bright light ! articles
title: don't talk ... just listen
written by: ??
published by: sunday herald
date: 17th october 1999

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 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 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' roll history.

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 cool."

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 long.

"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 1977."

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.