“I’m at my mum’s house and it’s pandemonium…let me just get up the stairs…right, aye, hello!” That’s Barry Burns, multi-instrumentalist member of Mogwai attempting to find a quiet spot at his parents’ house to conduct an interview about his band’s eight studio album, Rave Tapes.
Burns now lives in Germany, where he runs a bar with his wife, and his current living arrangements are a result of awkward circumstances and a need to rehearse the tracks from the new album with the rest of the band. “Yeah, I usually stay at a pal of mine’s,” explains Burns, “but he’s getting the house renovated so I’m back staying with the old folks. It’s quite a good laugh but my God! It’s just constant ‘d’you want a biscuit, d’you want a sandwich?’ kind of material!” I say that it must be a difficult state of affairs, especially when there’s a chance Burns will be away from his wife for a long period of time promoting Rave Tapes. “Pretty much; it was okay before because when I lived here, my wife and I would see each other when I was rehearsing,” he says, “but now because we’re both over there and I have to come back for rehearsals we’re apart even more and it’s even worse than before. So every time I get an opportunity to see her I just do it.” I point out that although there’s never been much of a gap between Mogwai records, this is a particularly busy time for the band, coming as it does on a run from Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, a tour for that record, the music to accompany the wonderful French television series Les Revenants, a series of shows for the Zidane soundtrack, and of course recording the new album. Barry doesn’t seem to mind too much, though: “It is, it’s really busy. I mean it’s good that we’re getting work after all this time so I can’t really complain about it!”
Burns explains that Rave Tapes came pretty much hot on the heels of the Les Revenants sessions. “There was a little bit of a gap; we had maybe three or four months off and it was March when we started to write the songs for it and we didn’t get together until to June to rehearse it together…well, the rest of the band did for a good month before I came back over. So it’s taken about nine months from the very start to the very end.” The album is darker in tone than its predecessor Hardcore, with an off-the-cuff experimentation standing out against more classic, backward-looking (in a good way) Young Team moments. I want to know how prepared the band are these days going into the studio – do they have more music ready to go? “Less, haha!” laughs Burns. He expands: “We actually don’t , we’re really bad at preparation for stuff like that. I can only speak for myself but that’s fine for me; I wouldn’t say it’s improvised but I have a very, very slight idea of what I’m doing…and then I like to just get it done in the studio.” Is that different from the Come On Die Young days? “Yeah, it never used to be like that; the first two-and-a-half albums we had most of the songs finished before we went in, but these days it’s very rough ideas and nothing’s ever finished – it works for us, but it’s like pulling teeth, it’s a really difficult way to make music.” So does that have an effect on how Rave Tapes sound? “Aye,” agrees Barry, “there’s a lot of stuff that’s quite spontaneous. It might sound a lot more considered or cerebral than it is but it’s definitely instinctive. We just go in and play, we don’t really talk about it.”
I’ve already mentioned the darker tone of Rave Tapes in comparison to Hardcore; tracks like the powerful electro of “Remurdered”, the creepily intense vocal samples of “Repelish”, even the closing hymnal of “The Lord Is Out of Control” certainly all deliver a gloomier aspect, and I ask Barry where he thinks this sound has come from: “I think…and I just realised this when I was doing press in Spain the other day,” he begins, “it felt like we weren’t finished doing work with Paul Savage.” Savage is the man responsible for the production on early Mogwai singles such as “Summer” (I mention to Barry that I have that 7inch in my possession, bought on the day of its release in 1996: “Jesus Christ! You’ll get a good fiver for that!”) and their debut album, the still-explosive Mogwai Young Team. Without question those records are dark and heavy experiences, benefitting from the guiding hand of former Delgados drummer Savage. Burns continues: “Hardcore was quite chipper and upbeat for us and we maybe wanted to do something a bit darker. Maybe without realising it at the time but we knew Paul was quite capable of doing that side of things, and that’s why we chose to work with him again.”
Although Rave Tapes is darker in tone, it doesn’t come with the heaviness of those early records, and I suggest to Burns that this comes from bassist Dominic Aitchison switch on many tracks from his usual instrument to synthesizer bass: “I was really surprised when he did that,” he says, “because he’s not the most comfortable or confident person to be playing other instruments! Burns goes on to expand on his surprise at Aitchison’s switch with an anecdote about a particular Mogwai track: “He’s a great guitar player but he won’t play guitar at all, or hardly. I can remember when I found out he played guitar on “Helps Both Ways” on CODY, I was really surprised, and I’d just joined the band! So when he picked up the bass synthesiser I didn’t know what to expect, but because he doesn’t know his way around a piano he came out with some amazing stuff…so putting Dominic out of his comfort zone has been good for the sound of the record.” Again, this was something completely unplanned by the band: “I don’t think he’d actually thought about doing that until we’d gone into record it; he only got the synthesizer when he’d finished all of his normal bass guitar parts!”
What also makes Rave Tapes stand out as a fine example of latter-day Mogwai is that it’s a brilliantly-paced album. From the opening trio of more experimental and electronic songs, to the middle section of classic Mogwai guitar action, through to the closing trio of tracks that make it perhaps the best ending they’ve produced so far. From the CODY throwback of “Blues Hour” on which Stuart Braithwaite sings, through the beautiful “No Medicine for Regret” to the wheezing final track, featuring Burns’ trademark Vocoder, “The Lord Is Out Of Control”, it’s a sumptuous triumvirate. I ask Barry if it’s fair to suggest that sequencing hasn’t always been the band’s strongest suit? He tends to agree: “With sequencing, we were guilty of…I can’t remember which record it was, I think Mr Beast and The Hawk Is Howling, they had a similar arc to them and Hardcore had a little bit of that going on as well…but we just decided to set the tone of the album with that first song, and I think it’s kinda worked.” Could it be the best sequence they’ve managed so far? “I dunno, it’s difficult,” defers Burns. “We’ve not really lived with the album for long enough. It usually takes us another few months to decide whether we even like it or not! But yeah, I think it’s a pretty well sequenced album…for once!”