Mogwai are a truly remarkable success story. When they started, the band seemed to represent the utterly compromising aspects of the guitar underground left adrift by Britpop, a Glasgow based project at war with the Cool Britannia largesse that smothered the mainstream.
Fast forward 25 years, and Mogwai are one of the country’s most respected bands, with 2021 album ‘As The Love Continues’ pushing all the way to the top of the charts. This No. 1 placing, though unexpected, was richly deserved – few have worked harder, or maintained such brutally high standards as Mogwai.
In new book Spaceships Over Glasgow guitarist Stuart Braithwaite looks back on his life to date, reflecting on his childhood, an adolescence spent obsessed with music, and the events that led to Mogwai’s formation. It’s a breezy, hugely enjoyable read, one that covers everything from debauched tour bus activities with Elastica through to cult heroes from his beloved Celtic FC.
Released on September 29th, Spaceships Over Glasgow is published by the always-vital White Rabbit Books, an independent publishing house whose roster is peppered with lofty greats.
Clash had a quick call with Stuart Braithwaite to discuss the challenge of writing a memoir, his experiences in re-visiting the past, and what the future holds for Mogwai.
Congratulations on the book, it’s a great read! Was writing a memoir a long-standing ambition of yours?
I actually got the offer quite a while ago – about five, six years ago. It wasn’t a serious thing, though, just a chat in the pub! Robert, from the publishers, mentioned it… and I actually laughed when he said it! But then over lockdown, when it became apparent that gigs weren’t coming back any time soon, it kept coming back to the front of my mind. I acclimatised to it!
I’m not a nostalgic person by nature. I had to go ask the other people in the band about a few things, especially the early years. It wasn’t that serious at first – we were just kids in a band. It’s just that ours has continued for a quarter of a century! But I enjoyed writing it, and it brought me in touch with a few people I haven’t seen for a while.
Community is a recurring theme in the book – from those Chemikal Underground days, through to establishing Rock Action as a formidable label in its own right.
That’s a massive thing for me. In the book I draw a lot of parallels between music and football, because – really – they’re both about the people you meet. The friendships we’ve made in all this… I’m almost as proud of them as I am of the music.
I think community is huge. That’s a big part of why we stayed in Glasgow, that feeling of community. Now we’re older we’re maybe not in the thick of it as much anymore, but it’s a really great thing.
It’s not even something we consciously think about, it’s just something we do! I’m so, so grateful to Chemikal Underground for what they did for Mogwai, and I think Rock Action is a reflection of that – I want to do for other musicians what they did for us. You want to help younger musicians in any way that you can.
Despite having a reputation as a cerebral, left-field band a lot of the book is actually really funny! Was it enjoyable to re-visit some of those early hi-jinks?
Oh it was really funny. We just did so many daft things! Even touring back then… it’s not like now, where everyone essentially has a home computer in their back pocket. When we got lost in the van, we’d literally have to walk up to some old farmer’s house and ask them where we were! There’s this Comic Strip element to it, because we just didn’t know any better.
Were there any parts of the book that were emotionally draining to revisit?
Some more difficult than others. Talking about losing my Dad was quite hard. It’s not something I’ve really spoken about much. And then, a lot of it brought home how tough certain periods were – like I’d look back and think, well, I was a bloody mess!
But I tend to live very much in the moment. I don’t think there’s a lot to be gained from dwelling on the past.
Navel-gazing will only get you so far, after all.
Exactly. Some people like to obsess over things but if you can’t change it you need to move on.
Your father comes across as a very independently-minded person… is it fair to say that rubbed off?
I think it did! But again, that’s only something I’ve realised recently. We were involved in different industries, obviously, and had different lifestyles, but there is a connection there.
It’s a very different lifestyle, judging by the volume of hedonism in the book…
That did make writing certain bits very difficult. I saw all these amazing bands as a teenager, but I actually… can’t remember a lot of it. Me and my friends would judge how excited we were by a show by how drunk we got! And that just seems nuts to me, considering who I got to see! Some parts of the book – like getting caught drunk by my parents after a Nirvana show – just seem like a fever dream to me.
Mogwai are famously a hard-working band, in terms of studio albums, touring, and soundtrack sessions. Was a book-length project a refreshing change from all that?
It was terrifying, to be honest. The most I’d ever written before this – apart from school – was maybe a 400 word piece for the Herald in the run up to the Scottish referendum. And that was hard work! I remember being in a state of sheer panic about that.
I actually spoke to John Niven about it, and told him I was writing a book. And he said that no matter what, aim for 2000 words per day. And I was like, OK I’ll do that. It’s like with music – it became about getting it down, and then kind of editing it all together. When we made ‘Young Team’ we really obsessed over it, and the idea of making it the best possible album it could be. With this, I had to accept that I had no training for it, and once I accepted that it took away a lot of the pressure.
One of the reasons I decided to take this on is that I read a lot of music books, and without naming any names not all of them are great… I wanted this to be like lifting up the bonnet on someone’s life and career. And sometimes that’s really entertaining, and valuable for people.
‘Young Team’ has taken on a life of its own – if we kicked off a list of great Scottish albums, it would rocket in the Top 10, effortlessly.
It’s weird, because when we made it we were certain it would destroy our career. But we were so prepared before we went into the studio. We’d discussed it endlessly. I was a huge Joy Division fan, so I didn’t want any singles to be on there – I wanted it to be like ‘Closer’, existing without singles. It felt like this uphill struggle at the time, but it worked! Even if we were too stressed, and strung-out and wasted to fully realise it.
And you’ve gone from being this incredibly niche, left-field phenomenon to having an actual No. 1 record!
I mean, that whole experience was surreal. Magical, but surreal. We just never expected it to happen. Up until the morning it did actually happen, I fully expected Ghetts to win. But it was lovely, it really was! And then we started to think, maybe we just shouldn’t make any more albums… so we can say our last album went to No. 1! (laughs)
What are you up to next?
Well we did All Points East, which was cool! And we’re working on some new soundtrack work. We’ve got Scottish dates coming up… and then I suppose we’ll think about some new music!
Photo Credit: Tommy Ga-Ken