Band’s best friend

Loud in sound and loud in opinion, Mogwai have surprised themselves with their longevity. Frontman Stuart Braithwaite says they take their music seriously but their song titles less so

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When Mogwai first burst out of the Glasgow underground rock scene in the mid 1990s, draped in a deafening squall of feedback, bleeding distortion and outlandish alcohol-fuelled bravado, few people would have bet on them still being around almost 30 years later, least of all those inside in the group.

“I think the rightwards drift of politics and culture in Britain feels a wee bit alien in Scotland.”

“When you’re young, you only think in terms of months. You don’t even think in terms of years,” reflects the band’s frontman and founder member Stuart Braithwaite. “Things were so chaotic back then it would have seemed unlikely that we’d still want to be doing the same thing all these years later. But I think the way that we grew up together and adapted to each other’s weirdness ended up being quite a good formula.”

Mogwai’s enduring relevance was demonstrated last year when the group’s tenth studio album, As The Love Continues, became their first to top the UK albums charts, following a fan-driven social media campaign – an unlikely, if wholly deserved achievement that Braithwaite today describes as being “beyond surreal”. The record was nominated for the Mercury Prize several months later.

“I was actually looking through the Mogwai Instagram account the other day for something else and I saw the photo of us with the [number one] trophy and it still feels absolutely weird,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s a lovely thing to have happened though.”

Formed in Glasgow in 1995 by friends Braithwaite, guitarist Dominic Aitchison and drummer Martin Bulloch, and naming themselves after the furry creatures in the 1984 movie Gremlins, Mogwai never set out or appeared likely to be future chart toppers. Inspired by fiercely independent artists like Joy Division, Slint, Sonic Youth and The Cure, the band’s penchant for writing grandiose post-rock instrumentals immediately made them stand out from other guitar groups of the Britpop era.

Mogwai’s blistering debut album, Mogwai Young Team, came out in 1997, the same year as Oasis’s Be Here Now, Radiohead’s OK Computer and The Verve’s Urban Hymns. Made in their home city for just £2,000 when the band members – supplemented by John Cummings and Brendan O’Hare – were all in their early twenties, the album’s recording sessions were fraught with anxiety and hastily mixed.

“That record wasn’t a lot of fun to make,” recalls Braithwaite, speaking to Big Issue North over the phone as he walks his two dogs, Prince and Lyra, around a Glasgow park. “We didn’t have enough songs in the studio, so we were writing them at the same time and there was a lot of self-doubt. That meant we were really gobby and we kept telling everyone how brilliant our band was and how rubbish everyone else was. You can’t come out with all that nonsense and then not bring out a decent record, so there was a lot of pressure onus to deliver.”

The turbulent atmosphere resulted in an urgent and electrifying debut that blended furious apocalyptic post-rock instrumentals, abstract murmured vocals and simmering moments of tender beauty. The contrast between Mogwai Young Team and the then dominant blokey Beatles pastiche of Oasis’s Be Here Now, which had hit record stores two months earlier, was like night and day.

“Britpop especially was such a monolithic culture. Not just the music itself, but it was also laddism and there was a lot of insincerity. It was a very cocaine-y kind of time and we were the opposite. It was a complete contrast and we probably stood out a bit because we weren’t trying to be stupid. I think we definitely benefited from being the antithesis of Britpop.”

Mogwai Young Team was followed 18 months later by Come On Die Young, an even more accomplished and surprisingly restrained record that saw multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns join the group and flipped preconceptions about Mogwai on their head. Both albums have now been remastered and are being reissued this week to mark 25 years since the band’s debut.

“I’m really proud of them. I love the fact that people still like those records and there’s definitely people coming to our gigs who weren’t born when they originally came out,” says Braithwaite. Listening back to the band’s earliest work for the reissues provoked a mixture of emotions. “It almost feels like they were made by a different band. I’m slightly amazed that we managed to make them when we were pretty much children. It was an intense period of all our lives, so there’s a lot of nostalgia and emotion wrapped up in the two.”

Mogwai Young Team and Come On Die Young laid the foundations for Mogwai’s now three decades-long career. Subsequent albums grew more ambitious and diverse, adding strings, pianos, shimmering electronics and the occasional vocal to their dynamic sound, while regular touring and incendiary live shows attracted a loyal and sizeable following around the world.

The hard-working group are also highly admired by movie directors and have written soundtracks for numerous film and TV projects, including arthouse feature Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, Amazon Prime series ZeroZeroZero and, most recently, Apple TV drama Black Bird.

Their success is something that the singer says he’s extremely grateful for but doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling upon. “It’s always been the case that apart from the music itself, we don’t really take anything seriously. The music we take annoyingly seriously whereas everything else is a bit of a fuck-about.”

A lack of self-importance has been a constant throughout, reflecting their caustic Glaswegian sense of humour. In the late 1990s, members would regularly express their dislike of other bands in interviews with the music press and the group famously once sold t-shirts on their merchandise stall with the slogan “Blur: Are Shite” printed on them (Blur didn’t respond).

The group’s witty song and album titles have similarly punctured any notions of pomposity. Memorable entries in their canon include: I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead; Simon Ferocious; I Love You, I’m Going To Blow Up Your School; and Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will. And this writer’s personal favourite, You’re Lionel Ritchie.

“I guess there’s a bit of a Scottish aversion to pretension and that’s where the silly song titles come from,” explains the 46-year-old frontman, who also plays in rock groups Minor Victories and Silver Moth. “If we were calling them The Grandeur of Mountains or something like that it would just feel a bit icky to us.”

The band’s members’ Scottish roots are a source of deep pride that sits at the heart of Mogwai’s identity. At the time of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Braithwaite was a vocal supporter of the country breaking away from the UK. Almost a decade later, his views have only hardened.

“I think it’s actually more pressing now than ever. The British government trying to stop the Scottish government’s gender recognition act is an absolute outrage. You can see that they are trying to chip away at the powers of the Scottish Parliament. Scotland can definitely do better and I barely know anyone involved in the arts who isn’t pro-independence.

“I think the rightwards drift of politics and culture in Britain feels a wee bit alien in Scotland. I don’t think [Scotland] is some kind of socialist utopia but I certainly think that people here are maybe on a different path.”

Autumn brought the publication of Braithwaite’s first book, Spaceships Over Glasgow: Mogwai, Mayhem and Misspent Youth, a highly entertaining memoir told with revelatory candour. The book was written during lockdown and was originally conceived as a look back at the band’s defining concerts. “I realised quite early on that I didn’t remember enough about the gigs. It was going to be more of a pamphlet than a book,” he laughs.

Instead, Braithwaite enthusiastically writes about growing up as a music obsessed teenager in the Clyde valley, the messy 1990s Glasgow music scene and milestones in his personal life, including painful relationship break-ups and the death of his father – an amateur astronomer “very disdainful of authority and snobbery” who had a huge impact on his life. “It was quite difficult to write about those things because I’m quite a private person but I did enjoy it and I probably will write something else in the future,” he reveals.

Before then, Mogwai are playing a short tour of England that includes shows at Leeds O2 Academy and two nights at Manchester’s Albert Hall where fundraisers for Big Issue North will be taking cash and card donations. Braithwaite wants to start work on a new album, the band’s eleventh, later in the year – after finishing another soundtrack project – and says the group has no intention of calling it a day anytime soon.

“I don’t think I’d really like to do anything else. I feel very lucky that I get to make a living playing my guitar and as long as people want to hear me, Dominic, Barry and Martin making a racket then I’m sure we’ll be happy to do it.” He jokes that the secret to the band’s longevity is that “we haven’t died and we don’t hate each other”.

“We enjoy it and that’s not the case with a lot of bands. I’ve got friends in bands and they don’t look forward to meeting up and going on tour. It’s a stressful environment and you have to get on well with the people you are working with because it’s not an easy existence.”

He says the tight friendship that exists between him and his bandmates has deepened over the years they’ve been making music together, reinforcing their determination to tread their own path, regardless of prevailing trends. “We’ve always had an us-against-everyone attitude right from the start. We’ve always had that kind of gang mentality.”

He hopes that Mogwai’s against-the-odds success encourages other artists to be equally bold, resist commercial pressures and do their own thing.

“If we inspire some musicians to make music just for themselves that would make me happy, because that’s kind of what we did and it all worked out pretty well.”

Spaceships Over Glasgow: Mogwai, Mayhem and Misspent Youth is published by White Rabbit Books 

Stuart Braithwaite on homelessness

A lot needs to be done. I talk to a lot of people on the streets and a lot of people don’t realise how it easy it is to fall between the cracks. I’ve got a lot of time for Big Issue North and homeless causes. I actually sold The Big Issue for a day once [as part of a fundraising drive] and it was really interesting because although I’m known in indie rock circles, I’m not famous, so most people thought I was just another person selling the magazine. It was interesting to see how people treated you. It certainly gave me an awful lot of respect for the people out there selling the magazine.

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