Mogwai: All the Right Moves

Presenting <b>Mogwai</b>'s first full-length audio and televisual document of their intoxicating live show all at once, <b>Stuart Braithwaite</b> talks us through the creation of <i>Special Moves</i> and <i>Burning</i>

Feature by Chris Buckle | 01 Sep 2010

“How’re you doing? We’re Mogwai from Glasgow, Scotland. It’s nice to be here.” As they introduce a scorching Mogwai Fear Satan to the Music Hall of Williamsburg, it’s tempting to interpret the band's conviviality as introspective, ‘here’ referring not just to the Brooklyn venue in which live compilation Special Moves was recorded, but to now, with Mogwai still hitting fresh peaks more than a decade after Like Herod first caused complacent listeners to spill their tea (particularly those that foolishly adjusted the volume ahead of the finale).

Not that the band’s first official live release should be seen as an attempt to define the Mogwai canon. The way Stuart Braithwaite explains it, chopping up the recordings of the three-night residency and reassembling the track-listing involved zero concessions to posterity: “We just listened to the recordings and chose the songs that sounded the best. Depending on how well (or badly) we'd played, the songs on the live record could have been completely different.”

It’s probably as good a selection method as any other when you consider the wealth they had to choose from. Ask fans to list their own contenders and you’ll likely end up with as many combinations as there are songs in the band’s repertoire, depending on whether the compilers attempt to representatively distil Mogwai’s career-to-date, or just go with their gut (incidentally, the organ with which many of their more explosive moments first register). Mogwai’s own choices incorporate tender cuts from Rock Action (2 Rights Make 1 Wrong, You Don’t Know Jesus) and early calling cards (Herod, Satan) alongside more recent set-staples (Hunted By A Freak, Glasgow Megasnake).

Packaged together with Special Moves is Burning, a concert flick filmed over the same three nights. Directors Vincent Moon and Nat Le Scouarnec were more proactive in constructing the finished film’s set-list, with its eight tracks designed beforehand to flow from a scene-setting The Precipice to a climactic Batcat. The results are lensed in suitably moody monochrome, with between-song chat excised from the mix to keep the atmosphere unbroken. The shots of fans lost in rapture make the biggest impact, their closed eyes and utter absorption a reflection of the armchair-viewer’s own delight.

Despite Braithwaite’s assessment that “if you want to be visually stimulated by a concert film then you’re watching the wrong band”, Moon and Scouarnec do a sterling job of rendering the performances in a style both low-key – admittedly, it’s not exactly Stop Making Sense, but nor should it be – and compelling. To an extent, the directors had a gift of a subject: chances are any old footage could be made striking with Mogwai on the soundtrack (proof: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’s tunnel-vision football-repeat, transformed into a memorably cinematic experience by their score). Not that everyone has woken up to this fact: “We’d love to do more soundtrack work,” says Braithwaite. “The problem lies with fitting it into our schedule and the reticence of the moneymen in the movie industry to entrust scamps like us to make their expensive films sound beautiful.”

As is the nature of such releases, neither Burning nor Special Moves will exert huge appeal beyond existing fans, but they’re hardly meant to. These aren’t legacy-toppers or nostalgic goodbyes, just two more steps along the road. As Braithwaite reveals, the next full-length already looms large.

“The recording’s going really well. We’re into our third week and have the bare bones of twenty-one songs. We should be finished sometime in October and it should be out in February. Lots of ‘shoulds’ in that last sentence…” Should be awesome.

Special Moves / Burning is available now via Rock Action as a CD/DVD release

Playing HMV Picture House, Edinburgh on 21 Feb 2011