Simple and Effective – A Conversation with Mogwai About Their New Album
Flashback to Gainesville, Florida, 1999, I hear Mogwai for the first time in one of the record stores there. I ask the owner, who is seriously the comic book guy from the Simpsons in record store guy clothing, what we are hearing. It’s Come On Die Young by Mogwai.
Just under an hour, Hardcore is dense and evolved. It’s melodic and atmospheric, done with the consummate craftsmanship that Mogwai is celebrated for. Mogwai remain the same, deliberate and earnest, but Hardcore is different somehow; something hinted at with “Ratts in the Capital” from Happy Songs…, “Glasgow Mega-Snake” from Mr. Beast, and then no longer hinting when we reach The Hawk Is Howling and Hardcore. The guitars seem to be moving away from the complimentary melodies and harmonies to a more riff heavy style of play. The drumming on the album also seems different; a more “traditional” rock-n-roll style of playing presents itself. Fans of the band need not fret; this is after all one man’s read on mostly instrumental music that can mean so many different things to so many different people. Additionally, the purists have the comfort of the slow burning crunch of tracks like “Rano Pano,” “Death Rays,” and the album closer, “You’re Lionel Richie.” On familiar ground, Mogwai creates those melodies that we love on “Letters To The Metro,” and they are a boon.
Four tracks stand out starting with “Mexican Grand Prix.” This song hits the ground running, vocal lines float over spartan drum programming, organ, and bass that are racing towards climax. “San Pedro” with its late period Sonic Youth feel grooves. “George Square Thatcher Death Party,” that bass line walks all over the backbeat, its keyboards recall the “Mogwai Fear Satan” flute melody, the vocals soar and the guitars grind. Finally, “How To Be A Werewolf” is guitar rock at its finest.
We spoke with Mogwai. Specifically, multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns who shared his thoughts on the new album and more…
Has the process of songwriting changed from the Tuner 7” up to Hardcore?
Having been in the band only from the second album I can’t really give you an accurate answer on this. Since that point though, it’s just been a case of sending each other songs to work on between the 4 songwriters in the band.
Simple and effective, in your website’s FAQ, Mogwai is described as being “smallish/biggish”, does this description still stand? Is this a good place for the band, as far as having equilibrium between art and celebrité?
I haven’t even read that or I can’t remember it! That’s a stupid but fairly spot-on description. We are certainly not celebrities and long may it remain that way because it sounds like it could be a pain in the arse, don’t you think?
Truly, we do not need to see Mogwai on TMZ. The new album opens with the track “White Noise.” It feels restrained somehow, like it’s waiting for something. The drums hold you back but the keyboard melodies grab you by the hand and ease you forward. It’s a great opener and it feels like a track 1. How important is song placement on your albums? If at all.
Very important and we’ve messed it up before but i think the songs are well compiled on the new record and that’s after having lived with it for so long now. I think it is a good opener and I really like the last song as the end of the album.
“You’re Lionel Richie” definitely a good place to leave the listener. Luke Sutherland appears on six of Hardcore’s 11 tracks, and if not mistaken he has toured and recorded with you in the past. Is he the fifth Beatle? ”
“ At this very moment Luke is dancing to Meshuggah (on YouTube) in the dressing room making everyone laugh. He’s a brilliant guy and excellent all round talented bastard. He is The Beatles. But way better. So much better. ”
You have also collaborated with Roky Erickson on “Devil Rides” and have in the past done so with many others, Dave Pajo, Gruff Rhys, Tetsuya Fukagawa, and to a lesser extent the remix album. Any people you would like to work with in the future?
Not off the top of my head but we are always open to working with other people. I have to say that in my opinion we tend to output better work as a 5 piece, Mexican GP being an exception.
And of the five, who is the punching bag? It’s you isn’t it?
Me? Haha. No. Usually whoever is attempting to manage us or work for us in some capacity ends up being the punchbags. We’re quite the circle of wagons really and the list of people we’ve sacked is laughably long. Unless you’re on it.
Oh to be sacked by Mogwai, how about any Spinal Tap moments?
Millions. Probably some “Hello Cleveland” moments when we did that monster tour with The Cure at the enormodomes…….haha, i can’t believe just this second while the rest of the band are listening to the Van Halen youtube song “Spanish Fly” that Martin just said, “Stonehennggggggge”. Funny.
“Mexican Grand Prix” has a Stereolab-y feel. It’s the driving drumbeat and keys, I believe. Do your peers motivate your work? I don’t believe influence is the right word…
I suppose they must to a degree though I wouldn’t site Stereolab as a big influence on anyone in the band I don’t think but you just can’t really say. It is a weird thing to try and explain.
Fair enough. The keyboards seem to have moved away from simply chording or ambience to play a more melodic or lead type role on the new album, has this been a conscious choice?
No not conscious but I know what you mean. I suppose I might have just got more confident about melodies being featured rather than being buried and we have to try different things all the time in order not to get bored by ourselves.
You have used a vocoder in the past, is that Auto-tune on “George Square Thatcher Death Party”? If so, why does it sound cooler on a Mogwai album than just about anything else it has been heard on?
It’s not autotune but it does sound a bit like that. It’s the guitar pedal version of a vocoder which is why it sounds different from the old Roland ones we use. I think the autotune sound is totally shit and wont ever sound good on much. Except Cher of course. The Pioneer.
Ah, that’s why it sounds better than auto-tune, because it isn’t auto-tune. More on your tools of the trade, I notice very little drum machine on Hardcore. “Mexican Grand Prix” comes to mind, as it is bookended by drum programming. Scarce though, what’s up with that?
Dunno, just how it panned out. Originally on Mex GP there were no acoustic drums but Martin got all sexy and fast and played a blinder. We don’t tend to think it ways like, “we need to have drum machines on this”.
And finally, have you all ever had any fan moments? Like, “Bowie is backstage, he loves Young Team!”
David Byrne has been at the backstage area a few times and Chloe Sevigny but Sir Paul McCartney told me never to namedrop.
Like Barry Burns, I have been with Mogwai since their second album, Come On Die Young. Unlike Barry I have only been with the band as a fan and listener, they have yet to invite me into the studio or on tour. I know they used banjo on the Rock Action track, “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” and it was missing on the Special Moves live album, guys I am available to fill this roll. The fantastic Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will became available in these here United States on St. Valentine’s Day, go get it.
You can find out if Mogwai is coming to a town near you on their website and can purchase the album at record stores near you and Sub Pop’s website. You can also listen to “White Noise,” which was featured as our song of the day.