Formed in 1995, Mogwai approach their thirtieth anniversary with a renewed vigour, following the success of their 2021 album, As The Love Continues, which yielded their first number 1 on the UK album charts.
Their story is quite well documented, not least in Stuart Braithwaite’s forthcoming book, Spaceships Over Glasgow, but a shortened version goes something like this:
Stuart Braithwaite and Dominic Aitchison met in 1991 at a Ned’s Atomic Dustbin show at the QMU and instantly became friends over a common love of music and an interest in the paranormal. Stuart’s school friend Martin Bulloch joined them, followed by guitarist John Cummings in 1995, and even their earliest shows helped cement their reputation as a fantastic live act.
They launched their own independent record label Rock Action Records in Glasgow with a £400 loan to release their debut single ‘Tuner/Lower’ in 1996, and the band and label have grown in stature ever since.
In addition to their own later albums, Rock Action Records has gone on to be home for many other acclaimed and successful artists, including Sacred Paws’ Strike A Match (winner of Scottish Album of the Year in 2017), The Twilight Sad’s It Won’t Be Like This All The Time (which reached the UK Top 20 in 2019) and Arab Strap’s highly anticipated comeback album As Days Get Dark.
Their first two albums and associated EPs on Chemikal Underground established the band, before dalliances with PIAS and Sub Pop consolidated these successes.
They returned to self-releasing on Rock Action after 2011’s Hardcore Will Never Die. As well more traditional albums, the band have been prolific soundtrack composers and have released remix and live albums.
But it was their tenth studio album, As the Love Continues, released on 19 February 2021, that saw the band achieve their highest-ever chart rankings, arriving at number one in the UK Album Charts and number nine on Billboard’s US Album Sales Chart.
The sole single featuring vocals on the new album and the only traditional pop tune, ‘Ritchie Sacramento’, is dedicated to David Berman of Silver Jews and Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit. The song’s name is derived from the mispronunciation by a friend of the name of Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. The first line of the song was inspired by a story shared by Bob Nastanovich (Pavement, Silver Jews) regarding his bandmate David Berman, who shouted ‘Rise Crystal Spear!’ while throwing a shovel at a sports car.
It was all the more remarkable as the album’s production process had been inevitably affected by the pandemic. They began work on it in February 2020 with old friend Dave Fridmann (who had previously worked on Mogwai’s 1999’s Come On Die Young, 2001’s Rock Action, and 2017’s Every Country’s Sun), but this was halted after the COVID-19 outbreak. The plan was to record the album with Fridmann in America, but they had to change plans: members were forced to do everything at home, ending up recording through Zoom to a Worcestershire studio.
The accompanying tour was equally hampered. On September 28, 2020, Mogwai issued a message on Twitter, announcing the difficult decision to cancel three shows scheduled for February 2021 in London, Manchester, and Glasgow. Instead they staged a worldwide live-streamed concert from Tramway on the 13th February 2021, performing the album in full for the first time. As with their previous live shows, there was little small talk throughout the set; instead, they prefer to allow their work to speak for them, using their music to reach out to the audience.
If the pandemic was a difficult period for the band, it also equipped them with more time to write songs and pay attention to their work, with satisfying results.
“I think it’s quite a warm record, and that might have come from writing the music while we were stuck inside during a plague. It has a lot of positivity to it, which some of our records in the past haven’t so much,” Braithwaite told NME.
And despite the problems of the pandemic, they have come back stronger with their best received and selling album for a number of years, followed by a series of tours and festival appearances in 2022.
Throughout their career, Mogwai always softly take us into their space, gradually building up layers of emotions and then ushering in an explosive wall of guitar distortion, breaking away from standard musical frameworks and without the demand for ear-catching intros.
This talented band has achieved remarkable success despite, unusually, playing almost entirely instrumental music: hardly a recipe for commercial success. They don’t, however, linger too much on their accomplishments, always experimenting with new musical forms and looking forwards rather than back. It is this that has allowed them to keep making music for a quarter-century; for them to have kept exploring, staying creative, and stepping out of their comfort zone is an even more admirable feat.