Mogwai interview: zombie drama gives band a new lease of life

Published in The Independent on Sunday on October 25, 2015

The brilliance of French zombie drama The Returned – which has just, well, returned for Series 2 – is its creepy understatement. The deceased don’t gurgle or stagger; they seek out loved ones, and slide eerily back into their lives. Shot at dusk, every scene is spookily half-lit; just right for the half-living. Then there’s the score from Glasgow post-rockers Mogwai: a chillingly effective mix of subtle, icy melodies, ominous ambient electronics and swells of guitar.

The band’s involvement has hardly raised them from the dead, but it’s certainly given them a new lease on life. Now in their third decade, they are more popular than ever: after the prime-time exposure of The Returned, Mogwai scored a first Top 10 album with 2014’s Rave Tapes, and they are currently celebrating their 20th anniversary with a three-CD career retrospective, Central Belters, released on their own Rock Action record label.

Mogwai were invited to work on The Returned by director Fabrice Gobert; a fan, particularly of their equally disquieting soundtrack for the 2006 football documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Still, the sound-tracking process was unusually topsy-turvy. “We were actually about to go on a big tour, so we recorded quite a lot of songs before they started filming, and they were playing it on the set,” explains Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai’s frontman and guitarist – an approach they’ve repeated for Season 2.

The band was brought in to provide something different to your usual schlocky horror score, but – despite being known for ear-splitting live shows – they still had to insist on subtlety. “There were a few scenes where they wanted something really bombastic, and we were quite keen not to do that; I always find when I’m watching something and the music’s telling you what to feel that it’s kind of like you have your intelligence insulted,” explains Braithwaite. And he’s glad to see producers increasingly commission scores that stand in their own right, pointing to Max Richter’s compositions for The Leftovers and Cliff Martinez’s for The Knick.

Soundtrack work is more than a side-project for Mogwai; indeed, Braithwaite says their most recent venture – a score for Mark Cousins’ impressionistic documentary Atomic, marking 70 years since the Hiroshima bomb – is “the thing we’ve done that I’m most proud of”. Soon, they are to go back into the studio to turn it into a full record before a live tour that includes Hiroshima, and the Sydney Opera House. “Again! So sick of that place,” jokes Braithwaite, alluding to a triumphant gig there earlier this year.

I meet Braithwaite alongside drummer Martin Bulloch in a vegan café in Glasgow, and it all feels very far away from such grandeur; we have a lovely blether about everything from how to fight a bear to the thriving Glasgow music scene to their reluctance to have jabs before going abroad. The latter, of course, does serve as a reminder of the band’s globe-conquering success – they have a strong international fanbase which they chalk up, in part, to their music being largely lyric-free.

Their music may have changed over eight studio albums – with the addition of Barry Burns in 1998, and increasing use of keyboards and synthesisers – but the template endures: beautifully wrought guitars and piano, building to an epic cathedral of sound. Their gigs are awesome, and very, very loud. Earplugs are often a necessity – although their live shows are notable for attracting fans of all ages. “Maybe we were never particularly anchored to any era of music?” Braithwaite muses. “Or maybe they’re [our fans’] teenage kids? That’s a scary thought …”

Young fans, old fans, international fans, fans of The Returned … that’s a wide audience to satisfy with a “Best Of”. How did they decide what to include? The first two CDs were easy: it’s roughly chronological. “You know what your best songs are – I know fans will have their little obscure favourites, but it’s usually the ones that get the biggest cheer,” says Bulloch. The third CD is of rarities, bonus tracks, bits of soundtrack – something for the Mogwai-nerd. So obscure are some, that Bulloch looks at the sleeve and declares he doesn’t even know track six. “Martin! Number six [‘Tell Everybody That I Love Them’] was on the special edition of Rave Tapes, the one-sided 7-inch!” Braithwaite joshingly admonishes him.

“In my defence, tracks get named after they’ve been recorded,” says Bulloch. “Things have really ridiculous titles.” Ridiculous indeed – and maybe a little scary: “Hunted by a Freak”, “How to be a Werewolf”, “Teenage Exorcists”… no wonder they were asked to score a horror series. Actually, though, the names are comically random, they say, taken from glimpsed headlines or daft in-jokes. Like “Mogwai Fear Satan”, I ask? “Oh that was true. Dominic was quite religious,” says Braithwaite of their bassist Dominic Aitchison. “I was brought up in a militantly atheist family; it’s the other boys that are hit with the fear of God … it was fear of Tories in my house!”

The band has been politically vocal over the years – notably in support for Scottish independence. “I think it will happen in the next 10 years,” say Braithwaite, undimmed. “It just doesn’t seem very democratically sound to be run by a party that hardly anyone votes for.” A driving factor behind their support is a desire to get rid of Trident. “It’s parked 10 miles down the road – it’s really bloody close,” points out Bulloch. “It’s not something that should exist in this day and age,” adds Braithwaite. “What is it for? It’s a status symbol for those who wish Britain still enslaved the planet. I’d like to take those people down to the peace park in Hiroshima and see if they still think it’s a good way to spend £100bn.”

It’s a fervour that will no doubt feed into the forthcoming live shows of Atomic. But those are far from Mogwai’s only plans: they’ll be working on a new full album in 2016, and a multitude of side projects. “Dominic is making a record with one of the guys from Lau and from Portishead; Barry [Burns] is doing a collaboration called Sums with [Kangding Ray], and I’m doing a record with Rachel [Goswell] from Slowdive and Justin [Lockey] from Editors,” says Braithwaite.

Their most surprising venture of late has been the creation of a (limited edition) spirits brand. Last year, they released their own whisky, and they’ve followed it up with Mogwai rum. “John [Cummings] the guitar player had this idea. The whisky went well, but the rum ….” Bulloch pauses, and they laugh. “I got a text from a friend who said, ‘I had a wee shot of your rum – is it some sort of Postmodern joke? It’s so brutal …’.”

I had thought to get suggestions for a Mogwai rum cocktail, an exclusive recipe for IoS readers … but maybe they’re not the right bandmates to ask? “Yeah, we’d probably chuck it in a can of Irn Bru…” jokes Braithwaite. A brutal Postmodern rum’n’Bru? I reckon that could be the perfect tipple for toasting 20 years of Mogwai. Cheers, lads!

Central Belters is out now; The Returned is on More4

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