Mogwai - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
Believe it or not, the impetus for Mogwai began at a Ned’s Atomic Dustbin show. As notorious for mudslinging as they are for epic post rock instrumental pieces, it’s a bit odd to discover that guitarist Stuart Braithewaite and bassist Dominic Aitchison met at the altar of Grebo’s most forgettable artist. After all, this is the same band that printed up hundreds of “Blur: Are Shite” shirts and publically compared James Blunt to blood tainted vomit. There’s little doubt Ned Atomic Dustbin also received similar “constructive” criticism from Braithewaite and Aitchison that night. When they aren’t lambasting their peers Mogwai have spent the better part of a decade simultaneously crafting monumental instrumental pieces based around traditional rock instrumentation and an intense live show that exists in a hazy miasma between the beauty of ambient music and the ear bleeding volume of death metal. Truth be told, Mogwai doesn’t sound anything like death metal or ambient music but the band’s uncanny aesthetic utilizes elements from both genres in the construction of towering sonic monuments of violent emotional beauty. Similar to their North American sister band God Speed! You Black Emperor, the Scottish quintet is credited for ushering post rock into the European consciousness, and is still viewed today as the torch bearers for the genre.
Braithewaite and Aitchison were in different bands when the met that fateful night but soon came together to form Mogwai after discovering a mutual appreciation for avant-garde instrumental music, citing My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth as influences. After recruiting second guitarist John Cummings and drummer Martin Bulloch the band began to write and rehearse their own compositions in 1995. By the following year Mogwai had saved enough money to cut their first 7” single, Angels vs. Aliens (Che Recordings ) following a few months later by the Tuner/Lower (Rock Action) 7” single a few months later. The band released several more one off singles throughout the year with each successive release garnering “single of the week” status from various reputable UK music magazines. Mogwai began their invasion of North America in the summer of 1997 while on tour with Pavement. During this time the group took on a fifth member in former Teenage Fan Club drummer Brendan O’Hare but it wasn’t long before O’Hare was fired from the group for, allegedly, making too much noise at an Arab Strap concert. Mogwai released their debut full length, Young Team (Jet Set) later that year to rave critical reviews, increasing their cult following in Europe and North America where the band received heavy college radio play. Relying on found sounds, epic guitar repetition, and a driving rhythm section Young Team was a volatile slice of post rock that put Mogwai on the international alternative map and turned the group into one of the biggest buzz bands of the year. Mogwai hit the road in support of the album, even returning to America as the opening act for the Manic Street Preachers.
After months of touring the band opted to forgo recording a follow up and focused their creative energies on remixing previous material. The remix compilation, Kicking A Dead Pig (1998-Jetset) was released in the spring of 1998 and featured remixes from renowned electronic artists like DJ Q, u-ziq, Alec Empire, and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, amongst others. Jet Set later re-released the album to include the Mogwai Fear Satan (1998-Eye Q) remix EP. After the Glasgow City Council invoked a city wide curfew for teenagers in an attempt to curb the city’s growing crime rate, Mogwai entered the realm of political activism by printing up thousands of “Fuck The Curfew” stickers and releasing the No Education=No Future (Fuck the Curfew) EP via Chemikal Underground. Believing higher educational standards and after school programs were better suited to curb the youth crime rate of Glasgow, the band succeeded in raising awareness for the plight of Scottish teenagers, and it wasn’t long before the city wide curfew was lifted. The latter half of 1998 brought about a dramatic shift for Mogwai. The band stabilized their line up by adding multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns as their fifth member and signed to popular U.S. indie label Matador. Seeking to expand their sound the band relocated to Tarbox Studios in the wilds of upstate New York to record with former Mercury Rev member and Flaming Lips sonic guru Dave Fridmann. Recorded in just three weeks, Come On Die Young (1999-Matador) showed a dramatic progression in the band’s sound by replacing the high level of volume with more diverse instrumentation, complex song structure, and waves of orchestration, enhancing the quiet/loud aesthetic they honed on Young Team. It was during the Come On Die Young tour when the band began selling the infamous “Blur: Are Shite” T-shirts and talking infinite amounts of trash about Blur frontman Damon Albarn during interviews. Mogwai have long held corporate rock acts like Blur, Oasis, and U2 in disregard for dumbing down music. Other artists inflicted by their verbal wrath have included Paul McCartney and James Blunt but none have incurred their ire more than Britpop poster boy Damon Albarn.
Rock Action (2001-Matador) reunited the band with Fridmann and marked another significant change in direction for the band. Where previous releases utilized found sounds in place of vocals, Mogwai enlisted Welsh singer Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals to lend vocals in his native tongue for many of the Rock Action tracks, and subdued their volcanic guitar eruptions in favor of tighter melodies, softer ambient soundscapes, and flourishes of electronic sampling. The result was a more listener friendly album that considerably widened their fanbase and earned the band huge critical praise. Up to this point Mogwai were notorious for their abrasively loud live shows but after ruining (and subsequently paying for) several venues PA systems on the Rock Action tour the band decided to turn down the volume, although they did elect to conclude each gig with the 20 minute long version of the Jewish hymn “My Father My King”, which usually ended in torrents of screeching feedback. Later that year the band released the guitar heavy single version of My Father, My King (2001-Matador). Produced by noise aficionado Steve Albini, the single included a promotional sticker on the cover advertising the 20 minute long song as “two parts serenity, one part death metal”. After recording two albums in America the band decided to stay closer to home for the fourth full length, electing to work with indie producer Tony Doogan, who has since become the unofficial sixth member of Mogwai’s creative team. The ironically titled, Happy Songs for Happy People (2003-Matador) was another critical darling that saw the band flawlessly balancing their ambient and abrasive sides, while also pairing down the epic length of their songs to below the 6 minute mark.
Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2004 (2005-Matador) culled together select live material from Mogwai’s live sessions with the BBC’s legendary John Peel and Steve Lamacq. In 2006, Mogwai would release not one but two albums. The first, Mr. Beast (2006-Matador), replaced the electronic flourishes of past releases with piano based melodies mixed with a back to basics guitar attack, and features guest vocals by Tetsuya Fukagawa of the Japanese noise band Envy. The second was the film score for the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait about Zinedine Zidane, the megastar French footballer. Rather than focusing on highly melodic material Zidane showcases Mogwai at their most ambient and obtuse, sacrificing fleshed out songs for prolonged mood pieces. After some needed time off, the band began recording sessions for their seventh untitled full length with hopes for a summer 2008 release followed by more blisteringly loud live shows around the world.