Scottish noise pioneers Mogwai may be Blur-hating, classically trained, rock anti-heroes, but as guitarists Stuart Braithwaite and Barry Burns explain, it hasn't stopped their current album from going top three in Japan
"A lot of people make art-rock, but forget to actually rock," claimed Mogwai when they first set out their stall as saviours of guitar music, on the back of an unashamedly retro Brit-pop scene. Clearly lovers of traditional metal acts - the band have since then covered Black Sabbath's Sweet Leaf and have been known to come on stage to Slayer's South Of Heaven - Mogwai's early singles took the quiet-loud-quiet dynamics of pioneering post-rockers like Slint to their very limits, challenging mediocrity at every turn. These debut songs were collected together in 1997, to form the mini-album Ten Rapid. The NME claimed it revealed 'such precocious ambition that one feels the ascendancy of this new wave of supersonic youth is only a matter of time'.
Mogwai have certainly fulfilled their promise. They've just released their third album proper, excluding Ten Rapid and an album of remixes entitled Kicking A Dead Pig. The new, deceptively-named Rock Action is a record which sees the band moving away from the elongated rock-outs of their previous two outings in favour of a more concise, warm and fuzzy record. As Stuart Braithwaite explains, the band took a different approach this time.
"I think it's a lot because we wrote the songs without playing them live first. It's probably because we were sat down in the studio, whereas we stand up playing live. It could be as simple as that. We've also used more varied instrumentation, banjos and violins - we needed to do something different."
Featuring a guest vocal appearance from Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals, and also rare vocal contributions from Stuart and Barry Burns, the album clocks in at just 38 minutes; a far cry from the 60-minute-plus monsters Mogwai Young Team and Come On Die Young. And this time round it's strings and brass which help build the crescendos. "Yeah, but it's not exactly Penny Lane," laughs Stuart. "We're just constantly looking to surprise people and there's a lot of bands who've recently tried to emulate our sound. We wanted to stay one step ahead."
Stuart and Barry are both classically trained musicians; Barry went to the Royal Academy of Music in Glasgow while Stuart has an HND in guitar studies.
For some reason, that is something that many people find difficult to accept, as Stuart explains. "I'm a qualified guitar teacher, but no-one ever believes me. I often feel vaguely offended. However, apart from Barry, the rest of the band aren't trained musicians. Dominic, the bassist, believes there's a note called Cb!" I guess you must have learned some Steve Vai licks during your training? "Well, that's what everyone was into at the time. There were all these people with tight trousers and white hi-tech boots," recalls Stuart. "I remember the first time I saw you play," says Barry, "and I thought you couldn't play really fast. We were just practising a song and he started going... (does fast widdling guitar sound) and I just bent over double, pissing myself laughing. I just couldn't believe it." Stuart has even given in to the urge to let fly in public.
"I remember one time we were playing a gig, and at the end of the night we'd end up just playing a D (the song was called 'D') and I went into Sweet Child O' Mine. I was playing it behind my head!"
So the thought of being a guitar hero appeals. "I'm sure there are some kids who look up to me as an unorthodox guitar player and if they knew that I could play properly they'd feel cheated."
While citing Kevin Shields, Steve Albini, J Mascis and David Pajo as personal guitar heroes, Stuart also admits to having a fondness for old country and western music, especially the likes of Hank Williams. Would he like to own a National? "Like the Brothers In Arms one? Actually, it's funny you should say that, but there's one National that's a dream guitar for me. Did you ever see the guitar Robert Smith had? He had this gorgeous black National. I actually found one in Louisville Kentucky and I was going to buy it, but it had one dead fret. I was gutted."
Stuart has been playing the same Telecaster since the band's inception and, as he explains, the reason he's stuck with them is simple. "You can really turn them up loud. They really scream, especially with an extra Seymour Duncan in them." Was there anyone who you used to see playing a Tele who inspired you to pick one up in the first place? "Bruce Springsteen!" jokes Barry. "No, to be honest a lot of my favourite bands didn't use them," continues Stuart. "My Bloody Valentine used Jazzmasters, but when I tried them I just didn't think they sounded very good. Some of the bands I liked used Les Pauls, but I found they were just too muddy. They sound good if you keep the same tone but if you keep changing it they're not cutting enough."
There's certainly no denying that when Mogwai are loud, they are cochlea-shatteringly loud. Their live shows usually end with the hell-raising Like Herod, which builds into a frightening cacophony of undulating feedback. One suspects the band have some heavy-duty amplification in tow. "I use a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier, a Marshall bass head and a Marshall Cab," confirms Stuart. "I really like the Fender Twin. If I was playing through one amp it would definitely be the Twin; it's my favourite amp, but I need that little bit more."
Ever fancied a row of stacks across the back of the stage like some other artists do? "They have them there but they don't use them," retorts Stuart. "We've seen some bassists with two Ampeg cabinets. We tried to have two and it was so loud on stage that the drums rattled all the time. So I don't believe the bands plug both in. There's no way." "I play through a Marshall. One cabinet only," laughs Barry.
The band's sound is also shaped by a whole host of effects pedals. "We've actually got 65 pedals, I know because I counted them recently," says Barry. "We took a photograph of them all laid out and we wanted that for the cover of the album. "It's a great photo but we didn't use it in the end." Stuart talks us through some of their favourites. "In my opinion, the Big Muff's a really good distortion but not quite loud enough; the Danelectro's good. I actually use a Morley wah-wah. I use that because you can put it on without pressing the wah, so you can just use it as a pain inducer. I've got an Ibanez digital delay which seems really unimaginative but it's really reliable, and also an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, and an Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth which makes the guitar sound like a Moog."
"The only thing with Electro-Harmonix is that they don't have lights," explains Barry. "Sometimes you'll start a song and you'll have left the delay on. Or worse still, the Micro Synth. It's like, Mmmeeyyypp... it sounds like an extremely loud Frank Spencer! Actually we probably shouldn't be telling you all our trade secrets. In reality, we use DOD. Just DOD." So what did Stuart use in the early days on tracks like Ithica 27/9 to produce those blistering slabs of white noise? "It's just distortion and playing the guitar really, really hard. Actually, that song's also in an interesting tuning. From low to high C#, A, E, G#, G# G#. That's the most drastic one we use. Recently, John (Cummings - Mogwai's other guitarist) put his A down to G for some tracks, and all the ones where I use slide are in different tunings."
Talking of interesting tunings, Stuart was once quoted as saying: "The next thing I want to do with guitars is become like Nick Drake." Has he achieved that yet? "Actually, I can do a fairly good impression of him now. He was just a brilliant guitarist. He had an almost Krautrock flow - it's so hypnotic. He's droney as well, really really droney and his tunings are outrageous. He often had the lower strings tuned higher than the higher strings and stuff. He was definitely a visionary."
The band have just been given some excellent news. Apparently their album has entered the Japanese album chart at number two, nestling between Bon Jovi and Aerosmith. "Just where we've always wanted to be," chuckles Barry. However, one assumes it would give the band even more pleasure to out-sell British megastars Blur. Many readers may be aware of Mogwai's dislike of the band, a feud which began a couple of years back when the band produced their infamous 'Blur: are shite' T-shirts which were said to have enraged Damon Albarn.
But when it comes to fellow Tele player Graham Coxon, Stuart is grudgingly respectful. "I really don't like that band, but I have to admit that Graham can play the guitar." And what about Graham's old adversary, Noel Gallagher? "Ahh, the thing about Noel is his amp settings; do you know what they are? Everything up to full. It's just outrageous, but it beats technical ability any day," laughs Stuart. What sets Mogwai apart from the competition, of course, is that they have both. What more could you want?