Mogwai is loud. How loud? “Mogwai was so loud your whole body vibrated.” So said Yahoo! Philippines in a headline for a review of a festival appearance in Manila earlier this year. “Pastoral guitars” earned mention. Concertgoers with arms in the air “as if bathing in some cathartic downpour” were noted. But that headline is almost all one needs to know.
Told that headline might make a good song title, it sounded like Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite said it’d be a little long. But he was on the phone from Italy – a few days after a missed connection while he was in Germany – and he carries plenty of his native Scotland in his speech, and this band does get around, doesn’t it?
In barely 15 minutes, as Braithwaite waited for show time in Milan, conversation topics touched on a German bar, a road trip across the American South, an infamous 1981 recording of an anti-rock evangelist, a supernatural French television show, one new Mogwai record (“Rave Tapes”), three upcoming projects, and a United States tour that visits Ace of Spades on Sunday night.
“It doesn’t feel quite as much like hard work when it’s going well,” Braithwaite said. Mogwai – Braithwaite, Dominic Aitchison (bass), Martin Bulloch (drums), Barry Burns (keyboards, computer, guitar), John Cummings (guitar, computer) – has been so busy on so many projects for so long, it must seem like business as usual.
Among the most dependable of the post-rock bands to emerge in the late 1990s, Mogwai plays moods, (mostly) instrumentals ranging from nervous to haunted and with moments of ecstatic terror or resolution. From time to time, an especially combustible crescendo might generate enough light to make you think the good guys won. Not surprisingly, Mogwai is often tagged as cinematic. Michael Mann pulled “Auto Rock,” from their 2006 album “Mr. Beast” for the denouement of his 2006 film “Miami Vice.” That same year, Mogwai scored a documentary about French soccer star Zinedine Zidane.
Last year, Mogwai provided the soundtrack to “Les Revenants” (“The Returned” when it made its way to English-language stations such as SundanceTV), a television series about a town that finds its dead coming back to life. Braithwaite said the producers gave them the story, the band made the music, and then the show was shot with Mogwai’s creepy vibes in mind.
“It was really cool, and we were really taken aback by how people took the show,” Braithwaite said. So much so there’s a Season 2 in progress, and Mogwai will be back, too.
“Rave Tapes” was recorded last summer at the band’s fantastically named Castle Of Doom studio in Glasgow. Released in January, it arrived with a narrative: Mogwai goes electronic. “Painterly textures underpinned by increasingly electronic beats” is how the official bio turned the phrase. The album’s title even seemed to suggest dance music. It’s not dance music, and it’s not significantly different from earlier work. There’s just a little more room for the computers to breathe.
“Simon Ferocious” is doomed synths and chaos. “Remurdered” is a long walk down a dark hallway that leads to a door. Behind that door? More chaos. (It also gives Mogwai another great song title to go along with past gems such as “George Square Thatcher Death Party,” “You’re Lionel Richie,” “Two Rights Make One Wrong” and “I’m Jim Morrison, You’re Dead.”)
Mogwai opened their 1999 album “Come On Die Young” sampling an impassioned 1977 Iggy Pop speech about the power of music, about how it’s so overwhelming he can’t control even his own work. “I don’t know Johnny Rotten,” Pop says, “but I’m sure he puts as much blood and sweat into what he does as Sigmund Freud did.”
They’ve returned to that device throughout the years. On “Rave Tapes” they found inspiration in a 1981 radio broadcast by evangelist Michael Mills. The full 50-plus minutes of Mills arguing the evils of rock ’n’ roll can be found on YouTube. Braithwaite said the clip of Mills going to work on Led Zeppelin and “Stairway to Heaven” was on a compilation Portishead’s Geoff Barrow gave to Mogwai’s Barry Burns. Burns handles keyboards, computers and guitars, and has a bar in Berlin. Barrow intended the compilation for the bar.
Mogwai wanted to sample Mills but couldn’t uncover who owned the copyright. So they asked an American friend, credited on the record as the Reverend Lee Cohen, re-create it on “Repelish.”
“He had just done a big drive through the Southern states,” Braithwaite said. “I guess he’d been listening to some of the preaching stations.”
In fundamental ways, “Rave Tapes” isn’t much different from “Come On Die Young.” Mogwai is remarkably consistent in sound, and in quality.
“We play some of those old songs,” Braithwaite said, “to hear them in the context of the newer ones.
“The style has changed gradually but quite markedly over the years.”
To his ears, the difference is a broader instrumentation, a fact they realized revisiting “Come On Die Young” for an upcoming 15th-anniversary re-release that will also include material from a previously scrapped early album. They found one song “we didn’t even remember existed” Braithwaite said. “It’s nice when that happens.”
Given the many projects of Mogwai, it’s amazing it doesn’t happen more often. Aside from the re-issue and the second season of “The Returned,” there’s an EP on the way culled from songs that didn’t make “Rave Tapes.” There’s more touring, not to mention the record label the band runs. Oh, and there was a single-cask, 9-year-old Glenallachie whiskey called RockAct81 and timed to the release of “Rave Tapes.” There were only 324 bottles produced.
“It sold out in two hours,” Braithwaite said.
Could probably turn that into another song title.