Instrumental rock band
For a band with a repertoire of songs largely without words, Mogwai has never found difficulty expressing a profound musical statement. Formed in the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland, by a group of friends barely in their twenties, Mogwai quickly became one of the most inspiring bands on the independent music scene. As Steve Malkmus of the successful band Pavement predicted in a 1997 interview for Melody Maker, “Mogwai—they’re gonna rock the world! Creedence were the best band of the Sixties, The G roundhogs the best band of the Seventies, Butthole Surfers the best of the Eighties, The Incredible String Band the best over the three decades. Mogwai will be the best band of the 21st century.”
Mogwai formed when guitarist, keyboardist, and percussionist Stuart Braithwaite, bassist and guitarist Dominic Aitchison, and drummer Martin Bulloch met through common friends and quit their various bands on the fringes of the Glasgow indie rock scene. All hailing from various satellite towns around Glasgow and raised on a range of music from the Cure, Joy Division, and Jesus and Mary Chain to the Pixies, Slint, Celtic FC, and My Bloody Valentine, the young men initially set out to attend college, but found learning chord changes preferable to studying. “I first met Stuart at a Ned’s Atomic Dustbin gig,” recalled Aitchison to Fred Mills of Magnet, “and my best pal was there with Stuart’s pal, who came up to me and said, ‘All right, you’re a bass player, meet Stuart, he’s a great guitarist.’ So one night both our bands were playing the same venue and we just hit it off. One day, we decided to form a band.”
Following in the paths of other successful independent Scottish bands—such as Urusei Yatsura, Bis, Delgados, Belle and Sebastian, and Arab Strap—Mogwai arrived just in time to capitalize on the excitement. By mid-1995, Mogwai started rehearsing and landed their first gig in the fall of that year. Desiring to craft serious guitar music, the group recruited a second guitarist, John Cummings, who helped Mogwai fulfill their purpose. The resulting Mogwai sound, according to Mills, revealed itself as “a shotgun wedding of My Bloody Valentine vertigo, Sonic Youth overdrive and Spacemen 3 drone.”
In 1996, the band scraped together enough money to record their first single, “Tuner,” which caught the attention of a host of independent labels. Over the next 18 months, Mogwai released a succession of original songs on some of the most hip indie labels around at the time, including Wurlitzer Jukebox, Love Train and Che. The New York-based Jetset label later released the singles in the United States on a collective LP entitled Ten Rapid in April of 1997.
Subsequently, the British press showered the group with accolades, repeatedly naming each succeeding new song “single of the week.” Along with such critical acclaim came an increasing tendency for excess. At the London nightclub Garage in May of 1997, for example, Mogwai—driven by alcohol and the opening performance of Arab Strap (one of Braithwaite’sfavorite bands)invited the audience to dismantle their equipment. Despite the—group’s propensity for overrunning a stage, Mogwai were also known to care deeply about their music, as well as for their good humor, intelligence, and despair at the average grade of music pushed by the music industry during the mid to late 1990s. Adopting a “we’ve-been-lucky” attitude in regards to the favorable media coverage, Mogwai also realized that the press could turn on them at any given moment. “One reviewer of a live gig said we were just going ’wank, wank, wank’ and that we should all be tortured horribly and deserved to die in a really painful manner,” Aitchison noted to Mills. “Another one recently said that we were ‘soulless.’ And we get the term ‘heavy metal’ a lot, too. When we play live, we play loud—and we’ve toned down a lot lately, anyway—but we could never be metal if we tried.”
Nonetheless, most reviewers and underground music fans felt otherwise. And while Mogwai’s reputation continued to spread throughout the U.K., the group gained an
For the Record…
Members include Dominic Aitchison (born near Glasgow, Scotland), bass, guitar; Stuart Braith waite (born near Glasgow, Scotland), guitars, keyboards, percussion; Martin Bulloch (born near Glasgow, Scotland), drums; Barry Burns (born near Glasgow, Scotland; joined band late 1998; former music teacher), flute, oboe, guitar, keyboards; John Cummings (born c. 1979 near Glasgow, Scotland), guitars, piano; Brendan O’Hare (born C 1970; joined band in May of 1997; left band fall of 1997), drums.
Formed band, landed first gig, 1995; released first single, “Tuner,” 1996; released collective EP, Ten Rapid, followed by full-length debut, Mogwai Young Team, and performed in U.S. for first time, 1997; toured extensively throughout Europe, U.K., and U.S. East Coast, 1998; released second album, Come On Die Young, 1999.
audience in the U.S. as well, thanks to college radio airplay and steady sales of Ten Rapid. In the summer of 1997, Mogwai performed before American audiences for the first time as the opening act for the high-profile band Pavement. Soon thereafter, the group signed with the influential, Glasgow-based Chemikal Underground label, and then with Jetset in the U.S. With the record deals complete, the group started work on their debut album, Mogwai Young Team.
In the meantime, Mogwai enlisted a fifth member and second drummer, Brendan O’Hare (former member of Teenage Fanclub and Telstar Ponies), whom they met when his group Macrocosmica opened for a Mogwai show. The group also adopted pseudonyms for their upcoming release; Cummings took the nickname Captain Meat after his obsession for eating chops, Bulloch adopted the alias Bionic because of his artificial pacemaker, Aitchison chose the name Demonic after his childhood nightmares about Lucifer (Satan), Braithwaite was dubbed Plasmatron, and O’Hare, the oldest of the bunch, became The Relic.
By the time Mogwai Young Team was released in October of 1997, the group had booted O’Hare from the lineup, allegedly for not keeping quiet during an Arab Strap performance. Although Mogwai repeatedly refused to go into further detail regarding O’Hare’s departure, Aitchison later reported, according to Select magazine, “Recording that album, there were a lot of sketches [arguments] going on.” Critics hypothesized that O’Hare’s age—he was around 27 at the time, while the other members were just above or below 21—and his outside pursuits with Macrocosmica and his solo project Fiend, made him unable to fit in and feel totally committed to Mogwai.
The remaining members witnessed the enormous success of Mogwai Young Team, and reviewers praised the effort as evidence of the group’s rapid maturity. Sharon O’Connell of Melody Makerwrote, “Mogwai Young Team is blessedly audacious—a mad risk taken by reckless noise-monsters, a fleet-footed, sure-handed miracle in an age that’s become too safe by half. Buckle in and prepare for bliss.” And John Mulvey of New Musical Express agreed, declaring Mogwai Young Team “a phenomenal piece of work.” The reviewer further added, “It is shamelessly avant-garde, but shows the avant-garde can match ‘straight’ music for both heart-stopping melodies and adrenalised rock ‘n’ roll ferocity. It is largely instrumental, but proves—as if it really needed proving—that instrumental music can express a generous sweep of emotions every bit as eloquently as lyrics.”
The album included tracks that held to Mogwai’s signature soft-to-loud musical scheme, exemplified in songs such as “Like Herod” (originally titled “Slint”). But Mogwai also desired to show they were willing to try new dynamics, and as a result, the group projected a sense of tranquility and expanded instrumentation (including the glockenspiel and string section) into the arrangement. One noteworthy track, the graceful “R U Still In 2 It,” illustrated such expansiveness and featured Arab Strap’s Aiden Moffat as guest vocalist. As of late 1999, Mogwai Young Team sold over 35, 000 units in the group’s native U.K. and reached number two on American college charts.
In 1998, Mogwai toured extensively for six months throughout Europe and the U.K. before landing in the U.S. for an East Coast excursion with the Manic Street Preachers. With little time to work on a new full-length album, Mogwai opted to focus on remixes of prior work. First, the group recorded a version of David Holmes’s “Don’t Die Just Yet.” Holmes reportedly liked Mogwai’s harder approach to the song so well that he christened his new Belfast, Ireland, bar “Mogwai.” Next, the band turned to reworking their own songs with the LP Kicking A Dead Pig and an EP entitled Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, both released in 1998 on Eye-Q, a dance-oriented label, and Jetset respectively. Forthese projects, Mogwai assembled a cast of well known producers/engineers that included Kevin Shields, Third Eye Foundation, DJ Q, Arab Strap, Atari Teenage Riot’s Alec Empire, and u-ziq.
Eventually, Jetset issued the two works together as Kicking A Dead Pig + Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes. “Per usual, Mogwai’s two-CD set pits understated guitar figures against peals of noise,” concluded Will Hermes in Entertainment Weekly, giving the release a grade of A-overall. “u-ziq and Alex [spelled Alec] Empire get beat crazy, but the idea is rock mutation, not murder. When it works, it’s visionary stuff.” Likewise, Braithwaite himself approved of the final product, concluding that the remixes “worked really well,” as he stated to Mills. “A lot of the stuff is totally different to the original, and that’s what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to just add hip-hop beats or something.”
1998 also witnessed Mogwai putting their musical influence to political use. When the Glasgow City Council implemented a nightfall curfew for school-aged children, Mogwai lashed out against the legislation by joining forces with the Scottish Human Rights Project, printing and distributing thousands of “Fuck The Curfew” stickers, and releasingthe No Education=No Future (F— The Curfew) EP. Upholding the campaign of the Human Rights Project, Mogwai believed improving education and providing amenities for children were the true solutions to curbing the rising crime rate among the youth of Glasgow.
Returning to more artistic pursuits toward the end of 1998, Mogwai decided to expand their instrumentation by hiring another musician, Barry Burns, a talented flutist, guitarist, and keyboardist. The band also signed with a more established record company in the U.S., Matador Records, a label that also supported the likes of Arab Strap and Belle and Sebastian. Although Mogwai remained with Chemikal Underground in the U.K., Matador and the group planned to record a second full-length album on American soil with producer David Fridmann, a former member of Mercury Rev who also produced albums with the Flaming Lips.
For previous Mogwai singles, EPs, and the first album, the group recorded at MCM studios with Chemikal Underground producer Paul Savage. “We knew all the people there and it was really handy, but we didn’t want to stay in Glasgow this time,” Bulloch explained to Mills. “We wanted to go to the country and take up residence someplace where we could be there all the time with no distractions. The Delgados suggested Fridmann, and Chemikal Underground arranged it all.”
The quintet packed their gear and retreated to Fridmann’s backwoods Tarbox Road Studios, located in Cassada-ga, New York, about 50 miles from Buffalo and 500 miles from New York City. They spent three weeks during the winter in the remote town populated mostly by deer, trees, and over-zealous hunters. “I was out shopping and I saw this red light pin-pointed on my head,” recalled Bulloch for an interview with Select “It was a viewfinder from a gun. The hunter came up and said, ‘Sorry son, I thought you were a deer.’ Jesus Christ.”
Despite such obstacles and close calls, Mogwai emerged from the forest with a second astonishing album, Come On Die Young, released in April of 1999 by Matador in the U.S. Substituting loudness for further depth and composition, Mogwai’s follow-up release contained tracks such as “Christmas Steps,” revealing just one guitar/bass overture, as well as “Ex-Cowboy,” ending with a single orchestral swell. Expected to further enhance the band’s reputation, Come On Die Young earned eminent critical attention. “The album is as elegant and expansive as any concept piece from 25 years prior, but it’s forward-looking enough to signify the arrival of a major, unique player,” wrote Mills. “At times it sounds resolute, if slightly lachrymose (the yearning ballad ‘Cody’), stately and dignified (‘Helps both ways’ is a slow ballet marked by newcomer Burns’ oboe), and even enticingly ambient (the minimalist piano and deep mix effects swirling throughout ‘Chocky’).”
“Tuner,”Rock Action, 1996.
“Summer,”Love Train, 1996.
4 Satan, Jetset, 1998.
Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, Eye-Q, 1998.
No Education = No Future (F— The Curfew), Chemikal Underground, 1998.
New Paths to Helicon, Wurlitzer Jukebox, 1997.
Mogwai Young Team, Jetset, 1997.
Ten Rapid (Collected Recordings 1996-1997), Jetset, 1997.
Fear Satan Remixes, 1998.
Kicking A Dead Pig, Eye-Q, 1998.
Kicking A Dead Pig + Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes, Jetset, 1998.
Come On Die Young, Matador, 1999.
Alternative Press, January 1998; October 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, July 10, 1998.
Guardian, October 31, 1997.
Magnet, June/July 1999, pp. 45-47, 92.
Melody Maker, May 17, 1997; November 1, 1997
New Musical Express, October 25, 1997; June 20, 1998; February 6, 1999.
New York Press, March 10-16, 1999.
Q, December 1997.
Rolling Stone, September 3, 1998.
Select, December 1997; April, 1998; March 1999.
Times (London), October 25-31, 1997.
Mogwai discography, http://www.chemikal.demon.co.uk/bands/mogwai_discography.html (November 4, 1999).
Additional information provided by Matador Records.
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