Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite: ‘The Tories haven’t got a clue about culture’
The frontman on sleep-talking, dying young, and what Brexit is doing to British musicians
Scottish band Mogwai have just released their 10th album As the Love Continues.
Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, famously said that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The hugely influential Scottish band, Mogwai, were all set to record their 10th album, As the Love Continues, with David Fridmann in his renowned Tarbox Road Studios facility in Upstate New York. The pandemic forced them to relocate to Worcestershire with the American producer overseeing proceedings remotely like an Orwellian oppressor.
“It’s the only time we left Scotland since this whole thing began, so just to be going anywhere was amazing,” laughs Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai’s affable guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and occasional singer. “Going to England being amazing is not a sentence I thought I’d ever say in my life.”
Fridmann has a long-standing relationship with Mogwai, Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips and MGMT, producing the Scots’s second album Come On Die Young in 1999. “To be honest, initially, I wasn’t convinced it would work at all,” Braithwaite confesses. “I didn’t realise just how involved David could get and he was there pretty much the whole time. After a while, it was just like he was physically in the room with us. The only major difference was not being able to have dinner with him and his family after a day’s recording.”
The process created unique opportunities, such as working with Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails on a string arrangement. “I’m sure we could’ve cobbled together some string parts, but it would have been very basic, whereas he went to town on it,” Braithwaite enthuses. “The recording session itself was epic as we had Atticus in LA directing an orchestra in Budapest. It really stretched what you can do with zoom album making.”
As the Love Continues opens with a tracked entitled To the Bin My Friend, For Tonight We Abandon Earth. The voice at the beginning is a musician named Benjamin John Power, who produces experimental electronica under the alias of Blanck Mass, talking in his sleep.
“We released Ben’s first Blanck Mass album and I adore his music,” Stuart says. “We are good friends and we’ve got a group chat going between us and my wife where he sends us recordings of all the mad stuff he says in his sleep. He puts on a weird over the top Shakespearean voice, which is nothing like what he is like in real life. God knows what was actually going on in his dream.”
Mogwai are noted for titles that reference Stanley Kubrick, Jim Morrison, Lionel Ritchie and football referee Hugh Dallas, to mention just a few. “It often tends to be something someone says,” Braithwaite reveals. “We write it down because it makes us laugh. Titles take on a life of their own and almost become avatars for the music.”
“The lyrics were inspired by a story Bob Nastanovich [Pavement/Silver Jews] shared about his friend and bandmate who proclaimed ‘Rise crystal spear’ as he threw a shovel at a sports car,” Braithwaite says. “The song is dedicated to all the musician friends we’ve lost over the years. When Dave died it was terrible. He’d just made what I think is his best record [Purple Mountains]. We were on tour that autumn and listened to it over and over again. It was our album of the year. Suddenly, he wasn’t there anymore.”
Braithwaite says he wasn’t very close to Berman, but they share lots of good friends. “Sadly, it was very similar with the death of Scott from Frightened Rabbit,” Stuart continues, referring to the vocalist and guitarist Scott Hutchinson, who died in 2018. “You feel the ripples of these things and when you get a bit older, you feel them a lot more. It was a hard song to write. I thought about a Bowie quote a lot: ‘If you feel safe or comfortable in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area.’ It’s a hard one, particularly for us in Scotland, where a lot of musicians, and indeed, people from all walks of life, are dying young.”
‘A lot of hassle’
Mogwai donated half the proceeds of last summer’s Bandcamp release of the soundtrack of ZeroZeroZero to NHS charities and a fund for musicians struggling to survive. Braithwaite fears Brexit will worsen the predicament of artists. “We’re at a level where it will cause us a lot of hassle rather than stop us from touring,” he says. “But it’s going to impact on younger bands terribly. They are quite literally stopping people from enjoying any culture from outside Britain.”
Prominent industry figures such as Ed Sheeran, Elton John and Radiohead have recently become vocal on this issue. “It’s really nice that Elton John and all these people are speaking up about it now, but it’s a bit bloody late,” Braithwaite believes. “All the musicians I know were banging on about this long before the vote. Imagine if this was all happening during so called ‘normal’ times. Tour buses would be stopped at Dover and all hell would be breaking loose.”
The Conservative Party have never been exemplary patrons of modern culture. There’s a telling yarn about how Margaret Thatcher used to take the director of the National Theatre, Peter Hall, to task whenever he brought up the issue of underfunding the arts. “Look,” she would say, dramatically jabbing her finger, “at Andrew Lloyd Webber”. Incidentally, Mogwai have a tune called George Square Thatcher Death Party.
“I don’t know the history of Andrew Lloyd Webber but I guess he had to start somewhere,” Braithwaite says. “They [the Tories] haven’t got a clue about culture, even though it makes the government a fortune. Take the issue of small venues as another example. You go to countries where they don’t have a music scene, or a theatre scene, and that’s why. Good venues and a touring infrastructure are all bits of the jigsaw that creates culture.”
In addition to being touring veterans, Mogwai have dabbled in producing craft beer, whiskey and rum over the years. Back when they started, they always requested Buckfast tonic wine on their hospitality rider. In 2015, Braithwaite told The Irish Times, “I’m a more of a Chianti man now”. In 2020, Stuart took a year off booze.
“Of all the years to stop drinking, it definitely was the worst possible one I could’ve picked,” Braithwaite laughs. “But it really focused me. A year off drinking and not being able to leave the house became a great combination for creative output.”
Twenty-five years ago next month, Mogwai released their first single, a double A-side entitled Tuner/Low. After a flurry of early singles and EPs, they released Mogwai Young Team in 1997 and played to less than 100 people at their Irish debut in Whelan’s. A quarter of a century later, they’re one of the great modern guitar bands and loudest live acts in the world.
They’d been teed up to play shows in Glasgow, London and Manchester for the silver anniversary of their first release. “It was almost 25 years to the very day of our first rehearsal when we started this album,” Stuart says. “Our friend Anthony Crook is making a film about it. We also had some special gigs booked in the Hebrides. Everything has changed but we’ll still do it at some point. Most people who want to see us will probably have seen us by now, whereas this whole situation is particularly unfair on anyone releasing their first record. We’re lucky enough to have been doing this for most of our lives.”
As the Love Continues is out tomorrow