Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Stuart Braithwaite c Tommy Ga Ken Wan

Stuart Braithwaite's Personal Best

28 September 2022, 09:00

Ahead of the release of his memoir, Spaceships Over Glasgow: Mogwai, Mayhem and Misspent Youth, Stuart Braithwaite takes Amy Albinson through a career spanning more than quarter of a century, and the songs he considers to be his personal best.

Stuart Braithwaite is stood on a balcony high above the city, the Los Angeles sunshine beating down. Though still adjusting to the jetlag, a 5am wake up hasn’t dampened his spirits and he’s cheerfully dog watching from his perch.

A founding member of Scottish quartet Mogwai, Braithwaite has been at the forefront of a genre that clutches to its niche popularity. With hallmarks that boast sweeping ambient guitars, a disinterest in the standard verse-chorus-verse format, and crushingly emotional cinematic soundtracks, Mogwai have found themselves a titan of post-rock — even if Braithwaite would prefer the simpler label of rock band.

With ten studio albums under their belt, the group’s latest release, As The Love Continues, entered the UK charts at #1, receiving critical acclaim and a much-coveted Mercury nomination. Now, 27 years after the band’s formation, the guitarist (and occasional vocalist) is set to release a memoir exploring his youth as the son of Scotland’s last telescope-maker, a childhood in love with music, and the misadventures of a teenager in a band growing up in Glasgow.

The idea of writing a book, he tells me, first came from Lee Brackstone, the publisher of White Rabbit Books. “I never thought I could do it,” he says with a grin. ”There's a few reasons why, but one of the main reasons is because I'm always busy. Just any time I've got time off I'd go back to something someone's asked me to do, or I’d find a new thing.”

Stuart Braithwaite copy

As the pandemic took hold and live shows ground to a halt, Braithwaite found himself with ample time to reconsider the offer. “Originally the book was going to be called Take Me Somewhere Nice,” he explains, a reference to what is arguably Mogwai's most popular track, “and then I thought that was a bit too obvious.”

Instead, he lifted a line from the song: “What would you do, if you saw spaceships over Glasgow?” It seemed a nice fit, touching on the book’s mentions of UFOs, and feeling “quite evocative” for a memoir. “It’s also a song that people really like,” he continues. “I think for a lot of people, it’s probably the only song by us they know, which is kind of random as it’s just an album track, but people really connected with it.”

The writing process, he discovered, was initially a big learning curve, so he reached out to author friends for advice. “At first, I was kind of treating it like music, trying to write the perfect sentence. I actually really enjoyed it once I got started. It was nice to have something I was doing every single day. At the end of the week I would reread it and, if something was terrible, I'd just delete it. Very different from music in that respect because you don't have the luxury of self-editing that you do with music. Unless you're some weird perfectionist, which I'm definitely not.”

Aside from Mogwai, Braithwaite also plays with British alt-rock supergroup Minor Victories, alongside Slowdive's Rachel Goswell, Editors' Justin Lockey and filmmaker James Lockey. Now, with the release of his memoir just days away, the multi-instrumentalist reveals to Best Fit the five tracks from his long career he considers his personal best.

"New Paths to Helicon, Pt. 1" by Mogwai (1997)

STUART BRAITHWAITE: I’m proud of almost all the music we've made. But I think "Helicon 1" in particular, because it was one of our very early songs and it's one we still play. I still feel the same way about it. With some songs, you can almost feel like so much time has passed between writing the song and playing it again that it's almost like doing a cover, because you've changed so much as a person. But with "Helicon 1", it still kind of resonates in the same way.

I remember we literally made it up on the spot in our rehearsal in Martin's bedroom and the first time we played it was at an early gig at the Astoria. It was the first time we'd played anywhere that held more than 100 people, so it was a big event for us. I was worried that our music would feel kind of small and weird in this big, quite grand place, but it was the opposite. It really filled the room and we went down really well.

Like I say in the book, it can be challenging playing in London. People can go and see anything they want to, so there's a lot of people with their arms crossed. But people were really warm towards us that night — and they usually are in London, I don't want to feel like i'm slagging off London, it’s actually one of my favourite places to play — but that song, among all our songs, is one of that I’m really proud of, and I really value the connection.

I remember, actually quite early on in the band, someone telling me that it was the saddest song they'd ever heard, and then someone else telling me that it was the happiest song they'd ever heard. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, it's so great that this music can connect with people in such different ways, but it's the exact same kind of music.’ I like that open-ended level of connection.

BEST FIT: Has its meaning changed at all in 20+ years of performing it live?

Maybe some songs with actual lyrics do, but most of our songs don't, so I kind of don't really subscribe meanings to the songs. They almost feel like emotional snapshots of the time that they were written.

Cover of the 1997 Mogwai release, New Paths To Helicon

"Mogwai Fear Satan" by Mogwai (1997)

STUART BRAITHWAITE: Especially in the early years, we were very, very, very obsessed with dynamics, and this is one of the songs that goes from almost silent to going really loud – which I guess is a random spoiler for someone that's never heard our music for the last 27 years. I think in a lot of ways, “Mogwai Fear Satan” has a lot of what we were trying to do as a band. We were trying to really work with dynamics. It's also quite emotional, quite nostalgic, and it's very noisy, which is a big thing in the band too. Probably, if you asked a lot of people what song to listen to to get an idea of what we do, this would be the song.

It's fun, too. It's a lot of fun to play, and it still is, even after a long time. I don't feel pressure to play certain songs. I mean, we don't always play that song, but you do hear of some bands who have got some kind of big, defining song, and it kind of becomes a bit of a drag to them. I don't feel that way about our songs. Maybe the rest of the band do, but I always still really enjoy playing that song. That's why it's on my list.

BEST FIT: It’s a song that really encapsulates post-rock as a genre to a lot of people. Do you feel that way about it?

You know what, it's a weird one because post-rock has almost become a term for bands that sound a bit like us and Godspeed. Whereas when it started, it was more like Tortoise, more jazzy, electronic weird type of stuff, so I don't really know. It's kind of a weird one because we hadn't heard the term. We'd been making records for a few years by the time we heard it.

In fact, the first time I heard anyone say post-rock was when John Peel said it while playing a Stars of the Lid record. I guess it all came about from an article in The Wire, I think it was by Simon Reynolds. But the bands he was talking about weren't really bands that sounded like us, so it's changed over the years to mean slightly gloomy instrumental guitar music, like us or Godspeed or Explosions in the Sky.

I kind of think of us as a rock band, really. I think of most bands as rock. I think if you've got a guitar, bass and a drummer, you're pretty much a rock band. The sub-genres aren't that important to me. Maybe because I like a lot of different music and I'm not going to exclude something because it's in a slightly different style from something else. So the answer is, I don't think about it too much and I kind of think of “Mogwai Fear Satan” as very much a rock song. Even though it is quite a long one. It has two chords, it's a really long Ramones song!

Do you believe in the occult at all, or Satan?

I think of Satan as very much a Christian construct. But yeah, I'm obsessed with the occult. The paranormal. Basically anything weird, I'm into. I think the rest of the band were all brought up Catholic and I think there was really a kind of hangover from that. I doubt he'll mind me saying this, but especially Dominic. Dominic was really freaked out by a lot of things which I think stemmed from his upbringing, so I think it came from that.

Cover of the 1997 Mogwai release, Mogwai Young Team

"Tell Everyone That I Love Them" by Mogwai (2014)

BEST FIT: I’ve got a question about this track’s name. Is it ‘Tell Everybody’ or ‘Tell Everyone’, as it differs on the vinyl and on Spotify?

STUART BRAITHWAITE: You know, in an ideal world, you would ask the guy from the band and he would know. But I don't know what's actually right… maybe it's everyone?

[Stuart googles his band] Oh, it's everyone!

I mean, I really like that song, but the reason I'm putting it in my list is because the song title is actually not a load of stupid made up crap like most of our song titles. It's actually something that my Dad said to me when he was dying. So it's actually the biggest opposite of something silly that you could get. I stayed with my mum for a year after my dad died and it really reminds me of that time. It's kind of sad, but it's kind of hopeful as well. It's actually really personal to me.

This song is a bonus track from the Rave Tapes boxset. Do you remember why it didn’t make the album cut at the time?

I guess the rest of the band didn't like it as much as I did. Which is fine. I mean, I'm sure the rest of the band have songs that they really liked that didn't make it on to records, too. We tend to record too many songs and then we go for a vote. That's just the way it goes. I mean it's fine, people can still hear it. It's not lost. I think it came as a 7" in the Rave Tapes boxset. It's hard to remember. When you've made an awful lot of records it's hard to remember where all the songs fit.

Cover of the 2014 Mogwai release Rave Tapes bonus 7"

"Scattered Ashes (Song for Richard)" by Minor Victories (2016)

STUART BRAITHWAITE: I really, really like the Minor Victories record, and I really enjoyed the experience of recording with different people. When you've been in one band for a long time, suddenly doing the same thing but with completely different people was great. Especially with people that I didn't know very well. I knew Rachel but really just socially, and I only met James and Justin through the band, but I think we've all become really good friends and it's very interesting to see how things work with a different bunch of people.

I think we're actually very slowly getting things together to do a second album just now. So I'm excited about starting that up again. It's something that we want to happen, and Justin's a real powerhouse of getting things done. So I'm sure it will get done. If it was left up to me then god knows what would happen. Justin's really together!

BEST FIT: This is a song with a member of The Twilight Sad, right? Who’s now on your own label, Rock Action?

It is! James [Graham] is on the song, but he wasn't on the label at that point. He's just someone whose singing I really love, and he's a really, really great person, and I love that collaborative aspect. I remember when James did his vocal he did it in Glasgow but with Rachel who wrote the lyrics, along with her husband Steve, all on Zoom. She didn't know James beforehand. I think, through that project, so many friendships came about.

I wrote the music for the song, but obviously Rachel did the lyrics and James came in and sang along with her. It's a real collaboration and I was really blown away with how it turned out.

Who is the Richard that the song is dedicated to?

Rachel and Steve had met this guy who had moved down to where they were living, and who'd had a really sad time. His kid had died, so the song is all about this guy losing his kid. It was a really emotional, personal story to do with this person they met. I don't know if they even just met him once or if the guy became a friend, but it just was such a powerful thing. Up until that point, a lot of the songs I'd written had maybe not been very directly about anything. They maybe had a vague theme alluding to something, but this song was about something very specific, and I found that really inspiring.

I really love the whole record but I guess I chose “Scattered Ashes” because James is on it, and it was a real collaboration. Everything on Minor Victories was a collaboration, but this song in particular because it was a piece of music that I'd written that someone else had come in and written these really powerful lyrics for. It just kind of seemed like an important song, and it's one I'm really proud of.

Cover of the 2016 self-titled album by Minor Victories

"Ritchie Sacramento" by Mogwai (2021)

This one is probably more of an outlier to be totally honest. We don't really write too many verse-chorus kinds of songs, but yeah, I'm really proud of it. I guess it was the last song that we finished for As The Love Continues, so even though that record's been out a year and a half, it feels quite fresh in my memory.

Again, it's quite a personal thing. It was inspired by this post I saw [Silver Jews’] Bob Nastanovich write about Dave Berman, who was a really good friend of his, and someone I knew. I was probably more of a fan of Dave Berman's than a friend, even though I was very fond of him and liked his company anytime I was in it. Like "Scattered Ashes", it's a song about something very specific, which isn't something that I'd done particularly often before. So for it to happen and turn out the way it did, I was really pleased.

I think it's quite an emotional song anyway, but it also has a lot of memories now. Probably because that record was quite an important one for us. It also really reminds me of when we got to come back and play gigs. When gigs stopped, I found it really difficult. I think most musicians did. I don't think it’s exclusive to me by any means. For a big part of my life to stop dead in its tracks, and also for there not to be any sign of it coming back for a long time. There were actual points where I was like, maybe that's just it, maybe we're just not going to get a thousand people in a room again.

It was also a difficult time, too, because people were losing their lives. I almost felt guilty for feeling bad about gigs because people were going through so much more. But, on the positive side, when things did start again it felt like such a big emotional relief. I think that autumn we went and played a couple of gigs in France — I think we were the first band to go to Europe — and then Green Man Festival back in the UK. It was kind of touch and go whether the festival was going to happen at all, even just a week or so before. Just getting to play to a field full of people was really emotional. I think "Ritchie Sacramento" just really reminds me of that very special time.

Cover of the 2021 Mogwai release As the Love Continues

Spaceships Over Glasgow: Mogwai, Mayhem and Misspent Youth is published on 29 September via White Rabbit Books

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