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Mogwai: Speechless

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: May 7, 2009

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w/ Women
Monday, May 11, 9 p.m.
The Slowdown
729 14th St.

Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite is a man of few words, which is appropriate considering that Mogwai's music also has few -- if any -- words.

Braithwaite, who plays guitar and sometimes sings, formed Mogwai in the mid-1990s with bass guitarist Dominic Aitchison after meeting him at a Ned's Atomic Dustbin concert in their hometown of Glasgow. The two were mere lads of 15. Drummer Martin Bulloch joined the band four years later, and John Cummings and Barry Burns, who play guitar, piano and computers, joined shortly after that.

Their debut album, Mogwai Young Team, released in 1997 on Chemikal Underground and Jetset in the U.S., is considered a post-rock masterpiece that helped open the door to other instrumental-heavy art-rock projects. It was followed in '99 by Come On Die Young, their first U.S. release on indie stalwart, Matador Records, that led up to their commercial breakthrough, 2001's Rock Action.

Throughout their history, the band has had little use for words. Asked if writing instrumental-only music is freeing to some extent since they don't have to deal with lyrics and vocals, Braithwaite pointed to the negative side of the situation. "The problem is finding other ways to make your music interesting," he said from backstage at the Trocadero theater in Philadelphia, "but no one (in the band) is a good lyricist or vocalist, anyway. We've had songs with lyrics in the past and should have more at some point."



That said, the few words that are associated with the band's music -- the song titles -- also are inside jokes or nonsensical. They certainly don't have any real connection to the songs themselves, Braithwaite said.

Take "Scotland's Shame," a dramatic builder that starts with a quiet organ and grows to an epic moment about five minutes in before gradually fading back to the somber organ that started it all. Is the title a comment about the state of Scottish politics?

"That came from a banner we saw at a football game," Braithwaite said. "A funny thing, nothing heavy."

OK, what about the song "I'm Jim Morrison and I'm Dead"?

"That was something silly someone said. It was funny. There's no kind of Ouija board reference to it."

Yeah, but don't you think someone might read a deeper meaning into a song titled "I Love You, I'm Going to Blow Up Your School"?

"When we first started, people didn't realize that we were being ridiculous," Braithwaite said about the titles. "That's not so much the case now."

Braithwaite said there's no theme or meaning behind any of the songs on The Hawk Is Howling, the band's latest album released on Matador last September. "The record is just songs we wrote," he said. "It's not about any specific incident, and the titles are pretty random."

Like past Mogwai records, the album is over an hour of gorgeous instrumentals that mix moody tonal poems like "Thank You Space Expert," with bracing, dramatic electric-guitar-driven epics ("Batcat") and soaring, pop-ish rock ("The Sun Smells Too Loud"). The music is so sonically dense that it resembles orchestral pieces -- modern-day classical music, the perfect sound track for a dark, sleek, noir-ish indie film.

You would assume that Braithwaite would prefer fans hear the album in its entirety rather than luck into a random track while listening to their iPod in "shuffle mode." Not so. "That doesn't concern me," he said about the iPod generation. "How listeners enjoy it is up to them."

Brathwaite also doesn't blame the iPod for destroying the album experience. "To be honest, the CD damaged the album as well. People put too many songs on records, they had this obsession with filling the whole CD. There's a happy medium somewhere."

As with their albums, expect a similar simple, no-nonsense approach to their live show Monday night at Slowdown. "There's nothing too fancy," he said about the staging. "It's just five guys and big amps. We've got lights with us, but nothing extravagant or anything. We're not Prince. If we had an unlimited budget, we would do something that would look like the end of Close Encounters." Just like the albums, Brathwiate prefers to let the live show speak for itself -- with few words.

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Published in The Omaha Reader May 6, 2009. Copyright © 2009 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
















Mogwai - The Hawk Is Howling

"It's just five guys and big amps. We've got lights with us, but nothing extravagant or anything. We're not Prince. If we had an unlimited budget, we would do something that would look like the end of Close Encounters."