Mogwai on “Every Country’s Sun”

Light on the Mountain Peak

Sep 28, 2017 Web Exclusive
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It's pretty unusual for a band that has sustained success for over two decadesand during its steady ascent commanded and redefined a genre while finding universal acclaimto release a new album that is arguably its best yet. That's a strong claim, considering that over the course of nine studio albums, along with a number of EPs, live albums, plus film and television scores, Mogwai has slowly and without compromise formed its own distinct musical territory. Yet the justification for such a claim is forcefully delivered over the 11 tracks of singular character and design that comprise Every Country's Sun. Each one marks with its own pressure of impression the ever and still developing facets of Mogwai's inimitable personality, one that is at once complex and fundamental, opaque and transparent, intimidating and enchanting.

One of Scotland's band ambassadors, Mogwai have always crafted largely instrumental music with the power to transportto expand and even erase the boundaries of the real world surrounding you and usher you into a virtual expanse of scintillating drama and overcast beauty. From the standpoint of an avid fan (they are unquestionably my favorite band), Every Country's Sun is a consummate effort in this respect. It's one of those records and listening experiences that make you proud to pledge allegiance to a band, making you want to run up to people and shout "I love Mogwai, can I show you why?"

Over the past three years since its last studio album, 2014's Rave Tapes, Mogwai has shifted focus into film score work, an area ideally suited to its brand of atmospheric magnitude. They scored the deeply evocative BBC documentary Atomic, depicting the consequences and implications of atomic energy, the live performances of which left entire audiences staggering. They also contributed to the score for the environmental documentary Before the Flood along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and others. Mogwai has undergone alteration in makeup as well, with original guitarist John Cummings departing, leaving multi-instrumentalist (keyboards, computer, guitar) and programmer Barry Burns and the others (Stuart Braithwaite on guitar and vocals, Dominic Aitchison on bass, and Martin Bulloch on drums) to batten down the hatches in order to create the new iteration of Mogwai. With one of the band's original producers and close friends Dave Fridmann, secluded at his Tarbox Road Studios in Upstate New York, Every Country's Sun rose. After returning from a live show in Japan for the Summer Sonic Festival, Burns graciously opened up about Mogwai's recent developments and the making of its latest masterpiece.

Charles Steinberg (Under the Radar): So what brought you to Japan?

Barry Burns (Mogwai): We were playing the Summer Sonic Festival. So it was sort of an in and out job really, just one show. I don't think I've even got jetlag, I stayed on U.K. time.

I'm curious, after Atomic does it feel any different playing there? Does Japan have a new significance now?

Well the show the other night was a regular Mogwai festival show but when we were there for the Atomic show it was pretty somber. It was really weird. I remember looking out and seeing a lot of people in tears. It was quite hard for people to keep it together and it was the same for the band. Especially when we played in Hiroshima, which was made even more bizarre by the fact that the projection of the movie was too big for the venue we were playing in so we actually had to play behind the screen. Those who came to see us could only basically see our feet and our guitar amps. It was really odd.

That sounds unusual...to not have physical connection with the audience.

It was. We went out front before the show and there was a translator there to explain what was going on. People were ultimately fine with it.

I remember seeing the Atomic performance in New York at Town Hall and I don't think I've ever been so affected by an audio/visual experience. Count me as one of the people in tears. I was staggered.

You know who probably didn't watch it...Donald Trump. [Laughter]

No. I'm sure neither he or anyone in his administration would, though it should be mandatory viewing for him. Maybe it would make him think about the subject differently, though perhaps not. But that sounds like a very contained and unusual touring experience. How does it feel leading up to the tour for this new album?

Well at the start of a tour we're just happy we can play different songs. Whether you like it or not, everyone gets bored of their own stuff and it's nice to play a whole bunch of new songs. It's a little bit different that we're back down to being a four piece...well not live. We have another guy who plays with us live [Glasgow composer Alex Mackay] to replace John [Cummings] who left a couple of years ago, but it's a little bit different because of that. At the start of any tour it gets a bit sticky but after a few shows you really get into the swing of things. By the time we get to a pretty huge show that we're playing in Glasgow at the end of December we should be pretty well oiled. It's this place there that looks like a giant spaceship [The SSE Hydro] and it's usually people like David Blaine who play it. It's massive and we're deliberately taking away all of the balcony seats so it's just like a big floor stander thing. It's gonna be kind of a big deal.

Well some of the new material should fill it rather readily...circling back around to the soundtracks you've been doing, Atomic as well as your contributions to Before the Flood, has that work impacted the recording of the new album in a tangible way?

I think so. Because of recording a lot of material quite close together for different purposes, there's a crossover of instrumentation used, like the same synthesizers, and even musical tricks we were using. There's probably a bunch of stuff from Rave Tapes that transferred over to Atomic and from Atomic onto Before the Flood. I think if we hadn't done those soundtrack albums then this new album would sound quite different.

Yeah especially on "aka 47," I wonder what the inspiration from that came from because it sounded like it could have fit right in on Before the Flood in the sense that it almost has that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross feel to it.

Yeah I steal all of their ideas. [Laughs] What I specifically remember about that one is that I bought this new synthesizer and went to one of the presets and couldn't believe how good it was. We were all having a conversation about this the other night in Tokyo, what's called "preset hell" when you go through all of the presets until you find the most decent one. I'm not normally into using presets but I messed around with this one for 10 minutes [and it was pretty much done]. It was one of those rare times when you come up with something within a few minutes and go "Yeah, that sounds good. Let's record it."

So you incorporated a lot of new equipment in this album?

Oh yeah. It was loads of new stuff. There were a lot of new keyboards that we had never used before at [producer] Dave Fridmann's place in upstate New York. There was a lot of stuff that we didn't own or have access to that was is his studio, which is also a lot bigger than it used to be. We had use of all of this old Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev gear around and it was pretty cool to use it.

Can you talk about working with Dave again [Fridmann produced Mogwai's second and third albums-1999's Come on Die Young and 2000's Rock Action]? When I spoke to Stuart [Braithwaite] a few months ago, he spoke of how excited he was to get back working with him again and his studio sounds idyllic for recording, really an environment conducive to creating.

He's totally right. It's that thing where you're so far away from anything worth doing...it's the kind of place where people go and hunt deer and if you're from Scotland, that's not really a thing. We would dare each other to go outside at night in the pitch black and walk along to the post box and back. [Bassist] Dominic [Aitchison] did it once and was like, "I'm not doing that again." [Laughs] There's a real sense of that American fear of being shot....and horror movies. I'm not a horror movie fan but we would sit there at night watching them and so I had to get into it. It was good because we would do 12 hours of pretty intense work every day and then you've got the rest of the night to sit there and watch movies. Then Dave would come in again. It was really intense work with not much else to do, so it was perfect for us. That was the problem with having the studio that we own in Glasgow. Where I'm sitting right now is about a five minute walk away from the studio, so if I want to go home it's so tempting to just go, "Right, it's five o'clock, I'm going home," whereas you can't do that over there. Plus we were there in January when the weather was awful, so you really couldn't go outside.

What was it like after all that time (15 years have passed since working with Dave) did you get right back to that old chemistry?

Yeah yeah yeah. Stuart probably said something similar, but it's kind of like when you haven't seen a cousin or an uncle in a long time and you see them after 15 years but it seems like no time has passed. Everything was just straight back to normal, ya know? We love Dave's family as well and being back in his studio, it had the same smell. You know that thing with smell and memory and as soon as I walked in and smelled the wood it was like "uuuuhhh!" back to normal again. Yeah it was a smooth integration.

Amazing. Yeah maybe it's not a mistake that some of this album really sounds like the classic Mogwai of old. I'm actually thinking that it might be my favorite Mogwai album, which is saying a lot.

Well that's good to hear!

It sounds like the coming back together of old friends and the timing all lead to that.

I remember when we worked with Dave back then, it wasn't like he was anal about it but he was into getting stuff sounding really perfect. When I listen to this album, there's loads of mistakes, guitar errors and keyboard and drum mistakes but it doesn't matter. I think he's quite interested in that [recording a song] is like a snapshot in time. It doesn't really matter if you make a mistake because the song is going to pretty much sound like that anyway. It was very...I want to say instinctive rather than a cerebral approach. He's gotten so much better as well and he's so encouraging to the musicians working with him.

"Old Poisons" really stood out to me. I'm curious about the origins and references of your song titles. Is that title a reference to something from your past that comes back to haunt you?

That's a good one because it came from Dave's wife Mary. We were at their house on a day off and he was talking about this person who fixes all of his audio equipment. He's worked with this engineer guy for years. Mary said they used to go into his laboratory or work station and it was filled with all of these old poisons he used to fix things. We were like, "That's amazing."

What's so amazing about the album is that it's a mixture of some of your old raw and heavy guitar material and newer, more refined electronic and synth material. I've also noticed in recent albums there's been an uptick in drive and tempo of some of your songs like, for instance, "Party in the Dark" and "Crossing the Road Material." What are the influences of that move to kick things up and shift gear? Did that just come about naturally? Is it influenced by things you've listened to?

You know, It's hard to say. The thing about it is, we write separately. Stuart, me, and Dominic are the writers of the band and we very rarely collaborate until the very end when we're trying to iron out songs. So whatever I'm listening to is going to be reflected in what I write and likewise with the other guys. It's funny, I was in Dominic's car the other day and he was listening to a band called Weekend Nachos and it was the most violent music I think I've ever heard, so you can probably tell which songs he writes. [Laughs] Then there's me listening to Brian Eno and a lot of soundtracks, so that's where my stuff comes from. And Stuart likes a lot of Krautrock, and so do I actually, so that rubs off a lot in our music too.

What's the visceral difference and difference in head space between playing the uptempo stuff and the more methodical and deliberate stuff?

Well when you play the variation of songs live and you go from one of the slow synth songs to one of the Krautrock noisey ones and then you look at the set list and the next one is something like "Old Poisons" you almost have to get your head into another gear. It's probably like being in a wedding band. [Laughs]

Oh yeah! Like when a slow song comes directly after a dance song.

Yeah. It's like being in a wedding band but for slightly less fees. [Laughs]

You were talking about the dynamic of the band now, and I know you said you play with an extra guitarist live, but in terms of making an album without John, can you explain a little about the experience of that and how the roles may have shifted a bit?

The thing is when it happened a couple of years ago, we were already doing Atomic, so we didn't have any time to adjust or get over it. We kind of had to go straight into making that because somebody had a deadline. We just did it and everyone sort of put in a bit of extra work. Then we did the Before the Flood work not long after that, so by the time we got to Dave's to do the new record it felt completely normal. There was nowell I wouldn't call it a grieving processbut there was no time to really think about it because we had to keep working. Maybe that will happen during some time off. But it was almost like in Terminator 2 when all the metal melds back together [after being shattered] and becomes whole again, but maybe it's a little bit shorter...I dunno. Maybe he doesn't have five fingers anymore and has only three. We were all like, "Let's just pull together," and it became a really great atmosphere. It probably helped with how hard we worked. I think we worked even harder on this new record than we did on any other one because we knew, "Well, this isn't going to look good if someone leaves the band and we don't produce good work." So we really tried hard.

I can't wait to see the show when you come to New York [Terminal 5 in December]. When you record are you very conscious of how something is going to come together live? Like how something is going to sound in a space? Do you consider that in the way you record?

I probably do that more than anyone else in the band because it's usually me that has to do all of the programming. It's a great question because I remember when we did Rock Action with Dave all those years ago, we would only be able to play about 50 percent and sometimes even less of that album because we put things like string quartets and things that weren't easy to emulate live. So that's always been at the back of my mind since, like maybe we should have less parts [on a song] just so that we can play it live. But now that we've got this guy Alex [Mackay] who plays piano and keyboard and he can also program stuff and help with the guitars, this is the first album that I think we've been able to play all the way through, which we did at the Primavera concert in Barcelona. We played the whole album through and it seems to work. We can afford to do that now whereas back in the Rock Action days there's no way we could have taken a string quartet around with us. I suppose it depends on the economics of it, which is a little bit sad, but it works these days.

The title track itself, I can't wait to hear that one live. Thinking of the SSE Hydro in Glasgow that you said is enormous, that track can fill any room, anywhere of any size, it's that major. How did that track come together, because to me it's the most emblematic of the power of Mogwai.

Yes. Well I sat in a room with a new keyboard and played some chords. I don't usually make up the guitar parts, well sometimes. I saw Stuart mention in an interview the other day that sometimes I'll just come in with all the partssample drums, the keyboard parts and guitarsand that was one of them that I made all the parts for. I had to play the guitar parts live at Primavera and of course I fucked up. [Laughs] It's not a difficult song really, just a couple of chords over and over again and it was one of those that just took a couple of days to make but when [drummer] Martin [Bulloch] and Dominic started to put their parts on top of it it really came together. And Dave made it sound massive.

Massive is the right word. As soon as I heard it it felt like the most pure expression of Mogwai.

Yeah. Because there's not much on there that five people can't play. I think there are a couple of little twinkly synthesizers going on in the background but it's pretty easy to play. Songs like that one definitely work well when we play them live.

Maybe you even get to experience it more since you're not focusing on all these little parts. So you can tap into the collective feeling of the room and audience moreso.

Exactly. I think you're right.

Well listen, I just wanted to say that you have no idea how much your music has meant to me during my life.

Thank you very much. That's a very nice thing to hear.

I actually lived in Scotland a little while.

Oh you did? Whereabouts?

I went to school in Edinburgh.

Aaahhhh. The nice looking city.

Yeah, though I did get over to Glasgow to see shows a lot. It was always exciting to get on the train over there, knowing I was about to see a show. I've never seen you guys in Scotland though!

Get your cheap plane ticket now!

There was this Scottish girl there that I met and she introduced me to you and I will be forever grateful that she did because you've been a very important band to me. It was great to have the chance to talk to you and Stuart...really like a dream come true.  

Awwwwww you.

www.mogwai.co.uk

 

 

Mogwai 2017 Tour Dates:

October 10 - Rockefeller, Oslo
October 11 - Nobelberget, Stockholm
October 12 - KB, Malmo
October 13 - Vega, Copenhagen
October 14 - Columbiahalle, Berlin
October 16 - Docks, Hamburg
October 17 - E-Werk, Koeln
October 18 - Aeronef, Lille
October 20 - AB Main Hall, Brussels
October 21 - AB Main Hall, Brussels
October 22 - Tivoli Vredenburg Ronda, Utrecht
October 23 - Grand Rex, Paris
October 25 - Riviera, Madrid
October 26 - Reithalle @ Kaserne Basel, Basel
October 27 - Fabrique, Milan
October 28 - Atlantico, Rome
October 29 - Estragon, Bologna
October 31 - Roxy, Prague
November 1 - Arena, Vienna
November 2 - Täubchenthal, Leipzig
November 3 - Backstage, Munich
November 18/19 - Corona Capital Fest, Mexico
November 20 - Observatory N. Park, San Diego
November 21 - Belasco Theater, Los Angeles
November 22 - Regency Ballroom, San Francisco
November 23 - Roseland Theater, Portland
November 24 - The Showbox, Seattle
November 25 - Commodore Ballroom. Vancouver
November 28 - Ogden Theatre, Denver
November 30 - The Waiting Room, Omaha
December 1 - First Avenue, Minneapolis
December 2 - House of Blues, Chicago
December 3 - Majestic Theatre, Detroit
December 5 - Danforth Music Hall, Toronto
December 6 - Corona Theatre, Montreal
December 7 - Royale Nightclub, Boston
December 8 - Terminal 5, New York
December 9 - Theatre of Living Arts, Philadelphia
December 10 - 9:30 Club, Washington
December 15 - O2 Academy Brixton, London
December 16 - The SSE Hydro, Glasgow

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