Scottish guitarist and vocalist Stuart Braithwaite founded the band Mogwai in 1995, and having been together for more than a decade and a half, their cohesion is remarkable, both sonically and personally, with all the original members still on board.
Unlike Radiohead, with whom they might be most likely compared in their artsy approach to sound, Mogwai hasn’t had major label success or huge album sales. But they have kept plugging away with a workmanlike approach that has garnered them critical nods and a solid fan base.
The band has been influenced by all the genres mentioned above, from the experimenting 13th Floor Elevators and Velvet Underground of the ’60s to punk rock bands Television and Joy Division and later contemporaries like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine.
The common thread of all these outfits is an attention to sound as an artistic medium, and that quality is something featured on every Mogwai album as well. That’s not to say that Mogwai has stood still, but with the addition of synthesizers and keyboards on the last few albums, their sound has evolved. “Musically, our songs are a lot more complex now,” Braithwaite notes.
The band switched from indie flagship Matador Records to the Sub Pop label for their latest release, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, but Braithwaite says there was no rock & roll drama behind the decision. They just needed a change and had no ill feelings toward Matador.
“We are aware of the heritage of the two labels,” he notes. “Sub Pop put out some of the most important records to us when we were really young, and Matador has released a lot of incredible material, too. We’re lucky to have worked with them both.”
The band fits into the way Sub Pop has reinvented itself since riding the wave of the ’90s grunge boom and bust with more folk-oriented indie acts like Mark Lanegan and Vetiver. Many of Mogwai’s soundscapes have a pastoral feeling, especially some instrumental sketches without vocals, where they really stretch out a canvas of sound.
The title of the album is a joke from a story Braithwaite heard about an underage kid trying to buy wine, shouting the phrase as an insult to the offending shopkeeper. As with many of their album titles, it was chosen at random. Like their previous discs Happy Songs For Happy People (2003) and Come On Die Young (1999), it seems like an ironic wink at the extreme behavior of youth.
A song like “Mexican Grand Prix” from the new album is titled randomly as well, Braithwaite insists, although its hypnotic rhythms are reminiscent of the sound of a racetrack. Their music is engaging in that way, not overwhelming or bombastic, but subtly, over time, wearing its tire treads into your brain, until you find that it’s somehow unraveled its ribbon of roadway into your subconscious. “You’re Lionel Richie” begins as a lush instrumental in repose, but before the end has turned into an acerbic drone. “How To Be a Werewolf” is a sprawling invocation of sonic wilderness, a wordless escape from the restraints of human civilization, if not necessarily a lupine one.
But their music is also refreshing, if occasionally cerebral, even meditative. They have joined the long tradition of bands they have revered, extending the definition of what rock music can encompass, and thus helping it outlive the cranky old shopkeepers of the world over and over.?