Of Noise and Nuance

Glasgow's Mogwai delivers Happy Songs for Happy People and still manages to be the loudest band on Earth

These days, Stuart Braithwaite refuses to call Blur "shite." Despite prodding, he just won't do it.

"I don't think I could be bothered slightin' people," says the guitarist and de facto frontman for the Glaswegian five-piece Mogwai, speaking from a tour stop in Hamburg, Germany.

This reticence is in distinct contrast to his attitude of a few years ago, when Braithwaite nabbed himself and Mogwai quite a few headlines through a series of interviews during which he happily dug his claws into all kinds of pop stars, including Axl Rose, Christina Aguilera, and Creed. Braithwaite's crowning achievement, i.e., the one that earned the most press, was when he not only publicly derided the popular British rock band Blur, but also wore and sold T-shirts that read "Blur: Are Shite." But according to Braithwaite, those days are behind him.

Eva Vermandel

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"I'm not gonna slur anyone," he insists. "I'm at peace with the world."

Anyone who knows Mogwai should recognize that Braithwaite's assertion sounds suspect. This is a group whose stated mission from day one was to be the "loudest band on Earth," an act that has ended nearly every show in the past eight years with a kind of Promethean noise assault in which its members wield their guitars like sonic flamethrowers, decimating eardrums with wave after wave of distortion and feedback.

In addition to this hostility, Mogwai's sound is equally defined by the warm, fuzzy blankets of melody it stitches out of such instruments as guitars, synthesizers, and flutes. It's this manic nature -- the juxtaposition of warm/fuzzy against jagged/satanic -- that epitomizes the group's worldview: Mogwai celebrates the highest highs, the lowest lows, and rarely anything in between. It's not what you'd call being "at peace with the world." That is, until now.

At first listen, Mogwai's new record, the oh-so-ironically-titled Happy Songs for Happy People, is something of a letdown, especially for anyone who has come to expect the group's sonic extremes (like last year's single, "My Father, My King," a 25-minute exploration of one guitar riff that ultimately implodes like a black hole into dense but indiscernible noise). The lack of such excess may lead some to call Happy Songs Mogwai on Prozac. But that would be a mistake. It's a subtle record -- you've got to swish it around a bit to appreciate the flavors -- but that's not to say it doesn't rock. It's just that the band is no longer relying on noise (or soundbites) to gain attention. And for the first time in its career, it doesn't have to.


"To be honest," says Braithwaite, his thick Scottish brogue conspiring with transcontinental cell-phone static as if Mogwai had produced this phone call, "[in the past] we were really, really, really loud, so I think we just felt that the best thing now would be ... to just be a good band. [Laughing.]We've been a loud band; now we just want to be a good band."

Showing uncharacteristic modesty, Braithwaite is exaggerating. Mogwai has always been a good band, because in the past, for Mogwai, good was loud. The difference now is that loud is no longer good enough.

Today, instrumental rock bands are as ubiquitous as anti-war bumper stickers. In the mid-'90s, when Mogwai formed, this wasn't the case. When the group came together in early 1995 -- with an original lineup that featured the core members still in the band today: guitarist Braithwaite, bassist Dominic Aitchison, guitarist John Cummings, and drummer Martin Bulloch (multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns joined up for Mogwai's second LP, 1999's Come on Die Young) -- it introduced a sound that instantly butted up against current musical trends.

This was a time when Britpop -- that stylishly aloof rock style typified by bands such as Blur and Oasis -- was practically in the tap water. Back then, few people would have thought that a few blokes playing songs without choruses, let alone catchy choruses, would stand a chance. Ultimately, what Mogwai proved -- just as its influences, bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, proved -- was that substance, when properly amplified, could trump style.

"If someone said that Mogwai are the stars, I would not object," says a young girl's voice on the opening track of the band's 1997 debut, Young Team. "If the stars had a sound, it would sound like this." Though they come across as hyperbole (or at least self-indulgence and narcissism), for many who heard Young Team on its release the words were an appropriate introduction to a very promising band.

With Young Team, critics agreed that there was something irresistible in Mogwai's dramatic sound. Epic in vision and loud as all hell, the album was like a message in a bottle floating across the seas of mediocrity. It spoke of a new rock, confrontational yet comforting, optimistic yet foreboding: Think of the double-edged sword that is post-breakup sex or punching a deserving mouth that also happens to belong to your best friend -- that was the thrill, as well as the challenge, in Mogwai's murky instrumentals.

Some called it depressing, sullen, morose. Yet to the converted throng, and to Braithwaite himself, those terms missed the point.

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