Mogwai Explores the Nuclear Age’s Benefits and Disasters on ‘Atomic’

Mogwai finds ways to balance their music to their political stance -- complete nuclear disarmament of all countries in possession of weapons of mass destruction -- with a strong emphasis of dynamics to match the themes of annihilation, despair, and hope, albeit bleak.
Rock Action / Temporary Residence

On Friday, May 27th, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima. Seventy one years since the world understood that humankind now possessed the power to destroy itself, President Obama acknowledged the still looming fear and called for a “world without nuclear weapons”. “Little Boy”, a 15 kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima pales in comparison to Russia’s Tzar Bomba, a 50,000 kiloton bomb. Imagine if Russia dropped the bomb on Paris. Not only would Paris be an afterthought, but the bomb would impact a radius of 34 miles beyond the center of Paris.

On the other hand, atomic energy also took on other forms intended to help humanity: smoke detectors, energy plants, radiology, carbon dating, and many other forms advanced societies into an era of alternative energy sources, medical detecting devices, and useful safety measures. With Pandora’s nuclear box opened wide, the only regulation and oversight hinges on humanity’s dominant desire for self-preservation.

Mark Cousins’ non-linear documentary, Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, surveyed the effects of the uses of nuclear energy from Hiroshima to the present day. When Cousins approached the legendary Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, a band also known for their experimental and cinematic compositions, the merging of the two visions made perfect sense.

“We were approached before Mark was onboard, but the idea appealed to us that we’d be doing a film about the journey of the atom to the devastation of the atomic bomb and a few things in between,” says Barry Burns, one of Mogwai’s guitarists and founding members. “There’s never a space in time to not be reminding people of the mess the technology causes in the hands of bellicose people.”

The fear of a nuclear event reared its ugly head in 2015 when UK newspapers claimed that Isis came close to acquiring a nuclear weapon from Pakistan. The terror group’s claim sent ripples through the international community. Moreover, increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia, coupled with the possibility of a Trump presidency in 2016, re-ignited the fear momentarily eased with fall of the Berlin Wall and the supposed end of the Cold War.

Hiroshima is the perfect place to begin for both Cousins and Mogwai. “We have only played a normal Mogwai show there before, but I’m sure it will be very different when we go to play the Atomic film live there,” Burns says. In addition to their upcoming performance in the world’s first city decimated by the 20th century’s most destructive weapon, walking the grounds and seeing the museum first hand left an everlasting impression on the band. “The museum was terrifying and something you don’t forget, ever. It displayed, quite simply, the reasons to get rid of weapons forever,” remembers Burns.

Mogwai’s lengthy instrumentals and dense soundscapes naturally lend itself to soundtracks. Unlike Les Revenants and Zidane, two soundtracks strictly adherent to the movie’s subject and themes, Atomic’s differs in approach. “We were given a list of what would happen in the film (roughly) and then we could tell what kind of mood certain parts would have. It was kind of done ‘blind’ in that we never saw much footage until very far along the process, but even then, it was done in 11 or 12 days, so it was very quick,” Burns remarks. The band’s improvisational spirit helped their “blind” interpretations of the film, but once the band were able to see more of the film, they improved upon the already recorded material.

The music is personal. Still devoid of lyrical content, Mogwai finds ways to balance their political stance—complete nuclear disarmament of all countries in possession of weapons of mass destruction—with a strong emphasis of dynamics to match the themes of annihilation, despair, and hope, albeit bleak. Britain’s Trident Defense System provides a barrier to protect the entire region. Jeremy Corbyn’s recent victory insinuates that hope looms large for the elimination of the defense system, and Burns is hopeful that disarmament may become a reality. “If South Africa can eliminate their arsenal, then why can’t everybody else?” Burns wonders. “Mutually assured destruction is the most insane thing you can imagine.”

In spite of Burns’ optimism, he also exercises caution, too, especially with the rise of Donald Trump and his loose talk of nuclear annihilation. “Honestly, it seems to me that the country [the U.S.] is seen as a bit of an international embarrassment by everyone you speak to over here in Germany where I live, and the UK where I often also live,” Burns says. “That’s a shame because I often have great, intelligent conversations with most of the Americans I meet when I am in the USA, but this populist approach seems to aim at the people with air between their ears.” Donald Trump’s seemingly improbable ascendancy comes with a stroke of humor as well as concern. “If anything, at least it will be fucking hilarious with a reactionary man with the brain of an 11-year-old boy in charge of a large country.”

The band sounds no trumpet of defeat. Twenty years after Mogwai’s genesis, the band members are stuck with each other, even with an assortment of side projects. “We’re all in other bands now, too, so we are pretty much addicted to hitting strung wooden objects with things. For fun.”

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