huge thanks to mioi hanaoka and everyone else at ink blot magazine for letting me steal this excellent interview from their site. please show your thanks by giving them a visit - you won't regret it.
there are moments on mogwai's debut lp mogwai young team that recall the dental torture scene in "marathon man." in the most positive sense, of course.
not that you expect sonic youth-inspired art-rock from glasgow to be chipper. it's just that the grinding, screeching riff that tears "like herod" asunder is stupidly intense, possessed of an unholy paranoia you wouldn't expect from the carefree teens that recorded it. of course, all was not so carefree at the time.
"the recording of young team was fucked up. there were quite a lot of sketches (slang for fights) going on," mogwai drummer martin bulloch recalls. "i think the whole of the first lp is angry. it was the mood of the whole thing - there was a lot of anger about."
teenage punks are usually all too willing to shake an angry fist at the world around them, but mogwai's bad vibes were apparently directed at one another, a self-destructive streak that ran through the young team record and the group's occasionally antagonistic live shows.
"it can be quite angry playing some of those songs, and it can end up with the stage in pieces," martin affirms. sometimes it feels ambient, playing three minutes of white noise, but other times it's extremely intense."
mogwai lost a sometime-member during this more intense period, with guitarist stuart allegedly kicking former teenage fanclub drummer brendan o'hare out of the band for failing to hush up during an arab strap gig. mogwai have been slightly evasive about the split, and i decided not to ask martin about it. but if you want a metaphor for the mercurial o'hare's effect on a band, listen to his "with portfolio" from young team. beginning with tinkling piano that threatens to be the album's prettiest moment, it degenerates into phase-shifting, skull-shagging noise that finds nowhere and heads there rapidly. diverting, but ultimately frustrating.
"every time we come here, we just think, 'oh, fuck, we don't want to go back.' we just love new york so much. not in the summer, though, because it's just too hot. being fair-skinned is a bit difficult in the summer here."
martin is relaxed and happy to be back in the big apple. mogwai have just returned to america after recording new album come on die young in late 1998. they're sitting on a new deal with uberindie label matador and looking forward to a mini-tour supporting pavement. things are looking up.
come on die young is a great title for an album. it's just not a particularly appropriate one. where young team was enjoyably nihilistic, the new album is confident, at-ease and melodic. if it weren't for some pleasantly kinky structures and clever samples, you might actually call it mature.
the lp was recorded in rural, upstate new york with mercury rev producer dave fridmann - apparently in an attempt to force the band's hand after the struggles of the young team sessions.
"[for young team], it was quite an effort to get everyone in the studio at the same time," martin explains. "so this time we wanted to get as far away from the distractions, and from glasgow, as possible."
but could five young men in love with america not find new distractions?
"mtv distracted dominic," martin laughs. "he'd record his bass part and then we couldn't find him. he'd be off watching mtv or playing nintendo.
"but we were more focused than before. we'd go 12-12, then dave would go home, and we'd stay up all night and get pissed, e-mailing (chemikal underground labelmates) the delgados, calling them cunts." the band's late-night web, nintendo and booze sessions eventually got under the skin of their venerable producer.
"at the beginning, he'd come in in the morning and say, 'alright guys?' but by the end he'd come in and say, 'aaal-right, you bastards...' because we wouldn't be up yet," martin recalls.
considering the contemplative moods he conjured for the rev's deserter's songs, it's not hard to notice the stamp of fridmann on come on die young. martin recognizes the influence, but points out that fridmann just took mogwai's sound where it always needed to go.
"i don't think he changed anything...but he made it sound bigger. to be honest, i don't think a lot of the early recordings did [our] songs justice. we were happy with them then, but i think [die young] just sounds bigger. and warmer."
clearly one thing fridmann did bring to the table was a big pile of instruments. martin suggests that his guitar-mangling mates were willing, if slightly confused.
"we used everything!" he laughs. "mad space echo stuff, chimes, a trombone...daft things. we experimented.
"we used a lot of digital stuff we've never used before, which really helped us. it helped the quiet parts. on young team, on the quiet parts, you couldn't really tell what the fuck was going on, because there was too much hiss."
ahh, quiet parts. there are more of them on die young. in fact, it's almost one big quiet part (with some notable exceptions, including the magnificent closing crescendo on "ex-cowboy"). the boys who once bounced soundwaves off each other like ping-pong balls now embrace open space, with the result sounding like a rough-hewn tortoise without the jazzbo tendencies.
so were they aiming for a cleaner sound?
"yeah, well, we've also learned to play better," martin admits. "it wasn't so much a conscious decision.
we thought the quiet-loud mogwai sound on young team had become a cliché, it had been done to death. so we concentrated on the more on the actual tunes, rather than on that mogwai dynamic effect."
one wonders how the kinder, gentler mogwai will come across live. "one thing we've learned is that you have to captivate an audience, you have to capture their attention," he says. "so we still play a lot of the louder, more raucous songs. "and who knows? maybe the next album will be totally avant garde. an hour of white noise."
speaking of avant garde...mogwai have staked a claim as one of the few guitar-oriented bands to legitimately embrace electronic music.
the "mogwai fear satan" ep and subsequent kicking a dead pig remix album were the result of inspired thinking by german techno nutter label eye q, who approached mogwai with plans to sick some left-field producers on a few songs from the young team album. the boys took to the concept right away - but were even more pleased when they heard the results.
"it sounded like a good idea," martin recalls, "and it came out [even] better than i thought it would. i think it's a really good album. i love alec empire's mix."
it might sound like an easy grab for techno cred - but a listen to kicking a dead pig, and especially the "fear satan" mixes, should stop any accusations of dilettantism short of the mark. not only is the music well matched to the mixers, but quality control standards were obviously in place.
"we turned quite a lot of them down," martin notes. "there was one group, and i won't say the name, but they did [an acoustic version of ] "helicon 1" that was fucking terrible. we thought, if that's your interpretation of our song, then fuck off. it was one of the worst things i've ever heard."
besides alec empire's blistering track, other perfect pairings include the m-ziq remix of "mogwai fear satan," featuring mike paradinas beat-matching his programs with martin's acoustic drum rolls. the m-ziq connection makes one wonder how good mogwai could sound with a certain cornish maestro of mayhem at the mixing board.
"yeah, definitely," martin says, anticipating the question. "we really wanted the aphex twin to do something. but it's no bother."
"i was quite appalled by a lot of it, actually. in the convenience stores they have life-size models of deer with targets painted on 'em, so you can go home and take pot shots at them in your backyard. i got laser-sited by some crazy fucker. it was very deer hunter-ish."
martin jokes about his brush with death in the sticks like it's all part of mogwai's excellent adventure. all traces of sketchy studio turmoil appear to be gone, and the media and popular attention they've drawn seems to sit well with them. martin says they're excited, if understandably nervous, about headlining sunday night at this year's glastonbury festival, and they're eager to explore those parts of the world (america, europe, and japan) where people are suddenly taking notice of them.
"we find it quite funny, the lengths people go to hear us or write something about us," martin says of the band's growing profile. "it's quite amusing. but it hasn't changed us. i think if you dwell on it, you'll have problems, but we just go with the ride."
older? wiser? don't assume anything. they did just title their second album come on die young, after all. so is there still a self-destructive streak in mogwai?