Holed up in a labyrinth-like backstage area at OctFest in New York City, Stuart Braithwaite of expansive Scottish rock troupe Mogwai reveals that the group are about to start working on their next album in earnest once they return home. Since debuting with 1997’s Mogwai Young Team, the Glasgow-based Braithwaite and his bandmates—which currently include fellow founders Dominic Aitchison (guitar) and Martin Bulloch (drums), plus keys and flute player Barry Burns—have garnered a reputation for crafting progressive guitar-centric soundscapes that combine moments of unadulterated anger and aggression with tender and pensive laments.
Following 2017’s Every Country’s Sun, Braithwaite says he hopes the upcoming project will link the creative space Mogwai is in now with the early enthusiasm of being “a bunch of teenagers really excited about Joy Division and Spacemen 3 and just kinda going nuts in the studio for a month.”
Shortly before performing at OctFest, I spoke to Braithwaite about enjoying cheap pitchers of beer at the band’s old local pub in Glasgow, why their music is always in demand for movie and TV soundtracks, and Mogwai’s IPA collaboration with Signature Brew.
Why did you decide to play OctFest as your last gig of the year?
We really like playing in New York—it was the first place we played in America— and we've always had a good time here. I remember on that first gig, people didn't realize we were the band! We played almost a whole song before people realized we were the band—people thought we were the roadies or whatever.
What else did you do during that first trip to New York?
We just got drunk, really. I remember we had hardly any money—we didn't even have a per diem—and I think we were trying to sell some seven-inches to get enough money to buy a bagel. We were doing it really rough, we didn't have visas, we were sleeping on floors. It was fun, though.
What did you notice about the bars in New York?
They're different. There aren’t cozy pubs like there are in England and Scotland. I don't drink spirits, but I know they don't measure them here, so you can get really wasted if you tip the bartenders well. It's good fun.
Going further back, do you remember your very first gig as Mogwai?
Yeah, it was in a place called the 13th Note in Glasgow. It was a night that was actually booked by Alex [Kapranos] who went on to be the singer in Franz Ferdinand. We played with a really great band called Trout, who we used to play a lot of shows with back then. The gig was in a pub. We played upstairs first and then the second gig in the basement.
Was was Alex like back then?
I'd known Alex before and he was always really supportive. He was quite instrumental in that scene, helping out a lot of bands around that time. He was very discerning. I think he chose a lot of the bands because of the characters of the people in the bands more than any kind of musical proficiency or anything like that. It was a good mix of people and interesting music.
How would Alex have described your character back then?
Well, I was quite cocky when I was young, which I'm sure amused him slightly. I was just kinda full of myself, very passionate about music. I think everyone back then was really passionate and as you get older you realize not everyone is—a lot of people like the idea of it but they're not actually that bothered about music in itself.
During those early days, did Mogwai have a regular local pub?
Yeah, it would have been Nice N Sleazy, which is still a bar in Glasgow. That's probably where a lot of the younger bands will hang out. Back then, when we were there, a lot of pubs in Glasgow were kinda dangerous, but I'd say this was a place that wasn't dangerous at all, more students and people into music and the kids who went to art school up the road. It felt like a safe place to hang out.
What was your regular drink at Nice N Sleazy?
Back then, they used to do these pitchers, like five pint pitchers for like a tenner or something. I can't remember what kind of beer it was. It might have been Becks or something like that, nothing fancy.
These days, do you prefer craft beer?
I do sometimes, yeah, Dominic does too. I like IPAs, a lot of the local IPAs—there’s a lot of good ones in London and being made in Scotland too. I'm not that discerning, I usually just go with whatever has the nicest tap. We did actually make a beer with a craft brewery called Signature Brew in London last year. They got us in to taste a bunch. It ended up being like a grapefruit jelly IPA. They only did it as a limited thing though—I thought they were going to keep doing it for years and make us rich!
Talking about bars and venues, what’s the weirdest place you’ve been booked to play?
I remember we played in Hong Kong and it was kinda the function room that a wedding would take place in. We've done a few ones like that and they always feel pretty fuckin' weird. But when people turn up it always turns out fine. I've actually heard about a few people playing our songs at weddings. I'm sure “Helicon 1" has been played at a few.
Have you started writing the next Mogwai album yet?
This is actually going to be the longest gap we've had between a record. I started writing music again quite recently but it's kinda weird as it's such a long gap. It's strange being in a band for a long time because your plans are so far ahead of you. We’re already booking shows the year after next—some pretty sick gigs. We'd like the album to be finished in time for late next summer. But the good thing about our band is we all write music so there's never really a big pressure to just write songs—we can do our own pace and just see how we get on. I just hope the new album is a bunch of very exciting songs that kinda reflect where we're at and where we're from, which is a bunch of teenagers really excited about Joy Division and Spacemen 3 and just kinda going nuts in the studio for a month.
As a band, how do you take constructive criticism among yourselves?
We're pretty brutal. None of us are very egotistical, so if one of us says they don't like something, that's fine. No one takes things personally.
What’s most brutal thing someone in the band has said about something you wrote?
I remember I was playing a guitar part and they said it sounded like something from The Crow! Remember that movie? I remember thinking I'm not gonna play that again.
Talking about movies, Mogwai has been involved in a lot of film and TV soundtracks. What do you think it is about your music that makes people want to use it for soundtracks?
I think it's quite emotional and that works. It's quite cinematic and it's not very busy—there’s a lot of space in it so that works well with moving images. The space in our music comes naturally—nothing we do is that planned out.
You wrote the soundtrack for the French TV series Les Revenants [The Returned]. With something like that, do you read the whole script before starting?
Yeah, for that one we read the script. It was a cool story. I find scripts a little bit complex—it’s usually when I see it that I really get the feel of it. The process was good and the people involved were cool.
Did you learn any foreign languages at school?
A tiny little bit of French. I can ask for deux biers, s'il vous plait!
Top photo by Anthony Crook