Songwriter Interviews

Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai

by Greg Prato

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A mostly instrumental rock band that isn't about showing off their technical prowess and assorted high-priced gadgets, but instead, specialize in creating memorable and mood-altering tunes.

This is not a description you will find linked to many modern-day rock bands, but Mogwai certainly fits this bill.

Hailing from Glasgow, Scotland, Mogwai is comprised of Stuart Braithwaite (guitar, vocals), Dominic Aitchison (bass, guitar), John Cummings (guitar), Barry Burns (guitar, keyboards, flute, etc.), and Martin Bulloch (drums), and has been regularly issuing albums since 1997. Early 2014 saw the release of their eighth studio effort overall, Rave Tapes.

Braithwaite spoke with us about what determines which select few tunes get the vocal treatment, the stories behind several Mogwai classics, and his favorite Lou Reed recordings.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's discuss the new album, Rave Tapes.

Stuart Braithwaite: Well, we worked on it all of 2013. Started right at the music, probably right at the start of the year. Got together in April, May, started playing and went in the studio in August, got it finished by the end of September. So it's pretty much all I was working on that year.

It's a continuation of the last record, Hardcore Will Never Die, but maybe a little bit darker than that, maybe not quite as pop, even though I'm sure not many people think of our music as being that pop. But yeah, I'm really happy with it.

Songfacts: From what I understand, the album was recorded in the band's Castle of Doom studio in Glasgow. What would you say are the pros and cons of the band having their own studio?

Stuart: We've had our own studio; let me think, 7 or 8 years now. It's changed buildings. We own the studio part, but we never bought a building. So it's in a different place. I can't really think of any cons, to be honest. I think it's definitely a really good decision we made. Studios are pretty expensive and it's good to have somewhere that we can go and use whenever we need. Although Tony Doogan, who owns the studio with us, he records a lot of people there too, so it's a busy place. But it's definitely good having our own space.

Songfacts: And Paul Savage co-produced this album again, right?

Stuart: Yeah.

Songfacts: What would you say his contribution was to the band?

Stuart: Well, we've been working with Paul a long time. He recorded our early singles and our first album, as well as the last album, so he knows us really well. He's good at bringing out the best in us and good at telling us when we need to do something again. He's got a good ear, definitely a good guy.

Songfacts: Are the songs totally written before you go in the studio, or does Paul sometimes add some ideas to the songs?

Stuart: He definitely makes suggestions. Most of these songs were pretty much done, but we hadn't done the most rehearsals ever, because Barry, the piano player, lives in Germany. So there was definitely room for some changes and Paul was definitely involved in that.

Songfacts: Can you give some examples of some of the songs that he contributed some ideas to?

Stuart: I think almost everything, to be honest, in some way or another he's talked us through a part. I don't think there's any song on this album where every single member of the band knew 100 percent what they were doing when we went into the studio. So there was always someone, usually me, trying to make something up on the spot, and Paul's great at helping out with that.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting work in the band?

Stuart: Well, four of us write songs. And once the initial song's written, we usually demo in the house or wherever, then we get it to rehearsal and just work at it.

I mean, it depends. Some members of the band write every single part. Other people just have a rough outline and let people fill in the blanks. It changes from song to song, person to person. But it's usually written on our own, but arranged largely collaboratively.

Songfacts: What determines if a song will have some vocals on it or if it'll be instrumental?

Stuart: Most of our songs are instrumentals. The ones with vocals are the exceptions. Occasionally a song will be a regular vocals-and-lyrics song, but quite often it's just from hearing it - we'll think it needs something else and just needs an extra element.

Songfacts: Was there ever a time when you guys disagreed about whether or not a song should have vocals?

Stuart: Sometimes the vocals will go on and people won't always like it. But I think our attitude is generally to try something. If it doesn't work, you don't have to use it. But we tend to just try things to just see how they sound rather than worry about whether to do it in the first place.

Songfacts: I see. Can you give some examples, looking back, of some songs that were tried with vocals but then ultimately just went instrumental?

Stuart: There's only one I can think of off the top of my head, which was a very old song called "Rollerball," which doesn't really work. That's the only one I can think of off the top of my head.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Stuart: Me, personally? Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Bill Callahan, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed. The classics.

Songfacts: I've been listening to a lot of Lou Reed's past albums, and albums like Transformer and also Street Hassle are really, really classic albums.

Stuart: Yeah. I think Street Hassle is underrated. I think that's maybe my favorite of his, as well. That and Berlin are my favorite solo records.

Songfacts: And there's also one called Rock and Roll Heart, which I've been listening to a lot, which is kind of interesting. Because there's saxophone and stuff on that.

Stuart: Yeah.

Songfacts: It's a great one. Especially the title song from Street Hassle, I think that's a completely original song, how it doesn't have drums on it or anything and it has the strings on it.

Stuart: Yeah. It's wonderful.

Songfacts: It even has a cameo from Bruce Springsteen.

Stuart: Yep.

Songfacts: What do you remember about the writing of "Remurdered" from the new album?

Stuart: Well, that started as two different songs. The first part and the end part were two different songs originally, and I guess with the first part, we just weren't sure how it was going to end. Then we realized we could just join them together. That was probably the main thing. Barry wrote those songs, so I don't know what happened to the original conception.

Songfacts: And what about the song "Friend of the Night"?

Stuart: "Friend of the Night"? Yeah. That's another Barry one. That's a piano one. I remember that being a real pain to record, because we made that record with Tony Doogan and he was very persnickety about certain things - he wanted us to change it a lot. But I think he was right. It turned out really great. So it was probably worth the pain.

Songfacts: What about the song "Take Me Somewhere Nice"?

Stuart: "Take Me Somewhere Nice." I wrote that song. You know I can't remember a thing about that. I can remember I was playing it in a rehearsal room, but I can't remember... [Laughing] That was a hazy point in my life. It turned out great, yeah. It's definitely a song people really, really like a lot.

Songfacts: And then the last question I have, as far as writing music that largely doesn't have vocals, would you say it's easier because there's a complexity and a lot of subtlety to a lot of Mogwai's music?

Stuart: I think it's hard to say it's easier or it's harder. It's just what we do. Certainly if someone said to us that we had to write a regular verse/chorus full album with lyrics, we'd probably find that quite hard. But it's just what comes naturally to us and I think it's what we're best at.

April 10, 2014. For more Mogwai, visit mogwai.co.uk.
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