Scottish (mostly) instrumental rock outfit Mogwai has a reputation for teasing their audience with album titles. 2001’s Rock Action wasn’t exactly that and its follow-up Happy Songs for Happy People didn’t really burst with joy. So when the band announced that their 2014 release was to be called Rave Tapes, Mogwai fans everywhere probably safely assumed it was a joke. How could they not? Surely a band that twice promoted themselves by selling t-shirts denouncing a band they hated (Blur, in case you were curious) would never give in to such superficial pressures to go techno. But as the case proved to be with Rock Action and Happy Songs for Happy People, a title like Rave Tapes ends up being sarcastic only if you’re skimming its surface.
Mogwai guitarist and spokesman Stuart Braithwaite chatted with PopMatters in the middle of a busy PR-filled day, spreading the gospel of Rave Tapes from the comfort of his own couch at home. An affable man who belies the band’s grouchy facade, Braithwaite spoke candidly about how Mogwai’s approach shifted ever so slightly for their latest release.
From processing the band’s instruments to utilizing in-house vocals, Rave Tapes captures a minor spirit of adventure, one that has produced incredible results. The dark hum of “Remurdered” may convince you that this could be Mogwai’s electro album. By the next track, “Hexon Bogon”, they are back to their 1997 post-rock tricks with dramatically dissonant guitars. And I just had to ask about “Repelish”, a song that samples a Christian pundit preaching about the evils of backmasking in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. Remember, Mogwai is a band that fears Satan. When I reminded Braithwaite of that, he answered “Always.”
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Mogwai has a reputation for cheeky titles. But your song “Remurdered” has this electro side to it, where you can almost visualize glow sticks.
[laughs] I guess so. It’s a little bit more upbeat than some of our [other] songs. When we first started working on it, it sounded a little more like a hip-hop kind of song and then it sped up maybe. I can’t quite remember exactly.
How does the writing process work for Mogwai? Did it differ for Rave Tapes?
Four [members] of the band write music. We tend to write in our own houses, share the demos, get together and make final arrangements as a band. With this one [Rave Tapes], the main difference was we actually did quite a lot of improvising in the studio, working on the songs while in the studio. A lot of things happened over the summer just before we started recording, so it just worked out that way. Maybe it is a little more off the hoof than normal, but I think that works out for the best.
Who is the singer on the song “Blues Hour”?
I was trying to find some information on it because I know that Mogwai has had guest vocalists in the past.
I just did it. One thing we really thought on this record, which is no reflection on some of the people we’ve collaborated with — especially [Scottish novelist, musician] Luke Sutherland who has done some amazing stuff — I think we were quite keen on doing as much by ourselves so that we’d be able to play the songs wherever we went.
To not rely on so much outside help to the point where you can’t take it on the road?
Yeah, that was definitely a factor.
When Mogwai includes vocals in a songs, you guys approach is pretty differently. They’re mixed very low.
I don’t think any of us feel that we’re strong singers, so that’s one of the reasons we do it that way [laughs]. I think if we were awesome singers we would have them louder. But sometimes you just want to get something across, just dub yourself over, add another tone and another melody. There’s nothing radical in the way that we use vocals, but it’s usually not a first plan of action when we’re writing a song. Every once in a while, on a regular song, we’re always going to have vocals. “Blues Hour” wasn’t going to have vocals, but in reflection once everything else was recorded, it just sounded like it would really sound good.
Are you confident in yourself as a lyricist? Are any of you guys?
I don’t really see myself [that way]. I only ever write lyrics if we need them. A genuine lyricist has a passion for them. I feel capable enough rather than confident [laughs].
Next I wanted to talk about the song “Repelish”. I’ve been listening to “Stairway to Heaven” backwards quite a bit.
Someone on the internet was kind enough to make the whole thing go backwards and it actually sounds cool.
Almost every record plays better backwards! I’m not sure how satanic it’s going to be, but it’s definitely going to sound good.
What is that sample in “Repelish”? Where did it come from?
I think it’s just a Christian radio talk show guy. We never did find out where it was from. We heard it on a compilation that George [Barrow] from Portishead made for [multi-instrumentalist] Barry [Burns]’s bar jukebox. We got a friend to make a copy of it. We just thought it sounded good in the song. It’s the one song that people either like or really don’t like. I think it’s a great thing to polarize opinion. The worst thing is for everyone to say that something’s okay.
The radio talk show guy, you played his sample backwards too, right?
Yes, yes, yes.
And did you find anything?
No, we already found it forwards! [laughs]
I wanted to ask you about you guys running your own label, Rock Action. When some artists or bands go into running a label, they realize they’re kind of in over their heads.
A lot of bands start a label to release their own records after being on a bigger label. What happened with ours is we started the label for our first seven inches [singles]. We continued using it as a label. We already had the infrastructure and all that kind of stuff. That was the main difference, to make it work.
Anyone on your label roster that you would recommend to fans of Mogwai?
I recommend all of them, I’d be a terrible label boss if I didn’t. I guess the band Errors are one that I think people will generally love. Blanck Mass, Remember Remember, Part Chimp, we’ve been lucky to get some really good bands. Errors are going to make a new record soon which I’m excited about.
They are of a more electronic persuasion, right?
Yeah, but they’re moving more towards guitars as we [Mogwai], in a sense, are moving in the opposite direction of traffic.
Yes. On Rave Tapes, it sounds like you guys are sharing more sounds with the guitars.
Oh yeah. There’s a synthesis on the guitars. Some of the things that sound like keys are actually guitars. We used synthesis on a lot of instruments. People thought we’d be using a lot of drums machines, but there actually aren’t any drum machines on the record. Martin [Bulloch, drummer] just used electronic pads. They are electronic drums sounds, but he’s playing them all.
Mogwai has had all kinds of comparisons and genre labels thrown around by the press. Are you any closer to finding those few select words that accurately describe the band’s sound?
I don’t know. I’m always just happy with people calling us a rock band. That seems to kind of cover all bases. I’m not big on labels. I understand the practice and everything, but the music that excites me most is hard to define. I guess that’s what we’re going for [laughs].
Music like that is great, but it’s difficult to write about!
Yes, exactly. You’ve got that problem. Writing about music isn’t the easiest thing. It’d be better if bands wrote about their own stuff, if they could handle it.
What are you listening to these days? Has any of it informed the sound that has taken shape on Rave Tapes?
I guess in terms of what we all listen to that’s probably informed this record the most is soundtracks and still quite a lot of krautrock, we’re all very fond of that. I think of it as more in the spirit of experimentation than actual songs themselves. That’s a big influence.