“What do they sound like?”
Here’s a better question: What do you say when a person asks you that? Not only do I believe that every time “They sound sorta like U2 mixed with FILL IN THE BLANK” is uttered a pixie dies, I also think that it lowers the proverbial bar a notch. It seems to me that comparing one band’s sound to another’s is lazy—it’s hackneyed. It’s like traveling down the bland unimagined highway of “it tastes like chicken.” If I was quick on my feet I may say something like: “If a guitar band like Explosions in the Sky is for the hazy-eyed dreamers, than Mogwai’s music is the passionate rumblings of an alcoholic couple with thin walls and light-sleeping neighbors.”
Mogwai formed over ten years ago with the intention of making what they labeled “serious guitar music,” and the band has since developed a devoted following that’s included tastemakers like the late John Peel. When my man date - a long time fan, first time spectator of this Scottish sonic bliss—probes me about what they are like live, I find this word comes quite easily:
The line at Avalon—a refurbished former church that now acts as both dance club and music venue—snakes around the corner. Most of the voices I overhear in line bear thick European accents, and most of the cigarette packs pulled from pockets are of brands I’ve never seen. The main room consists of the floor, a balcony that ropes around the perimeter of the grounds, and a third, elevated balcony where important people sporting color-coded bracelets congregate to enjoy the band’s serious guitar music.
Mogwai hits the stage, opening with “We’re No Here”. It doesn’t matter if you’ve come tonight with two or 32 of your closest friends, as soon as this set begins, you are alone. This is a show where action plays on the stage but where the treasure lies in the listener’s head. Their music—which mostly lacks the benefit or distraction of words—creates a sort of short film in your mind, allowing your imagination to experiment for minutes at a time.
Halfway through their set, there is an issue with multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns’ guitar pedal, and the group quits the song in the bridge. De facto band leader/guitarist Stuart Braithwaite apologizes for the faulty equipment before someone beckons him to “Tell us a story!” He smiles sheepishly and tells us that he has no stories. As a guitar tech comes on stage to correct the situation, Braithwaite (only half) jokingly threatens his life. A few songs later, Burns’ pedal is acting up again and not long after the same tech—this time appearing a bit more jumpy—tends to the matter. Braithwaite apologizes and says, “I hope you liked that song because we are going to start it over for you all.” Complete respect to the band and their aim towards perfection, but very few fans in the audience seem to notice the mishap and some are, perhaps, more annoyed that their hypnotic trance has been broken.
The band goes on to play favorites “Stanley Kubrick” and “Killing All the Flies” as the audience alternates between passive listening (during the soft lulls) and active participation (during the crescendos). They play a nice assortment of older material and some tracks off of their latest LP, Mr. Beast. The room is absurdly silent as the band plays, and the distraction of a nearby bouncer’s walkie talkie bubbling with chatter is a constant menace. When some fans shoot the security man a dirty glance, he ignores them and begins chatting up a woman who appears to be his girlfriend. His is the only voice heard in the entire room.
In spite of the band’s equipment malfunctions and the criminal misbehavior of the help, nobody appears dissatisfied with the band as the group walks off stage after their main set is complete. They return with the song everyone has been waiting for: “Mogwai Fear Satan”.
I close my eyes to find myself surrounded by men who carry torches and clubs in their hands and have murder in their eyes. We are running in slow motion. I try to scream but the only noise I hear is the music. When we reach them they are over-numbered; the attack is fierce and quick. Their blood feels warm on my lips. These people died so I could live. There is no remorse because I am alive.
The raucous applause calls ACTION on my scene and my ears will be ringing for the next 36 hours. Serious guitar music indeed.