Mogwai Unleash The Beast

The band, sick with nerves in the studio for the first time, solved the problem by stripping naked, whacking a few Mitsubishis and forming a supportive circle in the toilets.

Feature by Jasper Hamill | 15 Feb 2006

Playing music is always more fun than writing about it. Any honest, and no doubt earnest, music scribbler would rather have Brian May soloing on his shoulders than have to write a savage indictment of James Blunt that, unread, ends up holding some drunk's King Rib supper. Trying to describe an aural medium in verbal terms is inevitably destined for failure.

With Mogwai, mute explorers of transcendence through music "louder than words and wilder than fiction," no amount of maundering description could distil the visceral power of their work. Chatting with Barry, the Ibrox-based multi-instrumentalist recruited as the band sublimated its sound for second album 'Come on Die Young', he is confused "why anyone would be interested in the shite that musicians come out with." Letting the music speak for itself, a time-honoured cliché of reticent musicians with less talent, is Mogwai's stock in trade.

Relying initially on a dialectic opposition of ethereal beauty and coruscating noise, the band's sound has continually adapted, first moving towards an unsettled Arcadia, introducing vocals effaced by a breathy vocoder before returning to an augmented version of their original sound. 'Mr Beast', recorded in the band's new Mountain of Doom studio, was supposed to herald an unalloyed return to the shock and awe dynamics of their early recordings. Typically though, the noise is a counterpoint to the ethereal, fairy-tale beauty of the slower passages as woozy lulls are torn asunder by tornadoes of blistering rage.

In London for a five-night residence at the ICA, reminding Barry of how much he "hates the tourbus," the band, described by Bloc Party as having the ideal music career, are still as important as ever. In the eighties, teutonic avant-noise nutters Einsturzende Neubauten famously drilled through the floor of the ICA during one of their dystopic love-ins. I ask if the band have any plans for such showmanship: "not really. We've got five different coloured lights I suppose. We don't really go in for any pyrotechnics." The return to the ferocious dualism of their early recordings was inspired by realising that "we liked playing the loud stuff on stage. We got bored of all the quiet stuff really." Recent gigs have been furious maelstroms of dissonance, recalling the bombast of Black Sabbath as well as various obscure noiseniks. This tactic is not new: the first couple of Mogwai gigs in London left the eager front row with nose bleeds as the band relentlessly flayed them with skin-stripping noise. Their only single, the thirty-five minute epic My Father My King - twenty two minutes too long for the pop-charts - was essentially a Jewish Hymn burnt upon a towering sonic pyre. Barry recognises how Mogwai "built our name on bellicosity but we always had some gentle stuff too," with the new album following the rich, layered dynamic they've mastered over the years.

As one of Scotland's most successful bands, even achieving the sublime accolade of being mentioned by Tad during an episode of neighbours, Mogwai have found the time to curate All Tomorrow's Parties, play to a tiny crowd on the wild and woolly island of Bute and start a record label, Rock Action, which has signed Errors and Part Chimp.

The label, according to Barry, released the band's first single before disappearing into hibernation until they'd scraped enough cash together to make it a possibility. I asked Barry about a rumour I'd heard about the recording of Mogwai Young Team, that the band, sick with nerves in the studio for the first time, solved the problem by stripping naked, whacking a few Mitsubishis and forming a supportive circle in the toilets. They then went on to record one of the best albums to ever come out of Glasgow. "Well I wasn't there," he answers, "but I don't recall them telling me about that. Perhaps I was too fucked to remember if they did."

Even without the image of five shaven-headed musicians communing over the toilet bowl, the alchemic, mysterious beauty of Mogwai speaks for itself. Songs named after "National Enquirer headlines and whatever makes us laugh," add to the inscrutability. Celtic strips worn on stage, iconography stolen from Glasgow gang culture and the occasional mumble from Aidan Moffat are the only clues to the rationale behind the music. No words needed.

The single, Friend of the Night is out now.
'Mr. Beast' is released on March 6.