they've been deified by the music press. and they've been vilified by
blur fans after a t-shirt taunt. they are mogwai - and, as simon
stuart discovers, for a band that don't sing they've got a hell of a
lot to say
he may make the most heartbreaking music of the late 20th century, but
stuart braithwaite likes a laugh. in fact, that's something of an
understatement. ask him anything: about his music, his image, his band
mogwai and their seemingly unstoppable rise to glory, and more often
than not he'll collapse into a fit of giggles.
"i remember rehearsing for our very first gig in my parents' house,"
he chuckles as he tucks into sausage and mash in a swanky glasgow city
centre bar. "we were in the hall with towels hanging over the drums to
keep the noise down, and we were thinking: 'well, at least we won't
have to do this kind of thing much more, because no-one's going to
like it and we may as well give up!'" and he's off again, sniggering
away like a madman.
it's really quite unsettling. mogwai, you see, shouldn't be a gleeful
band. accepted rock 'n' roll wisdom says that musicians should suffer
for their art - so how can someone as happy as stuart braithwaite
produce something so beautiful? how can someone who's sitting guzzling
mashed potato like he hasn't got a care in the world be part of the
band behind the new mogwai ep, four entirely instrumental songs of
almost uncharted depth and emotion? how can he be part of the band
that, earlier this year, produced come on die young, an album of such
windswept loveliness as to reduce grown men to tears and the music
press to insensible gibbering? you'd expect mogwai to be black-garbed,
long-overcoated, heavy-eyed young men with the weight of the world on
their shoulders é yet they turn out to be five kappa-clad scottish
skate-punks in their early 20s with a taste for tea and irn-bru.
something, somewhere doesn't quite add up.
"i think we revel in the contradiction of it all," smiles braithwaite,
whose prematurely balding pate belies that fact that he's just 23. "we
haven't gone out of our way to do that - but i think we have played it
up over the last two years for a laugh. but you don't have to be a
grim, funeral-director type person to make beautiful music, to make
music that reflects sadness. i think we're as sad as everyone else -
but we're as happy as everyone else too.
"i've got a love of sad songs - i don't really like happy music. but
listening to something like joy division's closer is a bit like
watching a stanley kubrick film. it's beautiful but it's a bit much -
you know, you don't stop afterwards and go, 'ooh, i'll watch that
again!'" he stops for a mouthful of sausage. "unlike robocop, for
example, which you could watch every day."
mogwai, it turns out, are big stanley kubrick fans. indeed, the first
song on the new self-titled ep ("all the other names we had were just
really offensive and stupid") is simply called stanley kubrick. a
slow-burning, lilting melody underpinned by fuzzy, wheezing keyboards
and punctuated by huge swathes of guitar, it is without a doubt the
best thing they've done to date. it's not about stanley kubrick as
such; it just takes his name. there's no great mystery to it; no
hidden agenda or subtle meaning. it's just a great song named after a
great director. this, after all, is how mogwai work. you expect a
masterplan, some notion of world domination - or at the very least an
awareness that they're possibly the most powerful, if not the best,
band in britain - and you get a disarmingly honest shrug. mogwai make
music because they want to. and if anyone else likes it é well,
they're quite surprised.
the band first came together in glasgow in 1995, formed by lanarkshire
lads braithwaite and martin bulloch (drums) and their mate dominic
aitchison (bass). they were joined by another guitarist, john cummings
- and later by guitarist and flautist barry burns - and together they
set about sculpting their searing, soaring instrumentals.
well, nearly. "we had three different types of songs when we started
out," recalls braithwaite. "we had some vaguely happy songs, but they
were shite. we had these really bad grungy songs - these gothy, joy
division-y kind of songs with my awful lyrics - and then we had these
instrumental kind of sad ones without any lyrics. and they were what
we felt most proud of, i suppose. in fact, they were the only thing we
felt proud of." so they started gigging and putting out
limited-edition 7" singles on tiny labels like wurlitzer jukebox, and
slowly people began to prick up their ears.
the breakthrough came in 1997 with the debut long-player mogwai young
team, a double album of coruscating guitars which simmered, shimmered
and exploded all over a stagnant music scene. before long the music
press had whipped itself up into a frenzy: here, at last, was a guitar
band worth getting excited about. what's more, they didn't even sing.
it was, the hacks proclaimed breathlessly, a new chapter in rock 'n'
braithwaite - of course - finds the whole thing mildly hysterical.
"it's a load of rubbish to say that we're making some kind of point by
not having lyrics. i mean, that would imply that carl cox is some kind
of revolutionary. it's just another way of playing music." in fact he
does actually sing on a couple of songs - notably the country-tinged
title track of come on die young - but these are the exceptions that
prove the rule. "i just don't like singing," he shrugs. "i don't like
writing the words and i don't like being in the studio when you hear
it played back. you feel like a prick.
"anyway, i get pissed off enough if someone talks during a gig while
i'm playing my guitar. if someone starts talking when i'm singing as
well, someone did talk while i was singing in toronto. so i kicked
him." what happened? "oh, he shut up."
braithwaite worries a lot about people coming to mogwai gigs and
talking - something that's actually quite difficult given the sheer
volume the band play at. he feels it's a sign they're attracting the
wrong type of fan - "people who come to gigs because the nme says they
should, or because they think it's cool".
he pauses. "actually, that's quite a frightening concept considering
how uncool as people we are. i mean, i think we sound like the cure -
and all these critics know fine well how much we sound like the cure -
but they don't mention it because they've decided the cure aren't
he is obviously uncomfortable with the fact the music press has
latched on to mogwai in such a big way. "i mean, i do think we're a
good band, so i don't think there's anything wrong with it - but
there's a saturation point that you get to with bands like the manic
street preachers and blur. the way the british media work frightens me
- you just don't have to write about these bands so much."
ah yes, blur. mogwai's feud with the essex foursome became something
of a minor legend, culminating earlier this year when the scots
started selling t-shirts emblazoned with the words "blur: are shite".
braithwaite maintains that this was a legitimate response to the
"cynical" way blur's damon albarn wrote an album's worth of songs
about the break-up of his relationship with elastica singer justine
frischmann - but the joke backfired somewhat, with mogwai being
accused in turn of an equally cynical marketing stunt.
still, braithwaite is unrepentant. "it wasn't a stunt," he says
bluntly. "and i know that sounds like a blatant lie, but it really
wasn't. we didn't think anybody would give a shit. we had a lot of
interview requests from all the tabloids, but we didn't want to talk
about it. it would have made us sound desperate. but then suddenly
you've got all these blur fans entering into the ridiculous activity
of writing to the nme to slag me off, pointing out that i'm fat and
bald. and i'm like, 'am i? oh my god! i hadn't noticed!'
"i mean, it was just a dig. it's just having a go at mass-marketed,
contrived, pointless music. i think damon's a media person, and i
genuinely don't think his life or his music have any relation to
anything apart from his own ego-trip. to make any music that reflects
the depths of your soul, you're required to have a soul. and if blur
have, you can't hear it in the music."
listening to mogwai's new songs, there's a distinct sense that they're
baring even more of their souls. it's telling that they've now dropped
the faux-gang persona which gave rise to the two album titles and
which saw them adopt wacky pseudonyms like bionic and captain meat on
their record sleeves. it was quite a neat little trick, as in the
post-trainspotting climes of 1997 the merest whiff of a scottish
hardman was enough to whip the london media into a lather, but it soon
began to cause its own problems.
"we met quite a few hairy characters who obviously thought we were
serious," recalls braithwaite. "we played an in-store gig at virgin in
glasgow when come on die young came out, and i was rather, well,
surprised at some of the people who came. but at the same time it was
brilliant - you've got all these maddies coming to see this
instrumental art-rock band. it made me really proud."
yet it's not just mogwai's success that fills braithwaite with pride.
he's clearly delighted with the progress of the current crop of
scottish bands - arab strap, belle and sebastian, even travis - and
puts it down to the fact they were left to nurture their sound for so
"the thing is, scotland was like a musical beirut for so many years.
there was teenage fanclub, but after that you couldn't get a music
magazine or an a&r man up here for any money. so all the new bands
that appeared just got on with it, like ganger and urusei yatsura, and
i think the actual absence of any attention from the industry or the
press or radio - apart from john peel - let them become really good.
whereas if you're in london or manchester you get chewed up and spat
out before you've even learned your third chord.
"i'm proud to be scottish, and i'm glad scottish culture is beginning
to make a mark in general. i mean, i went to see that film orphans,
and it was really good. things from scotland are usually shite!"
more than any of their contemporaries, mogwai see their role as
getting out there and stirring things up a bit - trying to put some
energy back into proceedings. it's an attitude braithwaite describes
as "punk rock" - which is perhaps slightly surprising given mogwai's
lengthy soundscapes have more in common with pink floyd than the sex
pistols. braithwaite, however, says that's missing the point.
"the thing about punk was it wasn't about the music," he explains. "it
was more about blowing away the cobwebs, social revolution, and
f***ing with people. so there's not any safety-pin punk element to our
music - but at the same time if you listen to something like green day
or the offspring then it's equally as tired as eric clapton was in
he reacts with horror, though, when i suggest mogwai's music is a
soundtrack to sitting in and getting stoned rather than leading a riot
out on the streets. "sitting and listening to us stoned would be one
of the most unpleasant experiences of all time," he says, alarmed. "oh
god! ugh. no, we're more suited to sitting in reading teletext and
drinking tea. or maybe driving about. yeah, i think that'd be nice."
punk rock, then? you bet. in an age where music has become little more
than a lifestyle accessory; where the choice is between
production-line pop, faceless club thumping or sub pub-rock indie
grunting; where image is everything and imagination nothing, mogwai's
honesty and refusal to conform could just make them the saviours of
rock 'n' roll - tea, tears and all.