Mogwai: Rock Unction
I hadn't planned on interviewing Mogwai.
Don't misunderstand me. I'd known for a couple of months that Splendid would be interviewing a member (or members) of the Scottish Guitar Army on the last day of May. I just didn't think I'd be the one doing the interviewing. But you know how it goes. Schedules change, conflicts arise, and suddenly there I was, waiting to talk to Mogwai frontman Stuart Braithwaite.
Once again, this wasn't a huge crisis. As a fan of the whole loud-quiet-loud school of contemporary rock, I already had a decent collection of Mogwai CDs, and I'd spent the last 36 hours doing my best to memorize every last bit of Rock Action. And having seen the band a couple of months earlier, I had their live performance fresh in my mind. But I wasn't a mouth-foaming fan. I couldn't ask the sort of myopic, obsessive questions that make so many musicians' eyes light up with self-indulgent glee...
Fortunately, while you might expect a guy like Stuart Braithwaite to be sharp-tongued and sarcastic, he wasn't. He was a nice guy -- friendly, patient, accomodating and seemingly eager to be asked questions he hadn't been asked before -- which made my rather threadbare interview game plan (1. Get the bugger talking; 2. Keep him talking.) a lot easier to pull off...despite the constant flow of venue staffers filling ice buckets, delivering drinks and doing their best to drive the interview off course. It went a little like this...
Splendid: Let's begin by talking about Rock Action. You had a long list of possible titles, including Pardon Our Dust As We Grow To Serve You Better. What finally settled you on Rock Action?
Stuart Braithwaite: Well, it was after the record label, of course, and the whole Stooges thing. Basically it was just the title we agreed on -- there were lots of different titles, but people weren't all set on 'em. We don't really spend too much time thinking about these things.
Splendid: It's kind of ironic, though, that you chose that title for a record that doesn't really have all that much "rock action". This is really one of your mellower records.
Stuart Braithwaite: We never really thought about it all that much. We didn't really see people asking us that, so I suppose not.
Splendid: It's also a shorter record, obviously. I recall hearing that you were trying to get away from the whole double-album thing...
Stuart Braithwaite: We just wanted to make a shorter record -- one that was more concise, really. We had a lot of songs so it gave us the opportunity to be really "mean" at the editing stage and decide to leave songs off. We just kept the eight that we were most happy with.
Splendid: How many did you have that you didn't use?
Stuart Braithwaite: Twelve.
Splendid: So there's a whole additional album's worth that we'll probably be seeing sooner or later.
Stuart Braithwaite: Yeah, as an EP, probably. We put a couple of 'em on our tour EP -- it's a split EP with Bardo Pond that we're selling on this tour -- and there's an extra track on the Japanese CD. Bits and bobs here and there.
Splendid: So as a solid, concise presentation, you're happy with Rock Action.
Stuart Braithwaite: I'm happy, yeah.
Splendid: Even with "Secret Pint"?
Stuart Braithwaite: Yeah, I like that.
Splendid: I gather you weren't happy about the title.
Stuart Braithwaite: I don't like the title, no, but it's a good song. After a while, titles stop meaning anything anyway.
Splendid: Have people started calling for "Secret Pint" during your set yet?
Stuart Braithwaite: No. Thankfully not. That could get a bit comical.
Splendid: Another notable thing about Rock Action is all the vocals. You've been quoted as saying the tracks "needed" vocals. If you've been making largely instrumental music, how do you suddenly decided that a song needs vocals?
Stuart Braithwaite: If it sounds empty...if it sounds like there's a space that needs (to be) filled, then it's usually another instrument or a vocal part. It sounds quite obvious to me, but sometimes we'll do a song that we'll have planned to be an instrumental, but I'll end up singing just to get something else on it.
Splendid: You've never done as much vocal stuff before as you've done on Rock Action, have you?
Stuart Braithwaite: I've done it a few times, but not as much on one record.
Splendid: D'you think you'll do it more in the future?
Stuart Braithwaite: It really depends if the songs require it, and if the words get written...basic factors.
Splendid: I understand that. I think what I'm wondering is if you're making an effort to distance yourselves from all those purely instrumental bands. I'm wondering if there's any significance to the increase in vocals on Rock Action.
Stuart Braithwaite: Uhh...no real signficance. Just the way the songs were going, and the kind of songs we're writing. There's no real master plan or anything.
Splendid: So we're not going to see an album of three minute ballads any time soon.
Stuart Braithwaite: I wouldn't think so. I mean, if we wrote all the songs and that's what they were an we were happy with it, then maybe, but... I can't see it, to be honest.
Splendid: But you really did try to stretch out and experiment with a lot of new sounds and instruments this time around...a bigger palette.
Stuart Braithwaite: Yeah.
Splendid: I recall hearing a rumor at one point that you'd threatened to go drum 'n' bass. Any truth behind that?
Stuart Braithwaite: Nah. At the end of "Two Rights Make One Wrong", the original plan was -- well, my plan in my head -- was to make it kind of drum 'n' bass, and it has some of those sounds on it, but... It's always dangerous when people who are ingrained in a certain kind of music try to jump ship. It can be quite embarrassing. That was one of the reasons we got the Remote Viewer boys to come up and do some samples. To try and switch styles can often end up more mimicry than homage.
Splendid: So you end up sounding like kind of a tourist?
Stuart Braithwaite: Yeah.
Splendid: Well, that restraint seems to have worked well. Now, I recall reading that you weren't pleased at having to rush through your early records. You had a full three months to record Rock Action. What did you use the time for?
Stuart Braithwaite: Fixing our mistakes with computers, mostly...
Splendid: Oh, so three days of recording and eighty-seven days of Pro-Tools work?
Stuart Braithwaite: A lot of Pro Tools things, a lot of arrangements, rethinking things, we rerecorded a few songs...getting sounds right. Basically, doing all the things you'd do in a two or three week recording period, but doing them with a lot more consideration and...
Stuart Braithwaite: Well, yeah, yes and no. Even though we weren't rushed, things were constantly being done. One person would be doing something for a couple of days, with other people's input, rather than all of us trying to get something together and having to live with mistakes -- because we're not the tightest band in the world, really. I think it could get to the point where you had so much studio time at your disposal that you could just go mad, like "We could do this bit if we worked for another week." It's good to have some limitations.
Splendid: Yeah, I was curious if that much studio time kind of killed the spontaneity of recording.
Stuart Braithwaite: Yeah...that can be good, but the type of songs we've been doing for the last few years really don't lend themselves well to that sort of rushed process. They really need some work done.
Splendid: This is the second record you've done with Dave Fridmann...
Stuart Braithwaite: Yup.
Splendid: ...and Dave's been very very busy. He's very much in demand, but a casual listener can't necessarily identify his work -- he's not like a Steve Albini, with a trademark touch. What does Fridmann bring to the party, other than knowing what all the buttons do?
Stuart Braithwaite: Quite a lot of perspective, really, because he comes in at a stage when the songs have already been written. He's a really relaxed guy, and quite rational, which isn't a facet that we're known for. He has ideas, as well -- musical ideas, ideas about arrangements, and he's generally an all-round useful man.
Splendid: So he kind of fills out the skills, the approach, whatever, that you're missing.
Stuart Braithwaite: Well, even quite drastically, like on "Secret Pint", at the end, those sort of disharmonic strings -- that was all his idea, and that's quite a big part of the song. He suggests things that we'd never think of, as well as suggesting things that we would think of, but slightly differently. He's good.
Splendid: Think you'll work with him again next time around?
Stuart Braithwaite: Probably. I wouldn't say definitely, but I'd say that he'll have some involvement.
Splendid: So were you mostly at his place up in New York?
Stuart Braithwaite: We did most of it up there. We did some in Glasgow and some in New York City as well.
Splendid: I'll the bands I've talked to who've worked with him up there have said that it's just so isolated, there's really nothing to do but concentrate on making music.
Stuart Braithwaite: Yeah. There's nothing to do.
Splendid: It's in the middle of nowhere.
Stuart Braithwaite: Yeah.
Splendid: I guess that's good if you need to concentrate. Moving on... I guess partly because they've come out within six months of each other and have some superficial similarities, a lot of writers seem to like to compare Rock Action with Radiohead's Kid A. Do you feel like there's really any "kinship" there?
Stuart Braithwaite: I heard Kid A just when we were finishing up mixing, and it sounded pretty good. I don't think it's that similar... For them, I mean, they're a guitar song-based band really really challenging themselves by embracing the whole electronic Pro-Tools thing, whereas ours is really... I suppose if you got both records and didn't know what either band had done before --
A venue staffer enters, begins speaking to Stuart, notices that she has walked into the middle of an interview, apologizes profusely and leaves.
Stuart Braithwaite: I think if you just didn't know anything about either band -- if it was both of our first albums -- then you might think there was a connection. But for us...well, I wouldn't mind their sales!
Splendid: You must be pretty tired of the whole "post-rock" label by now, especially since it seems like everybody in the world has decided to play mid-tempo instrumental music with pretty loud bits. Does that whole association work against the band's growth? Or does it even really matter to you?
Stuart Braithwaite: I don't think it hurts us, and I don't really care, but I also do think it's kind of silly. I think maybe it does hurt us, because certainly if we were described in those terms, people might be put off by it, because it implies some kind of really soulless laboratory-styled music, whereas I think our music is quite emotional and not really that thought out. We tend to think of things more as we do them than before we do them. But I don't really care.
Splendid: So it's not so bad to be in the company of, say, Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Tortoise.
Stuart Braithwaite: I like those bands. I do like those bands. And there is a similarity -- we don't use very many vocals -- but I think it's kind of a lazy comparison.
Splendid: Well, selling music in America seems to be all about lazy comparisons, and reducing things to the lowest common denominator...
Stuart Braithwaite: Yep. I'd rather be post-rock than rap-metal.
Splendid: You could go out on tour with Limp Bizkit...
Stuart Braithwaite: No thanks.
Splendid: You definitely seem, for this leg of the tour, to be in bigger venues than I've seen you in before...other than at South By Southwest, where you played in that big airplane hangar-type place. I almost feel silly asking this after seeing part of your soundcheck, since it looks like you have PA speakers the size of buses, but does it get harder, with bigger venues, to fill a room with your sound? And to maintain a decent level of quality in your sound?
Stuart Braithwaite: No, not really. In a lot of ways it's easier, since there's more room on the stage for all our stuff. I actually prefer bigger places. The place in Austin was too big, though -- there were problems with the sound, and it really was just cavernous.
Splendid: It was a weird bill for you, too, the label showcase.
Stuart Braithwaite: Yeah, and it was weird because it was one of our first shows back, and it was this huge, big room... I'd say that's too big. I like playing to maybe between 800 and a couple thousand.
Splendid: When you're playing, it takes a lot of your concentration. Do you worry about the showmanship aspect? About giving the audience something to watch?
Stuart Braithwaite: No, we just get on with it.
Splendid: And you sit down to play.
Stuart Braithwaite: I sometimes sit down. It depends. It's a lot to do with the guitar straps -- I'm a lot shorter than Dominic so I can't stand up playing the bass or I'd be down on my knees. We don't really care about that kind of thing. We just try to play the right notes.
Splendid: Do you think American audiences "get" you?
Stuart Braithwaite: Probably as much as anyone.
Splendid: Are they getting your humor? Or are they missing the point?
Stuart Braithwaite: No, I think musically, people really really really have the right idea about us in America -- here and in Japan are the two... It's fine back home but I think there's maybe a lot of "baggage" there that we don't have here -- people willing ideas on us that aren't our ideas. But I think people get it just fine here.
Splendid: So what happens after this tour?
Stuart Braithwaite: Well, we're playing tours pretty much up until this Christmas --
Splendid: Damn! Straight through?
Stuart Braithwaite: Not quite. We've got the odd break, some breaks. After that, just try and write some songs.
Splendid: Do you prefer to tour constantly 'til it's over with, or do you prefer to do a few shows, then take a break?
Stuart Braithwaite: I like a break. I like a couple of weeks every month, or whatever. It very often doesn't work that way...
Splendid: But at least you're at the point where you don't have to worry about going home and trying to find jobs, or return to jobs.
Stuart Braithwaite: Yeah. Oh, that would be fuckin' awful. Yeah, we're okay in that respect.
Splendid: I understand you get along really well with Bardo Pond, who are supporting you on this leg of the tour.
Stuart Braithwaite: Yeah. They were out with us in Europe directly before this, too, and we've done a show in New York with them.
Splendid: Do you like working with them?
Stuart Braithwaite: Yeah, it's really good working with a band that has...well, quite a similar outlook, as well as the fact, obviously, that we appreciate their music. And they're fun. They play quite serious music, but they also like to have fun, and that's quite important. It's overlooked quite often. I think we may be playing with them as well.
Splendid: Have you done that much on this tour?
Stuart Braithwaite: I played with them once at CMJ, and Michael (Gibbons) has been playing bass with us as well, on one song that doesn't have a bassline, so that's been good.
Splendid: So before the tour ends, people might see all eleven or so of you out on stage.
Stuart Braithwaite: That's not so unlikely.