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Q&A: Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite On How Happy Hardcore Sucks, Not Caring That Instrumental Rock Is Out Of Style, And Covering The Jewish Prayer "My Father, My King"

Q&A: Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite On How Happy Hardcore Sucks, Not Caring That Instrumental Rock Is Out Of Style, And Covering The Jewish Prayer "My Father, My King"
Steve Gullick

For the last fifteen years, the sonic-terrorizing Scottish smashheads Mogwai have remained true to their original vision: the cathartic squelching of a loud/soft gargantuan-riff dynamic undeterred by the music fashions and trends dictated by the Bitchfork monarchy.

Admittedly an uncool bunch—shit, the five dudes in Mogwai still (thankfully) engage in guitar histrionics that pledge allegiance to the '90s Amerindie underground rock they were progenitors of, with nods to instrumental monster peers like Godspeed You Black Emperor—they balance their unhip quotient by carting out the coolest of LP and song titles, like their latest epic Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (Sub Pop). And one might not be able to surmise this from their serious-as-a-heart-attack music and stage presence, but Mogwai is actually having loads of fun out there.

Sound of the City caught up with garrulous guitarist Stuart Braithwaite on the phone from the band's Atlanta penthouse suite and talked about the early days, the Slint comparisons, covering a Jewish prayer and label-hopping.

Are you Mogwai's official spokesperson? I googled "Mogwai interviews" and a ton came up with only you as the interviewee.

Uh... not officially but I tend to do a lot of interviews. No, I'm definitely not the spokesman for the band.

So the other guys are down to talking, too?

Not often, but Barry [Burns] is into typing—he does the email interviews, but it's me and Barry that do most of the stuff for probably the most—I don't know—easy to get, ridiculous... [laughs]

You guys are on your now. Where are you talking from?

Atlanta.

Did you play a gig last night?

No... we were traveling back from Mexico City.

Since there's five of you, do you travel on a tour bus rather than a van?

We have a bus for the tour, but I think the bus is still on its way from the last gig in America, which was in San Diego. The bus is driving across the country while we are in hotels and, actually randomly, they put us in the penthouse suite by accident! [laughs]. It's getting weird. I don't know what bed to sleep in or what toilet to use. It's quite surreal.

So Mogwai is being treated like royalty right about now?

I think they just double-booked the rooms [laughs]. Certainly, this isn't the normal situation.

Or you told them you're in Mogwai and they put you in the penthouse suite.

Yeah. They're like, "You're in the top 20 instrumental bands in Scotland, and you definitely need lots of beds." [laughs]

You're being treated like rock stars. Plus they probably heard you're on Sub Pop, too.

Oh yeah! Being in Mogwai opens a lot of doors... it closes more but it opens some. [laughs]

But you have been at it for a long time, though.

Yeah, we have and it's kind of astonishing to kind of think, especially looking back at places, and remember the first time you went there. Yeah, it seems like a different life. It's quite strange.

When Mogwai first started, the Slint comparisons were rampant. Were you actually super-into them early on?

I think actually—and I would hate for this to sound eggheaded or something—but when we started, we were talking a lot about Slint because it was a band Dominic had introduced me to and they were really quite obscure. I think it kinda weirdly... we talked a lot about them [Slint] and then people made a lot of connections. But I think it was more to do that we were kind of championing them as a band a lot of people hadn't heard of that made this really magical record.

Do you remember what you were listening to back then?

When the band first started, it was just me and Dominic [Aitchison] and he was really into a lot of kind of underground American rock music, things like Slint and Palace. I was more into psychedelic things like Spacemen 3, the Stooges, 13th Floor Elevators, that kind of thing.

 

Mogwai, "You're Lionel Richie"

Mogwai was one of the first bands to be labeled post-rock, and still are, however passé. Did you think of that as an aberration?

Well, I guess that's just pre-post-rock when the band started. It's more something in Europe. In Europe, they are very into genre names and things and we'll do an interview and people will be like, "What do you think of the current post-rock scene?" and you're like, "Really? You want us to tell you about all the bands that sound like us and Godspeed You Black Emperor? It's depressing." No, we never really paid too much attention it. We always thought of ourselves as a rock band, especially back then when people started coining the term. The bands they were mostly referring to were us and Tortoise. Tortoise are an amazing band but they couldn't be more different from us. We're like a heavy metal band compared to Tortoise. They're like a really technical, almost jazz-influenced band so it [being called post-rock] never really made much sense. I think it's just about laziness with bands with hardly any singin'.

Do you care that instrumental music or rock isn't as fashionable as it once was in the '90s and early 2000s?

I couldn't care less! Certainly I never started the band because of fashions or less into any kind of bands because of they were fashionable. There was an amazing quote from Andrew Eldritch from the Sisters of Mercy who said, "The best thing about never being cool is that you're never that uncool." No, I'd rather we go on with our music and people who like it, listen to it and the thought that people turn out because it's in some way relevant or trendy, is kind of depressin.' I'd rather people just, like, came and heard the music because they like it or because it kinda had some sort of emotional connection to them. I also think that when, say, like ten years ago or whenever it was, when lots of instrumental music was really trendy, people were sick of it! It got to the point where we'd bring our record and some people would be like "Oh, no. Not another one of these records!" It was like "Really?" But it's gotten to the comical point now where like I'll meet people in bands making completely different kinds of music and they'll be like "I used to be in a band that sounded like you." I'm like "Oh, god." [laughs]

Did you feel camaraderie with other instrumental bands? Did you tour with them?

Yeah. We used to play a lot of shows with Godspeed and still got a lot of respect for them as people and their music. I think they're great. We got to know Explosions in the Sky. They are lovely people. It's great that they are doing so well. We'll play a bunch of shows with a lot of these bands. A lot of them are amazing musicians.

Mogwai has managed to be on both Matador Records and Sub Pop—two of the biggest indies. Do you see yourselves on another label? Is Merge next for Mogwai?

I think we're gonna try and get'em to resurrect Touch & Go—that's the next plan. Or maybe SST. [laughs]. Or maybe Factory. I don't know. We're kinda workin' on it. Tryin' to get Alan McGee to start Creation again... we'll do it. We'll do a split single with Ride. That's the next plan.

Mogwai can do the whole record-label tour.

Yeah, I think so. That's the best thing about ridiculous longevity: you can work your way through every single person and label that you got any admiration for. And lose them more money. [laughs]

Were you into the music SST put out?

Oh, yeah. Big time. That was the kind of music we grew up listening to: Black Flag and those kind of bands.

Did being into hardcore have any bearing on the title of your latest record?

No, that just came from a story. In fact, the story was like a guy—it's a true story of a young guy who went bananas in a shop at the shopkeeper because he wouldn't sell him something because he was too young and that ["Hardcore will never die but you will"] is what he shouted at him. I guess he would've been talking about hardcore techno. In Scotland, a lot of the kind of guys that hang out on the streets still listen to sort of really fast rave, "happy hardcore." It's the worst music in the world if you ever want to check it out. [laughs]

So it's called happy hardcore?

Yeah, happy hardcore. It's really fast gabba techno; really inane music.

 

Mogwai, "San Pedro"

Is the Mogwai song "San Pedro" a homage to Mike Watt and the Minutemen?

No... it should be, that would've been great [laughs]. I think someone told us that—that's where they're from.

Was the video for it filmed in New York?

That's New York. Antony [Crook], who took the photographs on the cover and also made that video, he lives in New York. The front cover is New York, too.

You should have filmed the video in actual San Pedro.

That would have cost money [Laughs]. That would have cost a couple of flights.

Do you name your albums and songs with cool, funny titles because you want to balance it with the fact that you guys seem to be pretty serious?

Yeeeeah, a little bit. I mean, I guess it was something over the years we kinda got into, and we kinda keep this stockpile of song titles.

So do you guys enjoy yourselves and have fun regardless of the serious disposition from the view of the outsider looking in?

Of course I have fun. What's the point in being in a band if you're not having fun? [laughs]. We have a ridiculous amount of fun. You wouldn't know it by hearing our music but... [laughs]

Yes, you seem very serious on stage and stuff.

Yeah, but even that, it's fun, even though it's monolithic music, we enjoy it, otherwise we wouldn't do it.

You've added some vocals into some songs over the years. Was that a concerted effort to add a new dimension to the music?

Yeah, when we first started the band, about half the songs had vocals but I'm just not a very good singer and I don't write very good lyrics. So I think by process of elimination, I realized [singing] was not the best thing to do.

How did you determine your lyrics weren't good?

Uh, I just don't have much to say, in all honesty, and also I think there is a big democracy about our band and to have one person at the front kind of like defeats the purpose of the band a little bit. It's good once in a while, if someone writes a song or adds vocals, it's something we do but it's never been a big part of the band.

Mogwai speak with their guitars.

We speak with our effects pedals. We convey our inner thoughts through various tones of distortion.

 

Mogwai, "My Father, My King"

Mogwai unconventionally covered "My Father, My King," a holy Jewish prayer...

Hold on one second. Someone's trying to clean my room. Hold on.

The cleaning crew is in there to clean the penthouse?

Yeah, they are replenishing the mini-bar. [laughs]. [Heard in background] "That's good. Thanks very much. Maybe some more milk, as well? Half and half? Awesome.

Now you're giving orders to the hired help?

I'm a man of simple needs. It's like the end of the Roman Empire here. [laughs]

So, "My Father, My King... " Are any of you guys of the Jewish persuasion?

No, but the story of that was a friend of ours who is Jewish, Arthur Baker, the producer. He was making a record which never actually happened and he had this idea of us playing this song and he just taught us it and we've been playing it ever since.

And you were inspired and then converted to Judaism?

Yeah, we're all Jews now. No, we're not very religious. I don't think [the] version [that Arthur produced] ever got released. We played it live and we ended up recording it with Steve Albini.

The Voice interviewed him a while back. Nice guy.

Yeah, Steve's great. Very eccentric.

Was there any backlash from the Jewish community when that song came out?

No, but a friend of ours who's also Jewish asked us to play it and we played it the other night. If I was of a [certain] religious persuasion, I'd probably be pretty happy played my religion songs... I guess, I'm not religious so actually maybe they are precious or something.

Were you guys ever threatened to be sued over the Mogwai name because it comes from the film Gremlins?

No, because it's a word that actually means devil in Chinese so I don't think you can sue people—although I know George Lucas tried to sue a village in Scotland because it was named the same as one of the planets in Star Wars. If George Lucas is going to sue towns then maybe someone can sue us but... no, that's one thing to worry less about.

Mogwai plays Webster Hall tonight and tomorrow.

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