Mogwai have a secret to share – one key to their endurance in perhaps the most limiting genre of modern music. “We’re not cool,” says multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns, shrugging the idea off with a laugh. “This is not a bunch of Nathan Barleys. We’re just boring bastards.” As one self-effacing quip follows another, it quickly becomes clear that the band doesn’t take itself too seriously. But as they’re coaxed into reflecting on their 13 year career, the subject of Mogwai’s staying power manages to keep cropping up. Fitting, then, that with the release of their seventh album, The Hawk is Howling, Mogwai believe they’re ready to face their greatest challenge yet.
In their own words, Mogwai have never been a “fad band.” They’ve never enjoyed reams of airplay or cover stories only to be spat back out when the scene suddenly shifted elsewhere. The closest they came to finding themselves on an industry treadmill was the weight of expectation that surrounded their third album, 2001’s Rock Action. It was then they realised that even the briefest flirtation with overexposure could interfere with artistic integrity.
“I think the hype aspect affected us more than it should,” says guitarist John Cummings. “That’s probably what made that record rubbish. It’s my least favourite of all our albums. I think if that [level of hype] was offered to us again at this point, we’d say no. It would be daft. We have to concentrate on making a good record, not sittin’ about listening to people tell us that we’re brilliant. The quality of music just plummets when a band is told how good they are.”
It was also around this time that the band picked up another valuable lesson. During a concert in New York, guitarist Stuart Braithwaite’s foot hovered over an effect pedal, ready to send the song crashing into a characteristic wave of distortion. “Stuart, don’t do it!” yelled out one audience member, sending the band into hysterics. But on reflection, it underlined another trap to be avoided: predictability could be just as damaging as hype.
Aside from making sure that their output retains its appeal, the band have long since reached a point where keeping it interesting for themselves is just as much of a priority. They have to be particular about their choice of key, structure, “new toys” and, perhaps most significantly in the case of their latest album, the producer. “We just try not to bore ourselves,” says Burns, “…which gets harder. It’s quite stressful when you’re making a record because you know that you can go over old ground and people will still buy it. That would be a disaster for us. We’re always going to sound like we do but we can change certain parameters within that. And if you make a record that’s different from the last one, you’re going to get more people coming on board. Every album Bowie did sounded completely different from the last one…and often it didn’t really sound like David Bowie. But I think we’ve managed to sound like Mogwai while changing it a wee bit.”
As they are quick to point out, not having a singer puts their compositions under greater scrutiny. “A lot of the time when there’s singing involved, the music becomes secondary,” says Cummings. “There are some fantastic songs that are just the same two chords but it’s the singing component that makes it sound unlike anything else. We don’t really have that unique person’s voice to distinguish ourselves from all the other people who have put those chords in a song, so you have to work a bit harder to make it sound interesting.”
Within instrumental post-rock, this is not easy to do. The genre is so overcrowded with groups copying the same ‘crescendo-building’ dynamic that some critics have labelled it the easiest formula in music to replicate. Perhaps from such a perspective, the only thing separating Mogwai from a litany of sound-alike bands exploring the very same limitations has been the consistent backing of various labels. But having reached the end of their recording contract, that could all be about to change.
Despite having watched the industry crumble around them with little sympathy, Mogwai are considering self-financing their next project and going it alone for the first time since their inception. “It’s exciting and worrying,” says Cummings of the changing climate for musicians. “For the last 50 or so years, labels have been the ones who told people how much it’s worth and now they don’t have that power anymore. They’ve been rippin’ the piss for long enough.”
“Their whole mentality of putting their heads into the sand has really fucked them,” agrees Burns. “Downloading has had a devastating effect but control has been put over to the bands a wee bit more as a result. I used to download loads of music for free and I never thought about it, which was pretty stupid. It’s like when your grandparents say: ‘we smoked but we didn’t know it was bad for you’. The thing that really made me realise that it’s wrong was Radiohead giving the music away. If someone says ‘this music isn’t worth anything’ then no one will buy it. So we won’t be giving it away for free, anyway. I think that’s insane. How would you make money unless you were doing a worldwide tour or something? Radiohead can afford it. They don’t need to pay for their houses. I can’t even afford brown rice anymore!”
As the laughter subsides once more, it seems like we’re all separately imagining what may lie ahead for Mogwai – and then I realise that every mention of their survival as a band has hinged on how they have adapted and coped with change. So as they’re about to resume a tour that takes in Japan, America and Europe, there’s no reason to think that the next stage of their career will be treated any differently. “It keeps you on your toes,” says Cummings with a final laugh. “After touring for ten or twelve years, you learn from these experiences. You just have to remember to be careful…or the fans will never come back.”
From the new issue of Beat Happening. Available in music shops and venues across London.