“We’re Mogwai, from Glasgow, Scotland.”
Five men positioned themselves on stage, all wearing the green track tops of the Glasgow Celtic Football Club. The influence of sombre tower blocks, urine-drenched betting shops, and the iron-grey of Glasgow’s skies presented itself as the band’s bedroom-personal music bore down on us like the Atlantic swell on a reef.
24 May 2006: The Commodore Ballroom Vancouver, BC
Mogwai are one of the few bands that distil the culture of the 21st century, and their place within it, to create a sound that defies itself. The restraint in some of their songs seems almost sadistic, and the loud bits, when at last unleashed, crush like haunted dreams of Bambi’s slaughter. It’s not music that you play when friends come over—it’s music you’re best left alone with, like melancholy, a dirty book, a bottle of single malt, or a busted heart.
This all makes the live show a strange proposition. And that is why the band ROCKS the audience so hard. If rock journalists were allowed to use the phrase ‘sonic cathedral’ only once in their lives, this would be the time.
This was the first show I’d ever attended with a pair of earplugs ready and waiting in my pocket. I took the precaution because the last time I saw Mogwai they nearly inflated my intestines with reverb. The only other band that really put me to the test was Manowar in the ‘80s. Manowar didn’t wear the colours of their favourite football team, though. They wore the garb of primitive man warrior—leather loincloths and sheepskin shawls with furry boots—and were backed by a wall of Marshall speakers. The obscene hum made my 15-year-old guts gurn even before any axe was throttled by the hairy metal anthropologists. Manowar were loud, perhaps the loudest band ever, and my ears rang for a week. So, with that memory in mind, my cowardly little earplugs sat in my pocket ready to save me from the sometimes-brutal Mogwai.
I urged those around me in the docile Vancouver crowd to shout “RANGERS!” between songs. I caught one or two of the band smiling when they heard the name of their Glasgow football rivals. Off came the trackie tops after they’d warmed up, revealing at least one ‘Scotland’ shirt. Ahhhh, so you’re Scottish then?
The five Scots presented the polite Canadian audience with music borne from the brown brick streets of a city where a bitter Catholic/Protestant football rivalry fills the pubs, bookies, and kebab shops. Pounding weight drove dense mass through the base of some songs, while, above it, a guitar pulled tones from the kind of jet-stream winds heard by dying climbers on Everest. I slipped in the earplugs.
I can report that, though earplugs may save your hearing, they make you miss some of the best sounds. I pulled them out again and tried to convince my buddy to take his out as well. He grinned inanely, nodding his head like I was a violent foreigner asking him to put his head in my basket to more closely view my beautiful cobra. “They’re like the Scottish Lynyrd Skynyrd,” I shouted. He nodded his head like a dazed Foghorn Leghorn.
Other than Stuart Braithwaite—the guitarist and occasional singer who sways atop a fine set of Scottish hips—Mogwai are disinclined to fall into animated performance. Crowd banter is limited to the punctuation of a “Cheers” after the audience’s applause. I can’t help but admire the band for being such moody, post-modern bastards. When my girlfriend comes home and Mogwai are playing, she rolls her eyes like I’m busy writing yet another cynical dirge. But that’s almost never the case—some of the ugly things in life really are quite beautiful—and I think that’s how Mogwai see it.
Mogwai live and Mogwai on record are two quite different wee beasties. On their albums, I hear more reminders of the empty packets from last night’s Chinese take-out, nicotine-stained cafe tabloids, and rainy Saturday football results. The sound of a Scottish city through this band has a lot less bedroom-ceiling staring going on, and the football shirts they might say were “just for a laugh”. Live, Mogwai, like Manowar, just want to Blow Your Speakers (with Rock n’ ROOOOOOOOHLL). So, bring earplugs if you must—even if just to prove your might by removing them. It doesn’t get much heavier.
Mogwai - I Know You Are But What Am I? [ Live @ Montreux Jazz Festival]