The Lord Is Out Of Control
Eight studio albums, a live album and four compilations, four soundtracks, a record label, and a few blown PAs and dislodged pieces of ceiling over uncountable gigs, not to mention a series of amusing Twitter accounts reviewing hotels and on-tour dinners. Over the 21 years since they formed with rehearsal after rehearsal rattling Stuart Braithwaite’s living room, Mogwai might have become one of the most important groups of a fragmented but increasingly potent British musical underground, but they’ve steadfastly refused to sit back and rest on their laurels.
Indeed, you might refer to them as the cockroaches of post rock, for Mogwai have never split up for a while in favour of a lucrative reunion playing classic albums live, instead continuing to push themselves and their sound. Then again, as any cursory listen to their 2015 compilation Central Belters will tell you, is post rock really a generous enough term to describe what Mogwai do? Over 20 years their one constant has been of a mastery of dynamics, an embracing both of power and minimalism, and a willingness to experiment with new instrumentations and technology. Within that though, one of the most recognisable sonic identities in contemporary music unites the songs as disparate of graceful sung moments like Travel Is Dangerous or epic Black Sabbath temper tantrum My Father My King, the shimmering, stately atmosphere of I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead or the burbling kosmische electronics that drive Mexican Grand Prix.
The Mogwai of 2017 is a very different group to the four kids who, in February 1996, released their debut single Tuner/Lower to a musical climate suffering the appalling hangover of late Britpop. Theirs was a sound of happy accident, Stuart Braithwaite, Dominic Aitchison, Martin Bulloch, John Cummings and later Barry Burns uniting over shared love of skateboarding, Star Wars, The Cure, and American indie rock to somehow end up with music that was, and remains, as affecting as it is powerfully loud, as sensitive as much as it has the propensity to rip your ears off. Since debut album Young Team the group have always kept their eyes on the future, playing different sets mostly of new material on each night of their never-ending tours. “It’s better to keep doing what you’re doing right now,” says Braithwaite. “looking at what’s happened with some other bands it’s hard to get people interested in what you’re doing now once you’ve made a big deal about going back to something from ten or 20 years ago.”
Part of Mogwai’s progressive zeal is in their continuing independence and support for artists around them. In 2005 they opened their own Castle Of Doom studio, using it to record four albums as well as opening it up to fellow- travellers Errors, Malcolm Middleton and The Twilight Sad. Their Rock Action label has not only released Mogwai’s own music since that debut single, but albums from Blanck Mass, Sacred Paws, Afrirampo and Remember Remember, among others. In a commercial climate that hardly favours independent artists operating outside the mainstream, Mogwai have always led by example, doing it it themselves, where they can. “Someone sent us a flyer of a gig we did with Trout at Nice ’n’ Sleazy in 1996, and I remembered going round the photocopy shops, making them,” Stuart Braithwaite has said.“Even though everything’s on a different scale, you’re still doing the same thing. It’s still letting people know that you’re playing, and making sure that all the band members remember there’s a gig that day… there’s nothing different about playing to 2000 people as to playing to 50 people. Just you’re a bit higher up. And you get a dressing room! But really, it’s the same thing.”
This singularity of purpose can also be heard in Mogwai’s soundtrack albums. While Braithwaite has said that when the band first started they’d rather jump off a bridge than take on such a difficult task, their music for football biopic Zidane and French TV series Les Revenants has been among their finest work. The latest and best is Before The Flood. Mogwai collaborated with Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Argentine film composer Gustavo Santaolalla to create the soundtrack to Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 documentary on climate change, directed by Fisher Stevens and co-created by DiCaprio.
Atomic was Mogwai’s accompaniment to Mark Cousins’ BBC documentary on the horrors of Hiroshima and the Cold War Arms race. As opponents of the presence of the Royal Navy’s Trident deterrent in Scottish waters, this was a subject close to Mogwai’s hearts, and the album gives a lie to the view that instrumental music can’t be political. With the tracklisting slightly rejigged, the Atomic soundtrack was released as a standalone album in April 2016, reaching number 20 in the UK charts, their second-highest ever chart placing.
Mogwai toured Atomic alongside the film, in the US, Europe and Japan, including a show in Hiroshima. In between touring the band wrote and recorded their ninth studio album, due later this year. The as-yet-untitled record sees them reuniting with producer Dave Fridmann for the first time since 2001’s acclaimed Rock Action LP, and was recorded at Tarbox Road Studios, Cassadaga, New York. Mogwai have announced a massive hometown show at the SSE Hydro, Glasgow on Saturday 16 December 2017, in support of the forthcoming album.
A couple of years ago, Stuart Braithwaite said of the period recording Young Team that “We were very driven, and it was definitely an exciting time. Everyone was hyped up and focused, and a little bit unhinged. It was a wild time in the band.” With the tantalising prospect that Mogwai’s ninth studio album will pick up where Atomic left off, perhaps some things haven’t really changed at all.