Interview with Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai: Turning Away From The Light

Fertile Scottish combo, Mogwai, became a provocative ‘post-rock’ beacon in the mid-‘90s, extending upon the profound reverb-heavy shoegazing Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine devised and the proverbial noise rock experimentalism Sonic Youth pillaged. Fronted by proficient guitarist Stuart Braithwaite, these artful punks established themselves as one of the most investigative post-grunge acts, marveling the coolest indie scenesters with frighteningly awesome distended live jams (captured best at Music Hall of Williamsburg for sensational 2010 Secret Moves disc).

Nearly the antithesis to fellow Glaswegian trendsetters Belle & Sebastian, whose eloquently picturesque pop whimsy counters their frostily frenetic fretwork, Mogwai’s finest art rock explorations tend to be drifting instrumental exploits weaving lovely arpeggiated chords, fuzzy scree crackles, spiny feedback shards and distended obbligatos inside various symmetric textural shapes.

“We’re actually friends with Belle & Sebastian. We played the same scene, did some shows together. We’ve both survived and lasted for over a decade. I think we’re the last ones standing,” a jovial Braithwaite informs me as we stroll down memory lane.

In fact, he’s right. While the whole rock landscape blew up and slowly changed coarse, leaving a gathering of overlooked, underdeveloped and sidestepped bands in its wake, the two Stuart’s (Braithwaite and Murdoch) continued gaining firmer access to an extended international audience, half of whom might’ve been babies when Mogwai took hold.

In the beginning, teenaged schoolyard pals, Braithwaite and bassist Dominic Aitchison hooked up with drummer Martin Bulloch, then subsequently, keyboard programming 6-stringer John Cummings. Despite their deliciously devilish Cantonese Chinese moniker, Mogwai lean closer to celestial beauty these days, migrating a bit from the fiery ‘evil-spirited’ irascibility of yore, at least by current indications.

Gallant 1997 debut Young Team pitted subtle transcendent poignancy against distorted pedal affects, turbulent riffs and discordant clamor underscored (strangely enough) by the same dangling conversations, incoherent mumbles and distant murmurs still inoculating Mogwai’s extemporaneously tailored abstractions. Abstruse instrumental highlight, “Like Herod,” a cathartic creepy crawler, builds ample tension prior to its jarringly explosive release, setting the general course of action for the rest of this powerful early landmark (at least before it dissolves into an eerily cocoon-like catacomb). The crunchiest cacophonous clamor, reminiscent of grunge igniters Nirvana, Green River and the Melvins, vanquish the intriguingly majestic soft-toned complexities with a brutal assault.

A perfectly rhapsodic rainy day relic, 1999’s Come On Die Young, went just as easily from elliptical to bombastic. Piano-playing flautist Barry Burns came onboard, adding an extra dimension that’d permanently solidify Mogwai. Soon after, a few EPs and remixes flooded the market, followed by 2001’s even better Rock Action, where the blissful atmospheric tranquility (mindful of contemporary slo-core designers Slint, Codeine, and Low) yields tremendously fruitful results. Abrasive anthemic eruptions provide maniacal gale force winds rising above the leisurely balladic restraint.

“Slint was absolutely inspirational,” a humbled Braithwaite offers. “My earliest musical enlightenment came from Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, Sonic Youth, The Cure and My Bloody Valentine. I always had a big interest in rock music.”

As Mogwai’s live reputation grew, so did their stimulating repertoire. 2003’s epic masterwork, Happy Songs For Happy People, cajoled sweeping symphonic melancholia out of ambient pieces that shunned the past’s metal-edged hardcore derivations, sounding remarkably like pioneering generative artisan, Eno, in retrospect.

“I think musically we just try different things. It’s nothing really drastic, just organic changes. We tried a lot of different instrumentation over time. So we’ve definitely developed since our first album,” Braithwaite says. “But it’s hard to pin down. We try to change up just about everything.”

Though 2006’s extravagantly detailed Mr. Beast and its exclusively instrumental successor, 2008’s The Hawk Is Howling, didn’t luxuriously expand Mogwai’s sonic template, both received critical respect. The former featured “Auto Rock” (used as incidental music in the Miami Vice film), an ethereal piano brooder that blossoms into a fully blown onslaught. The latter contained frenzied pile-driving scrum, “Batcat,” and the appallingly christened, “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead,” an ominous slow-burner reaching crushingly skull-splitting metallic crescendos.

Having accumulated an extensive catalogue to fall back on, this enduring troupe continues to grow, rising to the occasion once more on their seventh studio set. A monumental re-entry, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, absolutely exceeded expectations.

The Hawk Is Howling was a more sparse, heavy record, whereas Hardcore is probably more upbeat and optimistic. But I definitely like both records,” Braithwaite asserts.

Dramatic commencing overture, “White Noise,” may seem akin to Lou Reed’s disquietingly shrill Metal Machine Music via its title, but the deliberately-paced neo-Classical framework, bell-like jangle and melodic piano create an interstellar effervescence even Braithwaite’s zooming guitar cannot crash through. The galactic traversing stays afloat on “Mexican Grand Prix,” a neo-psychedelic organ-droned illumination that wouldn’t seem out of place on an early Yo La Tengo album.

Braithwaite contends, “That’s definitely inspired by (‘70s-related krautrock band) Neu. There are bands from Germany we’ve liked for a long time, so those sounds we’ve kept in our minds. There’s a sweeter organ sound.”

As for the weirdly titled songs, he believes sometimes the band is plain lazy and just name each track after how it may sound. But mostly, they keep each member “vaguely amused.” Designating the closing vignette, “You’re Lionel Richie,” was easy enough.

“Some songs are named after things that happen. Like one time, I saw Lionel Ritchie at the airport. I was hungover and I said, ‘You’re Lionel Ritchie.’ The guys remembered that years later,” he shares.

Sometimes the epithets are completely random, such as “San Pedro,” an upbeat straight-ahead rampage that has nothing to do with the coastal California city. And why should swooped orchestral lullaby, “Death Ray,” with its glistening Cathedral organ, be labeled thusly?

“That’s a nice number. I’m not really good at talking about the songs, to be honest. It’s fun to play live,” Mogwai’s main man quips.

If there’s one kindred band, it may be cinematic Texas phantoms Explosions In The Sky. Both bands put on monumental shows and enjoy crafting beautiful guitar-etched tunes that touch the sky.

When asked if there’s a correlation, Braithwaite concludes, “Yeah. They’re friends of ours. Good guys. They probably like the same bands as us. That wouldn’t surprise me. When we go out to play concerts, it takes awhile for us to get up to speed. But once we get our shit together and hit stride, watch out.”

Mogwai will be performing at Manhattan’s Webster Hall April 21 and 22.