Glorious Mistakes: A conversation with Mogwai

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Mogwai interview

“Our main focus is to just make some good music.”

Stuart Braithwaite tends to avoid hyperbole and leaning into any romantic notions of mystique when he talks about the music he makes with Mogwai. He describes the making of each album as beginning with a blank slate, no grand vision or concept around which their songs are bound. Their song titles are mostly “pretty dumb,” as he puts it, taken from inside jokes or whatever phrase he and the other members of the band can think of while in the studio, like “Pat Stains,” which came from a friend trying to recall Pat Smear’s name, or “To the Bin, My Friend, Tonight We Vacate the Earth,” a cryptic declaration uttered by a friend in his sleep. If I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect he talked about being in an enduring, influential band as if he would any other job.

It is his job, of course, and over the past year—as live performances and many other aspects of the music industry had been either interrupted or halted as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic—Braithwaite, Dominic Aitchison, Martin Bulloch and Barry Burns did what any band in their position would do: They got to work. Unable to perform live—a critical and often lauded aspect of the band—the group returned to the studio, recording tracks in the UK as producer Dave Fridmann worked entirely remotely from the U.S. The resulting album, As the Love Continues, is the band in their element, capturing the full breadth of their sound, from immersive electronics-driven sounds such as “Dry Fantasy” to the driving rock anthem “Richie Sacramento” (which, for the record, was named after someone’s mispronunciation of Ryuichi Sakamoto).

It’s an album that gives the impression it would sound great live, and on Valentine’s Day they’ll prove that via a livestream. For Braithwaite, the inability to play music, otherwise, is a disappointment—certainly. But the inability to hear live music is something that’s disrupted his life in a profound way.

“Right at the start of the lockdown, we were getting ready to leave to play a festival in Mexico and made the call at the last minute that it’d be reckless to be traveling, and it kind of feels like missing a limb or something,” Braithwaite says from his home in Glasgow. “It’s the thing I’ve struggled with the most. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel now, the vaccinations are picking up, and I’m kind of hoping it’ll be over soon. Not just playing music—going to see music. I live in the city, and I see several bands a week, normally. It’s part of my life, it’s where I see most of my friends, and so I haven’t seen them in a long time because I see them at shows. I’m sure I’m far from unique in that. The sooner we can get there, the better.”

As the Love Continues is the band’s attempt to put something positive back in to the world as it’s in the throes of an event that’s threatened and upended countless lives. It’s both sprawling and exhausting in the best way that a Mogwai album can be, and the amount of stylistic ground it covers feels like a career summary in many ways. It’s also the product of a band that’s discovered a kind of freedom in not being tied to any preconception of what they’re creating.

Over the past decade, Mogwai’s spent a lot of time honing their skills in the realm of film and television scores, such as the Italian series Zero Zero Zero, sci-fi film Kin, and documentary Atomic, Living in Dread and Promise. Tackling these projects has made the band more adaptable and able to make edits and rewrites on the fly, Braithwaite says. So when they were working on As the Love Continues, they came prepared for whatever Fridmann was ready to throw at them, including frequent directives to do the opposite of whatever they tried during a previous take. And that provided more than a few opportunities to stumble upon a happy accident.

“Certainly, the four of us playing together have a sound, and we know what we can play to kind of complement what the other people are playing,” he says. “That can be a negative as much as a positive, though, so that’s probably why Dave was pushing us to try different things all the time. You could just make the same records over and over, and we’re conscious of trying not to do that.

“If there was a song that normally had a loud, distorted guitar part, just try a really quiet one,” he elaborates. “What would be the opposite of the really obvious thing to do? Sometimes it would be terrible. Sometimes your instinct is right, but sometimes you might end up with something really interesting and different.”

Braithwaite, for his part, isn’t a perfectionist. Much in the same way that Mogwai albums aren’t meticulously mapped out in advance, the band likewise leave room in their compositions for a little chaos to take over.

“I’m kind of more of the school of glorious mistakes,” he says. “I’m almost an anti-perfectionist. For something on the whole to be as good as it could be. But sometimes people spend so much time working on one sound or one song that they regurgitate it to the point where it’s nothing, whereas if you bash something out with complete abandon, it can become pretty incredible.

“One of my favorite bits on the record is on the song ‘Ceiling Granny,’ and I played the wrong note because my finger slipped,” he continues. “We just stopped and said ‘oh, that sounds cool’, so I did it twice and it became part of the song. It’s the best, because playing rock music is fun and it’s messy, and it’s not an exact art. Most of the records we grew up on were all made in two or three days, and there must have been a million mistakes on those. I remember when I was really obsessed with records as a teenager and you’d hear a little slop here and there, and they’re my favorite bits.”

Mogwai interview

Mogwai began recording As the Love Continues just as they reached their 25th anniversary as a band, and in that time they’ve covered a lot of ground. They’ve released 10 studio albums and about a half-dozen scores and soundtracks, not to mention well over a thousand live performances. Which makes it all the more remarkable that their sound and approach, however much it evolves and grows from the basic idea of a band they once conceived of back in the ’90s, remains identifiably their own after all this time.

That doesn’t mean nothing’s changed; Braithwaite points specifically to how the Internet and its algorithms have completely turned the music industry upside-down, and how “it was a completely analog world” of fanzines and 7-inches when Mogwai first emerged. Though the band members, themselves, have changed as well. They’re older, now in their forties rather than their early twenties when they began, with families. Mogwai have always been musically sophisticated, but Braithwaite suggests he wasn’t particularly grown up when the band started off. When he listens to the group’s early material, he says, he sometimes doesn’t recognize the naive young man that played guitar on those records. But he’s still proud that kid managed to pull it off, all the same.

“It kind of feels like someone else made it in a lot of ways,” he says. “It’s probably only recently that I’ve come to feel that way. But a lot of stuff [we made in the past] I wasn’t so sure of, but now I’m really fond of. Because 20-year-old me I’m just amazed could get his shit together enough to record a song. When you look back to when you’re a kid—and now I’m in my forties—it’s such a seismic change. I’m almost like ‘wow, I managed to write a song!’ It seems insane. I think back to how useless I was, and I’m pretty proud of any semblance of togetherness I had to make some weird noisy songs.”

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