Mogwai Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
Published Feb 15, 2011The Scottish instrumental behemoths return with their seventh album in 15 years and it might catch some faithful fans by surprise. While the change isn't as drastic as adding clean vocals to their (mainly) instrumental approach, it is quite noticeable. Over their past six albums, they've used drones, downbeat rhythms and an overall gloomy atmosphere to draw in listeners, to great effect. However, on Hardcore, the quintet have opted for open melodies, more plainly seen without a haze of effects to cover their path, peppier beats and an overflowing exuberance rarely heard from them previously. "How to be a Werewolf" begins with gentle keys and a noodling guitar line, and then handclap beats drop in to guide the song along a happy trail. Fuzzed-out guitars are eventually added, but to complement the pleasant melody, not drown it out in waves of sorrow. And "George Square Thatcher Death Party" has to be the catchiest thing Mogwai's every released. A constant bass line pushes it forward while keyboards and screeching guitars flow in and out, with vocoder-tinged vocals flying underneath the melody. However, songs such as "You're Lionel Richie" bear enough resemblance to previous work as to not completely confuse listeners. But the change is welcome. And it not only complements their outstanding catalogue, but has the strength to stand on its own.
How do you feel about the new record?
Bassist Dominic Aitchison: I'm quite excited about it. We've been playing the songs live for a couple of weeks. The new songs are, compared to our previous album, quite upbeat. They're a bit faster than what we're used to playing. It's been a lot of fun; it's made the shows quite different, a lot more enjoyable. I'm excited about that aspect of it. It's always exciting putting a record out.
What makes the new material more enjoyable live?
With our previous record, it was really, really slow and quite downbeat, so the shows could drag a wee bit. And if it's dragging for us then it must be a drag for the audience as well. It's nice to have the different types of songs to break the set up. It makes it a lot more enjoyable and the time goes by a lot quicker. It's weird; I'm not used to playing so fast, so my arm hurts from playing, because I've never really played like this before!
Does that mean you have a workout regime to get in shape for the tour?
No, no, no! Definitely not. [Laughs] I'm sure I'll get used to it.
With the new direction, would you say that your live album, Special Moves/Burning, was the unofficial end to that era of Mogwai and Hardcore is the beginning of a new one?
I don't think so, really. A lot of people have said that, so you're not the first to make that observation. I'm aware that this new record is different than our previous ones, but it still feels like business as usual to me. And I think it's because not much has changed in the way that we do things. The way we wrote the album, there was nothing different about it this time. Maybe it is... I don't know.
What caused the musical differences if the process was the same?
I think the last tour had an impact. I suppose it's what we've been listening to as a band. We don't really listen to slow instrumental music, it just happens to be the music we make. It's probably the music we've been listening to that's coming through. We didn't sit down and decide we're going to have this album more upbeat and faster. There was never a discussion. We did write a lot of songs, and there were a lot we didn't put on the record, but they were more in line with our previous record. I think we felt that the upbeat tunes were more interesting, so that's why they ended up on the album.
What were you guys listening to that influenced Hardcore?
Some of the guys in the band, which I think is really evident, are really into '70s German bands like Neu! and Can. I think a lot of that has definitely crept into these songs. Barry [Burns, guitars, keys and vocals for the band] is really into techno music; he's constantly surrounded by it and it definitely came through on this record as well.
Why was "Rano Pano" chosen as the first single?
I can't remember if it was even our choice; it might have been Sub Pop. They always want to release an MP3 of the song; I think that was their choice. We definitely didn't object to it. We thought the song was quite stupid and sounded really silly, so we didn't know how people would react to it. I think we thought it was a good idea to get it out there and have people hear it. I suppose it is quite different, and perhaps that's why it got picked. It's quite unlike everything we released. I think after you've released seven albums people have a handle on how you sound so it's a good idea to put something out there that's not quite your usual sound.
Why did you think it was a "stupid" song?
Well, we all really like it and it's fun to play, but I think it's quite a silly song. We were talking about how it sounds like the Muppets. We thought people were going to go, "What the fuck is this? This is terrible!" [But] people seem to like it.
The songs on this record are a bit shorter. Was it a conscious decision to cut down the length?
It was quite accidental; it was not deliberate. We didn't have a discussion about making the songs shorter. We've gotten into the habit of writing long songs and drawing them out, and we're quite conscious of that, and I think it's fine to do that live. But it doesn't always work that well; it can be kind of boring listening to it on a record. Sometimes you might think, "Okay, I get that idea – get to the end!"
It sounds like you're almost tired of the past material.
Maybe. We've been playing a lot of these songs for quite a long time. We've been going for 15 years and there are songs we still play live almost every night. I think we've subconsciously written stuff that's different. We're quite lucky that we have so much music now. We've recorded seven albums so there's no excuse to not change the set list every night; it's making the shows a lot of fun.
Every description of Mogwai always includes the term post-rock. Is that a proper description of your band?
I think it's weird. I used to get quite pissy and annoyed with it; it's quite a snobbish-sounding title. And it doesn't really make any sense. I'm totally used to it now and I don't have as much of a problem with it. But I think we just view ourselves as being a rock band. It used to confuse us because a lot of the bands categorized as post-rock didn't really sound that similar to us. A band like Tortoise would be called post-rock. They're really jazzy and technical, but we'd get called post-rock as well. I think the only thing we have in common is the lack of vocals. They're great, but I don't think we're that similar, so it's not particularly helpful. It seems that post-rock now refers to bands like Explosions in the Sky and us. I don't really have a problem with it; it gives people a general idea of what we sound like. People categorize music and I'm guilty of doing that, but the term really doesn't make sense. Post-rock almost sounds like it's better than rock music, like we've moved beyond it.
Where did the title Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will come from?
It's one of the completely nonsensical titles we have. Hardcore techno is very popular in Scotland; it's an actual scene. Our friend was going into a local shop in Glasgow and there was an underage kid trying to buy wine and the shopkeeper wouldn't sell it to him. And the kid started shouting, "Hardcore will never die, but you will!" It's such a strange threat and it made no sense, but it was a very humorous phrase that stuck in our heads. We liked it even though it means absolutely nothing.
Your music is very sombre and serious overall, but it seems like the band have a lot of fun with song titles. Is this the band's way of showing their personality?
It could be; we're not very serious guys outside of writing the music. Because there are no lyrics to reference in the titles, we can call them anything we want. It's strange because no one really noticed the ridiculous names we called songs until the last record. People actually started asking us about it. It's weird hearing people talk to you about your music and seriously name titles like, "That song, 'Haunted by a Freak...'" and we're biting our lips trying not to laugh because it's such a ridiculous title. People don't know it's not serious.
Why did you choose to work with Paul Savage again?
We've kept in touch with Paul and always stayed friends. He's recorded a lot of records we really like. And also the studio we wanted to record in is his studio, so he knows it inside out. It just seemed like the logical thing to do. There was no thought of trying to recapture the feelings from the first album. It was definitely a lot more practical than that.
Was he surprised by the direction of the album?
If he was, he never let us know about it. There was one tune in particular, "George Square Thatcher Death Party," that was getting too close to being something you'd hear on the radio. We thought we had to make it weird and pull it back to what we normally do and he said we just had to go balls out with it. He wanted clean vocals in that as well; he wanted a straight up pop song. We kind of met in the middle.
Will there be an EP later this year with the leftover material from the Hardcore sessions?
There's been talk of it. A lot of the songs that didn't go on the album are being used as B-sides, but there's still a lot of stuff left. There was talk of doing an EP later in the year, but a lot of the leftover stuff is more like soundtrack work rather than songs. We're not sure what we're going to do with it. There was also talk of recording some new songs, but with the way the year is panning out I'm not sure if we'll have time to do that. I'd like to, but I think we'll be too busy touring.
How has touring changed after doing it for 15 years?
It seems slightly daunting because last year we only did a few shows, so I've gotten quite used to being home. I'm getting older now and I like my comforts; I like sleeping in my own bed every night. But I'm really looking forward to playing shows again. I think that's what we're best at; we're a better live band than on record. I just have to be more sensible now. We can't get blind drunk every night and get up the next day and be fine. That doesn't happen anymore. We have to plan our drunken nights very carefully and then take five days off to recover [laughs]. I remember my older brothers telling me that there'll be a day when I'll wake up and won't believe the hangover I have and it'll last two days. I didn't believe it, but that day has arrived; it's for the best. We used to get quite drunk before the shows. When you're drunk you think you're playing great, but oh man, we used to stink! We definitely play better now that we don't drink before the shows.
Are there any new or special visuals set for the tour?
Well, I don't know if we'll be able to take it outside of the UK, but we have some fancy projections. But I don't think we'll be able to afford to take it overseas, so it'll probably be the five of us just standing there! There will be no costumes, just more of the same.
There's no chance of bringing the set overseas?
There might be some way; it hasn't really been discussed yet. It's already quite expensive to do it in the UK so I'd be surprised if we can do it anywhere else. We'd like to; it's great for a band like us because we don't do anything on stage – there's nothing to really focus on – so it's quite good to have something to distract from that. We've never really had that outside of the UK.
Since you worked with Vincent Moon on the Burning DVD, did you pay any attention to the online feud he's been having with Arcade Fire?
No, I'm completely ignorant to that. What happened?
[Explains the story]
Well, he's quite a straight up guy and quite easy to work with. He didn't steal anything from us! I'm quite surprised that the Arcade Fire guy got so bent out of shape about it. (Sub Pop)