Over the last 20 years, Glasgow’s Mogwai have forged a path that has seen the five-piece build an impressive catalogue of uncompromising and continuously progressive guitar music. After receiving an early accolade from Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus claiming Mogwai to be “the best band of the 21st century,” the Glaswegians did their best to prove his words true. Alongside bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Tortoise, they led the post-rock movement, only to move beyond the pigeonholing and become one of the more visible bands in indie rock. But refusing to settle into one distinctive sound, Mogwai have incorporated elements of all kinds: the rumbling heaviness of doom metal, the precision of math rock and the game-changing foray into electronic music. With their sonic curiosity, the Scots vastly opened up their scope, which would continue with their voyage into scoring music for film.
Looking back on the band’s history, guitarist Stuart Braithwaite says Mogwai’s catalogue is “something to be quite proud of. We’ve done a lot. We were really young when we started the band, so there are certainly a lot of bands that are the same age as us that haven’t made anywhere near as much music as us.”
Although they’re one of the unlikeliest acts to issue a “greatest hits” release, Mogwai felt it was important to mark their twentieth anniversary with some kind of retrospective. And so, to commemorate two decades together, the band has compiled Central Belters, “a set of career highlights and rarities.”
About the release, Braithwaite says, “I think we wanted to do something and it was the obvious thing to do. Our band has been going so long, there are probably a lot of people who only know one period of Mogwai. I’m sure there are a few people that have liked us from the start. But I see the age of some people coming to our shows and a lot of them must have been kids when we started releasing the early singles and Mogwai Young Team.”
Noisey reached Braithwaite on Skype outside of Glasgow’s only Whole Foods, and got him to rank Mogwai’s eight studio albums before he was about to pick up a bite for his girlfriend.
8. The Hawk Is Howling (2008)
Noisey: Why is this your least favourite?
Stuart Braithwaite: I’m reasonably happy with all of our records, so this isn’t a real downer on that record. I just think that with The Hawk Is Howling we had a lot of songs written for a soundtrack that we had been fired from, and because of that it’s almost more of a soundtrack album than a regular rock record. There are some really good songs there, but it’s not as focused as some of our other records. That’s why I’ve got it last.
What film was it supposed to be the soundtrack for?
It was a Colombian film. I don’t even want to give it any credit because they treated us really badly and didn’t pay us for our time. The director didn’t understand that unmixed music doesn’t sound as good as mixed music. It was his first movie and he didn’t have a clue. We’d done a good job. Dominic [Aitchison] said he found the original recordings recently and they were good! There was nothing wrong with it. He had this music by Sigur Rós that was completely finished, so he was comparing what we were doing as we did it to these really polished, studio recordings, but it didn’t sound the same.
Why weren’t there any vocals on the album?
I guess we didn’t write any songs that required vocals. Our songs tend to fit into two categories: songs where we just added some vocals because we didn’t know what else to do or traditional songs. Neither of those came up during that album.
The Hawk Is Howling received a lower score on Pitchfork than any other Mogwai album. Does that kind of negative criticism bother the band?
I don’t think anyone likes having people say unpleasant things about what you’re doing. I think our first album is the only one to get a good review from them. And some of the things they’ve said about our music is so dumb that, to be honest, it’s hard to take them that seriously. I mean, I was more bothered when Come On Die Young only got eight out of ten from NME back in the day.
There is a great song on this album called “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead.” One of the things I love about Mogwai is how you come up with some truly absurd song titles. Where did that one come from?
I think Dominic just said it one time talking rubbish. They’re all just nonsense, people saying things, misreading or mishearing things. We’ve got screeds of them. We’ve already got some great titles for the next record, which we haven’t even written a note of yet. There’s no real story to it, but yeah, it’s a pretty good song title. [Laughs]
7. Rave Tapes (2014)
Most artists tend to favour their newest albums when they rank their records. So why is this number seven?
Rave Tapes is a good record. I just think that maybe we should have prepared it a little better. The songs we’ve been playing live now sound fully formed. But I might change my mind in a week and have that one as number one. Maybe it’s not as fully formed as I’d like it. But it is a minimal record and it’s good that way. I suppose when you play the record live and fill them in, when you go back and listen to the record it can sound a bit sparse. I mean, it’s a good record and The Hawk Is Howling is also a good record. You just have to put them in some order. [Laughs]
I read an interview with Barry [Burns] where he called the album title “stupid.”
It is stupid! I guess it’s a very British, specific cultural reference to make cassette recordings of raves. So when we were in high school people would listen to bootleg recordings of raves. And they were the worst sounding things. Literally just distorted, pounding kick drum for 90 minutes. It was rubbish, but to be honest, people were very excited about that culture at the time. It’s a very nostalgic thing, and it is stupid, but I think it’s a good album title.
This album features a lot more analogue synthesizers and reminded me of some classic horror movie scores.
Yeah, we like a lot of that music, and I think we were listening to more of it because we did the Les Revenants soundtrack. Goblin and John Carpenter, that’s music we’re all really into, that’s fair to say.
I kind of see Rave Tapes as an album that fans will come back to in the years to come and rediscover it. It feels ahead of its time.
I think this album is a bit of a weird one. I do like all of my records, which might sound a bit egotistical. But I like them all.
What is the sample used on “Repelish”?
It’s a copy of a sample because we didn’t want to get sued. The voice is a friend of ours reading out loud. We found this really old, Christian, anti-rock’n’roll radio or TV show script. We just thought it sounded cool. We do that a lot with our songs, where we add something random to it that gives it a different atmosphere. That’s a good song. I forgot about it. Maybe I should make this album higher than number seven.
6. Rock Action (2001)
Again, I really like this record. Rock Action is the only record we’ve done with a big budget and a big production. And we made it a short album even though we had loads of songs. There are a lot of ideas on that record. It was definitely a very productive time. And we’ve always been reasonably productive, but I remember having loads of music. A lot of people really like that record.
Any regrets over having all of that music and only making it 38 minutes long?
Yeah, that was a stupid thing to do. And I think we’re gonna do a reissue of it with another CD of music, a lot of which people haven’t heard. I think it was a weird time because a lot of bands were making music quite similar to what we were making. Not just us, but also Godspeed and those bands. So we really purposefully wanted to do something very different, and because of that we left off some good songs. I think we should have looked at the big picture a little because really, who cares how many bands were around in 2000 that sounded like Mogwai and Godspeed? That’s completely irrelevant now, whereas we still have a record that’s weirdly short! [Laughs]
That album took me by surprise when I first heard it because it was so electronic. And yet my favourite song is the folky “Dial:Revenge” with Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals singing in Welsh.
That was hilarious. As I said, this album was quite a big production. The guy who signed the band knew we had Gruff singing on the album, and when he found out it was in Welsh, I think he got quite upset about it. That was pretty funny! [Laughs]
Why did you name the album after the band’s label?
We named the album after the label because we couldn’t think of a good name. It’s probably the only time we couldn’t think of a title very easily. So we just called it that, even though it was on a different label at the time [Southpaw Recordings]. There was a lot of confusion at this point in time.
5. Mr. Beast (2006)
A lot of us feel it’s a little bit clean sounding. But it has a lot of good songs on it. It might be the strongest collections of songs we have on one record. I think we just had a lot of time. It was the first record we recorded in our own studio [Castle of Doom]. So there weren’t really any time limitations. We were just a bit pernickety and made it sound good, which is Tony [Doogan]’s job. He’s really good at that, and maybe it sounded so good that it didn’t actually sound like what we sound like. Does that make sense? I think it’s a good record and a very timely record. It was our fifth album, so getting anybody to give a fuck about your fifth album isn’t the easiest thing to do. So we must have done something right.
When you listen to it now, do you still hear that cleanliness and wish you would have changed that?
Not really because things are what they are, but my favorite records are pretty natural sounding. Personally, I like things to sound like a band just walked in and played as well as they can.
Alan McGee was your manager at the time and gave a great quote about Mr. Beast. He said, “This is probably the greatest art-rock record I’ve been involved with since [My Bloody Valentine’s] Loveless.”
It’s probably the only art-rock record that Alan was involved with since Loveless! But yeah, Alan’s always good for a quote. [Laughs] It was a little bit awkward though because Alan had fallen out with Kevin [Shields] but we hadn’t fallen out with Kevin. So Alan was kind of using us to annoy Kevin. I mean, Alan’s Alan. Everyone knows what you get with him. And I’m sure Kevin did too. But to be honest, that kind of stuff works when people say over the top things. Stephen Malkmus said something insanely over the top about us right when we started out. And it really helped us. People took us seriously because of what Stephen said. I know how the world works. I don’t think anyone was gonna get angry and said Mr. Beast isn’t as good as Loveless. I can tell you that Mr. Beast isn’t as good as Loveless. [Laughs]
4. Mogwai Young Team (1997)
This is technically your debut album, even though most people think of Ten Rapid as your first album.
If we were including compilations, I think Ten Rapid would be right up there at the top. I think it has some of our best music on it. A lot of the songs on Ten Rapid should have been on Mogwai Young Team but I felt it was important to just have new songs because I was a big Joy Division fan and that was the right thing to do. Considering we wrote all of the songs in three months, we were in the same situation most bands were in with their second album with our debut album because we’d already put out so much music. I think a lot of the songs we wrote on the spot, like “Radar Maker” and "A Cheery Wave from Stranded Youngsters," turned out really well. Pressure is a good motivator for young musicians. No one probably likes to talk about it, but you can really up your game when you know you’ve got to do something.
Post-rock was starting to become a thing at this point. Did you find that being included in that movement helped?
There was a lot of interest in the music being made, but it was still very underground. I think it helped because of what we were doing, and bands like Tortoise, Labradford, and a lot of the bands being lumped into post-rock were doing was really different to the very retro, Britpop mainstream at the time.
Why did everyone in the band shave their heads before recording this album?
We just thought it was a good idea. We were very driven, and it was definitely an exciting time. Everyone was hyped up and focused, and a little bit unhinged. It was a wild time in the band.
And why did you re-record “Summer” for this album?
That’s the one song on the record I don’t like. I think that was just desperation to fill the record up. That’s not our finest hour… or four minutes.
But that version of the song was in a Levi’s ad that ran during the Super Bowl.
Yeah… it was! I mean, we’re not embarrassed about our music being used in stuff like that. But there was a lot of drama because our old manager told us we had the rights, but then the American label had the rights. That was stress. But it was years later, in 2002. After Rock Action.
3. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2011)
This was your first album with Sub Pop.
Yeah, and everywhere else in the world we put it out ourselves [via Rock Action]. So this was a pretty important record because we didn’t have the safety net of being on a label. This was an exciting record to do and it was the first with Paul [Savage] since Mogwai Young Team. I’m really happy with this record. I think when you’ve got a bit of time to separate you can look back at the songs, like what I said about Mr. Beast I think the same about Hardcore. There are an awful lot of good songs here.
I consider this a pretty optimistic record for Mogwai.
Yeah, it’s not a bleak record. I think quite a few of our records have a certain bleakness to them, and this one doesn’t. I’m comfortable with us being bleak, but for us to not be bleak isn’t the easiest thing to pull off.
“You’re Lionel Richie” has a great story behind it. You bumped into him at an airport and just blurted that out?
Yeah. I saw him at Heathrow Airport. I was in a queue or something and really hungover and I just said out loud what I was thinking. He just kind of smiled. I’m sure people say that shit to him all of the time. I mean, a guy in the street today just shouted “Mogwai” at me and I said, “Aye.” I’m not famous, so it happens far less to me. I bet the guy’s thinking right now, “I can’t believe I just shouted his band name.” It’s pretty funny though.
2. Come On Die Young (1999)
For some reason I thought this would be number one. What makes it your second favorite?
I think this record is the most fully formed. We really had a clear idea of what we were doing. We knew the songs inside and out. We toured and played a lot of the songs. I think it’s the one where we did exactly what we wanted to do. It’s a record I’m really, really happy with.
This is the album where Barry Burns joined the band.
Yeah, Barry wrote one song, but to be honest, he came quite late into the recording of it. So it didn’t really change that much for us. I mean, he was great and played a lot of great stuff, but I think it was Rock Action where his impact was first felt.
I think that on this album, and with “Cody,” especially, people seemed to expect more structured, conventional rock songs from Mogwai.
I’m probably the only one in the band who writes those songs, and I’m not very prolific, so that’s probably the reason why we haven’t done more of that. But that song worked out pretty well.
I also think more fans wish you would sing more. Do you hear that often?
Not really. [Laughs] I do sing sometimes. There is a song on Rave Tapes and quite a few of our records. But I don’t regularly sit down and write songs that much, so that’s likely the biggest impediment for that.
The Iggy Pop sample at the beginning of “Punk Rock” is from a CBC interview?
Yeah, it was. That interview is worth checking out on YouTube. In fact, there’s quite a lot that’s cut out because it’s visual, but Iggy really owns the presenter guy [Peter Gzowski]. It’s from the late 70s, based on what Iggy looks like. Iggy has a radio show on the BBC and played one of our songs last night, which was really cool. He didn’t play this song, but he played “Take Me Somewhere Nice” from Rock Action.
You guys wore a lot of Kappa wear during the promotion of Come On Die Young and even named a song after the clothing line. What brought that on?
We have an Italian friend and he just gave us a bunch of clothes. It wasn’t an official endorsement, but they sent us a box of tracksuits. We don’t wear it anymore, but it’s gotten trendy again. I saw it in a few shops recently, so I’m kind of tempted to revisit.
1. Happy Songs For Happy People (2003)
Why is this your favorite Mogwai record?
Essentially because the music on it is good, but also it was quite an important record for us. After Rock Action there was quite a lot of hype for that record and the musical landscape changed during the period that record came out. People just got into really retro music, faux garage rock. And people didn’t seem as interested in us, yet we made a pretty strong record and kept going gave us the longevity we’ve got. Maybe that’s an over-analysis but it’s certainly the feeling I got at the time. And the fact that this record was really a little bit different from what we’d done. Although I don’t think it was recognized as being so. But I personally think there were a lot of different things on it, like ideas we’d begun working on through Rock Action. I think it’s a strong record.
Jon and Barry did some singing on this record.
I know, it’s amazing! We put it all out there in a way.
You mentioned the rise of “faux garage rock” at the time with bands like the Hives, the Strokes, and the Vines. Was there any concern that some of your audience left to go listen to that music?
No, we’ve always kind of just existed in a bubble. I think a lot of these things are noticed after the fact. We’re not very careerist or anything. I think the basic things like when we put our own records out we had to work harder to make sure people knew about it and toured more. There are big, overarching things, but not like, “We need to write a hit.” We’re not that kind of band. [Laughs]
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac