‘I like to think after 20 years we are finally highbrow,” says Mogwai frontman Stuart Braithwaite, as he considers his band’s elevation to the previously unthinkable eminence of the Edinburgh International Festival. He’s not taking himself entirely seriously, but there is clearly some satisfaction at the road this most esteemed instrumental band have travelled.
Twenty years ago, the newly formed Glasgow noise-mongers made the journey along the M8 to appear as part of Planet Pop, a fringe of the Fringe music festival which ran for a couple of years at Edinburgh’s late, lamented Cas Rock venue, one of several grassroots attempts over the years to give pop music its proper place at the Fringe.
How ironic then that under new director Fergus Linehan, the International Festival has emerged as torchbearer for pop – or contemporary music to give it its respectful designation in the EIF programme. Braithwaite is especially tickled that some of his oldest indie compadres have also infiltrated the grown-ups’ festival – former Delgado, Emma Pollock, is poised to play at the Hub this week, and ex-Arab Strap frontman, Aidan Moffat, has performed live at a screening of his offbeat Scottish road movie Where You’re Meant To Be, as well as provided lyrics for Martin Green’s Flit.
Mogwai, meanwhile, are all over this Festival. Their monolithic music has already soundtracked opening event Deep Time, and bassist Dominic Aitchison was also part of the Flit family. Still to come though is their most integrated contribution to the Festival. Their live performance of the soundtrack to Mark Cousins’ Arena documentary, Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise was one of the first programme highlights to be unveiled and could certainly be one of its most impactful events, given the power of the subject matter, coupled with Mogwai’s sonic shock and awe.
Atomic was originally commissioned and screened to mark 70 years since the devastating bombing of Hiroshima, which killed almost a third of its citizens. Cousins and Mogwai were approached separately to be involved in the project, both attracted by the open brief, which only stipulated the title, the use of archive film footage, original music but no voiceover – and a central topic with a heavy resonance.
Mogwai have toured Japan many times, and a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park over a decade ago has stuck with Braithwaite. “It’s really affecting,” he says. “There’s walls with shadows of humans, melted bicycles, all the letters from the mayors of Hiroshima, who write to every country that either has nuclear weapons or is thinking about it to say, ‘A terrible thing happened to this city’.”
Braithwaite was brought up in a staunchly anti-nuclear household. His grandfather took part in the protests against the Polaris missile base which occupied Argyll’s Holy Loch until the early 1990s. “There was always this knowledge that there was something really terrible very close to Lanarkshire where I grew up. And just the logic that if that’s where they are keeping their weapons, that’s where the other people’s weapons will be pointing.”
Cousins, meanwhile, is a child of the Cold War. “I had the nuclear nightmares,” he says. “The thing that probably scared me most in my life was the idea of atomic war.”
He also brings a background as a physics student to the table, and Mogwai sat him down with a friend of the band who works at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, to consider the practical and progressive applications. The resulting film is a poetic patchwork of the good, the bad and the ugly of atomic power.
“This is not an investigative report,” says Cousins. “It was trying to create a feeling of that world, the fear of those decades from Hiroshima onwards. It was more trying to make a nightmare film.”
One might argue that Mogwai are the perfect outfit to soundtrack the apocalypse – presumably, the film’s producers did, as the band were on board even before Cousins was recruited as director. “I’ve always thought their music was particularly cinematic, its slow build, those kind of undertones,” he says. “You don’t want too much articulation on the surface but you want lots of belly and their music really has that.”
Cousins afforded them complete freedom to compose, supplying only emotional direction before they saw any film footage. Perhaps surprisingly, the score they produced is more meditative than martial.
“We agreed that less is more,” says Braithwaite. “We definitely didn’t want it to be bombastic because the images and the themes are already really heavy. I think that would have been overkill. We wanted it to be more contemplative.”
The EIF shows will be the only UK performances of the score this year, although the band and Cousins have already taken the film on tour, to contrasting responses in Chernobyl, still living with the after-effects of the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster, and in Hiroshima itself.
“Most of the audience were in tears in Hiroshima,” says Braithwaite. “It was one of the most intense experiences. We all thought it was a good idea but when we were actually there we were not sure everyone understood what was happening, which made it even more difficult. I don’t think Japanese society particularly warms to confronting historical horror. Who can blame them? But I’m really glad we did it. Some of the feedback we got was pretty positive. Some women came from Nagasaki, saying, ‘We wish you could do it there too.’”
“When you think about Japanese culture, it’s quite easy to shock people there,” says Cousins, “whereas Ukraine is a culture of melodrama, it’s explosive, so to see a film as emotional as this absolutely worked in Ukraine.”
None the less, he describes the screening in Pripyat, the town next to the Chernobyl plant where survivors of the 1986 disaster still live, as a “sweaty palms” moment. “The opportunities for f***ing that up are considerable but people were talking about the optimism, the hope, the beauty of Chernobyl and the surrounding area, so maybe if I’d gone as a journalist and told only a tragedy they would have felt stereotyped. But they were saying things like, ‘Thank you for capturing the paradise as well as the paradise lost because this is one of the most beautiful places in the world,’ and it is – now there are very few people living there, it’s a lot more beautiful in some ways because the wild flowers are free to grow.”
Closer to home, decisions to renew Trident and approve the Hinkley Point C power station have kept the debate over how we use nuclear power to the fore. Atomic provides some warnings from history, and Cousins believes they have not been heeded.
“On a global scale, the nuclear threat now is as great as it was in the 1980s in my opinion – with Trump, Putin, Israel, Turkey, with the right wing being in charge in India. We can’t let our politicians or our warmongers define what the atomic world means. It’s a thing of sublime beauty so we can’t let these bully boys define what it is for us. That’s why we have to show how brilliant it is and not only how it has been misused.”
• Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise, Playhouse, 27-28 August. eif.co.uk