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Of Noise and Nuance 

Glasgow's Mogwai delivers Happy Songs for Happy People and still manages to be the loudest band on Earth

Wednesday, Jun 18 2003
These days, Stuart Braithwaite refuses to call Blur "shite." Despite prodding, he just won't do it.

"I don't think I could be bothered slightin' people," says the guitarist and de facto frontman for the Glaswegian five-piece Mogwai, speaking from a tour stop in Hamburg, Germany.

This reticence is in distinct contrast to his attitude of a few years ago, when Braithwaite nabbed himself and Mogwai quite a few headlines through a series of interviews during which he happily dug his claws into all kinds of pop stars, including Axl Rose, Christina Aguilera, and Creed. Braithwaite's crowning achievement, i.e., the one that earned the most press, was when he not only publicly derided the popular British rock band Blur, but also wore and sold T-shirts that read "Blur: Are Shite." But according to Braithwaite, those days are behind him.

"I'm not gonna slur anyone," he insists. "I'm at peace with the world."

Anyone who knows Mogwai should recognize that Braithwaite's assertion sounds suspect. This is a group whose stated mission from day one was to be the "loudest band on Earth," an act that has ended nearly every show in the past eight years with a kind of Promethean noise assault in which its members wield their guitars like sonic flamethrowers, decimating eardrums with wave after wave of distortion and feedback.

In addition to this hostility, Mogwai's sound is equally defined by the warm, fuzzy blankets of melody it stitches out of such instruments as guitars, synthesizers, and flutes. It's this manic nature -- the juxtaposition of warm/fuzzy against jagged/satanic -- that epitomizes the group's worldview: Mogwai celebrates the highest highs, the lowest lows, and rarely anything in between. It's not what you'd call being "at peace with the world." That is, until now.

At first listen, Mogwai's new record, the oh-so-ironically-titled Happy Songs for Happy People, is something of a letdown, especially for anyone who has come to expect the group's sonic extremes (like last year's single, "My Father, My King," a 25-minute exploration of one guitar riff that ultimately implodes like a black hole into dense but indiscernible noise). The lack of such excess may lead some to call Happy Songs Mogwai on Prozac. But that would be a mistake. It's a subtle record -- you've got to swish it around a bit to appreciate the flavors -- but that's not to say it doesn't rock. It's just that the band is no longer relying on noise (or soundbites) to gain attention. And for the first time in its career, it doesn't have to.

"To be honest," says Braithwaite, his thick Scottish brogue conspiring with transcontinental cell-phone static as if Mogwai had produced this phone call, "[in the past] we were really, really, really loud, so I think we just felt that the best thing now would be ... to just be a good band. [Laughing.] We've been a loud band; now we just want to be a good band."

Showing uncharacteristic modesty, Braithwaite is exaggerating. Mogwai has always been a good band, because in the past, for Mogwai, good was loud. The difference now is that loud is no longer good enough.

Today, instrumental rock bands are as ubiquitous as anti-war bumper stickers. In the mid-'90s, when Mogwai formed, this wasn't the case. When the group came together in early 1995 -- with an original lineup that featured the core members still in the band today: guitarist Braithwaite, bassist Dominic Aitchison, guitarist John Cummings, and drummer Martin Bulloch (multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns joined up for Mogwai's second LP, 1999's Come on Die Young) -- it introduced a sound that instantly butted up against current musical trends.

This was a time when Britpop -- that stylishly aloof rock style typified by bands such as Blur and Oasis -- was practically in the tap water. Back then, few people would have thought that a few blokes playing songs without choruses, let alone catchy choruses, would stand a chance. Ultimately, what Mogwai proved -- just as its influences, bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, proved -- was that substance, when properly amplified, could trump style.

"If someone said that Mogwai are the stars, I would not object," says a young girl's voice on the opening track of the band's 1997 debut, Young Team. "If the stars had a sound, it would sound like this." Though they come across as hyperbole (or at least self-indulgence and narcissism), for many who heard Young Team on its release the words were an appropriate introduction to a very promising band.

With Young Team, critics agreed that there was something irresistible in Mogwai's dramatic sound. Epic in vision and loud as all hell, the album was like a message in a bottle floating across the seas of mediocrity. It spoke of a new rock, confrontational yet comforting, optimistic yet foreboding: Think of the double-edged sword that is post-breakup sex or punching a deserving mouth that also happens to belong to your best friend -- that was the thrill, as well as the challenge, in Mogwai's murky instrumentals.

Some called it depressing, sullen, morose. Yet to the converted throng, and to Braithwaite himself, those terms missed the point.

"Good music makes me happy," he says. "To take in something of some substance is something you're gonna enjoy, even it makes someone's heart break or it's just a generally sad piece of music."

While the mainstream didn't echo Braithwaite's sentiment, Mogwai quickly became underground heroes, David to Britpop's Goliath. Small clubs in Glasgow led to concert halls throughout Europe; shortly thereafter, Mogwai brought its sound to stateside clubs and music festivals like Austin's South by Southwest, where Stephen Malkmus, indie rock's elder statesman and then-frontman for Pavement, reportedly went so far as to call the quintet the "best band of the 21st century." Years later, acts such as Iceland's critically acclaimed Sigur Rós would follow in Mogwai's footsteps. But stars that glow this bright tend to burn out.

This wave of underground hype broke with the release of Come on Die Young, the follow-up to Young Team. In all-too-typical fashion, Mogwai's sophomore effort was a disappointment, only distantly echoing the debut's genius. Many critics, perhaps reluctantly, began to doubt Mogwai's staying power, its ability to innovate and grow.

In an attempt to answer these charges, the band (along with Dave Fridmann, producer of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev) spent more than three months in various studios recording its third full-length, Rock Action. Contrary to its title, however, Rock Action didn't rock. It was as if in trying to craft a record that balanced both noise and nuance, the band became so obsessed with the latter that it forgot about the former.

"I think we spent too long recording Rock Action," says Braithwaite of the album's shortcomings. "We had too many resources, and I don't think that that was actually a good thing. It made us less focused. I mean, I like that record a lot, but with this new one ... we really just made sure we had it together before we went in [to the studio]."

Happy Songs for Happy People was recorded in just 32 days and is Mogwai's best work in years. Having succeeded with a manic approach in the past, the band has turned the tables, delivering a record that eloquently blurs the line between skepticism and faith, chaos and harmony.

Where "Hunted by a Freak," the album's opening track, layers delicately plucked guitars and affected vocals into a triumphant battle cry, the next song, "Moses? I Amn't," sounds like a gulag marching anthem, its dour violin moaning over the cicada buzz of machine noises and the omnipresent sub-bass of a whirring synthesizer. This sullen tune is followed by the dulcet "Kids Will Be Skeletons," a halcyon collage of guitar harmonics, twinkling background din, and delicate drumming, all held together by Aitchison's chipper bass line.

Exhibiting a control of studio gadgetry on a par with Radiohead's Kid A, Happy Songs uses various shades of noise -- both synthesized and guitar-driven -- to create an atmosphere, a tone that coats the entire record, tying its disparate moods together. Melted into Mogwai's customary interplay of guitar-bass-drums, these atmospherics fill out its sound, shifting the listener's attention from a specific guitar riff or drum fill to the song as a whole. Tony Doogan, producer of Happy Songs, sees this shift as one of the album's strengths.

"This record is not quite as upfront as Rock Action," says Doogan, speaking from his Glasgow studio. "There's a lot of very subtle stuff, which is hidden away underneath what's actually going on."

"I think we've kind of managed a way to kind of balance out the different elements," echoes Braithwaite. "I like our old records -- they're quite good for how young we were -- but I think they were a bit clumsy."

But for all its grace, Happy Songs still succeeds, at times, in shaking the pillars. The song "Killing All the Flies" finds Mogwai up to its old tricks as it weaves two contrapuntal melodies around a warbled, effects-driven vocal that eventually gets caught up in and destroyed by a wave of chaotic, distorted guitar crunch. On the track "Ratts of the Capital," Mogwai reminds us just how evil a group it can be when the xylophone/bass interplay of the tune's first foreboding minutes is all but decimated by Braithwaite and Cummings' dual guitar attack, which rips through the song like a chain saw cutting through power lines.

Neither the unbridled young team they once were nor the calculating wimps they flirted with becoming, the members of Mogwai have managed a sound that synthesizes the best bits of the band's past with a new vision of the future. In figuring out how to be at peace with the world, they've also figured out the best way to rock it.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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