Robbie Williams should shoot himself. No, Robbie Williams should shoot himself where the sun doesn't shine, then bleed to death. Better yet, Robbie Williams should have his heart pulled through an orifice that doesn't usually get much air. That last procedure will be roughly, gleefully administered by Barry Burns, self-described "piano genius and guitar Mongol" for Scottish atmospheric rockers Mogwai.
It's February, and Burns and his fellow band members-bassist Dominic Aitchison, drummer Martin Bulloch, and guitarists John Cummings and Stuart Braithwaite-are sitting in a crappy Manhattan hotel bar, drinking their weight in beer and naming names. Williams and Axl Rose are "overglorified fuckwits" ("I heard Axl went really mad at Duff because he messed with the wig," Aitchison says). American kids don't realize that listening to Creed is corroding their souls. And Christina Aguilera's producers should be ashamed for ripping off Richard D. "Aphex Twin" James so shamelessly on "Genie in a Bottle."
Mogwai's outspokenness has garnered them at least as much attention as their records have, earning the band a growing cult following on both sides of the Atlantic. Since forming in 1995, they've led impressively publicized if ultimately ineffective campaigns against youth curfews around Glasgow (releasing an EP subtitled "Fuck the Curfew") and Blur (selling T-shirts that read BLUR: ARE SHITE). Burns may have colorful opinions about how best to effect celebrity death, but Braithwaite is the one with the ready sound bite. He told NME in 1999: "The bare fact that we shun the conformist ways of writing songs is as radical as Bob Dylan alerting the Southern states of America to their racist ways in the '60s." Okaaay, then. Clearly, Braithwaite remains confident about the puissance of his views, including his unshakable belief that Mogwai are one of the few bands that actually matter.
Hence the way he sneers when talking about the expansive sound of Mogwai's new album, Rock Action: "When we heard what Radiohead had done, we thought, 'You know, we could do something almost that good.'" The others laugh into their pints, perhaps because their band has been knocked by critics for not always exceeding the sum of their influences. But it's not Radiohead to whom Mogwai are most frequently compared (that would be Slint, My Bloody Valentine, and Low). A live act of uncommon power, Mogwai haven't successfully defined themselves in the studio-until now. "All the bands we rip off never made a third album," Braithwaite riffs. "Slint just couldn't afford the strings!"
Rock Action, Mogwai's fourth LP, is a valiant effort to separate them from their record collection. Rich with vocoders and lush strings, the album, which was recorded by Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann in upstate New York, paints with texture and restraint instead of the bombast and volume that the band made spurious use of on 1997's Mogwai Young Team and 1999's Come On Die Young. It's also the first time that most of the songs feature vocals, even if one of them, "Dial: Revenge," is sung in Welsh, by Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys. Other guest spots are held down by Leeds' brilliant hometronica duo the Remote Viewer (on "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong") and David Pajo, formerly of, well, Slint (backing vocals on "Take Me Somewhere Nice").
This fullness could be due to the 1998 addition of Burns, who's a darn good flutist and orchestrator (he can also put his entire fist in his mouth) and who's clearly widened Mogwai's sonic palette. Or it could be because, having sold more than 100,000 copies of Come On Die Young worldwide, the band can afford to spend three months in the studio. However it happened, Mogwai have finally made an album that's as good as they've been telling us they are. Braithwaite's mouthiness now seems less like youthful narcissism than the justifiable outrage of someone who just doesn't understand why everyone isn't as passionate about music as he is.
And it's only fair to point out that Mogwai are just as loud about music they respect. "For all the squabbles they've created with their dissing of other bands, they've also gone out of their way to champion bands who they're fans of, like Gilded Lil and Bardo Pond," says Gerard Cosloy, copresident of Matador, which licenses Mogwai's records in the U.S. "Ten years ago, you'd see someone like Sonic Youth filling the same role."
As clean as their intentions may be, Mogwai will probably never stop talking trash. Three months in America left them plenty of time to watch MTV and discover a new hatred, this time for a certain balding, backward-baseball-hat-wearing phony who "thinks he's a homeboy from the fucking projects," Braithwaite says, fuming. "At least Axl Rose is a fucking rock star. Fred Durst is a wee fanny!"