Mogwai always meant to change the name of their band, but they never got round to it. No matter: their moniker suits them just fine.
Mogwai is a fitting name for the sublime and deafening Glasgow five-piece who formed in the midst of a local DIY uprising in 1995. It means “ghost” in Chinese, and the band’s largely instrumental music (dis)embodies this rendering: it is abstract, haunting and beautiful. And sometimes terrifying. (Not to mention the fact that their second studio album CODY’s sleeve art invoked The Exorcist.). Their name’s linguistic origin is echoed in Mogwai’s penchant for pentatonic scales – a tendency that also indirectly roots them in Scotland (in folk tradition and mood, at least).
Mogwai have played with their backs to the audience, and often appear in silhouette onstage – they remain one of the most exceptional live acts of our time – and their aesthetic approach can be similarly inconspicuous yet striking. “We have this attitude when we’re sound-tracking something – we don’t want to get in the way,” guitarist Stuart Braithwaite said recently. “We’re not attention-seeking.” He was talking about Mogwai’s extraordinary work on Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s 2006 film, Zidane – which the band performed live with screenings for the first time in Manchester, Glasgow and London in July 2013 – but he could equally be referring to their excellent 2013 soundtrack for French TV drama Les Revenants (The Returned), which also, incidentally, translates as “ghosts”.
From Les Revenants’ barely-there piano motifs to a gorgeous, spectral paean called “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” (originally recorded by Texan gospel troubadour Washington Phillips), Mogwai create tension, set scenes and frame stories while remaining almost invisible. They revoke theatrics and (usually) voices and words, in favour of atmosphere, music and silence. (And volume.)
These recent film and TV soundtracks have not been at the expense of Mogwai’s own dynamic, ever-evolving narratives. 2011 saw the release of their terrific seventh studio album, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (its ace remix offshoot, A Wrenched Virile Lore, followed in 2012) and the band are making visitations to their Castle of Doom studios as we speak, preparing for album number eight. They’re returning to close this year’s final ATP End of an Era weekender in November 2013 – they curated and headlined the inaugural ATP back in 2000 – and their Glasgow-based Rock Action label (also the name of their third studio album) continues to thrive.
Mogwai are: Stuart Braithwaite (guitar, vocals), who met Dominic Aitchison (bass) at a Ned’s Atomic Dustbin gig in the early 90s. They formed Mogwai in 1995, with Martin Bulloch (drums) and then John Cummings (guitar, piano and computers) shortly thereafter. Barry Burns (piano, flute, guitar and computers) officially joined in 1998, before the recording of Come On Die Young (CODY).
Mogwai are: what you want them to be. “Totally abstract,” Stuart Braithwaite once said. “Just music. Make of it what you will.”