Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai

Stuart reveals how he's managed to make the guitars sound more ridiculous than ever on Mogwai's meaty beaty new album...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 27 Nov 2013
  • min read
Mogwai are masters of sound and space. Their sonic vision has been rattling ribcages and melting minds since 1995, earning them a reputation for being one of the most fearsome live acts around.

They are also officially one of Scotland’s best loved national treasures – and with good reason.

Their post-rock heroics have soundtracked lives through seven visionary albums, while their relentlessly inventive record label Rock Action has brought an impressive slew of releases from the likes of Errors, Remember Remember, Blanck Mass and Part Chimp.

Earlier this year the quartet crept into 1.8 million living rooms around the UK via the eery soundtrack to the acclaimed French supernatural drama series Les Revenants (The Returned), which was broadcast on Channel 4.

They also began work on their eighth album Rave Tapes, which offers yet another layer to their iconic sound.

It was recorded during the summer at the band’s Castle Of Doom studio in Glasgow while they were still fresh from the impressive live revisiting of their 2007 soundtrack to Douglas Gordon and Philippe Pareno’s film Zidane: A 21st-century Portrait.

The 10-track Rave Tapes set sees Glaswegians Dominic Aitchison (bass), Stuart Braithwaite (guitar, vocals), Martin Bulloch (drums), Barry Burns (keyboard, computer, guitar) and John Cummings (guitar, computer) experimenting with a more beatific edge,  throwing in fortuitous synth scowls and fresh guitar distortions to complete the mix.

It’s set for release on 20 January 2014 through Rock Action and will be marked by a lengthy world tour which will see them land in Africa for the first time in their career.

We caught up with Stuart to hear about the perils of live performance and learn how they’ve managed to make the guitar sounds on their new album even more ridiculous than normal…

Rave Tapes is all finished now – how long did it take to write and record?
At the start of the year we began demo-ing in our own houses and then in about February/March we started rehearsing. We got a rehearsal room in the Gorbals and we’d go there a few times a week and work on things. We started recording in August and spent about two months recording. We finished at the start of October. Once we got going we did it quite quickly but we’ve been working on it all year.

What was the idea behind it?
We didn’t really have any ideas, we just thought about the music. We were just trying to write some good songs! We tried out some different things, used some different sounds and instruments. The challenge of just getting 10 decent songs is a big enough hurdle without throwing such lofty things as ideas into the equation!

You mention new sounds – is the album a big departure from what you’ve done previously?
Yes, there’s definitely a new vibe now we’re using a modular synth, which brings something a bit different. And we’re always finding new ways to make our guitars sound more ridiculous, so yeh, there’s definitely some new things in there.

Has your music-making process changed much since you first started?
It’s changed a lot – it was still the days of tape when we started. Only super-fancy studios had digital recording facilities back then. It was all to do with the take – getting everyone to play at once and getting the best version – but that element has fallen by the wayside with Pro Tools and Logic and being able to slice things together in a million different ways. You can still record in the old way but I don’t see too many people wanting to do it like that.

I’d be interested to know why you think Mogwai are still at it when lots of the people you came through with like Arab Strap and The Delgados have slowed down or split up. What makes the band tick as a unit?
I don’t know… I think the two main reasons are that we still get on really well and people are still really interested in hearing the music. If we didn’t get on so well or people weren’t too fussed about hearing the music then it wouldn’t make as much sense. It’s funny. We never really thought about it. It’s only in the past few years that people have pointed out that we’ve been a long time doing it. It’s an achievement and it’s nice to have grown up with the other people in the band and still share music with people who might not have even been born when we first started. It’s nice.

Yeh, I don’t know if it’s as much an urge but more that you decide to be a musician so you make music!

How important is playing live to you?
It’s really important. Probably my favourite part of being in a band is getting to play the songs live and we’re lucky that we get to go to some interesting and different places. So yeh, it’s a massive part.

You’re definitely one of the most intense live bands around. Do you take your on-stage sound for granted these days or is it something you work really hard on for each gig?
Not so much for each gig, but getting the sound right is something that’s quite important to us. A lot of it happens quite organically and there are a lot of unspoken things that just seem to happen.

Do you face any challenges when you’re playing that loud and using that much feedback? It must be a tricky set-up.
Oh yeh, it’s impossible! I don’t use any in-ear monitors so I’ve got it really loud. And now Dominic stands next to me and he’s got his in-ear monitors. So I know it’s a struggle with how loud it is! It’s a balancing act. But we somehow get away with it.

Do you have any on-stage tricks to get over that or do you just get on with it?
We just get on with it. Before we had proper monitors I used to have to stand on different parts of the stage depending on what song it was so I could hear whatever relevant instrument I was meant to be trying to follow!

I’ve always really liked electronic music and there’s quite a lot of good stuff just now. I really like Koreless, the Forest Swords record is really good, so is the Haxan Cloak record…

What prompted you to set up Rock Action in the first place?
When we first started the band in Glasgow there was a really strong DIY ethic – and there still is. There weren’t any labels coming up from London offering to put records out so pretty much everyone was putting out their own records. We were just doing what everyone else did. We borrowed a little bit of money from my sister’s boyfriend and made 500 seven-inch singles. That was Rock Action 1. After that other labels did put our music out but we never planned on doing that forever. It came to a full circle in a strange way. When we realised we’d sorted out the infrastructure and got a distributor and all that sort of stuff – which was a bit of a hassle – we ended up putting out a few of our friends' records. And then it eventually got to the point that we were putting out albums – not just singles – by bands and we had someone running the label.

When the deal with PIAS expired – our second label after Chemikal Underground – we kind of thought we had our own record label so why not just put our own records out? I think it was a good thing, not just for us but also for the record label. It brought the label to a lot more people’s attention and helped out the bands that we’d been putting out too.

Are you still actively involved in the label still or are you stepping away a bit now?
No, no, I’m still very much involved in it. Craig our label manager does it full time, but I talk to him every day about something to do with the label. And with our record coming out in January it’s quite intensive.

I’m intrigued by what you said about the whole DIY thing – is that just confined to the indie community or do you think labels like Soma, Numbers and LuckyMe carry some similar attitudes? Where does it come from?
It probably goes back way before our time. It probably goes back to Alan Horne's Postcard Records and even Creation. Although it wasn’t run from Scotland, Creation was started by Glaswegians – Jesus and Mary Chain, Alan McGee, Primal Scream – all that stuff. I think from the electronic side you’ve got Optimo who started back in the nineties and still bring a lot of great musicians to Glasgow and put out a lot of great records. I think the whole city is very DIY. I guess the distance to London is so big that people just try to do their own thing rather than just expect someone to do it for them.

What was the city’s music community like when you first started the label? How has it changed?
It’s quite hard for me to really observe that because I’m not in the position I was when we first started out. But I still think it’s the same. I remember it was Alex from Franz Ferdinand who booked us for our first ever show at The 13th Note. We still know the same people. The guy that owned The 13th Note back then now owns Mono and Stereo, where all the bands play their first shows and where people can still put on music without having to pay for it. There’s still the same infrastructure and still the same people involved. So yeh, I think it grows quite organically. Rather than people or types of music becoming quite uncool or going out of fashion, it just all co-exists and becomes more varied. Glasgow does not have a fashion-based music system – if someone is doing something new it doesn’t upset anyone. People just check out what each other are doing and think it’s cool. That support network creates a good environment and atmosphere in which to make things.

Pitchfork said that?! I don’t know if that’s actually true! Maybe the electronic people are hanging out more in clubs and the guitar people are all down the pub? Sometimes they end up in the same clubs and bars. There’s no big divide. I don’t agree with that at all. I know Chvrches uses quite a lot of electronic sounds but they are indie people. I am laughing at the thought of them being Ghandi-type peacemakers – that’s hilarious!

A lot of people I’ve spoken to from Glasgow tell me that it’s a really positive time for musicians in the city. What’s your take on that? Would you agree or do you see lots of challenges?
I think it is a really positive time. The focus is on the city at the moment. Chvrhces are one of the most exciting bands in the country and they’re making people take a look at Glasgow again. But to be honest, I think it’s been like that for quite a long time. When we started and Chemikal Underground was getting going, people hadn’t paid much attention to Glasgow for a long time but since then there’s been a steady stream of exciting bands every few years or so. I think it’s great just now, but I think it’s been great for a while.

It seems that Glasgow musicians like to build international ties and work with people from all over the world. Do you notice that?
I think so. But for us there was always more of a connection between the music scenes in Glasgow and Seattle than there was with other cities in Britain. People have always been very outward looking here so I would agree with that.

What have you got going on at the moment?
We’re rehearsing and playing at ATP. The record comes out in January so we’re getting ready to head out and play everywhere. We’re going to get very busy very soon!