Born during some uncertain times, Mogwai’s tenth album, As The Love Continues, has debuted at No.1 on the UK Official Album Chart, showing that this iconic rock band still have plenty to offer.
The band are approaching 25 years in the game; you’d assume navigating a complex industry is getting easier and music-making becoming more instinctive. “The Covid elephant in the room would like a word with you!” Band member and multi-instrumentalist, Barry Burns, points out. “Last year has been, and certainly this coming year will be, really challenging for us. Both as individuals and as the group.” He concedes the process of music writing has generally stayed the same. But during the last year, the logistics of getting around, rehearsing, recording and planning anything has offered a constant source of frustration and last-minute changes. It’s safe to say the band (like us all) are a little sick of the current situation.
There’s an understanding they were somewhat fortunate to have found themselves with a bit more time and space to finish the writing of As The Love Continues –
“I honestly don’t think it would have turned out so well if we’d recorded when we were supposed to have. I ended up in my studio much more than I would have been, just to get out the house, so I think that’s been a symptom of the lockdowns which hasn’t been entirely bad.”
The album’s sessions were originally planned to be in America – the pandemic instead forcing a relocation to Worcestershire. The band were also faced with having an ocean separating them and producer Dave Fridmann.
Despite the complexities, Mogwai’s constant ambition to surge forward has produced a work which is almost symphonic in nature, exploring a range of moods and dynamics. Like a colossal sonic spring, it absorbs and discharges tension on a grandiose scale, layers eternally building and falling away. While it’s not an album which clearly responds to Covid in its content, it does provide a sensual and startingly appropriate soundtrack for the unexpectedly abstract nature of modern life.
Unable to tour the album, at least for now, they produced a special live performance of As The Love Continues. Performed and recorded at Glasgow’s Tramway, and directed by long-term collaborator Antony Crook, it offered fans a first opportunity to hear the new album live and in full.
A quarter century into their journey and Mogwai have flourished into one of those acts who are difficult to ignore. Whether it’s writing evocative music for Mark Cousins’ astonishing documentary Atomic, to creating a solid musical legacy with 10 landmark albums, this Glaswegian quartet have become a major force in British culture. And the longevity has meant they’ve seen some major changes in attitudes, methods of consumption and music technology. When they started, recordings were done via tape machines, demanding perfect playing, but perhaps denying some of the creative freedom afforded by digital kit. “As long as you get your point across these days, a lot of tools are there to help you even if you can’t nail it on the first (or tenth) take. So, there’s less pressure to get stuff done quickly because of the costs of the studio, and you can spend time having a bit more fun with it.” Burns says the band sometimes won’t even have compositions entirely nailed down before starting the recording process. Plenty will change during sessions, even right up to when tunes are mixed. “In that respect it’s quite nerve-wracking because you don’t know if you’ve made a cake or a stinking mess until the last day.”
Stefano Sollima’s gritty Zerozerozero saw the band again fulfil some soundtracking duties, creating a hypnotic accompaniment to this visceral crime drama. The recordings were exclusively released on a pay-what-you-can basis through Bandcamp for their first week, which saw half of proceeds going to Help Musicians and NHS charities. Producing scores like these perfectly fits Mogwai’s cinematic aesthetic, while enabling them to creatively move in new directions. “It’s somewhat prescriptive by nature, having to make a non-musical third party happy, but there’s a freedom to do stuff that you know wouldn’t necessarily work on a proper album – or be played at a concert.” The pace of composition and recording is markedly different from that of a chart-topping album. There’s certainly less space for wild experimentation or being over-precious about the music. Timescales also vary, because releases get delayed or commissions come as post-production has started. But this dynamic nature might add to the allure. “If you work with a good engineer and preferably an excellent music editor then anything is possible.”
This cinematic aesthetic also manifests in how Mogwai represent themselves visually. The second song from the new album, Ritchie Sacramento, matches its dynamic blend of beautiful serenity and intense disorder with a captivating video. Created by director Sam Wiehl, it utilised the ubiquitous Unreal Engine to form a small first-person computer game to carry its narrative. Similarly, the album’s first single, Dry Fantasy, was accompanied by interspersing images of blossoming flowers and alien landscapes, all directed by Scottish digital art collective, Vaj.Power.
Starting with a loan of £400, the band formed their own label, Rock Action Records, in 1995 – using it to release their debut single Tuner/Lower and ensuring complete creative freedom ever since. Over the years, objectives have expanded, and it has signed a range of interesting artists, including Kathryn Joseph, Swervedriver, De Rosa, Arab Strap and The Twilight Sad. Burns describes the label as more of an extra-curricular thing but being able to help out other bands has been fun.
By not being afraid to innovate or risk being mercurial, Mogwai have levered themselves into a position where their music is influencing a new generation of bands. Although the responsibilities of ascending to elder statesman status don’t seem to be particularly preoccupying Burns. “I have thought about it, but really only after I’ve been asked. Just don’t make us have to lawyer up! My cousin Vinnie will be round.” The band have, in their singular way, helped push rock music forwards. Although after 25 years, it’s not the simplest task to remain fresh and revolutionary. “It’s a fucking nightmare trying to stay afloat, but when you do pull it off you can allow yourself to feel good about it.” He dismisses the band’s constant innovation, at least on his part, as just tinkering around with unfamiliar sounds, strange structures or weird timings.
Now, the band are celebrating the chart-topping success of As The Love Continues, a work which succeeds in simultaneously being otherworldly and captivating. It demonstrates that this is a band still capable of surprising, evolving and understanding how to engage with their audience. It offers a little bit of certainty, in an industry which has been particularly vulnerable to factors like pandemic and Brexit. Burns says he honestly doesn’t know anything anymore, particularly when anticipating what else the future might have in store. “Up is down and all that. It’s actually quite hard to predict anything now, so the only thing is to wait and see. I hope Britpop 2.0 doesn’t happen, if that answers a question?”
Mogwai’s tenth studio album As The Love Continues is available now, via Rock Action Records