There’s a rumour that Kurt Cobain’s footprint is locked in a safe at the QMU music venue at Glasgow University, a venue which saw Nirvana play a near mythical gig there 25 years ago in 1991.
In attendance that night was a 15 year old Stuart Braithwaite, guitarist with Scottish post-rock aficionados Mogwai. After being grounded for returning home late the previous night, he managed to somehow sweet-talk his parents into allowing him to delay the punishment so he could go see Nirvana play, a memory he recalls freshly as we meet a stone’s throw away from the venue in Glasgow’s West End, 20 years and 9 months to the day since his band, Mogwai, met for their first rehearsal as a band.
Stuart sat down with us to speak about upcoming new release ‘Atomic’, the band’s ninth album of tracks, reconfigured and reworked from the score they crafted for nuclear age documentary ‘Atomic: Living In Dread and Promise’ by Marc Cousins.
In between having to deal with the racket of what looked like the world’s biggest hen party and the close proximity of an amorous elderly couple showing us that romance isn’t dead, Stuart spoke with delight about how the album – the band’s third soundtrack – turned out, before he embarks on a hectic schedule as he prepares to mix Mogwai duties and shows and a debut album release for his new band, Minor Victories.
“I’m gonna have to get some Valium,” his response to his upcoming heavy workload calendar.
“The first Mogwai Atomic gig is two days before the first Minor Victories gig but to be honest it’s pretty good because we (himself and drummer Martin Bulloch) are gonna rehearse with Minor Victories then rehearse with Mogwai, and then I’m doing Mogwai gig in Austria and then Minor Victories is gonna rehearse the night before our London gig.”
With regards to ‘Atomic’, Stuart feels that the work put in – adding muscle and scope to the original film score – has paid off.
“I’m really happy with it, I think it worked out well. The film itself has very separate themes in it. The start of the film is really optimistic and hopeful and inspiring then with certain bits, obviously with the nuclear war stuff is just…,” he says
“We just tried to mirror the mood of the images with the music. I think that maybe helps it work more a bit more like a record”.
He is also positive with initial response tracks like ‘U-235’, ‘Biterness Centrifuge’ and ‘Ether’ have received.
“I think people will like it. I mean I guess the way records come out now I’m sure people can probably hear it before it comes out and see if it’s their cup of tea. I notice its looking like, a lot of people are saying it’s gonna be seen just as another ‘record’. In a weird way maybe like when we’ve put records out that have changed things up a bit and that probably bothers people more you know than straight instrumental music.”
This record is unique in that it was the first not to involve guitarist John Cummings, who left in November last year to pursue other interests. Although he played on the original score, he had no involvement with the record. But according to Stuart, the 4 piece continued as normal.
“We just get on with it,” says Stuart. “Alex [Mackay] who plays with Zyna Hel (the musical moniker of Stuart’s partner Elizabeth Oswell) is playing with us.”
The albums strong subject matter made the recording process a thoroughly emotive one, one that Stuart agrees fed into the record, especially with the band having visited Hiroshima on a previous visit to Japan.
“Yeh defintely that experience plus proximity to the nuclear weapons here,” he says, referring to both the band’s visit to Japan alongside the Faslane Submarine base approximately 30 miles away to the west of Glasgow.
“When we were recording for the film the scene of the bombings in japan was brutal, I mean we were just sitting watching it and it was really emotional. And one of the reasons we did it was because we’d been to Hiroshima and we’d seen like the peace park and all the letters that the mayors written to different countries begging them not to have nuclear weapons. So yeh there’s a lot of real intensity there.”
Fittingly, the band will return to Hiroshima as one of the nine dates so far scheduled for the band to play, one that Stuart feels will take on extra resonance for the band even if he doesn’t expect it to be greeted with a lot of attention by the Japanese public.
“It actually won’t be a big deal we’ll probably play to the least amount of people we’ve played to in japan ever. I think only the real obsessive Mogwai fans will be there. It’s not like the whole town of Hiroshima will come out, but that’s fine. For us I think it’s an important thing to do. It will be really emotional.”
After previously recording the soundtracks to French zombie noir TV show Les Revenants and football biopic Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, the band are well schooled in the differences involved in writing and recording to accompany a visual spectacle.
“I think getting into the studio it’s the same. It’s just to try and make it sound as good as we can. But I think when you are writing the songs it’s different. When you are writing the songs for your own album it’s just a blank canvas, you just do whatever you want. You can be as daft or serious as you want. If it’s to go with someone else’s vision then you’ve got to keep that in mind.”
“I’d say generally the film soundtrack is generally more sparse. We did a lot more for the album. I think it’s also a bit different from our records too. It’s heavy.”
The band have announced nine ‘Atomic’ dates at the moment with more no doubt to come in the following months, but Stuart doesn’t see the band touring relentlessly due to the nature of the album, with the shows ones that he says will not see them dip into any material from their extensive catalogue.
“It’s a weird thing doing a gig that’s along to a film because it’s not quite a film showing and not quite a gig. I think doing other songs would seem a bit out of place. When we did Zidane we did it I think then we were unsure if the whole thing was gonna work so it was almost a safety net. To be totally honest it’s such a specialised thing there’s only so much you can do. I’ve also got Minor Victories is taking up quite a lot of my time. I think that’s gonna be like quite a lot.”
With that our attention turned to Stuart’s new ‘supergroup’ Minor Victories, in conjunction with Slowdive vocalist Rachel Goswell and brothers Justin (Editors) and James Lockey, one which allows him to focus purely on the music and avoid some of the behind the scenes work involved in being part of Mogwai.
“I am excited aye it’s gonna be fun everyone’s been really nice and it’s gonna be a bit different. I’m kinda used to being the guy that I kind of sort a lot of the things out for Mogwai. We don’t have a manager so we all chip in but I do a lot. So it’s quite good to like ‘uh what’s happening’ and turn up and play.”
Interesting to note was that of his three fellow band members, he’d only met one, something that for him was both new and unusual.
“I knew Rachel a little bit and it was Rachel that asked me but I’d never met James or Justin.”
And, even though the four piece only actually met together in March this year, there’s talk of a second album in the pipeline ahead of the release of the debut record on the 3rd June.
“We’ve talked about another record so it’s in the lap of the gods how it goes. I’d think we’d do another one even if it died on its arse to be totally honest but I think whether it grows arms and legs isn’t really up to us. It’s up to folk if they like it. But so far people are into it,” says Stuart.
As for Mogwai, fans will be more than pleased to hear that the band are already working on new material ahead of the release and subsequent tour of Atomic.
“We are getting the studio dates to do the new record just now. It’s think it’s gonna be the end of the year, maybe into next year. And we are starting to get tunes together. Me and Barry and Dominic have been sending each other tunes. We are getting into it.”
Over twenty years since a certain Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, then booker for Glasgow’s renowned 13 Note Café, put on Mogwai’s first show, Stuart is approaching another date on his calendar in the form of the big 4-0, one he mentions in retort to questions concerning his decision to tone down the band baiting.
“I’m getting old I’m 40 in 2 months so it [baiting other bands] doesn’t really look good. I’d rather talk about stuff I liked than what I don’t like.”
But any suggestions of a big party or a one off gig to celebrate it are quickly played down by Stuart.
“I don’t know, I don’t really like a fuss.”
As for bands he likes, Stuart was especially excited about tomorrow’s upcoming gig of fellow Glaswegian’s Primal Scream, in between mentioning what other stuff is on his musical radar.
“I’m into this piano player Lubomyr Melnyk and his Erased Tapes stuff, I’ve been listening to that a lot. I really like a lot of church recordings like gospel music and like the Gaelic psalms from the Hebrides and even like – I’m totally atheist as well which is actually hilarious – but I really love sacred music,” he admits.
“Oh and that guy Mdou Moctar – that’s probably the best gig I’ve seen in a while –at the Art school. The Glasgow gig was nuts, it was sold out and like he’s probably one of these guys that feeds off the crowd.”
Since the last time we met last year, out with spending time in the studio recording ‘Atomic’, Mogwai made their first visit to India, an experience that Stuart was keen to share, alongside a chance meeting with a certain spiritual leader.
“It was a brilliant experience. It was quite humbling to see how some people live but the people were into music and everyone was so nice I met the Dalai Lama. I just said ‘It’s nice to meet you’ and shook his hand. He was like that ‘Your Stuart from Mogwai’,” he says, laughing.
“He was in town speaking at a big event. It was like The Beatles were there, there was like 1000 people outside our hotel holding cameras. I went to the lift and he was just there with two guys. He was doing stuff but I didn’t want to not say hello to someone like that. There was no big chat.”
There was no ‘Your the Pope’ statement, mirroring his infamous ‘You’re Lionel Ritchie’ comment on meeting the artist in an airport a few years back, one which provided the inspiration for the name for the track on 2011’s ‘Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.’ And on the subject of song titles, Stuart finished up our chat with reference to the nuclear -themed song titles that populate ‘Atomic’ and how, unlike on previous albums, the band have stayed clear of their usual wit and frivolity in naming their tracks.
“We certainly didn’t want to do anything flippant when we were dealing with such a theme.”