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'I'm quite enjoying the decay of the United Kingdom' - In Conversation with Mogwai

Epigram gets Mogwai to open up about the origins of the band, working with Dave Fridmann, and bongos.

By Ally Chapman, Second Year Politics and International Relations

Though Mogwai have never been afraid to juxtapose the emotional weight of their music with levity in every other aspect of how they present themselves - it speaks to the power of their songwriting that a song called ‘I Love You, I'm Going to Blow Up Your School’ has made me cry - it’s still a surprise just how upbeat Barry Burns is during our 10 am phone interview.

Legendary albums like Mogwai Young Team and Come On Die Young, both reissued on vinyl this month, variously conjure images of slow urban decay and violent disaster, but it refreshingly seems to just be about the music for a band rapidly approaching legendary status.

Read on for Burns’s thoughts on the German language, working with producer Dave Fridmann and the time David Berman threw a microphone stand at a car.

AC: I noticed you’ve got a UK number, are you calling from here? Wikipedia says you’re running a pub in Berlin!

BB: No, no. My wife was, but we sold it a couple years ago and moved back to Glasgow because I just couldn't be bothered learning German, and it was getting to me. It's f***ing impossible. Impenetrable.

Are you enjoying being back?

I am. I mean, everything’s f***ed in this country and I'm quite enjoying the decay of the United Kingdom. The empire is over! It's totally f***ed, isn't it? Like no one collects your bins anymore and sh*t like that.

Do you remember when you met the other guys in Mogwai?

Yes, I do, quite clearly. I was rehearsing with the band that I was in and Paul Savage, the engineer, was a friend of mine that was doing the Mogwai record. And he's like, you’ve got to hear this band. I met Stuart, who had long hair at the time. I always remember that. All gone now <laughs>. He looked like a dungeon master the way it was starting to bald on the top.

It was a weird feeling, knowing straight away I'm gonna end up working with this guy. I don't know why. My girlfriend at the time was working with Stuart's girlfriend at a bar together, and he used to come up and I think he just liked my f***ing sh*t patter. We realised we had quite a lot in common, as everyone in Scotland does. A couple of months later he was round my flat, with our ex-girlfriends at the time, and he asked me to join the band. I was like, of course, I hate my job. So, uh, yeah. And then I did that.

This was when they were recording [Mogwai Young Team]. They had borrowed my piano for the record, and then we just started hanging out. It was a really tiny studio. There was only one live room and two rehearsal rooms, so you were always meeting people there. Do you know Urusei Yatsura? They were on Chemical Underground. I tapped the door to try and get into the studio and the two guys from that band who were on Chemical Underground just didn't get up to let me in. And I was like, f***ing c*nts. <laugh> I’ve never forgiven them for it.

In his book, Stuart Braithwaite talks about how seeing The Cure when he was 13 opened his eyes to what music could be. Did you ever have a gig like that?

God, now you're talking. I remember the first band that I went to see ever was in Glasgow. The Inspiral Carpets. We had seats with a terrible view, but my cousin and I jumped over the barriers, convinced we were gonna get caught. No one gave a sh*t! That's what I thought all gigs were like: really bad sound, a guy with a mad haircut in the organ, uh, who I've obviously modelled myself on. Eventually, I started going to gigs. Stuart was at a couple of them as well.

There's a little club in Glasgow called the 13th Note. It's moved around a few times, but Alex from Franz Ferdinand used to be the booker for there - and he used to put some fucking amazing shows on. That was the first time I saw this band called The Yummy Fur, and I think they're still my favourite Glasgow brand. They're almost like a cartoon version of Wire. All of the songs are two minutes long, with no effects pedals at all. Ever. Taboo! That was probably the first gig that I was like, oh my god, my eyes are opened now.

What inspired you to dedicate 'Ritchie Sacramento' to the late David Berman?

Stuart was with David the night that he threw some sort of, was it microphone stand or something? Anyway, he threw something at a car, which is kind of vandalism, but-

Definitely vandalism!

Yeah. When you've got sort, sort of poetry to back it up, with a rice crystal spear, I was like, that's f***ing hilarious. You're allowed to do that when you've got something to back it up with.

I was speaking to someone a minute ago about the names of the songs. It really pisses Stuart off because if he's ever got a song with lyrics in it, we always have to name it and he hates it when we call it stupid stuff, but we always do. He was like, what are you gonna call this one? Well, remember that time that our t-shirt seller thought Ryuichi Sakamoto was called Richie Sacramento? That's the one.

Mogwai Tour Poster 2022/23

What was it like working with Dave Fridmann on Come On Die Young and the band’s recent records? How did your relationship with him build up?

That's when I’d just joined the band, when we went over to do Come On Die Young. I went over on my own on the flight and I was scared <laughs> and when I got there he was just like the most interesting guy, just dead nice. And I didn't really even understand what was going on. I was like, this guy's a producer. What does that f***ing mean? Is he recording the record? Like, I didn't have any clue. But then after he finished the record and like I listened back to it, I was like, ah, he is basically quality control.

He said to me quite recently, “you guys are so easy to record because you already have all the ideas and I'm just trying to make it sound good.” I said to him, “do some bands come in with no ideas?” And he is like, and I wouldn't name who the bands are, but they were pretty famous <laugh>. He's like, “yeah, they come in and they have no idea what they're doing and they want me to do all the stuff and I do it because that's my job. But you guys have sort of already done the hard work.” So I guess that it's a weird job, isn't it? It’s a broad church.

You play such a broad array of instruments with Mogwai. If you could only play one, which would it be?



You bring them along. Set 'em up, get 'em mic’d up. Leave. Every time I look at my keyboard setup, I'm like, I f***ing hate this. This takes f***ing weeks to f***ing program. I should have just done the bongos.

Have you ever seen the More Cowbell sketch from SNL?

That’s the guy. He’s my hero.

Featured Image: Andy Willsher (1999)

Mogwai stop at the Bath Forum on their 2023 UK Tour February 15.