When Scottish rockers Mogwai released their three-CD career retrospective, Central Belters in late 2015, the band were celebrating 20 years of creating experimental and atmospheric music on an epic scale. Since forming in Glasgow in 1995, Stuart Braithwaite (guitar and occasional vocals), Dominic Aitchison (bass) and Martin Bulloch (drums) have relished a musical journey that has taken them across the planet, and benefitted from technological advances along the way.
Named after the furry critters in 1984 comedy-horror flick Gremlins, Mogwai have been dubbed by critics as “post rock” – a subgenre in contemporary music that employs guitars, drums and other instruments normally associated with rock to create textured, multi-dimensional soundscapes, frequently without vocals. Though much post rock can be found at the less accessible end of the pop spectrum, Mogwai’s guitar-based instrumentals, frequently overlaid with distortion and effects, have attracted fans from China to Chile.
“When we started out, we had about half the songs with vocals and half were without,” says Braithwaite. “I think it was just that the instrumentals were better songs, so we started to veer more towards that side.”
Aitchison agrees, preferring to be creatively free of traditional song structures. “I think we enjoy the way the instrumental works,” the 40-year-old says. “The way you can build them, not having to worry about choruses and middle eights and stuff, but just let it go wherever you want it to.”
Surprisingly, the four-piece band (after several different line-ups through the years, multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns joined in 1998) believe a lack of vocals has made Mogwai’s music more approachable for many listeners. “If anything, it has helped us because we can play in countries where there isn’t a big focus on English-language lyrics,” says Braithwaite, 39, “and maybe they wouldn’t understand much of what we’d be singing about anyway. It probably makes our music more universal.”
As an example, 41-year-old Bulloch recalls a 2011 Mogwai gig in Bandung, Indonesia’s third largest metropolis and a city the band members had never even heard of. “Going to a place like that,” says the soft-spoken drummer, “where we hadn’t even thought of playing before, and getting 1,000 kids in there who were glad we had made the effort and knew what our music was about … It’s quite humbling.”
As fans themselves, Mogwai have followed Fugazi, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, the Pixies and other rock bands that mix low-fi noise with an acute sense of melody. A pivotal moment in their career came many years ago when they supported one of their favourite bands remembers Braithwaite “The first big gig that we ever did we supported Pavement in 1997 at the Astoria in London and I remember something clicked that night and the music made sense in this bigger room.”
They have also, from day one, embraced the visual. “Me and Dominic were big comic fans – Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman comics – when we started the band,” says Braithwaite, who also cites movie director Stanley Kubrick and the movie The Exorcist as early influences. Consequently, Mogwai have increasingly been drawn to the world of film.
In 2006, the band provided the soundtrack to Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a film about the revered French soccer star. In 2012, they scored French television zombie drama series Les Revenants, and in 2015 Mogwai created the music for Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, an experimental British documentary that looks at the Hiroshima nuclear bomb and its legacy.
“You are adding to someone else’s vision and augmenting rather than having something that’s expected to stand on its own,” Braithwaite says of making film music. “The challenge is in being able to step back, and I think we’ve done that with our soundtracks. Even though we’ve been encouraged to make the music really bombastic, we’ve tended to make it much more subdued.”
But if they could re-record any movie soundtrack what would it be? “Even though I do think the soundtrack is perfect I think that redoing 2001: A Space Odyssey would be great fun” suggests Braithwaite.
Flexibility, in fact, has been central to Mogwai’s evolution. And though a greater use of electronics entered their work in the late 1990s, with more spacious arrangements resulting, their musical path has often been the simple result of circumstance. “A lot of it’s to do with personnel,” Braithwaite says. “When Barry joined the band in 1998, playing piano and synthesizer, that made a difference. And a lot of it is to do with technology: suddenly having laptops and the means to get sounds that we didn’t have before” but “we do rely quite heavily on delay pedals.”
Aitchison picks up the thread, explaining how new equipment shaped Mogwai’s 2014 studio album Rave Tapes. “Barry had purchased a load of modular synth stuff, really good-sounding new toys, so we just put that on absolutely everything,” Aitchison says. “Ultimately, it’s about the technology we have access to at the time.”
But at a time when there are so many different ways to listen to music, which format do they choose? The answer is the one that Mogwai’s first ever release was available on - vinyl. “The first Mogwai releases were all 7” and we are all fond of the format” recalls Bulloch. Braithwaite and Aitchison agree “I definitely prefer vinyl – that is my preferred way to hear music”, “there is something quite satisfying about vinyl – that’s how we grew up.”
What is very clear is that Mogwai intend to continue supporting what was only a few years ago a ‘dying’ format. “Until the last pressing plant closes we’ll still be putting our music out on vinyl” confirms Braithwaite. This is not however straight forward: “The biggest problem with making vinyl now is the resurgent popularity. Actually getting space in the pressing plants to get it made is one of the biggest ones.”
And what of plans for the future: “Make some records, play some gigs and go to nice places.” The superb new studio album, Every Country’s Sun, sets Mogwai perfectly on course into their third decade.