It’s not Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Gardens or the Hollywood Bowl in terms of prestige; neither does it have the emotional tug of Barrowland, but there’s no doubt that scoring a gig at that Clydeside behemoth, the Hydro, is a landmark, particularly for bands from Glasgow. Belle & Sebastian and Chvrches have already climbed that mountain, with varying degrees of success. Next weekend, it is Mogwai’s turn to scale the heights, and if they can’t ace it with their earth-shattering instrumentals, then who can?
“It’s such an imposing building,” says Mogwai frontman Stuart Braithwaite. “We’ve never done a headline gig that big, but I think it’ll be fine. It’s not like our band is one person sitting playing a piano, it’s more about the sound of the music and people getting immersed in it.
“I actually think our music probably suits those big rooms. Going to these really big gigs is probably closer in experience to going to the cinema than going to see a band in [noted Glasgow hangout] Nice’n’Sleazy, but I think a lot of people prefer that…”
Braithwaite has touched upon Mogwai’s USP, among their peers anyway. There has always been a dynamic, dramatic and cinematic quality to their music, be it the famed quiet/loud contrasts of their earlier work or the increasingly melodic character of the music they have produced in the last ten years as they continue to experiment with different sonic territory. Some musicians refer to making music for imaginary films; Mogwai have become the go-to band for actual film music, and not a moment too soon.
Their first collaboration was with artist Douglas Gordon on his documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait – as a soundtrack to football footage, Mogwai certainly beats Kasabian for imagination. But they really came into their own as creators of creepy incidental music with their soundtrack to the French TV drama Les Revenants (The Returned), where their music was intrinsic to the unsettling atmosphere.
Since then, they have collaborated with musical hero Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) on the soundtrack for the 2016 Leonardo Di Caprio-produced climate change documentary Before the Flood. “The subject matter is something that is quite close to our hearts,” says Braithwaite.
“The only real bummer was that the whole point of the project was to make sure that Donald Trump didn’t get elected – if only we’d played a little bit better,” he deadpans.
Much of 2016 was taken up with touring a live accompaniment to Mark Cousins’ feature documentary, Atomic, Living In Dread and Promise, which chronicled the good, the bad and the ugly of nuclear power, including dates at the Edinburgh International Festival, and in Hiroshima. By the end of the year, the band needed to cleanse the palate by working on some free range material which became their ninth album, Every Country’s Sun.
“Atomic was such an intense, draining experience that we wanted to do the opposite of massive slow pieces over really grim images of mass deaths,” says Braithwaite. “I think this record, by our miserable standards, is kinda fun.”
Their witty titles aside, playful isn’t the first word one associates with Mogwai, but Every Country’s Sun has the lightness and variety of a band off their leash with little to prove. For the recording, they reunited with acclaimed indie producer Dave Fridmann, who helmed their 2001 album Rock Action, and ended up snowed in at his upstate New York residential studio, where the vibes were cosy.
“I don’t think Dave’s changed that much and I don’t think we have, although our eating habits definitely have – we were all eating salads instead of piles of chicken wings. But it did feel like continuing something from a long time ago.”
Mogwai are not generally ones for looking back, but Braithwaite has been constantly reminded that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of their debut album, Mogwai Young Team. “In that year we went from running around supporting people at Nice’n’Sleazy to having this record that people held up and are still really fond of. We played the Arches that year, which was one of the first gigs we did that wasn’t in a bar,” he recalls.
The band – sadly without drummer Martin Bulloch, who has a heart condition, and is taking temporary time out from touring – also marked 20 years since their first John Peel session at Maida Vale studios with a recent 6 Music Live concert – even though the original session actually took place elsewhere in 1996 because the studio was being redecorated. “So it’s 21 years since we almost recorded in Maida Vale…”
But Braithwaite’s most immersive nostalgia trip involved joining some of his fellow alumni from Glasgow’s budding mid-90s indie scene – Alex Kapranos, RM Hubbert, sundry members of The Delgados – in the making of the music doc Lost In France, which celebrated the early years of Chemikal Underground Records, the label behind the first two Mogwai albums.
Meanwhile, back in the present day, their own label Rock Action continues to support an eclectic roster, releasing albums by Out Lines, the Easterhouse-inspired collaboration between former SAY Award winner Kathryn Joseph and Twilight Sad frontman James Graham, and this year’s SAY Award winner, Strike A Match by Sacred Paws, which beat out Mogwai’s Atomic soundtrack to take the prize. Next on the agenda: a joint affair involving former Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffat and guitarist RM Hubbert. We have been warned.
“I consider success to be people hearing and liking the records,” says Braithwaite in his capacity as the world’s most altruistic record company mogul.
“I’m sure I could speak to our accountant and he would bring me to tears, but our whole function of having a label is to let as many people hear good music as we can. The industry is not in the best shape but it’s not going to stop us putting music out.
“We do these things because we love doing them and hopefully things turn a corner and start to make a bit more sense again.” ■
Mogwai play the Hydro, Glasgow on 16 December