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Under the Influence 

Mogwai gives new meaning to the term buzz band

Wednesday, May 24 2006
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Barry Burns, a keyboardist and guitarist for Scotland's Mogwai, is downright jubilant. "We've been in Rotterdam, so people have been bringing me joints all day," he announces in a brogue thickened by giddiness. When asked if his smoke intake will ensure a good interview, he replies, "Don't count on it" — but the laughter he unleashes immediately thereafter makes it clear that he's either joking or so zonked that he couldn't keep his lips zipped if he tried.

Thank you, demon reefer.

Mogwai's recent CD, Mr. Beast, sounds as if it were recorded under the influence of stronger stuff. There are a few vocal songs on hand, including the vocoder-infused "Acid Food" and "I Chose Horses," featuring Envy's Tetsuya Fukagawa. But as usual, the album's choicest cuts consist of heady instrumentals ranging from the intricately layered "Auto Rock" to the sonically lethal "Folk Death 95." It's another impressive effort for a group that's issued five intriguing full-lengths since Stuart Braithwaite, Dominic Aitchinson, Martin Bulloch, and John Cummings started playing together circa the mid-'90s. Yet Burns, who joined in time for 1999's Come On Die Young, took some convincing on the way Beast turned out.

"I didn't like it for two weeks," he admits. "But I kept listening to it, and the more I got used to the songs, the more I realized that I actually quite liked it — that it was very different from the last album, and quite varied as well. So it was a nice surprise after two weeks of sheer horror."

Reviewers have warmed to Beast, too, but they tend to express their affection using words that could also be applied to a cement mixer ("loud," "noisy"). Not that Burns minds. "I can't fault them for that," he snickers, "because I don't really know how to describe it myself."

Even so, he realizes that "commercial" doesn't apply. A few years ago, Levi's paid to insert "Summer," a track from Mogwai's 1996 bow, Young Team, into a TV ad, but "apparently it didn't sell them any more jeans," he says. "So they changed the music two weeks later." He doesn't recall what soundtrack was used as a substitute, but "hopefully it wasn't Sigur Rós," the group to which Mogwai is most often (and most inaccurately) compared. He cackles as he adds, "That would be very upsetting."

The sellout accusations that followed the Levi's deal struck Burns as ludicrous, since "we don't exactly make a lot of money from this." Rock Action Records, which is jointly owned by the five Mogwais, is barely a break-even proposition, and the band has managed to stay afloat only by "releasing a record every two or three years, so we get an advance and can go out on tour," he says. Moreover, he has no illusions about greater success. "Nah, that'll never happen," he maintains. "The last record's done pretty well, but this is as popular as we're going to get."

Such a prospect may seem dire, but rather than sinking into depression, Burns begins guffawing again. Hand that man another joint.

About The Author

Michael Roberts

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