Tuesday, 28 April 2009

After so many years of fantastic tales told and hero worship bestowed, the business of rock n' roll—of being an artist in any sort of pop music form for that matter – has become a very unusual endeavor. Tales of bands embarking upon marathon tours (Robert Plant's solo tour behind his Now And Zen album in 1988 was known as the Non-Stop Go Tour for a reason, Guns N' Roses toured Use Your Illusion for two years straight, the list goes on) or transcendent, inspiring single performance moments are the sorts of trivia that die-hard fans keep in little jewel boxes to show off occasionally and become the fodder for urban legends but, realistically, does every band regard their own performances that way? Is the exhaustion and drama that a band feels or is subjected to really that bad? In talking to Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite, a case could be made for the possibility that those incredible stories are nothing more than tall tales; not because he has proof that some of them didn't happen or are grossly exaggerated, but because Mogwai goes out on lengthy tours too. Even fourteen years after forming, they still find joy in performing and touring most of the time and, in those rare moments when it does get hard, each bandmember simply drops his head and gets the job done. “As of about right now, we've been on tour for about a year,” laughs Braithwaite before Mogwai's set at the Trocadero in Philadelphia, PA, “we've already been to Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Europe and now North America this year. We're going to be here for a month so we're going to be covering a bunch of the key markets in the US and Canada, and then, after we go home for a few weeks, we start in on doing European festivals.

“Honestly? We're just happy to play anywhere,” continues the guitarist, frankly. “I know there's this perception that we're a different sort of band for one reason or another, and that we might not work so well on the festival circuit but, at a lot of the festivals we play, it's funny because we're considered the mainstream band and the other groups are the left field bands! Because of that, when we go to play, we don't worry about how we're going to fit in or anything like that. If people ask us to play, we just turn up and play; it's not a chore and it's not like we don't enjoy it. I mean, sure it's a long time, but it's also a good time. We're going to some pretty nice places, we've got lots of friends all over, it's pretty far from a chore. I think we're pretty lucky to play our music all over the world and, so far on this trip, we've been playing quite a few new songs as well as a few songs from each record—a couple extra from the new one—and it's been going well. We've got no complaints.”

In addition to the promise of new material, it's easy to understand why Mogwai has had an easy go of it as they work to promote their most recent release, The Hawk Is Howling—in some ways it's a return to the band's beginnings. For the first time in eleven years, Mogwai returned to MCM Studios [now known as Chem19 Studios –ed] in their native Scotland to work with Andy Miller—who also produced their debut, Mogwai Young Team. The results immediately manifest as the album opens with “I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead” too; on one hand, the song bears hints of the band's original spirit (think along the lines of “Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home” or “A Cheery Wave From Stranded Youngsters” and you're on the right track) as the drums and textural guitars combine to resonate in a listeners bone marrow while, on the other, leaps forth with stronger, more self-assured dynamics—similar in spirit to those found on 2006's critically lauded Mr. Beast. With the stage set, the band continues reaching with an ominous, potent swagger through “Batcat” before soothing nerves left well-frazzled with the cool textural washes of “Danphe and the Brain” and brushed drums in “Local Authority.” Mogwai builds these elements into a sequence of sensations that continues through the rest of The Hawk Is Howling and is instantly familiar and gratifying, but also compelling as the band finds new ways to articulate hope and patience (check out “Kings Meadow”) and elation (and “The Sun Smells Too Loud”) using only instrumental songs and shifting dynamics and instrumentation to emote. And as “The Precipice” begins the climb again at the end of the record to let listeners know that what happens on the band's next release will be an entirely the construction of an entirely different face, the band's modus is once again made obviously clear: For Mogwai, a song really only works if it compels listeners to want to reach out and touch it.

All of that, of course, sounds marvelously excited and fantastically forward-looking but, to ask Braithwaite, none of that sort of academia and nonsense is really ever on the bandmembers' minds whenever they begin writing for a record, nor is it on anyone's mind when the band performs live. It's far more basic than that: for Braithwaite, Mogwai's music—its make-up and design exist as they do because it makes the bandmembers happy, and it works out that others happen to follow along. “We try not to think about it as much as possible [laughing],” offers the guitarist when asked about how the band writes music and how that music translates to a live setting. “We just play till we're happy and we like what's happening. We try not to have too many rules—I think we've got our own way of doing things—but the truth is that we don't think about it very much.


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The Hawk Is Howling
is out now on Matador Records. Buy it here on Amazon.

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