The Scottish post-rockers have been plugging away for nearly three decades and are one of the UK’s best-loved bands but even they didn’t see this year’s No 1 album and Mercury Prize nomination coming. They talk to Mark Beaumont about Covid conspiracy theorists, the streaming era, socialism and, é, ceiling grannies…
euf Mogwai’s songs paint a thousand pictures, many of them start out as Monet water lilies and end up as Hieronymus Bosch visions of apocalypse. But their titles tell a thousand stories, também. The Glasgow post-rockers’ latest album, As the Love Continues, contains some crackers. “To the Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth” was something the band recorded their friend Ben Powers, aka Blanck Mass, saying in his sleep. “Supposedly, We Were Nightmares” is a quote from someone who, during their hard-drinking youth, had to sit next to them on a plane. And “Ceiling Granny” is a tribute to the album’s patron demon.
“That’s from The Exorcist III,” says guitarist, occasional singer and Mogwai mouthpiece Stuart Braithwaite, recalling a scene in which a possessed septuagenarian scuttles across the ceiling of a nursing home. “We were watching it while we were recording the album and every time someone went to the toilet they’d ask if they missed the bit with the ceiling granny.” Do Mogwai still, as an early EP title claimed, “Fear Satan”? “I have a very good friend who’s a Satanist but it’s never really appealed to me that much,” Braithwaite says. “I think most of them are pretty atheist, most of it is political activism. They just dress in robes because they know it annoys Christians.”
Mogwai certainly have some unnatural force watching over them. Depois 25 years as leading lights of Britain’s musical underground, these vivid (largely) instrumentalists scored their first No 1 album with tenth album As the Love Continues in February and suddenly found themselves in a whirlwind of acclaim and attention unlike anything they’d experienced since the Nineties. The record is shortlisted for the Mercury Prize and we speak by phone two days after the band headline Green Man festival in Wales. “When we played the new songs the reaction was amazing,” says Braithwaite. “We’ve had this really mental year but it’s only existed in our rehearsal room or talking with our friends. It did feel so much more substantial when there were people there sharing it with us.”
You can’t call it a comeback; Mogwai and their dedicated cult following never went anywhere. Nor is it a sudden resurgence; since they reverted to releasing their albums on their own Rock Action label for 2011’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, they’ve gone from strength to strength, making the Top 10 with both Rave Tapes dentro 2014 e Every Country’s Sun dentro 2017. Em vez de, it’s a story of conviction, belief and single-minded artistry winning through. A victory for the self-made guerrillas of noise rock.
“Loads of things are happening that we never thought were gonna happen,” Braithwaite says. “It’s not like we’ve been sitting about being miserable because we’ve been doing great, people have been listening to our music and coming to our shows. But I never for one second thought we’d get a No 1 registro. It’s one of these things that you think happens to other bands. When the record got to No 1, I definitely took a step back and was like, ‘this is nuts.’”
Braithwaite credits the popularity of the album – originally planned to be recorded in the US until Covid struck – to the lockdown appeal of a “personal record that you could get lost in”. Certainly lead track “Ritchie Sacramento”, a tribute to Silver Jews founder David Berman who died in 2019, chimed with the mournful mood of 2021. But Braithwaite also gives a lot of credit to the band’s generation-spanning fanbase. “People are multiplying, and their kids have maybe grown up hearing our music as well. Que, and Taylor Swift not having a record out that week. They were the main factors.”
As The Love Continues’ success, Contudo, does starkly highlight the two-tier nature of British music in the streaming age. An instrumental and notoriously loud post-rock band can own the sales-based album chart, but there’s almost zero chance of alternative acts cracking the glass ceiling of the stream-led singles chart and benefiting from the cultural kudos of a bona fide hit.
“That’s very true,” says Braithwaite. “What is big on the streaming charts tends to be what is big on the big playlists. So you’re actually putting this massive power into the hands of a handful of internet curators. You’re giving someone a ‘sale’ when it’s probably just getting played in a café a couple of times for someone making sandwiches, on the same playlist they listen to all the time. They’re not actually that invested in that artist.”
Having battled his way from Glasgow’s cottage industry indie scene to the top over decades (Mogwai started Rock Action in 1996 with a borrowed budget of £400 to release their debut single “Tuner”, and their early albums were released on fellow Scot-rockers The Delgados’ label Chemikal Underground), Braithwaite can see the positives in rock’s return to the ghetto. “There’s so many less wankers in the music industry now because hardly anyone’s making any money,” he argues. “Maybe it’s the same with bands – you’ll hear more about the bands that really mean it rather than the ones that think they’re gonna get a mansion out of it. Things happen organically, people are selling things on Bandcamp, doing it themselves, and not waiting for corporations to help them along the way. I’m always optimistic.”
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The sidelining of socialism, por outro lado, fills him with dread. Having been outspoken in recent years on Tory rule (“a despicable bunch”), Brexi (like “approaching an iceberg”) and Trump (“a genuinely awful person on every level”), Braithwaite is also uninspired by Labour’s new leadership. “I’m definitely not feeling Keir Starmer particularly," ele diz. “He seems like a cop. Was he not involved in clearing the police officers that shot that Brazilian guy [Jean Charles de Menezes, who was killed by police in July 2005]? That was one of the first things I knew about him and I can’t get past it. He always seems to be letting the Tories off the hook when they’re acting like absolute pirates. He seems really ineffective. An ineffective cop.
“[The left] need better leadership, a Tony Benn type of person who can really motivate people and be a bit of a firebrand against disaster capitalism. Keir Starmer has this idea that he’s going to convince Tories to vote for Labour and it just doesn’t seem to be working. He’s not gonna convince enough Tories to vote for him and there’s so much distrust of him from genuine socialists. Most socialist policies would be pretty popular, but with the media situation being so stacked against it and the fact that there were so many people in the Labour party actively trying to stop Corbyn being successful… Those people just need to go, don’t they? Otherwise there won’t be any change.”
And what of Johnson? “He’s just a bit of a buffoon, isn’t he? It seems people are seeing through him a lot more now because the wacky-chappie persona has worn off a bit. It seems like Boris Johnson is almost Trumpian in the way he’s set the bar so low for our expectations. He’ll do the kind of things that would’ve ended people’s careers but people expected so little of him that it doesn’t seem to matter… The arts weren’t particularly supported [during lockdown]. A lot of people fell through the cracks of not getting any government support. The most obvious thing to do would have been to pay everyone enough to get by, rather than them handing out these multibillion deals to their mates. It probably would have worked out cheaper.”
Braithwaite’s faith in humanity seems a little shaken by pandemic affairs. He’s a supporter of Scottish independence, but unconvinced it’ll happen because “people are almost sick of upheavals, they’ll vote against their best interests because they can’t be bothered with more drama.” And he despairs at the specks of flailing truth drowning beneath ceaseless waves of online misinformation. “It’s quite depressing to see people reaching for these really s*** conspiracy theories that are totally made up b******* when the actual fact of the matter that all the billionaires have all got 10 times richer in this time when everybody’s absolutely f*****, that’s a real thing that’s happening that everyone should be furious about. Em vez de, everyone’s convinced that Bill Gates is turning them into a magnet or some s***. It’s depressing. People who are angry about the lockdown, you’re like ‘you think that the Tories don’t want you to go to work?’ If this is the real conspiracy then it needs to be explained to me very slowly because that does not seem to be the case.”
What did he make of Eric Clapton and Ian Brown questioning the safety of the vaccines? “It’s the toxic mix of weed and YouTube. People probably shouldn’t be looking to Ian Brown for sensible advice in the first place. I’m surprised anyone listens to what Eric Clapton says anyway. He’s a complete joker of a guy that’s made his career from copying Black musicians but then quotes Enoch Powell.”
That so much of the meaning in Mogwai’s music takes place in the imagination of the listener makes it easy to project one’s own worldview upon it, creating a deeply comforting internal echo chamber. There’s a track on the album called “F*** Off Money”, for instance – to these ears, clearly a comment on end-stage capitalism. "Sim, on some level,” Braithwaite confirms. “I think everyone’s seen how gross it is but I don’t know if anyone’s really doing anything about changing things. When you’ve got Elon Musk talking about doing adverts in space, you’re in a permanent state of dry heave.” Has he jumped on the crypto boom? "Não. I was tempted at one point and then I realised that you were basically betting on the destruction of the planet and it seemed kinda disgusting. But I like the idea of profiting from something that doesn’t involve investing in arms deals or whatever.”
I remind Braithwaite of the last time we met, quando NME pitted two teams of dance and rock artists against each other on the annual Christmas pub golf crawl around Camden in 1997. With Aphex Twin and Squarepusher both carried home early, Braithwaite legendarily won the competition for rock by downing a pint made up of every spirit behind the bar of the Good Mixer (and very nearly keeping it down). “I think I’m still barred from that pub,” he laughs.
Even in recent years they’ve titled tracks “Nose Pints” and “Brain Sweeties” – did Mogwai’s errant youth ever get out of hand? “Probably a little bit,” Braithwaite admits, while pointing out that he didn’t drink for the entirety of 2020. “When you’re getting wrecked all the time you do hit a brick wall, but I’m glad I got slightly sensible at a reasonable age. I know a ton of people that can’t get out of that mindset. It never got spectacularly bad or anything but I’m glad I sorted myself out at some point. The early 2000s, you look at your behaviours and when you let yourself down in very similar situations you decide to stop those situations. There was definitely a period of ‘fuck this’ without a doubt.”
Hoje, Braithwaite looks back on his wilder years with bafflement. “Some of it is so far from anything any of us would do now," ele diz. “The idea that we’d dislike a band so much that we’d make a T-shirt out of it [Mogwai sold a shirt reading ‘Blur: Are S****’ at Reading and Leeds in 1999], now seems deeply hilarious, not just because it’s genuinely quite funny but because we’re men in our mid-forties, most of whom have children and who are generally tactful and reasonable human beings. But if you can’t do daft stuff when you’re young, what’s the point of being young?”
Alongside The National and, before them, REM, Mogwai are that rare breed of band capable of ageing into popularity without compromise. And one so immersed in their own world that No 1 albums and Mercury nominations feel like little more than strange twists in a charmed life.
“Our peers, bands that we started out with,” Braithwaite says, “a handful of them are still going and doing good but a lot of them don’t have time to be full-time musicians. I feel really lucky that we can still do music as our full-time occupation. All this other stuff is just a laugh.”
‘As the Love Continues’ is out now. O 2021 Mercury Prize takes place on 9 September at the Eventim Apollo, Londres