Glaswegian quintet Mogwai has been sculpting beautifully heavy instrumental music since its inception in the mid-’90s and, more specifically, since the release in 1997 of the influential post-rock milestone Young Team. They followed Young Team with a steady stream of releases, each populated by the band’s signature labyrinthine three-guitar workouts and blissful balladry, each a study in slow-burning dynamic tension.
While touring in support of 2008’s The Hawk Is Howling, Mogwai hooked up with Vincent Moon of La Blogothèque to film three nights of shows at New York’s Music Hall of Willamsburg. (Click here to read Prefix’s interview with Moon.) The resulting film, Burning, and its companion album, Special Moves, document a band at the peak of its powers, sojourning through the savage thickets and serene clearings of its formidable back catalog. Here, multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns discusses the film and the band’s songwriting process.
By now most of your peers have broken up or shattered into numerous splinter groups. How do you keep the musical partnership fresh and exciting year after year?
We’re still very good friends with each other, and though we sometimes say that we don’t enjoy touring for long periods, I think when we’re not touring we all begin to yearn for the hour and a half of playing music every night. I’ll probably not be saying this in about six months’ time. I’ll wonder what the fuck I was talking about while gently crying myself to sleep in a sweaty, moving coffin bunk.
How does it feel to have spawned a generation of bands that name you as a direct influence?
I suppose that’s quite nice of them to say so, whoever they may be, though a “generation of bands” might be a bit grandiose. “A wee bunch of folk with guitars, some pedals and their virginity wholly intact” is maybe more accurate.
In addition to the recording and touring, you’ve been running your own label, Rock Action Records, since 1996. Is it ever a struggle to find time to juggle your various commitments?
Not really so far, personally. We have Craig [Hargrave] at the label who does the day-to-day stuff; we can’t really moan about record companies anymore, because that’s us.
Let’s talk about your songwriting process. Do you all get into a space and jam until something comes together? Do you demo bits and pieces and pass them around? How is a Mogwai song born?
This time round we’ve been using recording applications on our computers and sending them to each other over the Internet, then getting together in Glasgow for a few weeks at a time for rehearsals. I’ve got a tiny little studio in Berlin where I live, and I’ve spent a lot of the last year alone in there writing. It’s all new for me here, so naturally I’m curious to hear if it’ll have any impact on the music. Anyway, we actually spend quite a lot of time rehearsing together and trying to sort out beginnings, middles and ends, and we also like to find out the latest Glasgow gossip. It’s like a knitting group.
You have always had a penchant for curious song titles, especially with your latest album, The Hawk Is Howling. Where do you find inspiration for titles? And what is a batcat?
We’ve never really taken that side of music seriously, because we never had any message to give to people, especially having very few lyrics. So if we hear something funny or interesting, or if someone misheard a phrase and it sounded better than what was actually said, then we’ll write it down and use it. The names of the demo versions are often very descriptive (like the chord names) or childish and stupid, along the lines of “Lick My Love Pump” by Spinal Tap. This often horrifies French journalists who think we’re five sagely intellectuals. A batcat, for your information, is a mythical creature and distant cousin to the Glasgow megasnake. They both reside in John Cummings’ world of fantasy.
It seems like you’ve been moving away from the long-form epics of your early years and toward more leaner songs, especially with Mr. Beast, whose songs barely breached the five-minute mark. Is this move toward more concise songcraft something you’ve consciously been working on?
Not at all, it’s just something that happened. The new songs are actually quite long again, but there’s no reason for that — not consciously anyway.
How did the idea for Burning come about? Did the Blogotheque guys contact you, or is this something you’ve been planning yourselves?
We planned to do something live-related eventually, but they kick-started the whole idea for us. We’d worked with Vincent Moon before on the film short that he did on our last album, and he was very keen to work with us on a more ambitious project. That’s how that came about. To be honest, I’m really pleased with it. I’ve always said we were a better live band than “proper” album band, so this record sounds really good to me because it’s just us playing songs live.
Some of the songs on Burning/Special Moves are very different from their respective studio versions. There is a sense that your songs are living, breathing things. Is a song ever really finished?
I think that’s because when we record the songs in the studio and then go to rehearse them, we often think of better parts that we should have played in the first place, so the answer to your question is no. For us it’s never really finished, and that’s quite all right. Besides, it’s kind of boring to go and see a band play the CD.
Your live set is pretty evenhanded in representing all of your albums. Are there any songs you especially love playing, though? Any you hate?
The loves/hates list changes a lot on each tour, so I couldn’t really say. I used to hate playing “Travel Is Dangerous” because I had to attempt some sort of actual singing. It probably sounded more like I was screaming for help, and it could often ruin a gig for me due to nerves. You know, I’d always be thinking about having to play that song later in the set when I should have been thinking about the song I was actually playing.
What’s next on the agenda for Mogwai?
Well, album recording and release, then extensive touring over the next couple of years. Hopefully we’ll get time to do other things if and when they arise, but we’ll see.