Mogwai on “Rock Action”

A Bold Redirection

Mar 14, 2017 Issue # 59 - 15th Anniversary Bookmark and Share


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Mogwai are an enduring and majestic band, singular in their fiercely integral approach to the dramatic rock instrumentalism they have defined and transcended. Back in 2001, their legacy was only just beginning to materialize. Mogwai's first two records of alternately sweeping and pulverizing guitar composition had navigated them into the stormy realms of post-rock, where they reigned with a brooding mystique. Refusing to be contained by the parameters of genre, Mogwai headed into the recording of their third album, Rock Action, determined to distinguish themselves with an enhanced and diversified effort.

"Rock Action was a very different record for us," recalls co-founder Stuart Braithwaite 15 years later. "We spent a long time making it and kind of pulled out all the stops. We had just signed a large record deal, so it felt pretty big-time. This is kind of funny timing too because it was the last record we made with [producer] Dave Fridmann and we're actually going back to record with him in a couple weeks!"

The venerable Fridmann had also produced Mogwai's previous album, Come on Die Young, a very different record sonically. "Come on Die Young was a rehearsal room record. We'd play those songs [over and over] and Dave just recorded it really well.... Whereas Rock Action was more of a studio record. We really worked on things in the studio with Dave." The result was a novel sound that incorporated electronic, orchestral, and vocal elements they had yet to explore. The vocals in particular added the presence of shadowy character scarcely seen in Mogwai's earlier settings. Braithwaite reintroduced his whispery drawl and Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals lent his Welsh chant to the acoustically winding Dial: Revenge. "I think a lot of that was just having the opportunity. Our first record was really bare bones, Come on Die Young less so. By the time we got to Rock Action, we had opportunities that we hadn't had before. Maybe subconsciously we felt like we'd never get the chance again, so we wanted to try those things."

The inclusion of these new elements sets Rock Action apart as perhaps Mogwai's most imaginative effort and the arrival of multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns was a further catalyst for dimensional expansion. "Barry joined the band quite far into recording Come on Die Young, but on Rock Action, he was involved really heavily," explains Braithwaite. "For that reason the album is important. It's the first of our records that had as much keyboards as it did guitar. Barry was prolific and he remains prolific."

According to Braithwaite, the comparatively brief Rock Action had many more recordings that didn't make the final eight song cut, so the plan is to put out an expanded version. He's quite happy there's still the interest in that era in Mogwai's evolution to make such a pursuit worthwhile.

It's always interesting to find out if a band's new direction is brought on more from external or internal forces. At the time, Mogwai was categorized as post-rock. Rock Action can then be interpreted as a statement: "That's not all we are." Braithwaite agrees: "That was a big part of it. The sound we were making and that Godspeed You! Black Emperor were making, was becoming almost fashionable...so we used that as motivation to do something specifically different with the music. I don't know if we completely succeeded, but it was fun trying."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Best of 2016 / 15th Anniversary Issue (January/February/March 2017). This is its debut online. The issue came out in late December 2016 and partially celebrated the 15th anniversary of Under the Radar's first issue, which came out in December 2001, and thus featured articles on albums that also came out in 2001.]

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