Nine Songs: Mogwai
Mogwai are renowned for soundtracking impending doom, and nowadays those lurking feelings have appeared in real life.
The band of Scots were championed by legendary tastemaker John Peel back in the day for their mighty instrumental rock. Now about to release their tenth studio album As the Love Continues, as we talk over Zoom, de facto leader Stuart Braithwaite describes the record as “One of the best ones we’ve ever done. It’s quite a developed record for us. Quite often we’ll try something, and it’ll be just what we tried, but with this, everything’s fully formed.”
Speaking to Braithwaite through a digital window is as natural as speaking over the coffee table in his living room, as we rattle off trivia and experiences with a bunch of mutual favourites. As well as talking about songs he loves, Braithwaite takes in some of the other core tenets of his band’s music, particularly the apparent religious themes in their work that can be seen at eye level, with song titles such as "The Lord Is Out of Control", "Mogwai Fear Satan" and "Moses? I Amn't" for example. But, as the frontman reveals, there are other, less celestial reasons for those titles. He grew up in a “militantly atheist” household while his bandmates were the opposite, yet he says that none of this fosters into their work.
“A lot of our track names, especially the old ones, came from weird things from our childhood and teenage years”, he explains, leading onto one specific example. “With ‘The Lord is Out of Control’ [from 2014’s Rave Tapes], Barry [Burns] was obsessed with Reddit and these ridiculous one-minute videos. There was one with some American lady freaking out about her air conditioning not working. She was blaming God for her being too hot in her apartment, and that was where that title came from.”
Braithwaite describes his perspective as that of a music fan with an “old man brain”, and as a voracious record store crate-digger, he’s a man of catholic taste. As well as a theme of what he eloquently describes as “anti-music” - Lou Reed’s experimental outbursts and the original industrial music scene, which he feels with hindsight have been a huge mantric influence on the band – his Nine Songs also take in nostalgia, with the likes of Nirvana and Boards of Canada, as well as some newer favourites in the ambience of Grouper and the futuristic hip-hop of Kendrick Lamar.
Just from that slice, Braithwaite’s choices are an immediate melting pot, that will keep being added to from the great Glaswegian record stores he’s always frequented and yearns to visit again when life recontinues.
“This song in particular, it’s a marriage of properly unhinged free jazz music and straight-up Rock ‘n’ Roll. [It has] my favourite guitar solo of all time, just even thinking about it makes the hairs on my neck stand up.
"It’s anti-music, which I like. I’m not a big fan of virtuosity, even though a lot of music I like has people who can play really great. That’s not the point of music, and I love the fact that Lou Reed is just like, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna pour my soul into this’. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised he’s probably channeling John Coltrane or someone like that, the way that those jazz musicians deconstruct being a great musician into going for something really primal.
“I got into the album White Light/White Heat when I was a teenager. I heard it through my big sister, who I got a lot of the music I liked from when I was younger. I had it on tape and never saw a picture of them for a long time. I thought the Velvet Underground were all black, something about the ragtime vibe of the title track. I’m sure they would take it as a huge compliment. Over the years I’ve realised it’s even better than I thought when I first heard it. An unparalleled, crazy record and I totally love it.
“As I found out more about the band, I came to appreciate the anti-hippy vibe, because I really love ‘60s music, but, as has been shown by history, a lot of it was just a show. These people weren’t really into free love, most of them grew up to become hedge-fund managers and stuff like that. Velvet Underground were probably more of a true representation of the human condition than just painting flowers on your face.”
“I’m glad you didn’t ask me to say the title! [laughs]. I’ve gotten really into Alice Coltrane’s music in the last few years. It’s experimental like the Velvet Underground track, but it’s also really beautiful, idiosyncratic music. I could hear her playing instantly and know it was a note from her.
“Obviously, her husband’s one of the most famous jazz musicians of all time, but it’s just a shame that she’s not that famous, because to me, it seems just as wild and inspiring. There’s a kind-of Eastern, mystical element to it as well, which I find really interesting and which you can hear right away. The bass line is next-level amazing.
“I think there’s been a renaissance with her music, and a lot of those records have been reissued. I’ve got a lot of friends that work in record shops, and when you were allowed in shops, I spent a lot of time hanging around in a record shop, so I probably heard this song first in there. If I’m being honest, that’s where 90% of the music I find comes from. I’m a big fan of Monorail that’s probably the Glasgow equivalent to Rough Trade in London, but there’s some other really great stores, like Rubadub and Mixed Up. Oxfam record shops are good, there’s one on my street which I probably go to the most because you’re allowed to take dogs in. I got a couple of Brian Eno records in yesterday actually, Discreet Music and Ambient 4.”
“I got into blues music by listening to John Peel in the ‘90s, and Fred McDowell is one of my favourite blues musicians - great singer, great guitar player. I’m not a religious person, but I’m really interested in church recordings, and the album that this is from is called Amazing Grace, which is basically a concert from a church. There’s a real purity about African-American Christian music, that even though I’m not a Christian myself, I find myself listening with pure belief.
“I’m a fan of Gaelic psalm singing, that’s amazing too. There’s a really sinister connection - probably going to McDowell having a Scottish name - to a lot of Scottish people being involved in the slave trade, and the response of blues music came from that, mixed with the rhythms of traditional music from Africa, where they’ve stolen these people from. There’s a shameful history to it, but it’s definitely interesting and the music’s incredible.”
“It’s insane that this song isn’t on Nevermind. I think it’s the best Nirvana song, and it came out at the perfect time for me because I was so into music and pretty underground music. Me and my friends were into Spaceman 3 and Mudhoney, and were into Nirvana before they signed to Geffen.
“I saw them at Reading in ‘91 when I was 15, and I remember them playing ‘Aneurysm’ as well as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. They played in Glasgow a couple of months later, which I went to the same week as when they were on Top of the Pops for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and I was really excited about this band being our band in the underground. Because Nirvana hadn’t been going for very long, you can hear the influences, like the Pixies for example, but ‘Aneurysm’ is pure Nirvana, I can’t hear another band, the tempo changes are dead exciting, the sudden heavy chord part is totally what Mogwai were doing.
“Anytime I hear this song, it’s so nostalgic, I remember being a young teenager and being so excited about the music that was being put out there. Nirvana were a cultural force as well, kicking against the mainstream hair metal and commercial pop, which at the time was very sexist and homophobic, and Nirvana stood for very progressive values. Of all the bands to get huge, they were the perfect ones.
“As I look back and get older, I realise how important they were, and the fact they went and made a really challenging third album with Steve Albini, when they just knocked Michael Jackson off the number one spot, it’s amazing. No-one would do that now. I think commercialism has really crept back in, and I think we need a new Nirvana to embarrass people.”
“I was aware of Coil from pretty young because of their remixes for Nine Inch Nails. I kept on listening to Coil over the years, but something about 2020 seemed to make their music make more sense than ever. Maybe because it’s very introspective and it’s been an introspective year, as people haven’t been able to do the things they normally do to get outside their head.
“That era of music, with associate bands like Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey, is so ahead of its time. It’s scary to think how old some of this music is because this song came out in the ‘90s, but it could have come out now. It’s completely wild.
“I’m drawn to less busy music as I get older. I mean, my favourite Coil album is Time Machines, which is technically ambient even though you’re not going to particularly relax listening to it. But it doesn’t have any rhythms on it, and that’s the music that I tend to listen to more nowadays.”
“I’m not really a big classical fan to be honest with you. I find a lot of classical music meandering and chinless, which is probably a very sacreligious thing to say, but there’s something really powerful about [Gorecki]. Me and Dominic [Aitchinson] listen to it quite a lot, and it’s got elements from rock music in it that I like.
“There’s something about the grandeur here that does something similar to the best Godspeed You! Black Emperor music, it just builds and builds and builds. We jammed with Godspeed one time on stage actually, we played two chords for 20 minutes, it was quite rad. They’re really lovely people, and I think they’re records since they got back together have been their best records.
“I don’t know an awful lot about Gorecki, but I know his music is the really weird stuff in The Shining, so he could make super challenging music as well as soaring, heart-wrenching, cataclysmic stuff as well. Arvo Pärt is the other composer I like.”
“There’s not many musicians - maybe a handful - but it’s not too often that someone comes along and you’re just completely in awe of everything they do. I think Kendrick Lamar is a spectacular talent. His records are from another planet.
“I think I heard him when his first record came out. It took me a while to get how good he was, I’ll be honest, probably because he’s different and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It certainly takes my old man brain a little bit of time to realise how good it is, but I’ve become obsessed.
“I saw him play a couple years ago and it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I’m normally reticent of these kinds of concerts that are more of a production than a concert. But this was both, a total spectacle and also one of the best sounding, tightest, entertaining and inspiring gigs I’ve ever seen.
“I’m definitely a fan of hip-hop, Public Enemy are probably in my top five bands of all time. Wu-Tang also. I really admire rap music, it cracks me up how different it is from the indie rock that [Mogwai] are a part of. So much shameless commercialism, but I’m pretty okay with that! [laughs.]”
“The record that “Holding” is from is such a peaceful record. There’s not many records I can listen to over and over again, but Ruins is one of them. I like all the Grouper records, and the woman behind it made another great ambient record last year on Kranky, which is one of my favourite labels that put out the Godspeed and Labradford stuff back in the day.
“The whole record is perfect, but I went through and specifically chose “Holding” because I thought if someone listened to just this one, it would make the most sense. I first heard Grouper quite a while ago, but it’s really in the last few years that I’ve become a huge fan. I’ve got all her records now, but is the one I go back to the most by far. I listen to Grouper at least once a week because she’s that special.
“I’m not one of those people that wakes up and puts music on all day, I probably only listen once a day because I’ve programmed myself to really listen hard, almost like reading a book. You can’t read a book passively, so when I listen to music, I don’t listen to it passively.”
“Boards of Canada have always represented something quite nostalgic to me, I think that’s one of the points of the band, with their childhoods and all the faded Super 8 stuff. But I would beg to differ that their later material isn’t their classic material. With this latest one, to my mind, they’re channeling John Carpenter, VHS rental, horror-synth film music, and I’m roughly the same age as those guys, so they probably have a lot of shared nostalgia with me. It’s a really beautiful, spooky sound.
“I don’t think Boards of Canada have made a bad record ever, but I think Tomorrow’s Harvest is the second best behind Geogaddi. What separates Boards of Canada from a lot of electronic music is how good the actual music is; you could play their songs on an acoustic guitar and it would still sound amazing. It’s not about the production - even though it’s great - it’s about how they evoke feelings and emotions with their music.
“I’m grateful to them, they’ve been making music for even longer than we have and they’ve never put a foot wrong. We always try to get them to play a gig every couple of years, and they always, really politely, say 'No' [laughs].”