“It’s almost like we have come full circle,” says Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, as he reflects on his band’s 2008 activities, which combine the re-issue of their Chemikal Underground debut from 1997, Mogwai Young Team, with the release of their new album, ‘The Hawk Is Howling,’ which comes out in September.
Both have seen them back in collusion with the Glasgow based label, the former project instigated by them, the latter recorded primarily at their recently upgraded Chem 19 studios in deepest Lanarkshire.
It also makes for an appropriate moment to reflect on the band’s past, their durability and the endless possibilities that their singular path has allowed them to pursue in between their six ‘official’ albums – the remixes, the soundtracks and the general flexibility of use afforded to their largely instrumental music.
In addition, it has provided a platform for some consistently amazing live shows – the prop on which their recorded output has remained consistently viable at a time when many of their nineties’ contemporaries have long since vanished from view.
For a band which has always seemed relentlessly focused on the future and pushing various boundaries, it is, nevertheless, slightly surprising to find Braithwaite embracing the repackaging of their earliest work with such enthusiasm, especially as he admits that ‘Mogwai Young Team’ was possibly the least pleasurable to make of their records.
“I think with that record it was a one-off experience,” he says. It’s generally pretty easy making records – as a band we are really good friends, probably more so now than we were , so it has never really been a problem. But with that record, for various reasons, recording wasn’t a lot of fun.
“I cannot really remember why – probably a mixture of doing it on a budget and having a deadline. Again, I am not sure why – we had already put a compilation of singles that year, so if I had been managing the band I’d have told us to go on holiday for a few months. I think it was self-imposed, there was a lot of attention on Glasgow at that time, and maybe, in hindsight, we just realised it was our moment.”
Now able to ‘separate the music from the experience of recording it,’ he stands up for the songs on the album, many of which have been central to their live shows and the process behind the reissue.
“The original idea was suggested by Paul (Savage), who recorded the album,” he explains. He didn’t think it was mastered that well, and we thought that if we were going to remaster it would be good to add something to it as well. I’m not very technical, but do know the new one sounds better – a bit bigger.
“That’s why it took a little while, we had to go through a lot of old things – there were a couple of old, unreleased things, some bootlegs, some live recordings. We wanted to find a good live version of Mogwai Fear Satan from around the same time, but discovered that we didn’t manage to play one of those until 2000!”
His wider recollections of the period are ones of the type of music that were driving the band forward as they gained momentum, and their constant surprise at their ever increasing popularity.
“Much of what I remember was just traveling, playing and listening to music. Although the recording of the album wasn’t particularly fun, the touring and the playing at the festivals for the first time was great. We’d grown up on the Nirvana film ‘The year Punk Broke’ and I remember buying a Best of Black Sabbath cassette at a service station on the M6 and listening to it more or less non-stop for six months – so from where we were standing the album was a great success.
“It made the top 75 and sold 10 000 copies. At that time, we couldn’t get our heads round that, that was the equivalent of filling the SECC or something. It was good for us because it gave us a platform to go on and make more records.”
Another album (‘Come On Die Young’) on Chemikal Underground elevated their status still further, and brought with it the inevitable interest from larger companies, with the band joining PIAS, with the larger recording budgets and longer term security that came with it. Ironically, their a&r man of the time, John Niven, has recently fictionalised his experiences in the nineties’ recording industry in the excellent ‘Kill Your Friends’ – begging the question if any of it was a bit close to home for Mogwai?
“Oh yes,” acknowledges Braithwaite. “There was one particular part, that I dug him up about – where he says that you can convince any indie muppet that you are a great guy by telling them how much you love ‘Marquee Moon.’ He tried that one on us, but I know John loves music and it was probably true, but he probably had a list of ten albums, which he would use depending on what type of person he was trying to impress!”
With the release of ‘Rock Action’ and the launch of their label of the same name, Mogwai secured both their musical legacy and short term financial needs, but the rush to spend the new found cash is one of Braithwaite’s few regrets.
“It was the first time we had money,” he says, “and not just to spend on ourselves but we had money to make records. What we ended up doing, which was a catastrophically stupid thing to do, was spend a fortune making our third album. Even around that time there people around us who kept telling us how big we were going to be – how we would be playing arenas and all that – but I think we were always quite self-contained, we knew our limits. In our heads playing the same places that Sonic Youth play was a massive success.”
Although only seven years ago, it was on the cusp of huge changes in the recording industry and ones which have changed both the band’s expectations and the way in which they run their own label, Rock Action, which has new albums pending from James Orr Complex and Remember Remember.
“I think record labels just now are running scared and they don’t quite know what to do,” he says. “In a weird way, with established bands like us, it seems to be that everyone is making money except the labels. It is usually their own fault. I think smaller labels, like Drag City, are doing things that are more interesting and friendlier to punters”
“Our accountant has asked us why we run a record label in the past. We never set out with any massive goal of making any money, which is good, because we haven’t. Sometimes you get a wee surprise -the last Part Chimp album did really well. We have also had a bit of help: Errors got some money for recording and we got some money from the Music Futures’ Fund.”
The technological changes, both in terms of recording and releasing music, in the years between ‘Mogwai Young Team’ and ‘The Hawk Is Howling’ are manifold, but Braithwaite can still joke at the attempts to prevent advance leaking of the record.
“I think the main difference is that you cannot give all your friends a copy of the album before it comes out any more,” he says, “but it is weird when you think back and consider all the technology stuff, it all seems so quaint, even the having to find a phone box to phone your mum and dad when we first went on tour. It’s bizarre.”
“Having said that, It’s still pretty exciting. Musicians are easily amused though. I still remember when we got he vinyl back for MYT and what a big event for us that was. I’m still amazed that I can take such amazing pleasure from picking things up and looking at them from every angle. Its a real privilege to be in that position.”
Originally in the Herald, 2nd August 2008