“We just announced a tour with 15 dates in the US and there is some guy who has left a comment on our Instagram profile saying, you guys coming to the States?. Some folk are proper nuts.” Thus starts a sit-down chat with Stuart Braithwaite, guitarist of Mogwai, Scotland’s uncrowned kings of the post-rock music scene.
Here in his local Glasgow bar, as luck would have it we meet barely hours after the band announce a 40 world tour dates of 13 countries, one that starts in September in Wales at Festival No 6 in Portmeirion and ends back here at home, in Glasgow, in mid December, “the day after the new Star Wars comes out,” confirms Stuart.
Recording has recently finished on the new studio album, one that saw them head to upstate New York to record with David Fridmann at Tarbox Road Studios, the same record producer of both ‘Come On Die Young’ and ‘Rock Action’. It’s been 17 years, a time period I bring up to get the ball rolling. “We’ve made every record in Glasgow since we last recorded with Dave. It just felt like the timing was right. We were all big fans of The Terror album (The Flaming Lips, 2013), all of us really liked the record and one of the reasons we’d always went away years ago was that because we were guys and we didn’t think we could concentrate if we were in Glasgow so it’s always went the opposite way now that most of the band have got kids, so there’s almost too many distractions here now, reveals Stuart.
Before adding, “It just seemed really appealing just going out to the middle of nowhere and really knuckling down and just having nothing to think about other than making music so we were really really focused and really really passionate about it. Even though we hadn’t worked with him for a long time he was like a family friend and we kept in touch. Rock Action was the last one that we did with him in 2000, and I hadn’t been back since. We were really young and mental and everything when we first went so it was almost like returning to the scene of the crime and making a racket.”
And as with previous albums where the band have gone into the studio with little in the way of full bodied ideas and songs, with what will be the ninth studio album, almost everything was prepared and written before crossing the pond, as Stuart confirms. “We’d demo’d the songs in our place – Castle of Doom in Glasgow – before we went out but they weren’t 100% finished. Barry had his demos he’d just done on his own and then we came together so this was almost the first time we’d all been in a room working on it. We weren’t really really prepared but that kind of forces you to think on your feet and I think looking back on the record now I’m like…How did we come up with that? And i know it was just because that you are in a room with a microphone in front of you and it’s costing a lot of money and you just need to get on with it.”
You might think that being a group that has more than 20 years under their belt, they’d find themselves in the type of comfortable situation with the pressure off as far as producing albums goes. But for Stuart, the pressure is still very much something they actively pursue, something that fed, and feeds, their creativity and output. “There are various pressures, the pressure to do something good to kind of uphold the reputation that we’ve (hopefully) got, and that’s kind of just personal pride pressure. There’s never been a time where there’s been as many records are being put out so it’s not a good day to put out crap ones. And on a real practical side were are putting out the records ourselves. Its our own necks on the chopping board…I’m really glad that we can make a living out of music, but we’ve not made so much money that it doesn’t matter…We aren’t making a record because we are bored, we are making a record because it needs to happen and to justify us being musicians as a living it needs to be good.”
It’s hard to think that it has been three years since Rave Tapes, although it’s not as if they haven’t been busy in the meantime, having re-dipped their toes into soundtrack territory on two occasions. “We’ve been busy. We done the Atomic soundtrack, and then Before The Flood relatively recently. It all happened so quickly we basically went in and just smashed it out. It didn’t really stop after that. We finished mixing the (new) album and then we went out and played Atomic shows in North America in the week that Trump got inaugurated which was totally mental and then we had to work out what songs were gonna go on the album and then I went to the mastering. Working out when we are going to do the promo for the album and what the front cover is going to be…when you’re the label as well you can’t really switch off,” says Stuart.
And if that doesn’t sound like enough to have on your plate, Stuart found the time to put together the ‘supergroup’ Minor Victories with pals in the form of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell and Justin Lockey from Editors, one that served as a source of new experiences. “It didn’t give me any motivation extra or anything but one of the best things about it was… I kind of get out the habit of playing guitar all the time like when i’m at home, I mean it’s not like I don’t love music, I listen to music all the time and read about it and everything but actually playing guitar I would just have a five minute bash or something but I mean because of Minor Victories I’ve been playing every day or every couple of days. I went from making the (Minor Victories) album, touring the album, doing Atomic and the Atomic gigs doing more Minor Victories gigs and then coming back and rehearsing for this new Mogwai record so I never stopped,” says Stuart.
Before adding, “And I actually think – it’s really hard to say this without sounding like a pure prick – but I was as practised as I’ve been since i was a wee guy and because I’ve actually got all those years of experience under my belt since then – that’s probably more just a reflection of how undisciplined I am generally than any kind of boast – it really made a big fucking difference. And I’ve been really conscious over the last few weeks at home to play all the time and totally making a real effort to not get out of the habit of playing guitar because it’s really important especially since we are going to start rehearsing for the new record. I can’t be shite because some of the bits are quite hard.”
Stuart also found himself a part of Niall McCann’s celebrated Lost In France documentary, which explores the rise of Scotland’s independent music scene in the 1990s, led by cult label Chemikal Underground, and bands such as The Delgados, Arab Strap, Aerogramme, BIS and of course Mogwai.
After the screening at the Glasgow Film Festival, Stuart got together with Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, alongside members of the Delgados and RM Hubbert to play an improvised set of a variety of hits, among them ‘Jacqueline’ by Franz Ferdinand. A night – and band – Stuart speaks of fondly. “Playing ‘Jacqueline’ at the Lost in France night that was the fastest I’ve ever played guitar,” he reveals with a smile. “And speaking of Franz Ferdinand, by the way I think their new record is going to be a fucking beast, I’ve not heard a note of it yet but i know how much effort they have out into it and how much they give a fuck so i think it’s going to be a pure belter.”
In the documentary, an interesting part is when Stuart mentions how he sees music as a compulsion and how, in his case, music is in no way just something to be done for fun, something he expands on. “I think it’s more the type of music, I don’t really like ‘fun’ music it’s not totally true a lot of records I do like are pretty fun but I think the music that speaks to me the most is pretty dramatic and maybe a wee bit heavy but i’m mean then again i love the Buzzcocks. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who only like music that is fun 100%, I think it’s the same as art. It’s weird because I kinda like all sorts of culture and maybe I don’t have the same view of cinema like it has to be important and heavy and a lot of it is dumb and fun and I’m totally fine with that.”
Returning our attention towards the new album, Stuart was happy to explore how it differs from and compares to previous releases in its sound and scope and, for example, if, like Rave Tapes, lyrics were few and far between. “There’s a couple of songs where I’m singing on it, one of the songs is slightly pop, certainly for us one of the most pop songs we’ve done and some of its for us pretty fun and some of its pretty loose almost kind of jammy feel to it. It’s a bit varied probably in the same way that Mr Beast is, really defined songs that were really heavy and then there’s songs that are sort of free and poppy and some really quiet stuff. It’s quite a long record as well, it’s the longest for a while.” reveals Stuart.
We turn our attentions to the mammoth tour they’ve just announced, and the thought process that goes into the set-list for the shows, from playing songs of the upcoming album alongside that of their extensive back catalogue, as well as the fan favourites. As well as dealing with how long to play for given how much material they have. “I think going out on tour after doing Atomic and doing completely new music would probably make us more bored playing only the new material. But we’ve been guilty of it in the past as others have only playing a handful of new songs and I think we are usually OK with finding the right balance. I definitely think with this one we could play all of it so we probably will play quite a bit,” confirms Stuart. “Although it’s funny when we did the 20th anniversary gigs Robert Smith was there in London and we were all chatting and we were talking about how long we play and I was like… ‘The rest of the boys think we play too long and Robert was like…‘No you don’t’. I never bring it up because i know we’d lose the argument. The reason The Cure can do that is that there music is so diverse, it works. I can’t think of another band that could do it, play for three hours, and it not be shite.”
Speaking of the the 20th anniversary shows back in 2015, the band have shifted the goalposts somewhat with the news that they will finish their tour at the Hydro venue- a concert hall with capacity for 13,000 people. In what will be their biggest show to date, Stuart admits he already has it on his mind, even with 8 months to go. “It was suggested by our promoter and I spoke to some people about it and we thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ It’s quite daunting. I’ve seen Depeche Mode there and I’ was looking about like, ‘Fuckin’ hell man’. And I was in recently to see a friend who worked backstage at a show and I was actually was kind of laughing to myself and thinking this is absolutely mental, but in a good way.”
And on a final note, I was curious to ask Stuart is there was any magic secret to their longevity as a group and productivity.“I think that it is down to enjoyment – a good mixture between enjoying doing what we do and enjoying that there are people who want to listen to our music. I mean that if there are people who do not want to listen to the music it’d be much more difficult to motivate us to continue. To know that there are people who are excited about it and knowing that means we are excited ourselves.”
This article orginally appeared in revista Mondo Sonoro. Link here.