Here We Go Forever: Mogwai Interviewed
Mogwai are a force of nature.
The Glasgow rooted band have pushed past countless barriers in their time, a 25 year span that has found them move from the out-skirts of British music to claiming bona fide Top 10 success.
New album 'As The Love Continues' is simply remarkable, even by their own lofty standards. Following hot on the heels of their ZeroZeroZero soundtrack work, it displays a warmth, a generosity of spirit that feels much-needed in these endless lockdown times.
Sadly, we won't get to experience the full ferocity of the Mogwai live show for some time yet - a Tramway live-stream notwithstanding, even Mogwai can't push back against the impositions of COVID.
But they can find a way around it. 'As The Love Continues' was produced remotely by Dave Fridmann, with the band constructing trans-Atlantic methods of communication from a studio in England.
On the phone to guitarist Stuart Braithwaite on the day of release, Clash finds out more about these unusual methodologies, and how self-supporting internal structures have helped propel Mogwai's creativity into another decade.
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That’s the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle! So: another fantastic Mogwai record! How does it feel to have the new album out there in the world?
I’m so happy! I really am. It feels… like a bigger process than normal, as I guess we’ve been at home for most of it, apart from the last two weeks when we were actually recording. But yeah, it feels like a big relief. The reaction has been excellent - people have been great! The fans seem to like it, which is the most important thing I suppose.
The circumstances are remarkable. You’d planned to go to the States but those plans fell through. Was that quite a fraught time for the band?
I’m a disgustingly optimistic person… which probably drives the rest of the band nuts! I’m always hopeful that things will happen, where are never gonna happen in a million years. But I always knew we’d manage to make the record. I guess, it was when we would could get together. Thankfully, things really calmed down last summer - so, I guess if we didn’t do it then, I don’t know when we would have been able to do it. I think the timing was good.
But to be honest, we were probably more worried about our parents, and family, as opposed to making a record. When things were getting worse and worse and no one knew how it would end up. The record was a shining light amongst all that, it was something we could work on and get stuck into that wasn’t grimly updating the BBC News page.
Work, and a daily routine, really did help people focus. You guys hit on this solution of Dave Fridmann dialling in as a virtual producer - was that an easy way of working to get to grips with?
It was. And even though I’m an optimistic person I kind of thought that yeah, it would be cool for Dave to pop his head in and say “oh that sounds good!” but I didn’t imagine he’d be as completely immersed in it as he was.
From the moment he got up he was in the studio dialled in, talking to us, and giving direction and opinion. He probably had a bigger input on this record than any of the other ones he’s been involved in. Which is pretty amazing since this is the only one he wasn’t on the same continent for the recording.
It seems like - ironically - this became a fairly easy record to put together?
Well, we had time on our side. We actually moved the recording - we were went to go to America in May but we didn’t end up recording until August. So that gave us a few more months - we wrote some more music, and rehearsed some more. And that meant that by the time we got to the studio we were in pretty good shape. It was quite easy! I guess it’s the same with all endeavours - the more preparation you do, the easier things are.
I remember reading a big MOJO article about the recording of ‘In Utero’ by Nirvana - which is one of my favourite records - and to be totally honest, it wasn’t that exciting… because it was just the case of a really well-rehearsed band turning up and recording an album in a week! Some of the best records are probably the ones that had the least drama around them.
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It’s a record that will exist largely without live performances. Did that place extra pressure on the album itself to be amplified, a little?
Being honest, I actually thought gigs would be back. Going back to that optimistic outlook! But things were getting better. I was fully expecting us to still be out on tour. I think if we hadn’t pulled the shows we were playing Glasgow’s Hydro this week. So I thought it would still happen! It wasn’t a consideration during recording, but that became apparent during recent months when it became clear that it might be quite a while before we played any gigs. But hopefully not too long - we actually got an offer for a gig yesterday, which is the first time that’s happened in about a year! Somebody somewhere thinks there’s gonna be a gig. So that’s a good sign!
‘Ritchie Sacramento’ has really connected with people - it’s all over 6Music! What was the germ of that song? It feels like a really unified group construction?
I did that one. It just came from a demo. But it wasn’t really finished until one of the last days in the studio. I’m always pretty slow with the lyrics, and I beat myself up over them. But I did it on the last, or second last, day. It came together quite naturally but it sounded like a verse/chorus song with lyrics.
The lyrics were inspired by a story Bob Nastanovich told about Dave Berman. It’s funny - we did the 6Music thing the other day, and Mary Anne told us she’d play a Pavement song in between two of our songs. And I was like, oh great… but why?! And I’d actually forgotten that Bob was in Pavement! Until Mary Anne mentioned it. I’d been so anxious about standing on the wrong pedal I’d forgotten all about it! Which is pretty ridiculous, really.
Mogwai are known for these more expansive, experimental song structures, but do you also resonate with more traditional song structures?
We do. We love all different kinds of music, to be fair! I imagined that song being like Wire’s ‘Outdoor Miner’ which I suppose is a verse/chorus song, but a really weird one. I don’t know if we got it to that levels, but that’s how I envisaged it.
The band have an incredible catalogue - your score for ZeroZeroZero was also recently released. Are Mogwai ever actually off-shift, or are you continuously creating?
I mean, right now would probably be the right answer to that! The film industry has kind of ground to a halt, so there’s not much happening there. Right now, would be the answer. Once the album’s been out a little while we’ll have a think about it. Not really, though - we’re always doing something! It’s quite good to keep doing something.
The soundtrack stuff is nice, as well, as you’re still making music. I guess when you’ve been going as long as us you don’t want to be releasing stuff every year, so it’s good to be making music, even if it’s not for a studio record.
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How do you differentiate between soundtrack ideas, say, and the more involved Mogwai studio albums? Do you hold ideas back, for example?
It only seems to work where sometimes we’ll write something for an album and it’ll sound too much like a soundtrack. It doesn’t seem to happen the other way around too much! And in theory we should keep them and use them for other things but… we’re not that organised. We have to start from scratch.
We’ve probably forgotten a bunch of good stuff. Especially the cues - for film and TV, they always want so much music, but then they don’t use it all. So we’ll probably have a really pointless box set at one point.
‘Midnight Flit’ has Atticus Ross on it - did you have him in mind for the part? How did it come about?
It happened close to the end. There were a few things we felt could do with something else on it. So we asked him quite near the end. We felt it would work well with that song. He really went to town, and wrote loads of parts. There’s a big orchestra part - which was recorded in Eastern Europe, I think. So that was a recording session done over three time zones - Atticus was in LA, Tony (Doogan) was working in Glasgow, and the orchestra was in Budapest. Pretty nuts, really!
Atticus’ catalogue speaks for itself.
I mean, you think we’re busy - look at them! It’s mental! It’s actually crazy how much music they make.
Is he an intimidating person to approach?
We just let him do whatever he wanted. Same with Colin Stetson. Barry wrote that song, so he was giving directions, but I can guarantee he just said: do whatever you want! He’s so good. We wouldn’t want to dilute their ideas, as otherwise we’d have just done it ourselves.
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‘Dry Fantasy’ is a less formal song, rich on atmosphere. Do you ever jam, in that sense? Or is songwriting within Mogwai a little more intricate?
To be honest, it really depends. ‘Dry Fantasy’ came from Barry, and he’s more organised than me. He’ll get his demos in pretty good shape, then send them to Mark who’ll record drums over Barry’s part. For the guitars on it - yeah, I’m jamming along and busking it, as it’s not the main thing in the song. But yeah, my songs are a lot less organised. And it’s the same with Dominic, I suppose. We’ll get together and play what we have. It depends who’s writing the songs.
Basically, Barry writes them a bit more properly than the rest of us! And there’s a geographic thing to that, as well, as he’s generally in Berlin, so he can’t get in every week. The rest of us can play around with the songs, but if Barry isn’t there then it has to be more exact.
What separates ‘As Love Continues’ from your previous work?
I think it’s a really warm record… which I don’t know if a lot of our music really is. It sounds really warm. And maybe it’s because I know the process but it sounds very finished, whereas sometimes our music - to me - doesn’t sound like that. Hopefully it does to other people! I guess it’s more complete than our other records. All the ideas on it we’ve made work, whereas sometimes with our other records I can hear what we’re trying to do, but for whatever reason we’ve not quite got there. I’m really, really happy with that song.
As a band, you’ve maintained incredibly high standards? How do you manage to maintain that?
I think we’re lucky in that we’ve got quite a few songwriters. Sometimes if it’s only one person in the band doing that, then they can struggle or live can get in the way a little bit. It happens to everyone. I think with us there is always people writing music.
To finish: what next? Will there be other streaming or visual projects?
We’d love to be touring as soon as we can. As soon as we’re allowed, we’ll be playing.
The director of the live-stream has been making a documentary… which we had plans for, and those have obviously completely changed. Which was all about the 25th anniversary of the band. We were meant to be playing in the Hebrides and obviously that was one of the first things we had to cancel. He’s been making a film pretty much just about what we’ve been doing in the past year. So, I guess that’ll be the next thing that happens. Otherwise, we’ll just have to wait and see!
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'As The Love Continues' is out now.
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