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Interview: Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai

"There isn’t a narrative. Our music is not stories, just notes.”

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Interview: Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai
Steve Gullick

Since forming in Glasgow in 1995, Mogwai have become one of the defining bands of post-rock. The quintet have fashioned massive, shifting, quiet-to-loud walls of guitar noise across six albums, from their 1997 debut Mogwai Young Team to their latest longplayer, The Hawk Is Howling. Amidst a US tour with F*ck Buttons, on the eve of The Hawk Is Howling's Matador release, just before a festival show warming up for Mogwai's heroes My Bloody Valentine, guitarist and founding-member Stuart Braithwaite chewed the fat.

Are you excited about seeing MBV at ATP?
“I am, but I already saw them in Glasgow, a month ago, and it was great. It was insanely loud.”

I remember seeing Mogwai play in Melbourne in 2002, and felt the same about you.
“Well, they’ve got the exact same sound guy that we had back then! So there’re a lot of similarities in the volume. They’ve got more amps, though, so I think they may be louder.”

Is playing that loud as intense on stage as it is in the crowd?
“I think it’s quite louder. You’ve got your amps behind you, and then the drums coming full volume out of the monitors. You can’t even hear the real drums which are only one meter away. So, I’m pretty sure that’s loud.”

Was volume something you, as a band, were always attracted to?
“We were obsessed with it for quite a while. And My Bloody Valentine was quite a big influence on that. Me and (bassist) Dominic (Aitchison) saw them, back the first time around, and they made quite a big impression on us. It does things to young minds.”

So, MBV were this definite source of inspiration at the beginning?
“We were thinking in the tradition of a lot of bands that had kind of been forgotten at that time. My Bloody Valentine was one, and also bands like the God Machine and Sonic Youth. It seemed like, in England, in the mid-’90s, these bands had been erased from rock culture. Everyone was obsessed with the Kinks, and Brit-pop, and that just didn’t really say anything to us.”

Was Slint's influence as grand as it seems?
“Not really. They were a band we liked; I still love them, I think they’re a great band. But I certainly don’t think their music has as big an effect on us as it did on PJ Harvey, or Codeine, or Fugazi, or other people whose music seems much closer on the sparseness than us. I think we owe bigger debts to many bands other than them.”

Are you still influenced by other people’s records?
“Yes, yes, exactly, the same as we always were. No doubt about it. I really love the last Stars Of The Lid album; that’s a really fantastic record. I really love the F*ck Buttons album, they’re on tour with us just now, they’re epic. There’s tons of stuff.”

How have you felt about other bands holding up Mogwai Young Team as this defining record?
“I supposed that’s always going to be one of your aims when you start making music: to be an influential musician. I don’t think that’s our best record, but I think you always get that with a band’s first record; the first album people heard is the one they have the fondest memories of. I’m happy people love that record, but I definitely don’t think it’s the best record we’ve made.”

What does your vote go to?
Come On Die Young or Happy Songs For Happy People.”

Normally, in that situation, an interviewee plumps for their most recent record.
“Oh, okay. I think the new one’s a great record, but I haven’t lived with it long enough to be able to make such a grand statement [laughs].”

What hopes did you have for The Hawk Is Howling?
“We just wanted to record ten good songs. There wasn’t really any specifics at all. Any time we have had aims at the beginning, it’s normally just backfired, horribly.”

How horribly?
“Well, with the Rock Action album, we all were thinking ‘we have to make this as different as possible’. But instead of that making for some amazing reinvention, it made for a… well, it’s not a bad record. But we had all these things that, over the years, we’d been getting better at, and we just ignored them.”

Did you feel like that at the time? Or has this just crystallized in hindsight?
“It was a nagging feeling at the time, but it’s definitely crystallized in hindsight, yeah.”

Did you always want to be an instrumental band?
“No, we didn’t always want to. But we had a certain amount of songs that had no singing, and those songs were better than those that did have the singing. So, just naturally veered more towards those without.”

Are your songs ‘about’ anything?
“No. They’re just pieces of music. That’s just the way it is. That’s not to say that our music doesn’t evoke memories in us, make us think of things that happened around the time the music was written, or first played. But a lot of people who write instrumental music, if they were being honest, would have to say their music wasn’t actually about anything. But a lot of other people lie!”

Do audiences persist in telling you what your songs are about, though?
“Sometimes. But, I think, the longer the band’s been going, the more people realize where we stand on things. They realize that there isn’t a narrative, that our music is not stories, just notes.”

So, with song titles, you get free-reign to make up anything that amuses you?
“That’s exactly what it gives us.”

When I was in high-school, in the mid-’90s, there were dudes at my school in a band named Mogwai, too. I remember thinking it was a bad band-name.
“It is a bad band-name!”

But after a while, names just stand for the music made under them. When I hear 'Mogwai', now, I don’t think of the Gremlins movie, just as, when I hear ‘Radiohead,’ I don’t think of…
“A guy with a radio on his head!”

How did you end up with your bad band-name?
“I can’t even remember. I think it was more just being stuck for something to call the band. There certainly wasn’t a moment of inspiration.”

Have you ever fantasized about the name you’d use if you started a new project?
“No, not really. I’m not good with names, really, to be totally honest. I mean, I’ll help with the song names, but we don’t take them very seriously at all. Although, now that I come to think of it, you could have a band called Thank You Space Expert. Or Friend of the Night.”

Or Scotland’s Shame.
“That would be a funny name. It could, indeed, be our name.”

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