This Country's Sons: Mogwai's Enduring Legacy
We speak to Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite and Dominic Aitchison about their ninth studio album, Rock Action, and how they're more crucial than ever to the future of Scottish music
In their own right, Mogwai are amongst the great survivors of both post-rock and the Glasgow scene from which they emerged in the mid-nineties; they are now twenty-two years into a glittering career that’s spanned nine studio records and countless laps of the world – not to speak of their nice little sideline as omnipresent film and television soundtrackers. Their status within their hometown, homeland and the industry in general, though, extends further; their record label, Rock Action, has gone from an imprint through which to sell home-packaged seven-inches to one of Scotland’s premier purveyors of independent music.
The spirit and ethos of what the label’s become can be traced back to the band’s own musical upbringing on Chemikal Underground, the legendary Glasgow indie that nurtured not only them, but the likes of Arab Strap, The Delgados and Iain Cook’s pre-Chvrches outfit Aerogramme. It was through Chemikal that they’d release their first two records, Mogwai Young Team and Come On Die Young, on which they established the uncompromising basics of their sonic approach – explosive shifts from tranquility to chaos on early classics Like Herod and Mogwai Fear Satan, and unsettling atmospherics with cuts like CODY and Ex-Cowboy.
The turn of the century saw them depart Chemikal and spread their wings, inking a multi-album deal with Play It Again, Sam and decamping once again to rural New York to cut the record that their label would be named after. Rock Action was the sound of the band spreading their wings too, no longer just relying on dynamics and volume and instead beginning to implement electronic and orchestral elements – as well as guest vocals, from Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals. It was the sound of a band ready to make a statement in the studio, not just within the confines of their live shows, which have always been incendiary; subtract the decibel level at the average Mogwai gig from the same measurement of an aeroplane taking off and you won’t be left with a great deal of change.
They continued to kick against the standard post-rock template and take genuine risks with their sound from that point forward, first with 2003’s moody Happy Songs for Happy People and then again in 2006 with the hyper-polished sonic cascade of an album that was Mr. Beast, a record described by Creation Records svengali Alan McGee – admittedly a man not averse to hyperbole – as being better than My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. It was around this time, too, that the wider world began to take notice of Mogwai’s seemingly effortless knack for conjuring atmosphere and evoking a visceral response with their songs; they were blindingly well-suited to score the visual arts, to the point that they seemed wasted on their own music videos.
Whether or not their first soundtracking effort, in 2006, came as a surprise would’ve depended on how well you knew the band at the time. Theoretically, your money would’ve been on them scoring some moment of profound emotional crescendo in a movie, or providing the unnerving backdrop for a highly-stylised television series – admittedly, they’d get to the latter later. Instead, they collaborated with the Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon on Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a ninety-one-minute film following French football legend Zinedine Zidane over the course of a 2005 match in much the same way as Sky Sports’ PlayerCam used to. It was a weirdly neat fit, not least because there ended up being plenty of scope for moments of sonic fury – Zidane’s game ended in the same ignominious manner as his career – as well as the sedate backing the band lent to the lulls in the match action.
No Mogwai fan worth their salt, though, could’ve claimed ignorance on the band’s love of football, one of many aspects of the group’s personalities outwith the music that stands in almost comical opposition to the other-worldly nature of their music. Mogwai are avowed Celtic fans and have never cared much about who knew about it, from the sticker of cult club legend Ľubomír Moravčík on one of Stuart Braithwaite’s guitars to the time in 2008 when they threatened to reveal the full home addresses of Rangers players unless their Batcat EP made the top ten, the humour of which was predictably lost on both the club’s supporters and the Scottish tabloids.
In that respect, Mogwai have always been remarkably scrutable guys. They’re self-avowed fans of comic books and video games, champions of Irn-Bru, and lace their work, via track and album titles, with a wicked sense of humour – you’d have to go a long way to find a better-monikered record than 2011’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. They laugh off many of those names as in-jokes, but they provide the one window that the records themselves can into the character of the group, from the political George Square Thatcher Death Party, to the slyly self-aware A Cheery Wave from Stranded Youngsters.
They’ve also been around long enough to become masters of their own collective destiny; when they found themselves without a record deal in the lead-up to releasing Hardcore Will Never Die..., they decided to test the waters for a self-release with Special Moves, a 2010 live album that became the band’s first on Rock Action. It went swimmingly, and they’ve not looked back since, with all of their subsequent albums also on the imprint, from their well-received soundtrack to the French supernatural drama Les Revenants to Rave Tapes, the studio album that followed and owed a heavy debt to its predecessor’s zombie-fuelled sense of unease.
They spent much of last year touring Atomic, their suitably incendiary soundtrack to Mark Cousins’ documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, which spans more or less the entirety of the nuclear age from the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the Chernobyl disaster and the modern benefits of atomic science in relation to healthcare. They follow it, with their ninth studio album proper, Every Country’s Sun, one that bears much less of a relationship to Atomic than Rave Tapes did to Les Revenants and that also brings them almost full circle; for the first time in sixteen years, they headed back to upstate New York to record with Dave Fridmann.
On Every Country's Sun
“We wanted to get away, and go somewhere that was a long way removed from our own place,” says bassist Dominic Aitchison of Castle of Doom, the Glasgow studio that the band co-own with local producer Tony Doogan, he of early Belle & Sebastian fame. “Dave doesn’t travel to work with bands, so you have to go up to where he lives in Cassadaga, which is in the middle of nowhere. You stay and work in the same place, which actually is no bad thing. Sticking yourself out in the wilderness is a good way of making sure you get on with the record.”
“I think we were all looking forward to it, picturing it as being a bit of a holiday!” Braithwaite laughs. “A working holiday, I should add. Recording in Glasgow is great, but once you’re done, you’re done – you leave at seven or eight o’clock at night, and you don’t think about the music until you're back in the next morning. We really lived and breathed this album, out in the woods with Dave, where there’s nowhere to go even if you wanted to. It’s a really immersive way of making an album, and I don’t think you can ever really get that same intensity when you’re at home, where as soon as you’re finished you’re going to the shops, or meeting your pals at the pub, or going to a show. Life can get in the way, I suppose. We didn’t spend too long on this album – two weeks recording, two weeks mixing – but all of that time was spent on the record.”
The band – now reduced to a four-piece after the departure of longtime guitarist John Cummings in 2015 – are now at a point in life where there’s families and children to consider, which might have rendered such a long stretch in isolation unworkable; Aitchison, who has a young family himself, admits that might have been the case with Tarbox Road Studios as cut off from the world as it was in 2001. “Back in Glasgow, because we’ve all got kids now, going into the studio means floating in at lunchtime and then disappearing back down the road at teatime. It did us a lot of good to go over to the States, I think.”
When Cummings signalled his intention to leave Mogwai after two decades in the fold, it came as a surprise to the group’s followers – and to the band themselves, who were immediately concerned about whether or not they’d be able to find a replacement capable of playing his intricate parts live. Those fears were assuaged when Alex Mackay stepped up to prove an able substitute, leaving the remaining four members to feel out the new studio dynamic during the writing of Every Country’s Sun.
“It meant I had to pull my finger out!” grins Aitchison. “I haven’t written that many songs in the past, compared to Stuart and Barry (Burns, guitarist), so I knew I had to stop being so lazy and become a bit more involved. I was much more of a collaborator this time, and it ended up being fine. I suppose the one other issue is that the good thing about having five people in a band is that you always had an odd number when there was a disagreement and you had to vote on something. We thought we might end up in constant deadlock in situations like that, but it all passed off uneventfully.”
A lot of the early ideas for Every Country’s Sun were passed around digitally via Dropbox, a system that began out of necessity when Burns moved to Berlin to open a bar (Das Gift), but ended up becoming a staple of the way the group work even when the rest of them are in Glasgow – as Aitchison explains, “you can’t always hear exactly what it is you’re doing when it’s everybody together in the rehearsal room”. This independent approach between the four of them meant that there was never really a deliberately agreed strategy of moving on from Rave Tapes, even though there were the twin obstacles to navigate of both reacting against that album’s gloomy feel and ensuring that, unlike last time, this new record felt like a separate entity from the soundtrack that had preceded it.
“All of these songs came together entirely independently from the scoring that we’d done, apart from the first track, Coolverine.” Aitchison goes on, "There was a version of it that Barry had written for [Leonardo DiCaprio's climate change] documentary called Before the Flood, which we worked on the music for with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails. It ended up in the film, but not on the album, and we liked it enough to rework it for [Every Country's Sun]. Otherwise, we did a pretty good job of keeping the soundtrack work separate from the new songs; I think it helped that we played quite a lot of shows for Atomic last year, and by the end of it, we were sort of yearning to play normal gigs again.”
Mogwai’s records have never been overtly political, which perhaps isn’t surprising given that it’d be hard to apply an explicit partisan message to music that has largely been instrumental (even those Mogwai tracks that do carry vocals tend to distort them to the point of them being incomprehensible). Given that they’re so readily able to move the listener in emotional terms, though, it doesn’t seem unlikely on the face of it that Every Country’s Sun might reflect the rampant political upheaval that has changed the face of the western world in the three years that have passed since Rave Tapes was released.
This is especially true when you bear in mind that the band have never shied away from being outspoken in this arena in their own lives – Braithwaite in particular. At any given time, a quick scroll through his Twitter feed (he’s @plasmatron, which was his intra-band nickname in the early years) gives you a striking look at how engaged he is politically; for a start, his profile picture is the Neu! logo with the ‘n’ removed, and it's been that way ever since the Leave vote prevailed in the EU referendum over a year ago.
He was tweeting extensively about the Scottish independence ballot in 2014 more or less from the moment it was announced, making him one of the Yes campaign’s most prominent supporters. As a progressive, you can imagine the decidedly dim view he takes of both the Conservative government and the US President. Mogwai began recording Every Country’s Sun in the States mere weeks after the 8 November election, and were in the country on inauguration day, too.
“We were in Las Vegas the day that he took the oath of office,” recalls Braithwaite, “and it was, as you can imagine, a very odd time. Pretty much everybody that we came into contact with couldn’t really believe it was happening, and that feeling just seemed to surround us the entire time we were there. I don’t know if any of the political events that have happened made it into the music, but it would’ve had to have been in a very subconscious way.
"I think the overwhelming sense everywhere, and especially that we picked up on when we were in America, was just of helplessness. There was a very similar atmosphere in Scotland after the Brexit vote, which had obviously come on the heels of the No vote being sold as the way for Scotland to remain in the EU which, as you can imagine, ended up seeming like the cruellest joke of all time.”
What the impending completion of the record meant, at least, is that the process of finishing it provided plenty of distraction for the band from the twenty-four-hour news cycle, to the point that Braithwaite described the project as feeling almost escapist. The album certainly sounds less downbeat than Rave Tapes, even if it’s more turbulent than its predecessor – the guitars soar again in a way that they haven’t on a Mogwai LP in quite a while. “The last few years have just been really intense for the world,” Braithwaite reflects, “and we’re probably quite lucky that we do something that’s very absorbing and that isn’t defined by those kind of factors. If nothing else, the music definitely helped us to think about something else than the threat of impending nuclear war, or whatever.”
The Rise of Rock Action
Also diverting Braithwaite’s attention, as well as that of his bandmates, will have been Rock Action, which has taken on a status and importance not just in terms of their own career but for Scottish music in general that they never could’ve dreamed of, either when they first started it as an outlet for singles in the early noughties or even when they began to use it to release their own records as recently as 2011. Even in the fledgling days of the label, the band would put out seven-inches by friends. Some of them were local, as was the case with Trout, a well-loved Glasgow punk outfit fronted by one of the scene’s real characters of the time, Willie Rogan. Some were international – Dave Pajo of Slint, under his Papa M moniker, is a Rock Action alumnus dating to more or less the very beginning.
The definitive line in the sand, though, in terms of its transition from sideline to institution probably came when Rock Action began to release music by the next wave of Scottish bands, ones that grew up as fans of Mogwai and saw them as elder statesmen of the country’s scene, as well as a model example of how to forge a successful career in the industry without anything in the way of compromise. The first of those groups was Errors, the glitchy Glaswegian electro outfit who were signed to Rock Action soon after their 2004 formation and have remained with them ever since.
The label’s connections to that generation of Scottish bands runs deep, even amongst those who haven’t been directly musically involved with it. That’s certainly the case for James Graham, the frontman with acclaimed Scots indie rockers The Twilight Sad, who works for Rock Action when he’s not on the road. “We were coming up at the same time as bands like Errors and Remember Remember, and we were looking at Rock Action and thinking what a cool label it was,” says Graham.
“I was always a massive fan of Mogwai, and when my band started out, they really took us under their wing and looked out for us – they took us out on tour quite a bit. I was really interested to find out how the other side of the business worked, just to learn about it for myself, and Craig Hargrave, who runs the label with Stuart, asked if I wanted to come in and spend a bit of time in the office – which was nice of him, because I was skint!”
It’s worth noting that Braithwaite plays down the suggestion that it’s himself and label manager Hargrave that are the sole driving force behind Rock Action (“I think things would probably grind to a bit of a halt if that was the case – no offence to Craig!”) but it was certainly a bit of a cottage industry when it began, effectively operating out of Braithwaite’s childhood bedroom. “When we started Rock Action, we did it because it was just what pretty much everybody else was doing,” Braithwaite remembers. “We got £400 from my sister’s boyfriend, and we pressed up 500 seven-inches in the Czech Republic.
"The thing is, when you’re as young as we were then, you don’t ever really look more than three months ahead, let alone this far. As the years went by, I think we started to appreciate what Chemikal Underground had done for us as a young band, helping us grow; we thought that seemed like a good model to adopt and to do for other bands. It’s a nice position to be in.”
Things have expanded particularly quickly for Rock Action in recent years; even over the course of his relatively short time at the label, Graham has seen the material evidence of its success. “When I started here, we were in a wee office in The Hidden Lane in Finnieston. We moved upstairs to a bigger office after a little while, and then again to an even bigger one than that. It’s been quite inspiring to watch how it’s grown, because the whole time, Mogwai have had complete control. That’s something to aspire to aside from actually working there, as somebody who doesn’t necessarily want to self-release my own records, but just to be in the position where you can handle everything yourself and have the buck stop with you.”
The success of the label can also be measured in considerably less tangible terms, of course. Back in 2011, Ben Power of Bristol noiseniks Fuck Buttons released a self-titled solo debut on Rock Action under the name Blanck Mass, having grown up citing Mogwai as a major influence. A year later, a track from the album, Sundowner, was played at three separate points over the course of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Power has gone on to release subsequent LPs on Sacred Bones, but the influence of both Mogwai and Rock Action remains indelible.
In January of this year, meanwhile, Sacred Paws released their debut album Strike a Match on the label, a triumph of sunny guitars and taut melodies that’s scored through with call-and-response harmonies and sprinkled over with piercingly witty lyricism. They’re a duo separated by 400 miles, with singer and guitarist Rachel Aggs based in South London and drummer Eilidh Rogers living in Glasgow, where her day job involves her being about as entrenched in the city’s heady indie pop heritage as it’s possible to be on a daily basis – she works behind the counter at Monorail Records, alongside Stephen McRobbie of The Pastels, who owns the place. By May, Strike a Match had been longlisted for the Scottish Album of the Year Award. The next month, it was shortlisted on the basis of a public vote. And then it won – ahead of Mogwai, who were in contention with Atomic.
“I think it says a lot for the label,” says Graham, whose responsibilities at Rock Action include sifting through the pile of demos that are sent in for consideration. “Back when I started, Sacred Paws aren’t the sort of band that I would’ve thought about being on the label, but now it makes complete sense. I don’t think you can say that there’s one kind of Rock Action band, you know? I mean, I get a lot of demos through from post-rock people, which is understandable because everybody’s aware that it’s Mogwai’s label and that’s where they started out, but if you look at the actual roster, it’s a pretty diverse set of records. That’s something that should be encouraging to a lot of young Scottish bands, and now more than ever after the year that Sacred Paws have been having.”
Graham’s relationship with Rock Action is about to take another dimension, too; with The Twilight Sad currently on the back burner after touring extensively around the world with The Cure throughout 2016, he’s lining up a side project, Out Lines, with 2015‘s Scottish Album of the Year Award winner Kathryn Joseph as well as producer Marcus Mackay, who runs the Diving Bell Lounge studio in the east end of Glasgow. It was in that part of the city, in the notoriously deprived suburb of Easterhouse, that Conflats, their debut album, began to come together.
“It was really strange, the way it came about,” Graham explains. “I’d heard Kathryn’s record, which I thought was amazing, but I didn’t know her. It was actually Alun Woodward from Chemikal Underground who got in touch with me; he works for the Platform Arts Centre in Glasgow, doing community outreach projects. For the last couple of years, they’ve run this festival called Outskirts in Easterhouse where they pair up two different artists, and send them off to have conversations with people who visit Platform – then they write music based on them. He put Kathryn and I in touch, and we spoke to people of all ages, from really young to much older people, telling us about their lives and how Platform had helped them.”
It wasn’t, by Graham’s own admission, the sort of thing that would usually be his bag, but the results were powerful enough to justify releasing them on record – technically speaking, the Outskirts pieces are only written to be played live at the festival. “It was a situation that I’d usually run a mile from,” he laughs. “Talking to people you don’t know, writing with somebody that I’d never met, and then going and performing it. I’m really glad we did it, though.” He acknowledges, too, that his proximity to all things Rock Action will make the album’s rollout an unusual one. “It’s going to be quite weird emailing people about my own record, and I don’t know if that’s going to be a good thing for my brain – I might get emails back telling me it’s shite!”
That the label have been so nurturing of Glaswegian projects, though, is reflective of the ethos at its core – which, in turn, is a reflection of the encouraging atmosphere that’s always permeated the city’s music scene. “It’s always been really supportive, as far back as I can remember,” says Braithwaite. “I remember, years ago, one of my housemates seemed to have the only bass amp of anyone that anybody knew in Glasgow – people would turn up every night to borrow it. I think the nicer people are to each other, the more inclined they are to be nice back. There’s always a real communal aspect to venues like Mono, Stereo and The 13th Note, and that’s something that’s true of a lot of different aspects of the arts scene but especially so in terms of music. It’s one of the best things about the cultural landscape in the city.”
“It definitely never feels like a competition,” Graham concurs. “I’ve worked at label fairs for Rock Action, and there’s definitely a sense of community at them. It’s not like The Apprentice! You’d buy a CD from somebody and they’d say, 'if you like this, you’ll like those guys over there as well, you should check them out.' There’s a great relationship between Rock Action and Chemikal Underground especially; we’re always on the phone to each other, and I think you can tell that Mogwai have sort of paid forward the support they had from Chemikal in the early days.”
From Braithwaite’s perspective, there was always a gap in the market for another Scottish label helping to support local artists, even if he’d never intended for Rock Action to be the one to fill that void. “Back then, what used to happen quite a lot is that there were always labels putting out singles and EPs, but in the end, a lot of bands would end up on a London-based label, or a European one, or an American one, and it was really beginning to become evident that surely it didn’t have to be that way. As the years went on, labels expanded and you could do things elsewhere – I’m sure a lot of younger bands now would think it was absolutely crazy that so many people thought the done thing was to move to London to be in a band, especially because the idea that a musician could afford to live there now is so ludicrous.”
The Twilight Sad have been one of the beneficiaries of that expansion, and whilst the trio are signed to Brighton imprint Fatcat, the help offered to them from Rock Action and Mogwai has been invaluable. They’ll start working in earnest on a fifth full-length soon – “We’ve been constantly writing and we know what direction we’re heading in, so we haven’t just been sitting in the pub” – which has allowed Graham some time for reflection on how crucial Braithwaite and co have been to his own band’s progression. “I’ve grown up a fan of Mogwai, toured with them, worked for them and now they’re releasing one of my records. They’ll always help people if they think they can, and they really have helped me. We’d never have been on those tours with The Cure if Stuart hadn’t introduced Robert Smith to our music. I’ve got a lot to thank Mogwai for, and many pints to buy them.”
Rock Action, meanwhile, continues to go from strength to strength – mirroring Mogwai’s ongoing success, with a huge, celebratory homecoming date at the Hydro in December set to bring the curtain down on another vintage year. “It’s just nice that the label is doing so well in the current climate,” Braithwaite says, “especially given people’s attitude to buying records these days. We hope we can keep on putting out records we love and helping out bands on the label as best we can. I’ve got to say, I’m optimistic about the future.”
Every Country’s Sun is out now via Rock Action
Mogwai play Leith Theatre, Edinburgh, 22 & 23 Aug as part of Edinburgh International Festival's Light on the Shore series