The Story Of Mogwai In 5 Records

THOUGH they cut a rather austere and stoic presence on stage, Mogwai are in fact a funny band.

It’s just hard to communicate that when you’re an instrumental act, so it’s often expressed in their song titles: ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’, ‘Stop Coming To My House’, ‘Boring Machines Disturbs Sleep’, ‘Glasgow Mega-Snake’, and ‘You’re Lionel Richie’, whose hilarious real-life backstory is retold by multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns below.

Barry himself is the epitome of Mogwai’s wry Scottish humour. (Bandmate Stuart Braithwaite wasn’t joking when he said he brought him into the band because he was a “good laugh”.) He’s lived in Berlin for the past eight years, and when I ask a seemingly benign question about the rest of the band’s whereabouts he immediately gets stuck into Stuart’s current address.

“Stuart is keeping it real in Glasgow. But you’re not keeping it real if you’re in the fancy west end,” he says, laughing loudly down the phone.

“We just wanted to have a laugh and we still continue to do that. But when we play music it feels like we’re taking it seriously.”

Even Mogwai’s pummeling live show – which they’re bringing to Australia in March – is a long-running in-joke that’s both enthralled and terrified audiences for two decades. “We’re just brats,” Barry says proudly when I tell him that their 2002 show at the Prince of Wales in Melbourne was still the loudest I’ve ever seen a band play.

So have they toned things down as they enter their early-40s? “It’s worse,” he jokes.

Barry joined the band a few years after they formed in Glasgow in 1995, contributing a bunch of back-masked shit-talk (his words) on their debut album Young Team and becoming a fully-fledged member around the time they recorded its follow-up, Come On Die Young.

Those two records are the starting point of a brief history of the band, told through four of their nine albums and one EP of unholy white noise.

Young Team (1997)

I wanted to start with a record that you haven’t played on, which is Young Team. [Laughs] Does it really feel like it’s been 20 years since that record came out?

Yes, and no … That’s when I met the rest of the band because my other band [was sharing] a rehearsal and studio space. I met them. I may’ve played on that record, but they definitely borrowed my piano for it. But that’s definitely when I started to meet the guys. I remember just thinking what strange music this was. I really enjoyed it … I never heard anything like it before. But it does feel like a long time ago when you think of some of the parts of it. I mean, we were really young when that happened.

You do have a credit on the album for, I think, a monologue on the opening track [‘Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home’].

Ah, there you go. Bingo. [Laughs]

Do you remember what you did on the record?

Not really. Talked a lot of shit. [Laughs] I might’ve played the piano, I really can’t remember. Maybe they didn’t let me do that. Maybe they didn’t trust me.

Excuse my ignorance, but what band were you in that time?

You don’t need to know that. They were shit. [Laughs] Let’s just say there were a few cover versions and that’s all you need to know. [Laughs]

Do you have many recollections of the sessions for that album [Young Team]. Were you there a lot?

Probably a couple weekends. I can’t remember how long it took for them to make. It was a few weeks. I was in there at least two or three times. I think Paul Savage recorded it – we actually just recorded with him last week in Glasgow for a soundtrack. We occasionally work with him on and off. That’s when I met Paul and I think I met [former drummer] Brendan [O’Hare] as well when he was in the band,.

I don’t think they enjoyed the session. When they talk about it to me and other interviewers, everyone was having a bit of a weird time personally. It wasn’t a band thing – everyone was having extracurricular problems. I think they were having a bit of a nightmare recording it, so they don’t talk about it very fondly.

I guess you have a very different perspective on that record. Do you think it served as the blueprint for the Mogwai sound going forward, and how do you feel about it now?

The rest of the band like it, but they’re not in love with it. I remember listening to it at my house – I think I got an early copy of it – and thinking it was really great. The quiet-loud things that were going on were quite exciting. But I don’t know, it’s a funny one. I think the next record, Come On Die Young – everyone seemed to be having more fun at that point.

This was my introduction to the band, and probably still my favourite Mogwai record.

I really like that one too. That was exciting for me as well because I had just joined the band and we got to go to upstate New York [to Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios]. I don’t think I had ever been to America before. So it was all really exciting…

Were you still finding your feet in the band?

Yeah, I had arrived and they had done maybe half of it. I think I even wrote a little song for that one, there’s a little piano thing on there that I did [‘Oh! How The Dogs Stack Up’]. It was just really exciting to be at Dave’s place. It felt like a proper band because we were in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country, and I quickly assimilated into the same sort of sense of humour. I think we were all quite similar anyway as people. It was very easy for me to slide in to the band, and I was made really welcome from the start. It was great.

There’s that famous quote where Stuart said he hired you for the LOLs.

[Laughs] I honestly don’t think he knew that I could play the guitar. He knew I could play piano, but he thought I basically was a flute player, and it was actually Martin [Aitchison] – the drummer – whose idea it was to ask me to join the band, so I’m always very grateful to him.

What was it like working with Dave Fridmann who was making some pretty incredible records at that time with Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev?

Well, I had only worked with local people and Paul [Savage] a little bit with my other band. So I just assumed that that’s how everybody worked – I couldn’t compare it to anything. He was a really enthusiastic person who would let you try anything. He wouldn’t spend too much time fixing stuff. We didn’t record it to tape, so it was like the first days of digital recording and I was completely in awe of the technology. You could fix stuff even if you made a bad take. It was a lot of fun and there was never a dull moment to be honest…

As far as I remember they had recorded demos [for Come On Die Young] in Glasgow, so that was the most prepared the band had been. Every album since then we’ve just gone in with semi-formed ideas, sometimes a couple songs. But I remember they practised all the songs as a band. Then they took them over and Dave sort of messed about with them – but they were really finished actually. That’s the most prepared we’d ever been.

Was it a big change in approach from Young Team? Was it more produced, less of a live thing?

I think so. Dave did get us to play it live, but he messed about with the arrangements which no one had really done before. John had a song and Dave wanted to change it. He got a little grumpy about it … because he’d always had complete freedom in what he did. But it was probably just a suggestion. He’s a very good producer. You just listen to him. [Laughs]

Opening with that Iggy Pop monologue was a big statement. Whose idea was that?

I don’t remember, but Stuart is probably the biggest Stooges fan … We’ve since found out that Iggy likes Mogwai. He plays it on his radio show, which is amazing. That’s all.

And all those snatches of NFL [commentary]. Is there an American Football fan in the band?

[Laughs] No. It was John Madden originally and we tried to get clearance from him and he said no. So we had to go and get a college team. It sounds fine, but the original John Madden commentary was way better. His voice is pretty cool … I wonder if he’d say yes to a reissue thing. It would be nice to hear it again. I haven’t heard it in a long time.

Come On Die Young is the least represented album in your live set. Is there any reason for that?

They were really difficult to play. We play a couple songs from it, but I don’t know. It’s a bit of a funny one … I remember rehearsing some of the weirder songs like Kappa, but they just didn’t sound as good as some of the other songs we were playing at the time.

That album cover scared the shit out of me as a teenager.

[Laughs] It’s very funny, but when you see it now that probably cost us about £50. It was so cheap. It was probably MS Paint to make Dominic ’s eyes look like The Exorcist … It was pretty stupid.

My Father My King EP (2001)

As a Jewish kid growing up on ‘Avinu Malkenu’ in synagogue, I thought your interpretation was really cool. Where did you first hear it?

Arthur Baker heard it first, and it was his idea to record it. We tried to record it twice with him, and we just couldn’t get it together. So we decided to do it with Steve Albini and he really nailed it. Does it even sound like the original? I guess the melody is the same, and that’s important.

It does.

Yeah, I think we heard it once. And then we tried to go away and learn it. I haven’t heard it since. A lot of Jewish people have said it’s amazing we’ve covered that version … I’m glad because it was a bit of a risky one, really, to pull it off. It would’ve been quite weird to go in and record a Catholic hymn. [Laughs]

It was your live closer for a long period of time, and I think I even saw you close with it in Melbourne back in the early-2000s.

The noise at the end was really a lot of fun. It just kept building and building, and it was really good fun to play at the end. The only reason we haven’t played it on this tour is because Martin [Bulloch] got sick. We had about 25 songs to practice with our temporary drummer. And we’ve got a different guitar player now [John Cummings left the band in 2015]  so it was just logistically difficult. It’s okay learning a three-and-a-half or five minute song. But when you’re in a rush, and you have to learn an 18-minute song, it got a bit beyond us. Once Martin comes back we’ll probably whip it out again.

You were incredibly loud live at this time. I think you’re still the loudest band I’ve heard. Have you toned it down since those days?

No, it’s worse. [Laughs] Someone said to me – I can’t remember who it was, I think it was one of our friends who’s in a band in Glasgow – it was without a doubt the loudest piece of live music in history. It was way too loud. We were like, “Well, yeah, we don’t really have control over that.” It’s mostly the sound engineer and the PA, but I’m not going to complain about it. [Laughs] We’re just brats.

Do you wear earplugs?

I’ve been wearing innerear monitors for years and years. Everything is actually pretty quiet for me on stage and I can hear everyone. But Stuart only recently started to use earplugs … so he’s going to have problems.

What was it like working with Steve Albini?

He did it over three days in a shitty studio in London. I don’t know what we were expecting, but he was really nice and super enthusiastic as well. He used tape. That was the first, and maybe the last time we’ve used tape. It was two different takes that he spliced together with a razor blade. That was the most impressive thing we’ve ever seen. Only if you know where the join is you can sort of hear it. But it’s kinda amazing that he did that.

The band at the time had described it as a companion piece to Rock Action. In what sense?

I don’t really see it like that. It felt quite different to me, quite separate. It felt like we were moving onto something else. Was it between Rock Action and Happy Songs? We were all drunk at the time so I can’t remember much. [Laughs]

I picked Hardcore Will Never Die … but we can talk about Rave Tapes if you prefer?

With Rave Tapes we were trying to get somewhere, rather than it being a Mogwai album. It was one of those in-between albums. There’s a couple good songs on it, but it was a means to an end to get to the last record that we did. So Hardcore is probably more interesting to talk about…

There’s one thing about that record I really like. It was released with an extra thing, which was Music For A Forgotten Future that we did for [Scottish artist] Douglas Gordon. I’m a bit sad that it gets overlooked a little bit because it’s such a long piece of music, but it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done and we all really like it.

And you worked with Paul Savage again for this one [Hardcore]?

Yeah. It was good to work with him again. We did it in his studio outside of Glasgow. He was really comfortable there, and it was nice to be in a different place again and work with him again. All these producers, we’ve been really lucky because they’ve all been enthusiastic and not crazy. You don’t want to end up with – what’s that guy with the big hair?

Phil Spector?

You don’t want to end up with that guy. [Laughs]

It’s interesting how you bring these producers in and out of the fold. Are they part of this Mogwai extended family?

Yeah. And it’s always difficult because we’ve found that when we’ve worked with a producer two times in a row, we don’t always get good results. I don’t know why that is. It’s probably got something to do with expectations…

I’d love to go back and do another record with Dave [Fridmann], but we’ve got this weird jinx where we don’t enjoy the second album as much as the first with each producer. They’re treated exactly like another member of the band, and all of their decisions are equal…

Can you retell the story about ‘You’re Lionel Richie’.

I think Stuart was in Glasgow airport and he was really hungover and had to get on one of these early flights. You know that feeling when you’re not thinking straight and he was standing next to Lionel Richie in the line to check in. And just turned round to him and said, “You’re Lionel Richie.” [Laughs] I think I would’ve been so embarrassed I wouldn’t have got on the flight. I would’ve hidden in the toilet. It was so bad.

I’ve done it before, I think in Glasgow. You know that way when you think you know someone, but you realise really quickly it’s because they’re on TV. I said hello to the Scottish weatherman and I was like, “Fuck. That’s just the weather guy.” [Laughs] I think it’s the same kind of thing.

You’ve always put jokes in the titles of songs, or records. Do you think Mogwai is a funny band?

It doesn’t really happen much anymore, but especially French people – journalists – got really annoyed when they found out that we took the music seriously, but all the other stuff around it we just wanted it to be fun. We just wanted to have a laugh and we still continue to do that. But when we play music it feels like we’re taking it seriously. I think they got really annoyed. They were like, “You’re a bunch of idiots.” And we’re like, “Oh well. So?” [Laughs]

Every Country’s Sun (2017)

You personally worked on this record in your home studio in Berlin?

I’ve been doing that for quite a long time. It was all just demos … That’s what I liked about Dave [Fridmann]. I just recorded these pieces on my computer and when we took it over to Dave I was like, “Should we re-recorded this stuff? And he was like, “Nup. Sounds good. Let’s just put it in and make it sound a little bit nicer. It was nice. I felt like a valued sound engineer for 10 minutes. [Laughs]

What’s your space like in Berlin?

It was my wife’s studio and we had to live in it for a while because it’s really hard to get an apartment here. But it’s really tiny and I can’t really make much noise in it. All the writing is done mostly on headphones. It’s mostly just for writing songs. I don’t pretend to be a sound engineer. It’s nice it’s on the top floor. This old Berlin style flat. It’s not really a music studio.

You didn’t really play much guitar on this record. Is that right?

I only played once and it was because Dave made me. I didn’t really have a part for ‘Old Poisons’. And he was like, “Just go upstairs and work on it tonight.” So I worked on it for seven hours and I came down and I played it once and then Martin clapped at the end [Laughs] … I didn’t have a guitar in the studio in Berlin, which is the only reason that I didn’t make up any guitar songs.

Are you maybe getting a bit bored of guitar as well?

A little bit. I’m much better at playing the piano and synthesiser, so I’ll stick to that. But it’ll probably change. You get bored of your own cliches and that kind of thing. So I’ll probably go back and do some more guitar for the next one.

What about flute?

Oh fuck. Shove that up your arse. [Laughs] I don’t even know where that is. I think everyone is happy about that, especially Dominic.

I’m pretty curious about the Dropbox thing. How long has the band been using that to write?

Since I moved here so 2009, 2010. Even if we all lived in Glasgow we’d probably still do that. When you use Ableton Live or Logic, you can send the whole project to each other and add your own bits in. We’re pretty lazy and often that doesn’t happen. A lot of the time if I write a song, I’ll try and write a rough drum party, a rough bass part, and guitar parts. And then when we go and record it every makes it their own. But it’s really easy. It’s a nice modern way to work.

I have to ask about ‘Party In The Dark’. Did Stuart bring that one in, and what was your response?

Yep. And when we first heard it … it was like a jingle jangle guitar tune, which you would not even recognise the demo version to what Dave ended up with. It was completely different. The vocals were done at the last moment. What tends to happen is if we don’t have a melody and we finish the song, as a last resort we’ll put lyrics on. But this time Stuart had the idea to make it a pop song – if you could call it that. It was always going to have lyrics and singing on it, which is unusual for us. Dave really salvaged that one.

Do you think you could ever make a whole album like ‘Party In The Dark’?

Not until that big tax bill comes in. [Laughs] It’s coming.

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