A dreary former life was lit up by the irresistible sound of what became a great success story, writes Euan McColm
I lived in a converted attic in Darlington for around 20 years between 1995 and ’97. There was a birdshit-covered fire escape outside the kitchen and spiders in the bedroom cupboards. Working for a regional Sunday newspaper - and, therefore, almost always broke - I found life moved impossibly slowly. The working day was long and exhausting and would generally involve interviewing people about tragedies which had befallen them. What passed for a social life consisted of sitting miserably in the corner of my local pub, talking to a retired history teacher and a sales rep with a pencil moustache.
Most nights, I’d get home at ten o’clock and slump on the sofa for a supper of cider and Revels, which were always on special offer at the service station across the road.
Occasionally, to break the monotony, rather than going to the pub, I’d take an evening drive, usually south through North Yorkshire. If I had a couple of quid, I might sweep east across the moors to Whitby for a bag of chips.
If the illuminations were up, I might carry on to Scarborough, there to wonder at the faded grandeur of the place and to ask myself how in God’s name I had come to be living in Darlington. I had friends working for newspapers in London; even now they’d probably be at impossibly exciting parties and here I was, standing in the drizzle in a Next suit, gazing at a winking neon clown.
An occasional treat in those days was the arrival in the post of a cassette from a friend in Glasgow. He’d make compilations from whatever he’d been picking up in the record shops we’d spent our teenage years frequenting together.
The odd misfire aside - the appeal of Placebo continues to elude me - these tapes were goldmines, packed with music I carry with me to this day. It was on one of these lifesaving cassettes that I first heard Mogwai, then a group of 19-year-olds from Lanarkshire and Glasgow whose music I’d read about in Melody Maker. The track was called “New Paths to Helicon (Pt. 1)” and I’d play it over and over as I drove through the North Yorkshire countryside. When the music ended, I’d click rewind and round we’d go again.
I recognised elements of this instrumental music - the droning guitars echoing sounds from records by Sonic Youth, the sudden shift from quiet to loud, as perfected by Pixies and purloined by Nirvana - but Mogwai had a sound that was identifiably their own. This is, and has always been, a rare feat for any band to achieve.
But who wanted to listen to eardrum-splittingly loud instrumental music? If there was a band likely to break free from the underground scene that centred around the 13th Note pub in Glasgow, it was the Delgados, whose more conventional, radio-friendly guitar pop was getting a bit of mainstream interest.
Mogwai, it seemed to me, were destined to remain the sort of band worshipped by listeners to the late John Peel’s radio show.
On 1 September, a little short of 20 years after their debut “Mogwai Young Team”, the band will realise their ninth studio album, Every Country’s Sun. It turns out that quite a lot of people want to listen to eardrum splittingly loud instrumental music.
Mogwai’s is a great success story. Far from creating a sound that was to remain underground, they’ve quietly and assuredly become one of Scotland’s most successful bands. They’ve managed - in a way that contemporaries such as, say Franz Ferdinand haven’t - to keep hold of their original fans while adding new ones along the way. The effect has been that each of their albums has climbed higher in the charts. It’s a curiously old-fashioned phenomenon in a business where new bands struggle to be heard in a swamped marketplace.
The quality of the music is central to the band’s success but they work at it, too. Along with those studio albums, there have been soundtracks, collaborations with the artist Douglas Gordon and the film-maker Mark Cousins, and the establishment and management of a record label, Rock Action, that released the duo Sacred Paws’ Strike a Match, which was recently named Scottish album of the year (defeating Mogwai’s own “Atomic” in the process).
Those early Mogwai gigs may have been in Glasgow basements but now the band is more likely to be playing Sydney Opera House or headlining some international festival or other. What a pleasure it is for me to watch these clever, gobby (the members of the band have strident views in favour of Scottish independence which they express with what I am going to call enthusiasm), talented musicians achieve even greater success.
The forthcoming album has accompanied me during hours of train journeys these past few weeks and it is, I think, the band’s finest work to date.
You probably wouldn’t recognise Dominic Aitchison, Stuart Braithwaite, Martin Bulloch, or Barry Burns in the street but they stand among Scotland’s pre-eminent artists. Mogwai are echoes across a highland glen, wide and desolate, they’re the disorientating noise of Sauchiehall Street on a Friday night in July, they’re the thunder of lorries on the M8 in the middle of the night.
Mogwai are magnificent and we should treasure them.