Like most people who write about pop music, a peculiar type of fanaticism has led me to this occupation. I do my best to be moderately professional, but first and foremost, I'm a music lover, and it's easy to forget that. So when I found out epic Scottish rockers Mogwai were scheduled to perform in San Diego, I instantly jumped at the chance to interview guitarist Stuart Braithwaite, having been a fan for many years.
I should've known better.
Don't get me wrong. Braithwaite is a pleasant, soft-spoken individual, and he has plenty of interesting things to say. But judging by Mogwai's music—a collection of (mostly) instrumental songs that have as much in common with the ebb and flow of classical composition as they do with traditional rock 'n' roll—one gets the feeling that these five Glaswegians prefer that the music stand for itself. So what could I coax from this man that he hasn't already expressed through his art?
Fumbling over my words, I struggle to get on the same wavelength as my subject, but for some reason, my brain malfunctions. I start rambling about usually interviewing bands that struggle to make a living. Obviously, Mogwai doesn't have that problem.
“I think you've got weird ideas about what's going on,” Braithwaite laughs.
But every group has to get its start somewhere, right?
“We sell an OK amount of records, and we go on a lot of tours. I think if you work hard and people like your band, then I think you can do OK. I suppose it is hard, and tours can be quite expensive, but I suppose it can kind of build up over a lot of years,” he says.
Much like their career, my admiration for Mogwai has evolved since my introduction to them seven years ago, beginning with a purchase of their second full-length, Come On Die Young. Something about it was melancholy, but majestic. Over time, it's grown more and more familiar, and listening to it now feels as natural as breathing.
Of course, that sounds much more romantic in my head than it does in conversation. As I embarrassingly proceed with a short exploration of my theories about the record, Braithwaite admits his own appreciation of Come On Die Young, much to my satisfaction.
“I think that's my favorite one,” he says. “I think that, not all people, but some people in America have a problem with anything that's minimal, and anything that requires patience.”
For fans, patience has paid off. Since their moody, explosive debut, 1997's Young Team, they've been considered among the elite acts in independent rock due to their consistently spectacular live performances. The white-noise guitar squalls that punctuated that album were revealed to be even more skull-crushingly loud in concert, something that hasn't changed to this day. In fact, the album is so revered by fans that Mogwai was asked to perform it in its entirety last summer.
“We did it twice, in Barcelona and Madrid. It was a pain to learn [the songs], because quite a few we'd never played—we just played them in the studio,” Braithwaite says.
Part of a recent wave of nostalgic shows spearheaded by ATP's Don't Look Back series, recent years have seen acts as varied as Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, Devo and Mission of Burma performing their classic albums from front to back.
Some worry that it might be too early for nostalgia, but Braithwaite isn't one of them.
“I'm grateful. It is a little strange, but there are a lot of records that have come out a lot longer ago than that which I hold very fondly. So it's really nice, I suppose, that people like it so much,” he says.
Now touring behind their sixth album, The Hawk is Howling, Mogwai have been back to the states more times than Braithwaite can count off-hand.
“We've actually had a pretty good year, to be honest,” he says. “We've played a lot of shows. I don't think we're making much money on this tour, but we've got a few tours that have made some money.”
If anything's certain, it's that Braithwaite isn't a quote machine. But it makes sense that the band—mostly consisting of the same core members since its inception in the mid-'90s—gives the subtle message that they're more interested in playing good concerts and making thoughtful albums than they are in perpetuating rumors about themselves.
When I ask how one of those albums—the soundtrack to the 2006 documentary, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait—was conceived, the guitarist is confused by my choice of words. Either that, or he's starting to have a little fun with me.
“Happenstance?” Braithwaite says slowly. “I don't know what that means.”
There's an uncomfortable pause.
“Just kind of, you know, random?” I say.
“We just got asked by the director. They liked our music and got in touch with us about it,” he says.
Not exactly the answer I was looking for, but it's one that suits Mogwai just fine.Mogwai play Friday, May 15, at Belly Up Tavern. www.mogwai.co.uk.