The 2017 January night before Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the USA, art-rock alchemists Mogwai played Berkeley in California. Inside the packed UC Theatre they stoically steered through Atomic, their 2016 soundtrack for Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise, northern Irish film director Mark Cousins' devastating dissection of nuclear history as the film itself rolled out behind the band. Mogwai's eerie symphonic intensity dramatically magnified the catastrophic imagery of actual armageddon. For some, it was a sensory overload too far.
“Sixteen people passed out,” notes Stuart Braithwaite, merrily, Mogwai's guitarist, worldly sage, Twitter wit and (very) occasional singer. “I don't know if the Americans had done their research. 'What the...!?' Stretchered out. It was warm, a lot of them were stoned and they were seeing a nuclear apocalypse in from of them when they were about to elect as President a man-baby with no soul, who's in the pocket of the Russians, about to start world war three. It was too much, the perfect storm!”
For twenty-two years Mogwai have been making the rest of us metaphorically pass out: in rapturous awe, in brutalised dread and transcendental promise. Since 1995 Glasgow's post-rock pioneers have been a sonic perfect storm, the musical equivalent of both Francis Bacon's horror paintings and William Blake's visions of angels in the trees (or, if you like, the aural equivalent of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, except by exuberant Scottish jesters in sturdy rainwear, here in the 21st Century).
The more precarious the world becomes, the more their music is escapist balm, more so than ever inside the cocooning deliverance of their ninth studio album, Every Country's Sun. “If we can distract anyone from the shambles and stupidity for even a couple of minutes,” decides Barry Burns, Mogwai's ever-wry multiinstrumentalist, “then that’s better than anything, excepting valium.”
Every Country's Sun takes two decades of Mogwai's signature, contrasting sounds – towering intensity, pastoral introspection, synth-rock minimalism, DNA-detonating volume - and distills it, beautifully, into 56 concise minutes of gracious elegance, hymnal trance-rock and transcendental euphoria. Produced by psycherock luminary Dave Fridmann it's a structural soundscape built from its stark foundations up, from a gentle, twinkling, synth-rock spectre to a solid, distortion-rock, skyward-thrusting obelisk. There's percussive, dreamstate electronics (Coolverine), church organs as chariots of existential fire (Brain Sweeties), tremulous, foreboding bleeping, possibly from a dying android (aka 47) while the last three songs explode from the sonic womb into raging, elemental life. Their most transportive album yet, it also hosts their most fully realised artpop sing-along of all time, Party In The Dark, a head-spinning disco-dream double-helix echoing New Order and The Flaming Lips, featuring Braithwaite's seldom-heard melodic vocals declaring he's “directionless and innocent, searching for another piece of mind”. Burns still can't believe his ears. “That one turned out as close to a radio hit as we’re likely to get,” he smiles. “I find myself humming it which is not normal.” This is music as a keep-out chrysalis, protective audio armour through exalting organs and portentous, dissonant guitar fuzz warping at the edges, bending the world inside out into a reality you'd much rather live in. The last three songs ascend into explosive exorcism, closing with the colossal Every Country's Sun, its searching intensity wooshing towards infinity in a dazzling cosmic crescendo.
“The last song is my favourite,” says Braithwaite. “The whole record builds and builds, a lot of it's synth heavy, then guitar heavy and that last song encompasses everything. This album definitely has a trajectory to it, building towards something scary and overwhelming.”
It began in the tumultuous year of 2016, the band submerged in individual demos, working for the first time without John Cummings (who left in late 2015); Braithwaite, Burns, Dominic Aitchison (bass) and Martin Bulloch (drums) all pooling ideas via Dropbox. Braithwaite worked at home in Glasgow, “in my temple to hoarding, very much a Man Cave, piles of records and skateboards and Celtic scarves”, Burns in Berlin, in a tiny art studio where he and his wife once lived. “I messed around with loads of synths,” says Burns. “I play very little guitar on this record, so there’s tonnes of old organs and old synths from Dave Fridmann's studio too. The Berlin studio is essential for productivity. I tried home working and it was totally unproductive, internet seduction and all that mind-fizz.”
Buoyed with new ideas they reconvened physically at their Glaswegian studio, the wryly-titled Castle of Doom. “At that stage things were sounding wildly different and we just had to trust that when we got together and played it would sound like us,” says Braithwaite, “rather than some demented mix-tape made by someone who thinks the government is spiking their coffee.”
In October 2016 they took their glimmering bounty to Dave Fridmann, collaborator and friend since producing Mogwai's Come On Die Young, '99 and Rock Action, 2001, his Tarbox Road Studios in Chautauqua County, New York State in perfect isolation surrounded by woods, wild hounds and marauding deer hunters. Home to a myriad recording greats since 1997, including Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, our Caledonian heroes were soon followed by Californians Haim, to whom they bequeathed “a lot of beer”. Full immersion ensued, through to January 2017, “in a bubble,” notes Braithwaite, emerging into the new world order in January 2017. Every Country's Sun became, subconsciously, a musical salve, a transportation sanctuary while the divisive bedlam of the wider world continued at ever-accelerating pace.
“What's going on in the world politically and socially has to affect you,” muses Braithwaite. “It was very much on our mind, especially in America. We were vaguely getting over the Scottish referendum, then the death of David Bowie, along comes Brexit and then Trump. The album was written in a very turbulent, intense period so I think it maybe feels like some kind of shield from that? That's maybe just my take. Because it literally was for me.”
These are exceptional days for the Lanarkshire quartet, now in their 22nd year of creative singularity. Eighth studio album Rave Tapes was a top ten album in 2014, “in the proper charts,” notes a chuffed Braithwaite (on its release, the biggest-selling vinyl album of 2014); their 20th anniversary ATP season at Camden's Roundhouse in 2015 featured artists who'd inspired them (Public Enemy, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, GZA, The Jesus & Mary Chain); an email correspondence began in 2015 between Braithwaite and his hero Iggy Pop (16 years after Punk Rock from Come On Die Young featured a sample of Iggy Pop gnarling, magnificently, over “trashy old noise” in 1977) while the Atomic tour of 2016/17 was acclaimed worldwide, including their show in Hiroshima, a dramatic experience which moved the band to tears. “It became kind of 3D and really on top of you,” notes Burns, “I count that tour as one of our best achievements.” Back on Trump's inauguration day in 2017, meanwhile, Mogwai found themselves with a day off in Las Vegas, Braithwaite eschewing rolling TV news for Britney Spears at Planet Hollywood. “Amazing, actually,” he smiles. “I'm not a deep Britney Spears fan, I just liked the singles, but something of the sheer showbiz and Americanism of it, on that day, was apt.” Burns, elsewhere, spent the last $30 of his per diems “on black at the roulette table...and won!”
Mogwai in 2017 are winners alright, staggeringly prolific musicians whose output today numbers nine studio albums, 13 EPs, two remix albums, two live albums and four compilation albums including 2015's greatest “hits” Central Belters. They're also established soundtrack titans, sound sculptors behind an impressive spectrum of cinematic releases (both full soundtracks and contributions): alongside Atomic (a top 20 UK album in 2016), there's been consistent acclaim through Michael Mann's Miami Vice (2006), The Fountain (2006, collaborating with Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet), Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2007), Amnesty International's PEACE project (2010), French TV series Les Revenants (2013) and contributions to Leonardo DiCaprio's climate change documentary Before The Flood (2016) alongside soundtrack Oscar-winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. “It's taken a while,” notes Braithwaite, “we couldn't have done soundtracks when we were young. And film people are different, they're quite fussy!”
Arriving in 1995 Mogwai were 70s-born punk rock renegades who “hated everything”, who named themselves after the comedy-horror gonk in Gremlins, whose lifelong politicised worldview inspired the 1998 EP No Education = No Future (Fuck The Curfew), an indignant protest against a Strathclyde Police initiative demonising Lanarkshire teenagers. Skateboarding kids who loved Nirvana, The Cure and Star Wars, their 1999 merchandising t-shirt in the pre-millennial, post-Britpop wilderness declared Blur: Are Shite. They aligned themselves, instead, with the symphonic divinity of Canada's Godspeed You! Black Emperor, their own terror-rock epic Mogwai Fear Satan (from debut album Young Team, 1997) pioneering late-90s “post rock” instrumental sorcery. Pavement's Stephen Malkmus, with late-90s foresight, pronounced them “the band of the 2Ist century”. Their autonomous, uncompromising attitude remains steadfast today, releasing music on their own Rock Action label since 2010, now home to a diverse spectrum of equally maverick minds.
“We've made some good choices, getting independence, our own label and studio,” says Braithwaite. “It's not easy being independent, it's a lot more work. But setting the label up properly, cutting our teeth putting out other bands, makes me so proud. Seeing Sacred Paws doing well gives me an immense feeling of pride, doing for other people what Chemikal Underground did for us when we were making our first records. People, largely, make music out of love now, rather than any expectation. There's not many folk getting rich off music anymore. You have to be really into it, otherwise why do it? You have to actually care!”
Mogwai profoundly care, while retaining their peerless position as the most musically perilous comedy band on Earth. Every Country's Sun adheres to the now-legendary Mogwai ruse of the random, amusing songtitle, an irresistible ploy which previously gave us Secret Pint, I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead and the prophetic George Square Thatcher Death Party two years before the non-turning lady's demise in 2013. This year's titles were chosen, as ever, from a cache of everyday quips, often while “pished in the pub”, choosing from literally hundreds during the mastering stage this March. Among the new album's corkers are Crossing The Road Material (person to be avoided, definitely never marry), 1000 Foot Face (Braithwaite's mum came up with an accidental version of the “thousand yard stare”) and Don't Believe The Fife (a pal made a winning region-related quip while listening to Public Enemy). Every Country's Sun itself, their stately, dramatic closer, all electro dynamics and molten guitars, was inspired by the psychedelic thoughts of one of Burns' pals. “A close friend told me she thought the reason some countries were warm and others cold was because each country had a different sun, not realising that the Sun was a star, our star,” he boggles. “She also thought you could 'land on space' like it was a solid place.” “It does have an inclusive meaning too,” adds Braithwaite. “Every Country's Sun feels optimistic. It feels pro-humanity.” No wonder: both twinkling and traumatic, it sounds, in music's magical way, like it's searching for answers, their mostly wordless musical impressionism wide open to interpretation.
“People have told me, about the same song, it's the happiest song they've ever heard and the saddest song they've ever heard,” says Braithwaite. “The music just evokes something in people in different ways and makes a connection. Maybe lets them detach from the everyday to something they're feeling anyway. It's a great thing. To be part of people's personal experience.” This being Stuart Braithwaite, though, this earnest statement concludes with a burst of mirth. “Without them having to put up with your shite patter,” he guffaws, loudly. It's a music, too, which is the aural equivalent of Free Drugs. Braithwaite nods. “I like that.”
Mogwai are a unique, defiant, Scottish success story, a band who named their second album twenty years ago Come On Die Young and turned, instead, into musical lifers. Now regular festival headliners across Latitude, Green Man and End Of The Road, this September they headline Festival No.6 in Portmerion before an extensive World Tour 2017, beginning in Oslo on October 10th, ending with their biggest-ever headline show on December 16th at Glasgow's HSS Hydro, the perfect homecoming celebration. The sometime outsider iconoclasts are now an immovable, centrifugal force.
“We've survived because of hard work,” decides Burns. “Doing stuff where we feel out of our depth, that only helps you get better. We’ve been, for the most part, allowed to breathe and make decisions with little outside influence. The trust that people have had and still have in us helps us stay fairly confident that we’re doing something worthwhile.”
“We started in 1995,” concludes Braithwaite, “it's totally mental. I remember when the Pistols came back and they were forty. We were young then thinking, 'imagine being in a band when you're forty?!' Music is no longer just about youth culture. But all I know I just want to keep making music that's amazing.” In our unpredictable world, all of us under the same sun, you could bet on that happening forever, on the black in Las Vegas as civilisation crumbles, and definitely win.
Mogwai are Dominic Aitchison (bass), Stuart Braithwaite (guitar, vocals), Martin Bulloch (drums) and Barry Burns (keyboard, computer, guitar).