Things fall apart. Entropy, disintegration, call it what you will. It doesn't really matter. Because in the hands of the Glasgow quintet Mogwai, any attempts at fixed or invented meanings are parried and ruthlessly ridiculed. Their song and album titles, though seemingly charged with suggestion, are usually slapped on at the last minute and are, in fact, meaningless.
It is indeed futile to categorize Mogwai's work in the conventional sense, as they've been all over the sonic map since Young Team and Ten Rapid dropped like a nuclear strike in 1997. Their stripped-down 1999 effort, Come On Die Young, diffused distortion's pyrotechnics, exhibiting the band's skill at dissonant melody, especially on tracks like "Cody." (An acronym for the album-at-large or a somber love song? You decide.) 2001's Rock Action album was their most accessible, and while just as sedate (if not more so) as Come On Die Young, it purposefully expanded upon the use of vocals, putting much distance between Mogwai and their thunderous guitar assaults of the past. By the time their last record, Happy Songs for Happy People (2003), hit the shelves, Mogwai had merged its schizophrenic sonic identities into one representative palette: those searching for Young Team rockers found solace in epics like "Ratts of the Capital" and "Killing All the Flies," while those favoring more conventional explorations latched onto favorites like "Hunted By a Freak."
Still, Mogwai remains the most elusive of signifiers. A mostly instrumental quintet that sometimes makes way for subdued vocals. A could-give-a-shit Glaswegian collective, shot through with relentless humor but still inspiring the most intellectually serious interpretations. Cosmic goofs with one finger on the panic button, awash in guitars, pedals, pianos, horns, woodwinds, samplers, laptops, and whatever else they can find and fuck around with.
Tortured terminology falls off of them like dead skin. Post-rock? So 20th century. Shoegaze? Died with their heroes My Bloody Valentine, whose legendary 1991 effort Loveless helped build the sonic foundation upon which Mogwai triumphantly stands.
Speaking of My Bloody Valentine, Mogwai's band manager Alan McGee–who bankrolled Loveless before the band's lead architect, Kevin Shields, almost bankrupted the Creation label–was rumored to be on the internet arguing that Mogwai's new album, Mr. Beast (Matador), is superior to MBV's masterwork. You could hear the band cringe from miles away, as they did when I brought the subject up during a sit-down lunch of mince pies and more at London's forward-looking Institute for the Contemporary Arts.
"I know that Alan is just trying to drum up some attention," explains Stuart Brathwaite, the band's de facto leader and most trenchant jester. "He's all about making grand statements. He's a great guy and very funny. But I was embarrassed by it. To be honest, when people compare us to My Bloody Valentine, I think it's because they were the last band outside of the mainstream to actually infiltrate the mainstream."
Nonetheless, the comparisons are resilient enough to survive, to Mogwai's endless frustration. After all, Braithwaite is friends with Shields; plus, the shoegaze wizard decided to drop by and catch the third installment of Mogwai's five-day warm-up at the ICA. Add that to the fact that both bands have shared the services of McGee, and you've got one persistent storyline that will most likely never die, especially if the rumored reunion of My Bloody Valentine comes to pass and Mogwai signs on to open for them.
To Rock Or Not To Rock
If you're looking for more contradictions, witness Mogwai's first night warming up chilly London. There the shirts-and-jeans-clad collective stood, ready to pulverize eardrums like so much porous bone. When Braithwaite launched into the opening progression for "Glasgow Mega-Snake," one of Mr. Beast's phenomenal guitar Godzillas, the crowd barely blinked an eye, even though the noise was deafening, the riffage palpable and visceral, and the grooves heavier than kryptonite. When asked why that was, a few shaggy concertgoers told me that they preferred to give the band respect rather than disrupt the proceedings with untoward moshing.
I ask the band about it the next day, before soundcheck for their second consecutive show.
"Yeah, they were pretty subdued," admits keyboard player Barry Burns. "And I don't know why that is. It's a wee bit weird. But I think they all enjoyed it."
"To be honest," adds Braithwaite (who likes to say that often), "I think it's because these are small shows, and the crowd is made up of hardcore fans of the band. So they were probably just being a bit too reverential, you know?"
"I don't think there was a full bar," cracks guitarist John Cummings. "If there was, it probably would've been a bit more rowdy."
"Maybe we should do some interpretive dancing," says Burns.
"I think it will take them a while to get used to all the new songs," counters Braithwaite. "At the moment, we're just setting the pace and trying not to fuck the songs up, so all that other stuff takes a back seat."
By the second night, everything had changed. Mogwai chose to begin their set with a familiar favorite, "You Don't Know Jesus," and the audience instantly came alive at its first notes. By the time they got around to "Glasgow Mega-Snake," the pump had already been primed; for the entirety of the concert, the hoots, hollers, and applause rained down like the equipment malfunctions that continued to hamper the proceedings but did nothing to dampen the crowd's enthusiasm.
"This is what we go through all the time," Braithwaite explained to the smoke-filled space, shaking his head at the spotty PA system and crackling amps. "This is the dark world we inhabit."
After one song, something sounding not unlike a cherry bomb exploded repeatedly through the monitors, causing Cummings to duck in response. "We're being attacked!" screamed Braithwaite into the mic. "Al Qaeda!"
The crowd cackled with laughter. As much as Braithwaite jokes, he's serious about the fearmongering and war that America's government has inflicted on the rest of the world, as is the rest of the band. When asked, on Mogwai's official website, if the Glasgow goofballs would be visiting the United States again, Burns replied, "Unfortunately, because the country voted for Bush, we're not coming back for four years. It would be the same if we had to play in Germany during 1939-45." In pure Mogwai fashion, he threw everything into reverse one sentence later. "Now, I should say that I'm joking," he wrote.
Of course, the band is too big now to ignore America, even if they wanted to (which they don't). But Braithwaite is unequivocal about his distaste for the Bush administration and the country's disturbing rightward shift. Asked if the current geopolitical situation scares him, he turns dead serious–for once.
"Yes it does. It's almost become..." he trails off, before settling on his answer. "Well, it has become a medieval society. It's really scary. Trying to tell kids in their schools that the dinosaurs didn't exist, that the world was made in seven days and all that. And the government is encouraging it. You have to start wondering when they're going to burn witches."
Although America and Americans might rightly give Mogwai fits of conscience, England treats the band like stone cold rock royalty. Indeed, by the night of their second performance at the ICA, London had caught Mogwai's fever, figuratively speaking. There were fans adorning the ICA entrance, begging for extra tickets. The hubbub was prodigious and immediate, and Mogwai rode it hard, fronting an almost entirely different setlist, save for the new tracks from Mr. Beast still being hammering into live-show shape. Running through a healthy dose of fan favorites like "Summer," "Tracy," "2 Rights Make One Wrong," and Young Team's popular (if ironically titled) 16-minute epic "Mogwai Fear Satan," they could do no wrong. Even when Burns screwed up the lyrics to Mr. Beast's melodic, distortion-drenched "Travel is Dangerous," uttering "Blah blah blah" instead of the verse, Braithwaite merely shrugged and played on as if nothing ever happened.
"If I had to choose between never having sex again and never hearing Mogwai again," one fan told his friend after the strains of Mr. Beast's sludge metal finale "We're No Here" died away, "I'd take Mogwai."
That kind of devotion has been part and parcel of Mogwai's loyalist base, but trying to get the band to approach the irreconcilable differences between their somber rock and their penchant for making fun of everything is rewarded with nothing but jokes.
"We do care about the music, but that's probably the only thing we care about," Burns explains.
"Well, that and sports," adds Braithwaite. "Especially Martin, when his team loses."
"Last time his team lost, he didn't talk for two days," recalls Burns.
"For the first couple of years, people didn't have a clue," bassist Dominic Atchinson explains about the media's consensual jump to conclusions. "They thought we were a bunch of yobs."
"Actually, we're rather boisterous," Braithwaite says. "Is that an American word? Boisterous? There are just a lot of things that go into being a band, including misconceptions. I mean, how can you take standing in a row with four guys that you make music with while some guy takes a photo of you, saying 'Wicked!' or 'That's hot!' over and over again? It just doesn't make any sense."
Indeed, what really matters to Mogwai is simply getting on with their music. But, having survived their first decade together, the band grows subdued when asked to comment on their future. It's left to Stuart, as usual, to elaborate.
"I think we're all quite..." he begins, before deciding against speaking for the band. "Well, I'm certainly quite content making music, especially since people still want to hear it."
"We must be doing something right," Burns concludes, before falling back on Mogwai's trademark self-deprecating wit. "But I don't know what it is."