Autumn Music Preview 08 - Mogwai
Prey for today
We kick off our look ahead at the autumn’s music with Glasgow rock deviants Mogwai. Brian Donaldson quizzes Barry Burns about sectarianism, silly song titles and when a hawk isn’t a hawk
Is it true that you were asked to be in Mogwai because Stuart Braithwaite thought you were ‘a good laugh?’
I hope I’m still a good laugh; I’ve seen them smile at me a few times, even today. I’m quite an annoying person, really; I’m just very enthusiastic and get excited about stuff that’s completely inane and banal. I get far too excited all the time and it’s worse when I’m drunk. I joined the band as a flute player, which is quite random but then they found out that I could play the guitar too. And I was brought up to play the piano.
You were a student music teacher for a while weren’t you?
At the Academy of Music in Glasgow at Jordanhill. I wouldn’t say it was a waste of three years because I did learn a lot about music at the time, but I also learned a lot about teaching that I didn’t like. I learned that I probably don’t like being in a room of children when there’s more than two of them. I could have taught piano privately in a house but this was like being a shepherd, it was horrible. And people take music as a laugh subject; I know I did.
As a band, you’ve never been especially afraid of hiding your allegiance to a certain football club. Let’s call them Celtic. Was there any concern that you might alienate people who would naturally warm to your music simply because of the team you so obviously have a passion for?
If they don’t like our music because of the football team we like then they fall into the bigot category.
There’s a track on the new album called ‘Scotland’s Shame’ which refers to the nickname Celtic fans have given to their Rangers-supporting friends across the city.
I probably shouldn’t say it, but I love telling people these stories. That one was originally called ‘Robocop versus the Orange Walk’. After some debate, it was suggested that we change it to something else.
Would you say that the band have matured musically?
Someone will do something in a studio and you just think ‘oh my god, that’s a teenage moment’. But we do things to stop us from being completely and utterly bored and try not to repeat ourselves though we are guilty of that sometimes. By the time we get to making the next album, we’re so sick of playing the last songs that there’s little chance of us just copying them. The thing I enjoy is that we never have a plan, we just go and make music. It’s quite a repressed environment in the practice room: we don’t really talk about what we’re doing, we just trust each other to get on with it. It’s quite a catholic approach I suppose. I read somewhere that Sonic Youth don’t sit round a table and discuss what they’re doing either and it kind of works for us.
I can’t imagine anyone not loving the cover art to The Hawk is Howling.
It’s not even a hawk, it’s an eagle. We couldn’t find a hawk. Aidan Moffat did the artwork for it. He typed into eBay the word ‘hawk’ and that was the first amateur painting that came up. I’m a big fan of amateur art, it makes you smile a bit more than most of this Scandinavian maudlin art that you see around Glasgow.
Do you fear any reprisals from ornithological anoraks who might take you to task for calling an eagle a hawk?
But then can a hawk howl? The title is a quote by someone in The Doors when he was describing Chicago. I think he meant to say ‘the wind is howling’, but he said hawk instead and it stuck. Again, it’s just a meaningless title; they’re usually something that makes us laugh or something that a friend has said, and it’s stuck on there at the very end. We’ve got to call it a different name from the last album or it just gets confusing. It’s the same with the song titles. It would be far too much of a concept for our tiny minds to deal with to come up with a title and write a song for it.
How did it feel to be gigging around North America during an election campaign?
I don’t usually take notice of their election but this time around it’s the new Big Brother. It’s a bit of a car crash. We’ve got loads of friends here who were sitting watching the Republican convention and were disgusted by the whole thing. They can’t face another four years of the same.
So when you get back home you’re playing at the Corn Exchange. Are there any venues left in Scotland on the band’s ‘to-play’ list?
I like the look of the old bingo halls in places like Carstairs and little strange venues in Lanark. I’m kind of worried about the Corn Exchange because it’s far too big; but we’ve got a really good sound engineer who makes a good job of it wherever we are.
You did the Albert Hall [the one in London, not the one in Stirling] a few years back how was that?
That was an amazing experience. My main memory was that it was my dad’s birthday. About halfway through the set we shone a light onto one of the boxes where he was sitting and gave him a happy birthday. He was gobsmacked.
One of your finest moments has to be ‘Burn Girl Prom Queen’ from the 1999 ‘EP’. Why haven’t you worked with the Cowdenbeath Brass Band since?
That’s my dad’s favourite, though I’m not sure what that says about him, it’s quite a dirge. Working with people with string sections and brass bands is great. We’d love to do that again but it’s just so expensive. When we did Rock Action, we had all these string sections and stuff and realised we couldn’t play any of those songs live; which is actually quite good because it’s pretty shite anyway. Too much money spent on it; that was the nadir of our career.
Why are you moving to Berlin?
I’m just sick of paying through the nose for not much in the way of culture in the UK and I like the idea of going somewhere where the weird is embraced a bit more. Seems like Berlin is the New York of Europe and I really like electronic music so I’ll have a ball. And there’ll be some heat.
Corn Exchange, Edinburgh, Tue 21 Oct; The Hawk is Howling is released by Wall of Sound on Mon 22 Sep.