Indy Rock: Mogwai talk zombies, Thatcher and the coming referendum

With new LP Rave Tapes out now on the band's own Rock Action label, Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite and Barry Burns explain why, democratically speaking, five is a magic number

Feature by Chris Buckle | 07 Feb 2014

On the day that Thatcher died, Mogwai’s Barry Burns was in his adopted home of Berlin, missing out on the George Square Thatcher Death Party his band had prophesised on seventh LP Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. Flying the Gwai flag was band-mate John Cummings, snapped next to Walter Scott’s pigeon cack-stained statue, clad in an Argentine Football Association top. “I was in Germany and saw the photograph of him, with a big smile on his face,” Barry laughs. “He’s a psychopath…”

Stuart Braithwaite, meanwhile, was having dinner with his girlfriend’s family. “I brought a bottle of champagne,” he smiles, “and someone said ‘oh, is it somebody’s birthday?’” His smile becomes a laugh. “I just announced how happy I was. And it went down really well actually.” Barry worries aloud that it “almost” feels horrible to be overjoyed by someone’s passing, but Stuart has his caveat sorted. “I think she’s the only person whose death I’d feel happy about… It’s got to be exceptional circumstances. Only exceptional bastards can have their deaths celebrated.”

2013 was a busy year for Mogwai. In addition to toasting the Iron Lady’s demise, it encompassed zombies and Zidane (more on both later), as well as the writing and recording of Rave Tapes, released late last month. Their eighth studio LP subtly expands their sound’s parameters, with modular synths evoking an epic brand of retro-futurism, and uncluttered melodies speaking to the band’s poise and restraint. The resulting atmosphere mixes insidious foreboding with lump-in-throat wonder; it’s clear that almost 20 years in, Mogwai are far from coasting.

Work on Rave Tapes began sometime in February, when the band’s UK-based members (Stuart, John, Dominic Aitchison and Martin Bulloch) got together to start throwing ideas around. Barry – who has lived in Berlin since 2009, co-running a bar in the city's Neukölln district – came into the process a little later, thanks to a minor logistical hiccup. “I couldn’t get a studio,” he explains, sat with Stuart in Glasgow’s Stereo bar after a day spent rehearsing. “Well, I had a little room in Berlin, but it took so long to get it ready. I got really panicky about it – it felt like I had just a month to write some songs. But it was fine, we managed. I just like to panic – I like that feeling of terror. It’s pretty much like when you play football as a child – that feeling where you’re chasing a ball, terrified.” Across the table, Stuart nods. “He likes to feel like he’s getting chased.” After one listen to the stalking soundscapes of Remurdered, it’s easy to capture a similar feeling of nervy pursuit.

"Only exceptional bastards can have their deaths celebrated” – Stuart Braithwaite

Barry offers a straightforward rationale for the album’s distinct palette. “We bought some new synthesisers, and so some of it’s just us trying to make use of them,” he explains. “I think that’s happened with a lot of our records – like when we got the Kaoss Pad for Rock Action; it’s on probably every song cos we were like ‘Oh aye, that’s amazing!’ And the vocoder as well… So yeah, it sounds obvious to say it but the tools you’re using have a big influence on the sound, maybe more so than the music you’re listening to at the time. Although,” he adds, “there’s quite a lot of John Carpenter-esque things on this record…” Stuart jokes that the auteur – whose scores for the likes of Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog are arguably as influential and celebrated as his directorial work – is “after them,” as a result of the sonic similarities. “He’s after us, is he?” laughs Barry. “Oh well, he must be getting on by now, fuck him.”

On the subject of soundtracks, Mogwai’s 2013 featured a brace of them: their score for French-language zombie drama Les Revenants, released in February; and 2006’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, revisited last July for a short run of live shows. “It doesn’t feel like there was much space between doing that and doing the album,” says Barry of the latter, referencing a bottleneck that saw their Rave Tapes prep-time squeezed by Zidane rehearsals. “Yeah, it was a very busy summer,” agrees Stuart. “Zidane was written on the hoof, so rehearsing for that was like learning new music. It was a great experience though – it made me think more about how some of our more abstract things work. Certainly I felt more confident going into this record after doing it.”

Barry concurs. “We said at the time, it was the most we ever practised for something. It was a lot of work, but it really was brilliant. I still remember the feeling of relief after that first gig [at the Manchester International Festival], because it had worked really well and people seemed to enjoy it.” Were they not disappointed, then, to only get to perform it a handful more times? “Yeah, I think we kind of expected that a lot more people would ask us to do it,” Barry admits. “We were expecting a cluster of gigs, not just two or three. The requests will probably all start coming in now,” he rues, “when we can’t do them…”

One request that couldn’t have been better timed, however, was Les Revenants. An existing fan of their work, creator Fabrice Gobert got in touch back in 2012, and the band were suitably intrigued by the pitch: a return-of-the-living-dead tale with an existentialist edge, in which a town’s dearly departed re-appear and attempt to pick up their lives where they left off. A fresh take on zombie-lore, its dread-laced ambience owed much to Mogwai’s majestic score.

“I think he’d had a Sonic Youth soundtrack for one of his things before,” says Barry, alluding to Gobert’s 2010 film Lights Out, named after a song from the New York band’s Rather Ripped, “so I think he just didn’t want to have bulk-standard strings and choral stuff, you know? A lot of people are doing that now.” He pauses. “Which means it will probably get the arse kicked out of it and people will go back to strings and choral stuff again! But yeah, it was nice that he asked us. It’s something that seems quite natural for us to do.”

The Skinny asks whether working on the show has expanded their fan base, perhaps bringing them to the attention of people who are partial to prestige telly but to whom the world of Mogwai was previously a mystery. “In theory, aye,” says Stuart, acknowledging a spike in sales when the programme aired on Channel 4 over the summer. “Straight back into the charts!” jokes Barry, “to number 1000 or whatever it was…” Still, even a modest bump seems a fair indication that new ears were being turned on to the band’s work – a presumption lent credence a week after our interview, when author Stephen King tweets praise for the show, soundtrack included (“I’m going to find them. It is very fine music...”).

But with the Zidane shows in the past and Les Revenants' second season yet to come (“we’re talking about it just now” Stuart confirms), Mogwai’s present is firmly focused on Rave Tapes. Recorded and mixed at the band’s own Castle of Doom studio, it saw former Delgado Paul Savage return to the producer’s chair having previously worked on Hardcore Will Never Die and Young Team. Despite the tight scheduling, the band ended up with “more than enough songs.” Consequently, Stuart deadpans, “every single member of the band hates the songs that are actually on the album.”

The final consensus/compromise, Barry explains, was reached via “a hilarious spreadsheet” and producer Paul, who acted as “a kind of referee” whenever there were conflicting opinions. “And then”, adds Stuart, “it gets even more complicated because I always want more songs on the record than everyone else.” Barry jokes that, if Stuart had his way, all their albums would be spread across triple vinyl. “I do like a long record,” Stuart confirms, “but anyway: that milk has long since been spilled…” Just how long do these tracklisting disputes tend to last? He grins. “Oh not long, but the bitterness – it lingers eternally.”

“It’s going to make us die young,” laughs Barry. “I used to sometimes play in The Delgados, and I remember being in one of their rehearsals years and years ago and they would argue about the slightest thing – you know, have a big conversation about a single note.” And yet now they have one-time Delgado Paul Savage acting as adjudicator? “See, their mistake was having four people in the band,” Stuart argues. “If you’ve got five then there’s always a winner. You might have two profoundly upset people, but they just have to deal with it.” Were there any tracks that he’d have been adamant about including no matter what? “Nah, because you just go with what everybody says, and then write it in your personal file of ‘Reasons why Barry, Dominic, Martin and John are fucking idiots.’”

“That’s a big tome, that,” Barry interjects, prompting Stuart to sigh with faux-exasperation. “It’s this shite democracy we have, that’s what it is. It’s terrible.” Speaking of big tomes and democracy – our interview takes place the day before the release of ‘Scotland’s Future,’ the 670-page white paper laying out the Scottish government’s case for a Yes vote in September’s referendum. While the whole band is in favour of an independent Scotland, Stuart has been a particularly prominent and passionate advocate, making the case via television appearances and public discussions. “I think some of the anti-independence people will get a bit of a surprise as to how much thought has been put in to this for a rather long time,” he says of the white paper, “and I think it might make it quite a lot harder to paint it as a poorly thought-out idea. That said, the new 'No' argument will probably be ‘Oh, they’re making these promises, how can they say this when there’ve been no negotiations’…” He shrugs. “It’s all just posturing, really.”

The conversation turns to some of the more unusual anti-independence arguments aired thus far – for instance, an article in the Sunday Times ‘cautioning’ Scots that the Queen might visit Balmoral less often should the Union split. “But my favourite,” says Stuart, “was Alistair Darling saying that British music will not belong to us anymore.” He stops to ponder the implications of the Better Together chairman’s monition. “I tell you what, if someone came and took my Joy Division records away I’d maybe think about changing my mind,” he decides, “but I somehow find that unlikely.” Independently minded in every sense, Mogwai ain’t for turning.

Mogwai play Edinburgh's Usher Hall with The Pastels and Remember Remember on 8 Mar. Rave Tapes is out now via Rock Action.