In Scotland, Glasgow is seen as the hard-driving counterpart to the more effete, University town of Edinburgh. Along with an accent as thick as that porridge mixture they use to fill haggis (the national sheep stomach treat), Glaswegians are known as soapdodgers. But the city has also produced a crop of fine new bands, from the pure pop of Travis to Mogwai's ambient instrumental post rock. Since their international emergence in 1997 with Ten Rapid, (a collection of singles), and Mogwai Young Team, Mogwai continues to conjure and manipulate sound--guitar arabesques, soft piano lines and "found" spoken snippets taken from broadcasts and telephone conversations--to create slowly building ambient pieces that crescendo to heady, swirling epics that'd make Kevin Shields proud.
On their latest disc, Rock Action, (a reference to The Stooges' drummer Scott Asheton, aka "Rock Action"), the quintet expands on those moments of fragile instrumental beauty always found in its work, this time adding vocals to most of the songs. The result: a gentle, almost pop album. Still recording with producer David Fridmann (also known for his work with the Flaming Lips), this 10-song album utilizes everything from plucked banjo ("2 Rights Make 1 Wrong"), strings and keyboards to acoustic guitar work in the spirit of Jim O'Rourke. There's even a moodily effective vocal cameo by Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys (sung in Welsh) on "Dial Revenge," set against a Nick Drake-ish acoustic guitar track. Along with the occasional ethereal vocal harmony, Rock Action employs a grab bag of studio effects, ranging from effects pedals and gizmos to backwards instrumentation and other studio flourishes.
Speaking to a remarkably upbeat Stuart Braithwaite (the band had just flown in and were in Philly), we do the flog-your-band/phoner thing while Braithwaite contemplates where to get one of the cities' wondrous cheesesteaks. (No, they're not vegan. They're Scottish; think Braveheart.) Most of the questions deal with the new album: its brevity, plush vocal melodies and instrumental experimentation, as well as the tastefully understated acoustic guitar work. It's an album you could invite someone to dive under the comforter with. It's an accessible Mogwai album. Why did they do this?
"I dunno. I think we just didn't want to do what people would have expected of us," Braithwaite says. "Also, we listen to a lot of really short records: Leonard Cohen, The Stooges and stuff, and I think we just thought, 'We're not going to waste anyone's time. Let's just make it short ... short and painless.' No one wants two records that sound the same anyway," he adds.
Although the band recorded enough tracks for another full album, when it came time to select the songs for Rock Action, they made it a point to choose tracks that were significantly different from what they'd done before. "We thought one or two of the songs would sound good with strings, but generally it was just using whatever was lying about," he says, describing all the cool old effects pedals, keyboards and gadgets that inhabit Tarbox Studio.
"It's kinda like being in a toy shop," Braithwaite says. "Dave collects all that [esoteric sound devices], and all the Flamin' Lips' stuff is there, too." In turn, Mogwai brought its own secret sonic weapons: "We've kind of got a lot of the European technology things and brought them over. There's a thing called a KAOS pad, you just touch it and it affects the sound randomly; it can be a ring modulator or a delay." The KAOS box was a huge hit. ("It's on almost everything," he says.) When asked if My Bloody Valentine was an early influence, Braithwaite is unabashed in his enthusiam.
"Yeah, I saw them play, and that was amazing," he says. "I think they were good with the noise, them and Spaceman 3, and Sonic Youth as well ... the Holy Three of noise. My favorite band right now is probably Bardo Pond."
This leads to the question: Will Mogwai drink their opening band, Bardo Pond, under the table this tour? "We've already been on tour with them in Europe, and yeah, we probably did, actually," says Braithwaite, laughing. "Well, they've got it harder than us. They're in a van and we're in a bus so we've got unfair advantages. We've got a toilet and they've got to find a place to pull over or pee in bottle."
On their home turf, at least one of the Mogwais, John Cummings, has been asked to leave the bar after a night of quaffs, resulting in the song title "Secret Pint," an instrumental that interweaves rhythmic bursts of fuzz with a melancholic tremolo guitar line. The pint in question is not the one you don't tell your manager or girlfriend about, but rather a band in-joke involving Cummings.
"It's to do with John gettin' really wasted--really drunk and takin' a lot of Valium and getting' thrown out of this bar," Braithwaite explains. "And he went back in and asked for a 'secret pint' ... in his demented mind it probably made some kind of sense," he adds, laughing.
Although their music is ambient and almost progressive at times, Braithwaite is good-humoredly horrified at comparisons to '70s icons of musical grandeur Pink Floyd and their ilk, instead professing an admiration for Jim O'Rourke's solo albums, and--as a not-so-guilty pleasure--the first three Led Zeppelin releases. If transported to those halcyon days of hippie excess, what sort of band would Mogwai have become?
"I don't think we would have been in any of those bands," he says of the pompous prog set. "I think we would have been in the Sex Pistols, or Kraftwerk. We all grew up in and around Glasgow, and there was a lot of things going on. I mean, the first show that I saw was the Cure. That was really good."
The critics, even the notoriously fickle English press, have been kind, although they can't resist trying to pigeonhole the band, genre-wise. Mogwai remains refreshingly oblivious to the hoopla. "It's not like it really means anything," Braithwaite says of the band's various categorizations. ("Post rock is what you do after the gig," is a famous Braithwaite quip.) Labeling aside, Mogwai will continue, as far as music goes, to please themselves, thank you very much.
"To be honest, we've had a few bad reviews, but it's just 'cause the person didn't like the record, and you can't really complain about that," he says. "But sometimes, in Britain, people get bad reviews just because they were last year's 'thing.' But usually things are pretty fair, pretty reasonable. You can't expect everyone to like your record; otherwise we'd be more famous than U2, y'know what I mean?"
For the modest, non-flashily dressed group, this would entail more time on airplanes, more money spent on clothes, more of everything.
"Exactly. We just can't be bothered with the stress," Braithwaite deadpans.