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Mogwai is back on point

Two decades in, band returns to its post-rock roots



Maybe your exposure to contemporary Scots culture comes from Ken Loach's gritty films, or the dystopian novels and mysteries of Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin, or Armando Iannucci's eloquently profane satire.

If your take is more music-based, then Teenage Fanclub, Belle & Sebastian or Camera Obscura probably figure into your view. But arguably the most successful Scottish music export has been Mogwai, the instrumental-rock maelstrom purveyor that has influenced acts from all over the sonic spectrum in the two decades since its 1995 founding.

The Glasgow-based quintet — which plays, loudly, at Amos' Southend on May 6 — has experienced something of a renaissance lately. The band has been driven by a slight shift in its sonic palette, as captured on recent releases for the Seattle-based label Sub Pop.

But according to guitarist John Cummings, there's nothing particularly Scottish, or Glaswegian, about Mogwai's sound. The connection, he says via phone from his Glasgow home, is in the encouraging musical environment of the band's hometown.

"Some people do get a bit romantic about there being something about Glasgow that inspires beautiful music," Cummings says, noting that the vast musical differences between Glaswegian bands belie the point. Instead, he sees Glasgow's outlier-status from London as central to the Scottish musician's mindset.

"You don't expect to have loads of A&R guys from major record labels coming to your concerts, you're just playing, like, in a pub because you enjoy it – that kind of thing," he says. "The city's not like those places where people go to be famous for being in a band. I don't think Glasgow's ever been that. It's just been a place that, if you want to make music, people will help you."

Mogwai in a pub — the notion is practically adorable considering the band's well-earned reputation for gigs loud enough to turn your internal organs into jelly. Beginning with a series of impressive singles and EPs in the mid-'90s (collected on Ten Rapid) and a stunning '97 full-length debut, Young Team, Mogwai built an instant following by veering from the dominant post-rock formula of the time embodied in Tortoise's rhythm centrism.

Instead, the Scots crafted brooding numbers embroidered with sparse cello or strings and Rhodes parts that transitioned from slow-burn kindling into full-crescendo guitar conflagrations. For years, that was the Mogwai way: Reflect a cold, lonely and uncaring universe, and then spit in its face with anguished howls of stomp-box rage and resistance. (And for a bit of fun, use taking-the-piss song titles like "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead" or "Superheroes of BMX.") Through all that, though, the band always kept its eye on the importance of melody and dynamics play.

But by the mid-'00s Mogwai seemed to be running in place. On Mr. Beast (2006) and The Hawk Is Howling (2008), the band's last two records for Matador in the U.S., the songs' familiar ebb and flow went from comforting to discomfiting.

It would be three years before the band released another studio full-length, 2011's Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. If the music hadn't drastically altered in the interim, circumstances had. The band returned to its own European label, Rock Action, to release the record, and was signed to Sub Pop in the U.S.

Mogwai had also scored a French TV series, Les Revenants — a smash hit in the U.K. being remade in the States as The Returned. The short format featured snippets of background music, which the band later fleshed out and released in 2013 as Les Revenants. That same year they also toured behind a soundtrack they did in 2007 for Zidane: A 21st-century Portrait; the experimental, wordless film followed soccer whiz Zenadine Zidane through an entire La Liga match via 17 synchronized cameras.

The TV soundtrack's brevity and the live Zidane shows' spontaneity subtly informed Rave Tapes, whose title toyed with the idea that Mogwai was turning toward electronica. But as fellow critic Corbie Hill wrote in these pages reviewing Rave Tapes, the album is "defined by ambient level-headedness and creeping digital textures rather than blissfully cranked instro-rock."

For Cummings, though, it represents a return to the band's looser beginnings. "If you have too much of a set idea going into a recording, that can be a bit traumatic when not everyone shares that same idea," he says. "So it's better to let it go and see what happens when everyone's there."

As they had for Hardcore, the band turned for production to Paul Savage, the former Delgados member who'd been in the control booth for Young Team. If the band sounds rejuvenated on Rave Tapes, his presence has helped; plus, he's also a Glaswegian. As Cummings says, "it's good to have local people that can do as good a job as anyone else in the world."

You could say the same of Mogwai.

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