The more things change, the more things stay the same. You can still find members of Mogwai gleefully bashing Blur alum Damon Albarn or raving about the latest football championship on their band’s Web site, and at the same time be making Mr. Beast — a record that marks a clear turning point in the quintet’s ten-year career. Whatever folks may have said about previous efforts — whether they admired the delicacy or rolled their eyes — those were, plainly speaking, quieter records. Mr. Beast, is, plainly speaking, a fucking loud record. There are subtle moments, but tracks such as “Glasgow Mega Snake” and “We’re No Here” preach Mogwai’s original genesis myth — the story where electric guitars were created on the sixth day and Big Muffs on the seventh.
As they got set to launch a new record and a new American tour, we thought we’d corner one of Mogwai’s able and amiable lads, bassist Dominic Atchison, and set a couple things straight. Namely, what’s the deal with the Zinedine Zidane project? Who comes up with song-titles like “Folk Death 95“? And what the hell is Tetsuya Fukagawa saying on “I Chose Horses” on the new record?
I’m sure probably anyone who’s been checking your Web site recently is curious about this new film soundtrack you guys are doing about Zinedine Zidane [a famous French football star]. How did that project [Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait] come about?
One of the guys who’s directing it is a Glaswegian artist called Douglas Gordon, and when we recorded one of our previous albums, we decided we didn’t really want to have anything to do with the cover ’cause we were too lazy and we could afford it. So our record company just approached a bunch of people to design a cover, and [Douglas] was the guy picked to design it. We got to know him after that. It’s just always been something we’ve talked about doing together, and he approached us about doing this film with him. And we love football, so …
You guys are definitely vocal football fans. I mean, there’s always stuff on your Web site about football. So was it the idea of doing a film soundtrack or was it being able to work on a film about football that was most attractive about the project?
I think it was a bit more about doing a film soundtrack than football ’cause we’ve always wanted to do a film soundtrack it’s something we’ve always thought our music would work well with. We’ve just been anxious to give it a go, and it just seemed like a good opportunity to test something in that area, get a start.
Am I right in thinking that a few years ago you guys were in the running to do the American Psycho soundtrack?
Yeah, I think we got asked. I remember before it even went into production we might have been asked and then we just never heard from them again. … We get asked to [score films] quite a lot and they never come off, and we’ve got to the point now where we don’t actually expect it, so when something does actually happen we’re quite surprised. [Laughs.]
When is the soundtrack going be coming out?
Well, the film is gonna come out around the time of the World Cup final, which would be in the summer, but I have no idea what’s happening [beyond that]. I don’t know if the music will getting released then or not. It’s just pure speculation at this point.
But you guys have finished all the recording, right?
We finished recording today [February 22], so we’re gonna start the mixing soon, right on time. The recording is done, but there’s still some things to finish up.
Speaking of recording, I know you guys have talked about how Mr. Beast was one of the best recording experiences you’ve have had because you were able to work in your own studio [the Castle of Doom]. What about working in your own studio made it such a good experience?
I think it’s a lot more relaxing. I usually find the recording process quite stressful. You always have to keep watching the clock ’cause you only have a certain amount of time before your money runs out. I think this time it was okay if we made mistakes, because we’d be able to go back and correct them. If we’re not happy with something, we can easily scrap it for something else. It was a lot more relaxing.
Did working in your own studio affect the writing process?
Yeah, I think it probably did. I mean, we had all the bare bones of the songs written before we came in, and it gave us more time [to work them out]. It was easier to experiment and change whole sections of songs that we normally wouldn’t have attempted.
This album is noisier, and you guys have talked about that. From whom did the main push for that sound come from? Was it yourself, Tony [Doogan, producer], or a combination of the two that wanted to make a louder record?
I think it was definitely us. I mean, our records up to this point have sorta been gettin’ quieter and quieter and more laid back, but when we play live, we still play a lot of the older songs ’cause they’re more fun to play live. I think it was just getting’ to be a strain to play the same old songs. And for the people who come to see us, it’s the ones they seem to enjoy the most as well, and I think we realized it was about time that we actually got around to writing some more [noisier tunes]. I think we just wanted to make an album that was maybe closer to the way we are live than our previous albums have been.
In the past, I know you guys have not been fully satisfied with how you’ve recorded the noisier stuff. Do you feel satisfied with Mr. Beast that you’ve captured the louder elements?
I think it was pretty successful. Our records have been getting quieter and quieter because we just decided [the noise] didn’t work. I mean, when we first recorded we were so young we just didn’t realize it is pretty much impossible to get [on record] the dynamics of what we do live. It just never happened. When we discovered that, I think we were all quite bummed out, so we just decided to avoid it totally. I think it’s good [this time]. It works in a different way on this record than it probably does when we play it live. I think it’s worked. I’m proud of it.
It always seems that the song titles are an afterthought. Is that the case? Do you guys write the music and then think, Let’s just call it something?
Yeah, that’s pretty much it. We’re quite serious about the music when we’re writing it — we take it seriously. As soon as we’re done recording and everything else, it’s not a major concern. We don’t really make any effort. It’s always usually some random nonsense that made us laugh. … When we’re writing and recording there’s no lyrics as well, so there’s no real need to reference anything in the title. It’s often random and it doesn’t matter so [laughs] it’s something maybe we should think about more.
I think it’s a nice contrast. In general, you guys seem like you’re pretty funny, down-to-earth guys, but then you make this very serious, very melancholy music. Do you guys see that disconnect at all?
Yeah. I don’t know. I think people have always assumed that we’d be quite dour and intense people, but we’re happy. It’s something I find quite remarkable. Being in a band is meant to be fun; you’re meant to enjoy it and have a good time doing it. There are people that come up to us that are generally quite appalled that we’re having a laugh and seem to be enjoying ourselves, [like] “How come you’re not suffering? How come you’re not a slave to your music? That’s not the way it works!” It’s something we’ve become aware of — certain people who just go, “My God! You guys are idiots!” It was never a conscious decision … it’s just the way we are, really.
Some of the same bands that are mentioned in the same sentence with Mogwai, such as Godspeed You Black Emperor, seem to have personas that match their music. You guys seem like real people.
Yeah, I hope we are real people [laughs]. Like with Godspeed, we’ve played some shows with them, and they’re very intense people. I mean, they’re very funny people as well, but they’re a lot more politically minded then we are. They’re a lot more serious about things. So, I don’t know. I think they are probably closer to what people imagine them to be …
Stuart [Braithwaite, guitarist/vocalist] made a comment on Mogwai’s bio page on Matador Records’ site about being attracted to music that has weight, whether or not its Leonard Cohen or Sun O))). Since I think that’s something Mogwai has cultivated in its own music, is there a way you can describe what makes music weighty?
I don’t know if I can really describe it. I think people always assume that heavy music has weight … but I think it’s anything that has any sort of impact on you. I think that’s more — I’m terrible answering a question like this. My idea of what I would consider weighty is probably different from what other people consider weighty. I know a lot of people would probably think Slayer is a weighty band. They’re just heavy; they’re not weighty. Someone like Isis or Sun O))) is what I would consider. They’ve got a bit more … I don’t know if can describe it. Sorry if I’m terrible at it.
No, it’s definitely hard to describe. Just going back to when you guys play live. Obviously the noise is a big factor, but I think part of what makes the performance work is that you guys are tight enough to know when to turn off the noise and when to turn it back on. Can you describe what makes a good racket versus a bad racket? What makes a good show versus a bad show?
I think it’s a bad show when we’re not all [together]. Like you said, it’s good when we get to the middle of a song and we’re quiet — we know when to calm it down … And I find when that doesn’t happen — when we’re not all totally on the same wavelength, not agreeing when it should be real quiet or loud — things don’t work as well. When it happens now and then, it’s a bit of a bummer. It’s quite hard, really, to work out the experience of it … You’re more aware of your mistakes, and it makes it hard to get into it and enjoy it. I think the audience can tell when we’re not playing as well. The audiences aren’t daft; they can tell when you’re not having a good night.
Have there been any instances when the noise levels have gotten you in trouble with a venue or with your equipment?
All in all, we’ve had real problems in Europe because for about the past five or six years they’ve developed insanely quiet noise limits, but especially in France, its really ridiculously quiet. … Some places are cool — they let you go over [the limit] a wee bit, and some places are just really strict. One place we played in Paris — the show ended in a riot, quite definitely. Before we knew it, our sound guy was coming toward me (I think it was the last song), and we just looked up and we saw venue security wrestling with our sound guy. The security guy would try to pull the fader down, and our sound guy would try to push it back up. And somebody from the audience just punched one of the security guys, and more security came over and starting giving our sound guy grief. [The lights came on] and we all flew up to the sound desk, and … it was horrible. It was really an awkward, horrible moment. That’s not happened since, but it can be a bit of a problem.
We’re not quite as loud as we used to be, honestly, because we were at a point a couple years ago where it was getting hard for people to actually enjoy it … It should always be loud enough where you can physically feel it — you’re trousers should shake … but we got to the point where you can’t make anything out — it’s just pure noise and you’re not picking any music out at all.
Yeah, I saw you guys around four or five years ago in London and I think you played “My Father My King” for the encore. It was the loudest thing I’d ever heard — almost nauseatingly loud. And there were these strobe lights. It was just ridiculous. I think that’s kind of the limit there, when people start getting sick.
Yeah, that’s what made us realize that we should maybe tone it down a bit, ’cause there were times when people would just leave — like half the audience would leave. These people had paid money to come and see us, and then we’re making them leave, that’s just … I mean, we’re still probably louder than your average band, but hopefully not to the point of vomiting.
What are your favorite places to play? Where do you guys get the best reception and have the most fun?
I suppose it’s the places where we’ve got friends. Places like Chicago and New York, it’s always good ’cause you get a big crowd. We’ve always got a bunch of friends there that come out and you’re always quiet excited about seeing your friends and playing a big show. Also, we were recently in Japan, and that’s like nowhere else. The audience just reacts in a completely different manner. It’s great.
Barry [Burns, keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist] is always talking on your Web site about how he wants to live in Japan.
I don’t know if I’d want to live there, but there are whole aspects of Japan that I think are great. I can definitely spend a lot of time there.
Speaking of Japan, do you have any insight on what Tetsuya Fukagawa [of Envy] is saying in “I Chose Horses” from the new record?
I have no idea. He sent us the rough translation, but even in English I still didn’t particularly understand it. Honestly, it’s quite deep, but I don’t know. I think we’ll put the translation on the Web site soon, but I’m afraid I couldn’t help you.
Prefix review: Mogwai [Mr. Beast] by Andrew C. Bradick
Prefix review: Mogwai [Government Commissions: BBC Session 1996-2003] by Etan Rosenbloom
Prefix review: Mogwai [Happy Songs for Happy People]