With Mogwai’s new album set for release Getintothis’ Rick Leach caught up with their multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns for a chat.
Sometimes time goes by so quickly.
Twenty years go by- two decades. That’s how long Mogwai have been with us.
From their first album, Mogwai Young Team, back in 1997, to their forthcoming record, twenty years have gone by.
But Mogwai have crammed a whole lot into those twenty years.
Eight studio albums, five soundtracks, two live albums, innumerable singles alongside what seems like almost constant live shows right across the globe. Not only are they prolific, but they don’t let the grass grow under their feet. Mogwai never seem to stop. James Brown may have been introduced on stage as ‘the hardest working man in showbusiness’ but Mogwai must surely qualify for the hardest working band in showbusiness.
And now in 2017, they are back with a brand-new studio album, Every Country’s Sun, straight on the back of 2016’s Atomic soundtrack and a long string of live dates in support of that record. They’re not hanging around.
There’s always seems to be something interesting about Mogwai as well. Not only have they consistently come up with fascinating and challenging music in those twenty years, including 2001’s magnificent Rock Action album and the sound track to Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, but they’ve done in it their own way.
Unafraid of nailing their colours to the mast, whether in support of a yes vote in the Scottish referendum, the remain vote in respect of Brexit or the George Square Thatcher Death Party track, Mogwai are that rare thing in the post-rock world; a band that will speak their mind.
Every Country’s Sun is a revelation though. It’s a distillation of everything that makes Mogwai great and then some. They’ve reunited with acclaimed US producer Dave Fridman (Mercury Rev,The Flaming Lips) for the first time since Rock Action and have forged a record which seemingly reaches impossible heights.
It’s the essence of Mogwai, captured in 56 minutes that flies by all too quickly. There’s monolithic slabs of pure noise of course and gentle, almost imperceptible twinkling synths, like faint stars in far-off galaxies.
But aside of all these trademarks, there’s moments of pure art-pop, such as Party in the Dark, which could easily be the best song that Flaming Lips or New Order wished they had written. Before the cataclysmic ending to the album; three tracks one after another ending with the staggeringly powerful title track, songs that simply explode and have to be heard to be believed, you’ve got 1000 Foot Face which has such a tender pysch feeling unmatched since the early days of Spiritualized.
With Every Country’s Sun due for release of September 1 we sat down for a chat with Mogwai’s multi-instrumentalist, Barry Burns to discuss all things Mogwai related and more. It has to be said that for a band that makes very serious music and are rightly very serious about what they do, Barry Burns is both a very serious chap and a very funny one as well. We spent a lot of our chat laughing and he seems to have an ability to see the humour in life, which is always a good sign for anyone who makes serious art.
We started off, quite naturally, with the new album.
Getintothis: The new album sounds very different to me. You recorded it the US towards the end of last year with Dave Fridman?
Barry Burns: “It seems like a long time ago now. We’ve been sitting on it for so long, I’m just glad it’s going to come out next month, eventually!”
Getintothis: It’s about ten months ago and I guess you were doing it at the time of the US election and post-Brexit and all that. Is that reflected in the album and what you were doing?
BB: “I don’t think so. We deliberately-or maybe not deliberately as such-we never got around to watching any news when we were there because American television is just brutal for adverts, so we can’t watch it. We just watched movies and listened to soundtracks and that. We kind of protected ourselves from that; and it’s not a nice thing to think about when you’re making a record anyway, unless you’re some sort of self-flagellating weirdo!”
Getintothis: So it was kind of like shut the world off, we want to crack on with this!
Getintothis: Was it odd therefore when the result of the election came out?
BB: “Oh yeah, it was very weird! It was good because we were in America touring as soon as we finished recording the new record. We were touring the Atomic album and we were in Las Vegas on the inauguration day and it was really raining hard. It was weird! We were in the middle of the desert and it was raining! It was very apt.”
Getintothis: The Gods were angry?
BB: “Exactly! That’s what it was like!”
Getintothis: The last three tracks on the album seem very defiant and more direct in a way and sound a lot more “rock” if that makes sense. Was that planned?
BB: “Yeah, that was very deliberate in a way to put those three tracks together at the end. I suppose maybe because there are three writers in the band and we all come out with different sounding stuff. I mean maybe it all sounds like Mogwai but for us it all sounds quite different and it seemed easy to sequence them like that. It wasn’t like everyone had their own sides on the vinyl but we quite easily worked out what was going to work well at the end of the record so we kind of sequenced it like that.”
Getintothis: It build beautifully to that point at the end where it concludes in a big bang. Did it work naturally to that?
BB: “Ah, you know we’ve been flogging that dead horse for a long time! (Laughter ensues) Why stop now!”
Getintothis: I wouldn’t put it like that! But it is one of those rare albums that when I’m listening to it, I find myself thinking “oh, just one more track, it’s finishing too early” and “I can’t wait to listen to it again.” Another couple of tracks would have done it for me, you know what I mean?
BB: “Well, that’s an argument we always have in the band. Two or three of us like short albums and one or two of us like long albums so the shorter albums always win out. It comes from the second album when we were with Chemikal Underground when we had quite a short album set up for that one and they then convinced us to put all the songs on it and we thought “ah that’s too long” so we’ve always been too wary of making the albums too long.
But this album was a little bit different because we normally have about 25 songs to start off with but for this we only had about 14 so we couldn’t make it too long. We always keep something back for you know, ep’s and Japanese versions anyway so it was a bit tight this time and we had to keep this one a bit…succinct, y’know?”
Getintothis: Did you have many of the songs ready in advance?
BB: “You mean beforehand? Yeah, I think about half of them. Maybe about half were just about finished and we did the rest in the studio. We’re quite quick at putting stuff together when we get to the recording stage by now.”
Getintothis: You’re quite adept at that now? Get in quick and hit and run with it?
BB: “Oh aye! Bish bosh!”
Getintothis: You played the album in full at Primavera didn’t you?
BB: “It wasn’t our idea, it was the festival’s idea. We wouldn’t normally do that ‘cos it’s a bit risky- especially at a festival when everybody’s a bit drunk and just wants to hear the old songs so we were kind of punished with the album!”
Getintothis: It was the first time you played the songs in a live context. Were you a bit nervous?
BB: “Totally. We were bricking it! It took everything a long time to get it together because normally when we do the albums we realise that some of the songs aren’t really possible to play live without getting a bunch of other musicians in. It didn’t sound exactly the same as the record but it was a good approximation of it. It took us about four weeks to build up to this one show and it was a lot of work but it was worth it.”
Getintothis: So you had a sense of relief when it was done?
Getintothis: And you played the songs in the same sequence as on the album?
BB: “Yeah, and probably that was a terrible idea as well but we did it anyway!”
Getintothis: Everyone would have heard those songs for the very first time then? In some ways it was like doing a preview of it but instead of playing it in front of a small and select audience in a tiny theatre you decided to do it at a huge festival!
BB: “Yes, and that’s why it was a terrible idea and that’s why we had a few whiskies beforehand and those were a terrible idea as well! But it went well really!”
Getintothis: You’re doing a massive tour for the album. Are you looking forward to taking it out there?
BB: “It’s a big tour! The first few weeks are always a bit…sticky, y’know, but once we get a few months onto it and the big Glasgow show at the end it’s going to be well-oiled so yes, we are looking forward to it. It’ll take us a few gigs to get into it, but just a few.”
Getintothis: I was looking at your itinerary and its bang, bang, bang non-stop for three months with hardly a day off. Does it seem to stretch out in front of you and do you find as you get older you have to approach it all in a different way?
BB: “Well, we did decide a while ago that we were going to rein it in a bit but it gets ahead of you and we end up saying yes to all these things. I mean we’d started doing soundtracks more so we thought that it would allow us to spend more time at home as we’ve all got kids now but it’s kind of like a piledriver-just do another show and another show and another show! So it’s not worked it like we thought it would!
Once we get the US tour and most of the European dates played it’ll be easier and next year it’ll be festivals at the weekends so it won’t be too bad…and we’ll be back home for Christmas anyway!”
Getintothis: With the presents under the tree?
BB: “Of course!”
Getintothis: Before the big tour, do you have a sort of fitness regime? You know, big breath, here we go…
BB: (Laughs!) “Well, we start off with the best of intentions. “We’re only going to drink on Thursday nights…” but you get to the first show and it’s a Saturday night, so “well…it is a Saturday…” so it’s a bottle of whiskey!”
Getintothis: I’ve heard of younger bands who are keeping fit backstage before gigs and during tours- doing exercises, eating fruit and drinking water. It’s not very rock and roll is it?
BB: “Ha! I’ve heard of that as well. I’ve seen that! A lot of young bands do that, looking after themselves and we’re part of that old school, you know, it’s all so boring-I’m not going to go out and have a walk cos I’m in the venue now and the shows in like two hours and you just end up in the same old routine and it’s so hard to break it, it’s really unhealthy and you feel like something has to be done about it, but it never does.”
Getintothis: But Mogwai do a lot for young bands and are very supportive – I’m thinking of Forest Swords and Mugstar in Liverpool for example- do you think it’s important for younger artists to have a mentor so to speak? Someone who’s been around?
BB: “Yeah. I think that main thing that we’ve said to bands that we’ve worked with or bands that we know-especially younger bands- that if you don’t go on tour, if you make a record and get someone to put it out and then don’t go out and tour it, then nothing’s going to happen. There’s no magic formula. You have to work really hard at it all the time. And especially at the start. And a lot of them don’t listen, but the ones that do, the one that do listen, then those are the ones that succeed.
It’s not an easy game. I probably thought it was when I was younger but now I realise that you’ve got to work at it all the time.”
Getintothis: There has to be a sort of work ethic?
BB: “Well, nothing comes easy and especially if you’re a musician and if you don’t play concerts, if you don’t work at it, nothing comes for free. If you don’t work at it you’re just unemployed and you’re not really a musician, you’re just a guy who sits around. And you have to constantly practice as well.”
Getintothis: The old ten-thousand hours thing?
BB: “The Malcolm Gladwell thing? Yeah, I think it’s true! And I think there’s something really interesting in the Gladwell book about the Beatles and everyone thought they were really talented which they were but he went into how much they did in Hamburg beforehand and how many hours they worked, it was unbelievable and it really made a difference.”
Getintothis: Do you get a chance to listen to any other music? What do you recommend at the moment?
BB: “I’ve not really had much of a chance to listen to anything else. All we’ve been doing is listening to our own music over and over again to make sure that it sounds right! So, I’ve not been listening to anything else-not deliberately not listening, it’s just that I haven’t had time!
And we’ve got a young baby now so that time vacuum has happened and time has been hoovered away!”
Getintothis: Mogwai have this “post-rock” label stuck to you and I know people like labels, and people say Mogwai are this “loudquietloud” thing but always struck me more as a band who like a laugh-more of a “serious fun serious” band you know because you make serious music yet in every photograph you seem to be laughing!
BB: “Ha! Yeah! It freaks people out a little bit! I remember a French interview and the journalist couldn’t believe we were having a laugh – in fact he got really pissed off! He was really angry- “I can’t believe your music sounds so intellectual and you’re a bunch of fucking idiots.” But well, you’ve got to have a laugh at some point!”
Getintothis: Life is too short otherwise?
BB: “When we’re doing the music, we’re not sitting stroking our chins, we’re also having a good laugh- but when we’re playing it live we really concentrate very hard and we take it very seriously indeed. We’re not making Britpop; it’s not Echobelly!
We do take it seriously but at the end of the day if you’re not having a good laugh with your pals it kinds of defeats the purpose of doing it I think. It’s not fun.”
Getintothis: And you’ve been together so long you’ve got that friendship, you know what makes you laugh and what makes you happy?
BB: “Exactly. I don’t think we’ve ever have an argument, none of us, because we just don’t!”
Getintothis: Finally, as we’re talking about humour, do you have a favourite joke you can tell us?
BB: “Well, I do have one, but it’s too rude! I made it up but…no, it’s too rude! You know what I love jokes, I love listening to jokes but I can never remember them! I watch a lot of comedy but someone asks me that, well, it feels like I’ve been asked the hardest question in the world! What a great question!
I’ll probably go on the internet right after this now and find hundreds of great jokes but I just can’t think of even just one right now. What a great question!”
Mogwai’s Every Country’s Sun is released on September 1 on Rock Action
- 8 September Festival No.6, Portmeirion (Headline show)
- 10 October Rockefeller, Oslo
- 11 October Nobelberget, Stockholm
- 12 October KB, Malmo
- 13 October Vega, Copenhagen
- 14 October Columbiahalle, Berlin
- 16 October Docks, Hamburg
- 17 October E-Werk, Koeln
- 18 October Aeronef, Lille
- 20 October AB, Brussels
- 22 October Tivoli Vredenburg Ronda, Utrecht
- 23 October Grand Rex, Paris
- 25 October Riviera, Madrid
- 26 October Reithalle Kaserne Basel, Basel
- 27 October Fabrique, Milan
- 28 October Atlantico, Rome
- 29 October Estragon, Bologna
- 31 October Roxy, Prague
- 1 November Arena, Vienna
- 2 November Täubchenthal, Leipzig
- 3 November Backstage, Munich
- 18/19 November Corona Capital Fest, Mexico
- 20 November Observatory N. Park, San Diego
- 21 November Belasco Theater, Los Angeles
- 22 November Regency Ballroom, San Francisco
- 23 November Roseland Theater, Portland
- 24 November The Showbox, Seattle
- 25 November Commodore Ballroom. Vancouver
- 28 November Ogden Theatre, Denver
- 30 November The Waiting Room, Omaha
- 1 December First Avenue, Minneapolis
- 2 December House of Blues, Chicago
- 3 December Majestic Theatre, Detroit
- 5 December Danforth Music Hall, Toronto
- 6 December Corona Theatre, Montreal
- 7 December Royale Nightclub, Boston
- 8 December Terminal 5, New York
- 9 December Theatre of Living Arts, Philadelphia
- 10 December 9:30 Club, Washington
- 15 December O2 Academy Brixton, London
- 16 December The SSE Hydro, Glasgow