Mogwai and the Plight of the 'Alpha Band' (Matador)
By: Mikel Jollett, Photos: Sean Costello
There are certain artists within certain epochs that are decided by the powers-that-be (mostly people who sleep too little and drink far too much coffee) to be "important". Gaining the distinction seems to be an unpredictable, serendipitous event: capricious and not unlike the sighting of the reflection of the Virgin Mary in the wading pool of the local Holiday Inn. It's the result of an odd admixture of good music, an inventive (but not entirely original) sound, and a reluctance (real or imagined) to be mass-marketed.
These bands--henceforth referred to as "Alpha Bands"--don't generally enjoy a great deal of success within their lifetime, but often find themselves reincarnated in the form of better looking, poppier, whiter bands--let's call them "Beta Bands"--that find a way to harness the raw energy of their predecessor in a form more palatable to the teaming masses. Elvis had his Alpha Band: Chuck Berry. Led Zeppelin had Jimi Hendrix. Billy Idol had the Sex Pistols. Nirvana had the Pixies.
There are certain rules governing the phenomenom of Alpha and Beta bands. These rules are fixed in stone. For example:
Rule #1 It always more fun to be the Beta Band.
Rule #2 The Beta Band always lists the Alpha Band as an influence, but not as an especially important one. (p.s.- they're lying)
Rule #3 The Alpha Band is never bum-rushed by hordes of drooling girls. (see rule #1)
Rule #4 The Alpha Band is always bum-rushed by hordes of drooling critics. (see rule #1)
Rule #5 Members of the Alpha Band always die broke and alone, in a puddle of drug-laced alcohol.
Mogwai is an Alpha Band. They rock hard. They always speak their mind ("Blur is shite"), and they hardly ever sing. The Scottish quintet can look forward to the long, hard reality of undeserving punks from Orange County raping their sound to get laid. But it's OK. Because the music is interesting enough that they may end up, like Perry Farrel, in their own private version of the fifth circle of hell: spinning Jewish hymnal music over tribal dance beats to coked out rave kids in Venice Beach, California.
Or maybe, just maybe, they will be one of the few Alpha Bands to gain enough commercial success to live out their days as heroes in the local Scottish pub scene; bleary-eyed as they watch yet another band of snot-nosed bastards try to "texture" multiple guitars, Mogwai-like, into a dizzying pitch of distortion and hidden melodies.
There is no doubt that the cognescenti of indie rock snobs, (did you get the newsletter?), have already proclaimed them geniuses and therefore their impending cold shoulder from the rest of the lame-ass, backward-ass, U2-lovin'-ass world will be just another in a long series of snubs proving that our planet just isn't a fair place for college educated, late 20's white guys in green sneakers and old t-shirts who grew up listening to The Cure.
Barry Burns, the THIRD guitarist from Mogwai, who spoke with an incredibly thick Scottish accent and was really a nice guy (though probably high), was kind enough to partake in the following In Music We Trust interview in the back room of the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. Influences, audiences, and the river of shite that our precious little pop music community has become were all discussed from the perspective of recently anointed members of the Alpha Band fraternity.
IMWT: Some thoughts on the differences between American audiences and Japanese and British audiences?
BB: British audiences tend to be a bit noisier when we're playing. It was really quiet in San Francisco last night and there were, like, 1200 people there and there was no noise. It was really cool. Japan's like that. They're uber-quiet. Most gigs we played there this year, they didn't clap after the songs, just waited until the end. But then the next night they were fucking going mad. I don't know Japan's really weird. Audiences tend to be alot better here.
IMWT: What is the musical background of the band. Not so much influences, but more in terms of musical training growing up and that sort of thing?
BB: Well, I didn't join the band until three years ago and by then it had already been established. But, I had musical training. I was the only one. No, wait Stu has music diploma. I went to the academy of music in Glasgow, and failed miserably after three years. I broke my finger so I just didn't go back. Influences, I don't know. I like funkadelic. [laughs] There's a few bands we all like. We all like Led Zeppelin, obviously. Bands like that. But I can never pinpoint anything in terms of influences.
IMWT: There's alot of talk of Mogwai being this important band and I know you guys played at South by SouthWest with Soft Boys and Stephen Malkmus, was there any point when you looked around and were like, "holy shit, that's Stephen Malkmus and Robin Hitchcock. We're playing with them?"
BB: No, we were just like, can we play now? We just wanted to get that gig done.
IMWT: Well there's that famous quote with Stephen Malkmus calling you guys the most important band of the 21st century, how do you respond to that. Does it make you feel awkward or anything?
BB: Ridiculous. No. I think he was joking. But he was maybe semi-joking. I'm sure he thinks we're a good band, but I don't think he thinks we're the best.
IMWT: Like he got paid a hundred bucks by Matador to say it or something.
BB: [laughs] Maybe $300 bucks. Actually, none of us had ever even heard of the Soft Boys. When we saw them, it was just like, "I don't like this. This is just old." I mean dated, not old.
IMWT: Ok so I guess that goes back to the question of who you guys do like then? I know you said Led Zeppelin and Slint and I hear you talk about My Bloody Valentine alot.
BB: Yeah them. But also alot of electronic bands. Also, folk music, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dillan, Hendrix, stoner metal. I like to be cheesy as long as its good. Like Guns 'n Roses. A bunch of cheesy bands, but they're fucking great.
IMWT: Yeah, I love that guy in the chicken hat. He's so rad. Another question then, what do you think of the general pop music scene these days?
BB: Same as it always is. There's good stuff and bad stuff. Mostly bad stuff. 95% of it is bad. 5% is good and that's what you hang in there for, that 5% that rarely comes along. But I think it's always been like that, from what I can see. There's always been shite and there's always been good bands. I think you can have all these eras or whatever, but there's always the same amount of fucking shite bands. Like disco, probably more shite happened with disco than any other time, but then punk came along. And that's good.
IMWT: Where do you think, say, big bands like Radiohead fit into that where a seemingly more underground sound but they're getting a much larger audience?
BB: It seems a bit contrived. I mean, I'm sure they're trying their hardest. I don't really have any thoughts. I'm sort of indefinite about them really. I thought the last album, wait not the last one, but OK Computer was good because it was weird and was sort of progression from The Bends. But I think their new stuff sounds a bit like they're techno or something like that. It doesn't seem as if they wanted to do their own thing but that they wanted to try and copy. I'm sure they didn't want to copy, but it just sort of sounds like that to me, and probably to some of the rest of the band. It's a hard record to like. I think there's like one good tune on it that sounds really original.
IMWT: Are you talking about Amnesiac or Kid A?
BB: Kid A. I haven't heard Amnesiac yet. Out guitar tech likes them. I'd have to hear the new one.
IMWT: There's alot of instrumental stuff going on with Mogwai and there's alot of these sort of instrumental-based bands, like Godspeed you Black Emperor or Sigur Ros, that are doing more of these grand arrangements, something you guys seem to be also be doing on the new album [Rock Action]. I was wondering if you see some kind of trend there?
BB: Yeah, [laughs] everyone copies us. We got demos from Sigur Ros sent to our office a long time ago and they just sounded like Mogwai. Now they sell more records than us, probably. They've got they're studio in Iceland.
IMWT: Yeah, it's in a swimming pool...
BB: Yes I know. We were there once.
IMWT: Really, what was it like?
BB: It was great. I think it's good in a way that there's bands like that making alot of money, paying their bills. Whereas, it used to be that you had to have a job as well because there isn't usually that much of a market for it. It's good that they can concentrate with their own studio. If only people would see the light, and buy our records instead of theirs.
IMWT: Where do you see yourselves in say, two years or five years? Are there any stated goals for the band or some general sense of where you are heading?
BB: The only goal was to be the loudest band in the world. We don't know how we're going to do it though. That's the only goal we have. There's never any conscious goal ever. It's in the background there. We're working towards something, we don't know what it is. Who knows.