It takes more than words to get to the heart of Mogwai

As indie instrumentalists Mogwai approach their 20th anniversary, Barry Burns and Stuart Braithwaite discuss lyric-free music, Scottish identity and the absurdity of the ‘post.rock’ label


Strange as it may seem, Mogwai are fast approaching their 20th anniversary. Is that too weird for words for you?
Stuart Braithwaite: It’s a big achievement, to be honest. I guess none of us ever really thought we’d still be around as a band, primarily because we’re not people who think long term. But it’s amazing how it has continued and continued until those 20 years have passed.

When you first started what kind of ambitions did you have?
SB: We were naive, but we were also quite serious about wanting to do something substantial. It was about the time when we thought that culture around us was very flippant – on the telly it was programmes like Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush.

So for us it was about upending that on its head, developing and writing music of a kind that got us excited about culture in the first place. That said, this was all in our head. Ultimately, I suppose, we had no big plan other than to be played on John Peel’s radio show.

And what were the band’s cultural/creative touchstones when you first started?
Barry Burns: There’d be the obvious ones – not boring, just obvious – Jimi Hendrix, The Cure, Jesus & Mary Chain, Pixies. Outside music, it would have been people like Irvine Welsh, who is a writer whose work I’m still interested in. He remains quite a large cultural figure, in my opinion. He was one of the first people to reflect the type of Scotland that was a bit closer to everyday existence for a lot of people, rather than Take The High Road – even though my life back then was a bit more that than Trainspotting! Welsh used vernacular very well. And then, of course, another important band from Scotland was Arab Strap.

What about someone like Scottish poet Ivor Cutler? Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to from Scotland holds him in high regard.
BB: Oh, now you’re talking! I’ve got every single thing he’s done . . .
SB: Cutler spent a lot of his life in London, which is possibly why many people don’t equate him with Scotland. And there was some connection with The Beatles, too. He was still alive when we started, and I recall that we enquired about getting him to play at an All Tomorrow’s Party event we either curated or were playing at. But we found out that he was the person who founded the Anti Noise Society, so we decided it was best not to!

By this stage, surely the definition of your music as post.rock is redundant?
SB: I never thought it was relevant to begin with. It became a fairly handy term for a lot of bands that sounded like each other, but what was annoying to us was there didn’t appear to be that many bands around like us when we started. So it’s almost as if we got the blame for having the same idea as other bands, in the same way that some of the early Creation bands felt about the ‘shoegazing’ tag.
BB: It has helped that we’ve been around for so long, though, as we’ve shifted from being so strictly categorised because of various changes in music and culture in general.
SB: That’s true – and it’s still a compliment, by the way, if we read certain bands say that they’ve been influenced by us.

Another aspect of Mogwai that seems to receive regular comment is the lack of lyrics. What do you reckon of the theory that one person writing the lyrics – which is what tends to happen in most groups – dilutes the perceived democracy of a band?
SB: Being mostly instrumental from, pretty much, the start, was us feeling that we’re playing to our strengths. Plus, it’s sad but true that people run out of things to say. In fact, in my experience of loving music it happens quite often, and especially so when bands and/or acts have been very successful. Woes, however, are harder to come by, as Kanye West has quite likely proven.

Interesting – so you’re into the vernacular of Irvine Welsh and the poetry of Ivor Cutler, yet Mogwai remain very much an instrumental band. What would a psychologist make of that, we wonder?
SB: Well, I think we’re very wordy in many ways. And we all know you can still appreciate words without having the need or want to sing them in every song. I know people who love music but who have no inclination to pick up a guitar or sing lead vocals, and that’s the situation for us with words.
BB: For us to put words together for a piece of music it’s like pulling teeth.
SB: I’m sure Irvine Welsh wakes up every morning and just batters sentences and paragraphs out – it might not always be good, but it’s in his DNA to do that. With us, it’s just the music. People thought it was odd at first, but I don’t see it as a problem – I never have.
BB: I suppose we could go the Sigur Rós route and sing in Scotlandish. Actually, that sometimes happens at about four in the morning, with a wee dram taken and no microphones around!

Mogwai’s new album Rave Tapes is out today and is reviewed on page 14