Mogwai On ‘Special Moves’

Barry Burns speaks to ClashMusic

Seething. Soaring.


The Mogwai live experience seems to exist outside of mere words. For a start, it’s pretty bloody loud and sadly there’s no volume control on the English language. But more than this, the band’s live performances thrive on an almost unique intensity, a kind of feedback loop extending between Mogwai and the audience.

So, in a way, a Mogwai concert film makes a kind of sense. Putting ideas of a ‘warts and all documentary’ behind us, ClashMusic tucked into ‘Burning’ a vital new film from directors Vincent Moon and Nathanael Le Scouarnec.

Out today, the film was shot over three nights in Brooklyn. A typically unsettling, vivid yet rewarding affair it combines intimate shots of the band with scenes from the city rushing by outside.

Released together with audio accompaniment ‘Special Moves’ ClashMusic tracked down Barry Burns to talk about the experience.

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What were the roots of the project?
When we did the last album, ’Hawk Is Howling’, we had a manager at the time and he thought we should do an extended video. So we got in touch with Vincent and Nathanael who completed a short film to accompany the album. We got on really well and we liked the film. We both wanted to work with each other again, so we decided to bring them over. We were initially going to work in Japan but that turned out to be too expensive so we did it in New York. It just came from that really, we just liked each other’s work.

Were you a fan of the concert film genre before?
I suppose so. When I was quite a bit younger I used to love watching ‘The Last Waltz’ – Scorcese’s film about The Band. There’s not that kind of footage with us, there’s no interviews because they did that for ‘The Hawk Is Howling’ and we didn’t want to re-tread old ground. It felt like a bit of an event because it was over three nights, and especially because it was in New York. It’s just us playing live and because we don’t tour that much it’s good for people to have something they can go back to whenever they want rather than when our booking agent decides.

Were the shows organised specifically with filming in mind?
I think they were, yeah. If we picked one place where we could just play one night there’s more room for error. Even when it’s going to record you want everything to sound perfect. When you have three nights you’re going to have something that’s usable, because we’re not the best musicians let’s be honest.

Did the film crew being there alter the performance?
I know what you mean. You know when you’re at a wedding and someone points a camera at you? I don’t like that feeling. I guess we were so into what we were doing that we almost forgot they were there after a couple of songs, so it didn’t become a problem. The crew were really good. When you go and play these festivals and you get cameras shoved into your face it’s really quite annoying. Any close ups were done using zoom, so it wasn’t intrusive.

Three nights in Brooklyn is a great achievement in itself.
I don’t want to sound overly humble, but I’m quite surprised that we’re as popular as we are. Alright, we’re not a huge band but it’s just nice to play these places and have people turn up. It’s amazing. It’s great for people to come and see us, that’s all.

For ‘Special Moves’ how did you manage to narrow down which tracks to use?
I guess we just sat through them all and just picked the one we felt we played best on. John from the band mixed them all. I’ve always said to people in interviews and things that we’re much better live than we are on record, and that doesn’t bother me as people have been playing live for way longer than the recording industry has been around. This is the first time we’re actually recorded the live thing, there’s no overdubs on there, so it sounds like a proper Mogwai gig to me and I really like it. I’ve not watched it too many times but I’ve probably listened to it more times than any other Mogwai record purely because I like the sound of it.

Mogwai – I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead

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Why is it you feel that way?
I don’t know. It might be something to do with the fact that we don’t really enjoy being stuck in a room. It’s not natural but that’s the way we do it. We put the drums down, then the bass. The days of live recording aren’t over but people expect it to sound perfect and for you to spend a lot of time on it, so that’s how it’s done. I’m not sure! (laughs)

The set moves throughout your career, how do you go about constructing a set like that?
We’ve got so many songs that it makes it quite nice to be able to chop and change it. We’ve been around for donkey’s years. Not everybody who comes likes the same stuff – there’s people who come and only like the first few albums, or the later stuff so for a gig you have to play most of your catalogue to keep everyone from fuckin’ rioting! (laughs) I’m only joking by the way, can you imagine a riot at a Mogwai gig?

Some of the early material is almost fifteen years old now, has the structure changed over time?
We’ve been kicking the arse out of it! I guess we have changed the structure a little bit, but it’s most small things to stop yourself becoming too bored with it. If you do anything every night it’s going to become boring, but unfortunately they’re mostly too small for anyone to notice. Playing live is probably what I enjoy doing the most, and that’s probably the same for everyone in the band. Just that hour and a half every night is brilliant, but the rest of it pales into insignificance. It’s really boring waiting for that to happen. I really, really love playing live – it’s great fun.

Does the Mogwai live experience depend a lot on the venue?
Aye. It does. That would be a very different film if it was shot in Nice N Sleazy in Glasgow! Someone had to suggest a really good place to play, we needed a stage big enough for the camera crew. We really needed a venue with enough space for everyone to move around. That was it, really, it was quite easy to make a decision about it.

Did the live album overlap with recording the new album?
We’ve been recording for a few weeks with the band now. John has been living in New York for a while and I’ve been in Berlin. Before, we would meet up in Glasgow and write songs together so this is a different way of doing things – sending files to each other over the internet. It’s slightly weird doing it that way but I think it’s going quite well. I mean, we’re only two weeks into it and we’ve only done the drum and bass…not the genre – the instruments!

Have you been using Chem19?
It’s Chem19, yeah. We’ve got about four weeks in there, then we’re moving to our own studio in Glasgow. The Castle Of Doom! We’ll be mixing with Paul Savage in there. It’s a long one. It feels like we’ve been working on the album for some time now, but we’ve spent longer time on older albums.

Are you looking to do some major tours with the new album?
I think we will be. There’s no one in charge anymore, we do everything ourselves. So now I think we’ll reach a point where we realise that we’re going to have to tour. That maybe sounds like in the past we were quite complacent, but now that it’s all in our hands we won’t have anyone else to blame.

Mogwai – ‘Special Moves’ / ‘Burning’ is out now. For a special live version of ‘2 Rights Make 1 Wrong’ from the DVD click HERE.

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