bardo pond, part chimp and kling klang, mogwai are admirably content to plough their own musical furrow. pitchforkmedia.com, the online bible for indie enthusiasts, recently placed the band's debut album young team, released in 1997, in their top 100 albums of the 90s, alongside rock heavyweights such as oasis, u2, radiohead and rem. a succession of albums and eps have been issued since, some on the delgados' chemikal underground label, a haven of the best scottish guitar music.
their two most recent albums, rock action and the sarcastically titled happy songs for happy people, have been released on their own label, rock action records. while commercial success may never materialise, the young scots, all in their mid-twenties, have built up a large fanbase and a fearsome live reputation, bolstered by a stunning performance at birmingham's sanctuary last autumn. often insanely loud, mogwai have leavened their sonic template in recent years, with the familiar trouser-flapping shifts in volume being replaced by a more melodic, slow-burning sound. but they certainly wouldn't want us to think they've gone soft.
then again, mogwai aren't the sort of band to worry about careerist choices. intelligent and gloriously outspoken, the lads from north of the border are unlikely to ever shy away from controversy. a batch of blur-baiting t-shirts led to an ongoing spat with damon albarn and co, and a tongue in cheek comment made on tour in croatia incensed umpteen humour-free english football fans. at a time when the music industry is glaringly short of suitable icons, mogwai's carefree image is hugely welcome - they love what they do, and they're not overly fussed about how many people become infatuated with their gentle, visceral sounds. in short, they are, in an upside-down sort of way, true rock stars - but without the phil collins-style lack of self-awareness.
john peel's favourites have made a habit of being unconventional, though. their arch song titles, such as golden porsche and kids will be skeletons, belie a starkly politicised attitude. yet mogwai are also known to be contrary souls. formerly sponsored to wear kappa clothing, the band agreed to let one of their songs, summer, be used in a levis advert. causing much confusion, this prompted angry fans to post on their website, demanding to know why they had decided to go 'corporate'. mogwai's logic was simple: for a largely instrumental band, it is much easier to get their music heard on television than it is on radio, and that the money made from the advert could help to fund their own label. a simple message swayed many of the doubters: 'don't hate us. we must eat.' the devout football fans, all celtic supporters, have also made intriguing choices, musically. preferring not to release singles from albums, in 2001 mogwai released my father my king, a 20-minute opus which reinterprets a jewish hymn, finishing with a coda of white noise, all delivered at cochlea-bludgeoning volume. mull of kintyre it ain't. such uncompromising men are clearly capable of doing good deeds, though. in 2003, drummer martin bulloch sold his pacemaker at online auction site ebay, with the proceeds going to the british heart foundation. it's hard to imagine the darkness donating any of their trademark spandex to charity shops nationwide.
contemporaries such as sigur ros have found fame in the most unlikely of areas, with actor brad pitt and even president bush professing a love of the icelanders' glacial, skyscraping melodies. surely mogwai's time is now.
not content with challenging the parameters of rock music, mogwai have also focused their attention on that last bastion of hippiedom, the outdoor music festival. under their watch, the all tomorrow's parties festival was launched in 2000, and has boasted legs in both the uk and the us ever since. a staggeringly simple idea, the festival involves a band choosing the entire weekend lineup, a format that was turned on its head earlier this year. this spring saw a special anniversary edition of the festival, stretched out across two weekends, with all previous curators choosing the line-up for one day each. as well as mogwai, atp boasted the favourite acts of tortoise and sonic youth, among others. based at a pontins holiday camp in camber sands, the annual atp festival has chalets, go-karting, and five-a-side football. culturally, it's nearly as far as is humanly possible to get away from the tree-hugging, earth-loving hub of long-haired men that presides at glastonbury each summer.
despite their reputation for being glum, mogwai have won over many listeners with their intoxicating songs. a heady cocktail of blissful melodies and snarling feedback, the quintet's crystalline template has matured but not grown up just yet, and all but the stoniest of hearts would be moved by the glaswegians' spidery soundscapes.
they might sometimes be difficult, but listening to these singular scots is never anything less than rewarding. put simply, mogwai are tremendous.
top five mogwai moments
1 - those blur: are shite t-shirts. back in 1999, mogwai regaled t in the park with these short-sleeved statements of intent, arguing that it was more dictionary definition than simple opinion. even frontman damon albarn was so 'impressed' by their bare-faced cheek, that he ordered a batch for himself
2 - the first all tomorrow's parties festival was promoted with an oasis-parodying poster. featuring the band in full-on swaggering pose, the illusion is completed by the sight of members wielding those most rocking of instruments, the tambourine and the flute. noel gallagher must have been ecstatic
3 - finishing their 2003 glastonbury set with ten minutes of feedback, leaving thousands of festivalgoers looking non-plussed. a real triumph for individuality, the fact that it was regular closer my father my king seemed to escape the hordes taking a tea-time nap on the hill. they missed out on a beatific show
4 - making band merchandise interesting again. apart from the usual t shirts, hats and lighters, came the mogwai music box. a wind-up gadget that played the melody from early song tracy, the music box is a welcome wake-up call to other bands who really should try harder
5 - not strictly a mogwai moment, frontman of sorts stuart braithwaite formed the sick anchors, a post-rock supergroup with arab strap mumbler aidan moffat. covering whole again, by scouse popstrels atomic kitten, it was a world away from the 'ironic' covers perpetrated by scores of ordinary guitar bands