Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo)
By the time the Glaswegian post-rock quintet Mogwai got to their encore at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, many of us were clutching our seat cushions. Those standing in the stalls were so focused on the stage they resembled China’s terra-cotta warriors. Luring us with the blissful intro for Mogwai Fear Satan, the sense of calm abruptly vanished, as we were hit by a sonic bludgeoning with all the heft the 50 kilowatt sound system could kick out. The audience, myself included, visibly flinched as we were all knocked back by a decibel level this venue had never heard before. With orchestral drama, the band’s dynamics rose, carrying the imagination through layers of turmoil and on into the placid eye of their musical storm. The light show synchronized with the music in an uncommonly tight embrace, and with a huge variety of guitars, synthesizers and effects pedals to create their subtle to dramatic changes in tone, the overall impact of Mogwai’s live show was masterful. Mogwai are performing in support of their eighth studio album, Rave Tapes (Sub Pop / Rock Action), out now. Within a week of its release late last month, the album entered the UK top 10, a first for the band who rarely gets commercial radio airplay.
Mogwai isn’t trying to reinvent themselves, they are just getting better. Backstage before the gig, (part of the annual Celtic Connections winter music festival) guitarist and vocalist Stuart Braithwaite theorises on the album’s quick success. “I think the lucky thing with our music is that it is not generation specific,” Braithwaite explains. “I notice a lot of really young people at our shows, I notice a lot of really old people at our shows. A lot of people our age, we are averagely aged, I guess you could say. So I guess because of that, we have accumulated people and that is probably why this album is doing so well.” After nearly two decades of making records and even scoring music for film and TV, Mogwai has released their best album yet, and hope to use their popularity to encourage a much bigger objective – independence for Scotland.
Even though they are instrumentalists, Mogwai have been very vocal about their political views, proactively doing what they can to help lead Scotland to a ‘YES’ vote, as its citizens head to the polls on September 18th. In 1997, Scotland took its first big step towards achieving this by re-establishing a Scottish parliament, and building on previous success, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a sweeping majority in 2011 for their second term. The next big leap would be full independence, after being part of the political union – the United Kingdom, for more than 300 years. “I am not sure if people have quite grasped yet how huge this could be, literally making history,” says Stuart Braithwaite, who has become one of the leading voices among musicians for independence. “It really is an uphill struggle. I think that anyone that can be involved and believes in Scotland becoming independent, have an onus to do what they can.”
Formed in 1995, featuring Stuart Braithwaite (guitar, vocals), John Cummings (guitar, vocals), Barry Burns (guitar, keyboards and flute), Dominic Aitchison (bass guitar), and Martin Bulloch (drums), Mogwai have always done music their own way. Their publishing company, record label and studio are in Glasgow. They have celebrated their heritage in true Scottish fashion by putting out a limited edition Scotch whisky, RockAct81W, named after the next open slot in their label Rock Action’s catalog. You’re too late to get it, though, the 324 bottles sold out within a few hours. It is this DIY spirit Mogwai hopes will rub off on others. They have a demonstrable sense of pride in Scotland, making sure everything they produce is done locally, but it was from touring abroad that Braithwaite really understood why he feels Scotland should be independent. “I think the main thing that brought me around to being pro-Independence for Scotland was traveling around the world and seeing how other countries existed as normal nations running themselves and with their own distinct identities and their own distinct governments,” says Braithwaite. “It just makes sense and it is a really exciting this year to have the opportunity for that to change, for Scotland to join the world as a normal country, a normal functioning democracy.”
Celebrity can certainly mean people will take note of your viewpoint, and Mogwai intends to take hold of the opportunity. “It is quite a complicated conversation because at the end of the day, the profile we have is because of our music. So we are really hijacking our own musical status to promote our personal views. I am quite comfortable with that,” Braithwaite says without hesitation. “If someone disagrees with us, I would certainly like to think it wouldn’t make them like our music any less. I think we are just doing our bit and the whole band are of the same mind so it’s not portraying band members with opinions they don’t hold.”
“Mogwai have an amazing place in Scottish culture and music,” says Jim Brady, guitarist for The Rezillos, a legendary new wave punk band from Edinburgh. “Regardless of if you like their music, they have set their own agenda, they have done things their own way, with a current of Scottish humor. It is very irreverent of authority. It isn’t flag-waving, anarchistic and anti-establishment. Mogwai, considering they are a a largely instrumental band,” Brady continues, “have done a fantastic job at getting that sense of irreverence, self respect and mutual respect. They represent that pervading culture in Scottish society, not trying to be more than you are – because what you are is good enough.”
Music has taken on a larger role than ever in the Scottish identity. It’s not long since Scottish singers would adopt a London or American accent in order to appeal. It wasn’t until the Scottish group, The Proclaimers, topped the charts across the English-speaking markets with I’m Gonna Be (500 miles) and Letter from America in the late 1980’s that the tide would change dramatically. “I remember when I was a teenager and The Proclaimers came out, people thought it was a joke, singing in this Scottish accent, even though it was their normal accent,” says Stuart Braithwaite. “I think that has changed, bands like Arab Strap and Frightened Rabbit have completely turned things on their head. It says something about Scottish identity and how comfortable we are. Looking back, one of my favorite bands of all time, The Jesus and Mary Chain, sang in an American accent, it’s a question whether people would have taken them seriously if they hadn’t. If you think about it now, it is really weird.”
As Mogwai tour to Asia, Europe and America, they definitely plan to keep up with what is going on back home preceding the big September vote. “I think the worse thing ever would be to wake up a day after the referendum and think that you could have done more,” says Stuart Braithwaite. “I think there are two ways of looking at that: you can think of songs that have a direct political message and you can look at art itself as a political statement, self expression and self belief. I guess with us having zero lyrics, we move towards the latter a little bit. Ideas are very powerful, and music is full of ideas.”