Mogwai: ‘We always wanted to get a better name than Mogwai but we never got around to it’
For two decades, Mogwai have worked just outside the mainstream and carved one of the great unsung careers in modern music. Stuart Braithwaite talks Scottish musical independence to Eamon Sweeney
Twenty years ago this June, three teenagers gathered in Glasgow for their first rehearsal. They called themselves Mogwai, after the furry creatures from the Gremlins movies. In the intervening two decades, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, for one, believes Mogwai have become “the band of the 21st century”.
Stuart Braithwaite and Dominic Aitchison met in 1991 at a Ned’s Atomic Dustbin show and quickly bonded over a shared love of music and a fascination with the paranormal.
“We were both completely obsessed with UFOs,” Braithwaite reveals. “Dominic and I used to drive around Glasgow looking for them. We saw some very weird stuff, but we didn’t really know enough about aircraft and astronomy to know what they were – which is pretty embarrassing, considering my late Dad was an astronomer and telescope maker. We spent our youth looking at the sky.”
Stuart’s father John, who died in 2012, was remarkably prolific. Some of his numerous occupations include presenter with Radio Free Scotland, advisor to David Hockney, SNP election candidate, Scottish schools’ high jump and javelin champion, and the constructor of the first astronomically aligned stone circle in Scotland for more than 3,000 years. You could say young Stuart didn’t lick it off a stone.
Braithwaite and Aitchison formed Mogwai with their school pal, Martin Bulloch.
The name stuck
“The first time we got together and played properly as a band was June 1995,” Braithwaite says. “We rehearsed just after Glastonbury in my parents living room. We always wanted to get a better name than Mogwai but, like a lot of things, we never really got around to it.”
Guitarist John Cummings joined and Mogwai quickly gained a reputation as a brilliant live act.
“Our two ambitions were to get played by John Peel and play the [Glasgow] Barrowlands,” Braithwaite says. “Not even to headline, just to open for someone. Those two things happened relatively quickly. John Peel told us he really liked us, but he always thought we’d be the kind of band who’d play for two people and a dog, so he was really surprised when we got popular.”
The fledgling band also developed a reputation as hedonistic party animals and spiky interviewees. Their predominantly instrumental music suggested they were serious young men who stroked their beards while listening to obscure post-rock bands such as Slint. In reality, they wore Celtic jerseys and guzzled Buckfast.
“There was a definite disconnect in there somewhere,” Braithwaite laughs. “We didn’t take anything seriously, apart from the music. How seriously we take the music compensates for how un-seriously we take everything else.
“I’ve given up the Buckfast, though. You have to leave some things in the past. I’ve got a few mates who still drink it, but I’m more of a Chianti man now.”
Braithwaite also appears to have mellowed with age when it comes to taking hilarious potshots at his contemporaries. He once memorably called Kula Shaker singer Crispin Mills an “upper class idiot bred on right-wing values, trying to meld them into Eastern mythology and ending up sounding like some lobotomised Nazi twit”.
“Did I really say that?” Braithwaite cackles. “I’d completely forgotten about him. To be honest, when we realised we’d some longevity as a band, a lot of that stuff started to seem very futile. When you’re wasting your time berating someone in a band no one knows about, you might as well shut up and get another record out. It also sounds really arrogant, and it is borderline bullying, but it was just us being ourselves.”
Mogwai also reportedly said they’d never do TFI Friday, as they considered presenter Chris Evans to be “a completely obnoxious prick”.
“That is true,” Braithwaite confirms. “We never would’ve done it. I’ve never met the guy, but popular culture around then got ridiculous. You had TFI Friday and Damien Hirst. I can feel myself bitching when I start thinking about it. It was a really cosy, west-London, jokey, cocaine-fuelled social circle. To be honest, I just found it really gross.
“I know we kicked off on Blur, but at least they proved themselves and changed a bit. We probably put quite a few people off our band, which was a bit dumb. But the music is always there, and they’re free to get into it at any point.”
Well, in 1999 Mogwai produced a line of T-shirts for their festival shows emblazoned with the slogan “Blur: Are Shite”. Surely they’ve crossed paths with Damon Albarn & co over the years?
“I’ve actually got to know Graham [Coxon] a bit,” Braithwaite says. “He has never mentioned it. I’d say he has seen enough underground bands mouthing off about mainstream bands in his time to know it’s not a big deal.
“Or maybe he totally despises us and never told me.”
In the space of two decades, Mogwai have released eight studio albums, a plethora of EPs and some high-profile soundtracks, including Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and music for the acclaimed French television series Les Revenants.
“We’re going into the studio next week to work on the new series of Les Revenants,” Braithwaite says. “We’re also working with your fellow Irishman Mark Cousins on Atomic, which is an archive footage film about the atomic age and discovering the atom. We’ve been writing music for both projects during the last six months.
“We’re really looking forward to working with Mark because he is a real character and a great guy.”
When pushed for his favourite album from their extensive back catalogue, he selects 2011’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.
“We were really focused when we made it. It was also the first record we put out on our own label, so we were deeply involved in the entire process. I can change my mind at any second, but right now, it is that one.”
Mogwai have been regular visitors to these shores since making their Irish live debut in Whelan’s alongside an incredible band from Ringsend called Wormhole back in January 1998. They are launching their 20th anniversary tour with dates in Dublin and Cork.
“We’ve always had a great time in Ireland and we really should’ve played over there a bit more,” Braithwaite says. “We do all these festivals and now we’re the older band. For years, we were always one of the younger bands, but it’s healthy to reverse roles.”
Still, Mogwai have a long way to go to match the half-century mark reached by The Rolling Stones in 2012.
“Oh my God, I really can’t imagine that,” he says. “I’d like to think we’ll still be making music in 20 years time. While I can’t see us doing many hundred-date tours at that stage of the game, it would be nice to think we’d still be doing it and getting along well.
“Actually, now that I think about it, I’m really looking forward to the next 20 years.”
Mogwai play the Cork Opera House on June 17th and Dublin’s Olympia on June 18th. For more on their 20th anniversary activities, see mogwai.co.uk