The Scottish post-rock outfit Mogwai's been releasing albums for the past 20 years.
The band is now on its eighth full-length, Rave Tapes, if you do not count its two noteworthy soundtracks. In 2013, the group released the score for acclaimed French television mini-series Les Revenants, about zombies who want to come back home and live with their families. And seven years prior, Mogwai issued its sublime soundtrack for Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait, a "documentary" featuring French soccer player Zinédine Zidane, shot in real time, with 15 cameras fixed solely on him during his fateful final game before retirement.
Mogwai's lively approach to its music and its vivid, atmospheric quality works great for soundtracks. It also, as guitarist John Cummings reveals, inspires surreal yet evocative song titles, like "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead." We recently spoke about writing music for film, weird song titles, the rare lyric, and more ahead of his band's first visit to Miami.
Crossfade: Rave Tapes... What inspired that album title?
John Cummings: The title was just something that's kind of a reference to concerts of 20-odd years ago.
It opens calmly, recalling your soundtrack work for Les Revenants.
Well, we'd done that just quite recently, so I suppose there was going to be some kind of connection.
How does writing scores influence your album work? Or do you treat them the same?
I think they're two very different projects with two different ends to achieve. We're using the same equipment or technology or whatever, but for a Mogwai album, a straight up studio album, the music has to do things. It has to maintain interest. It has to have different contrasts or similarities to create a listening experience. But to go along with visual footage, it's almost a problem. The music's too interesting. It's difficult for us to do our job and not really be noticed, I suppose. Yeah, that's the big difference. Music for film stuff is generally not to be noticed. Music for album stuff is kind of to be noticed.
I like listening to those soundtracks. They stand well on their own.
Well, that was important to us when we were making the records, that they shouldn't just sound like they came from a TV show or a film. We put in a lot of work into Les Revnants' music to turn that into an album, and we did a bit of work with the Zidane stuff, as well, to turn that into an album.
You have great titles inspired by Jim Morrison and Stanley Kubrick and such. Do your titles inspire the pieces? Or do the titles come later?
The titles come at the very end. Right when the music is finished, we'll go to a list of titles that we've been compiling for the last couple of years, stuff that would be funny to call a song, and then we got 15 to 30 songs we need to find titles for. They're not more connected than that. Sometimes, something in the title will fit with the song, and that's purely coincidental.
So the song "Stanley Kubrick" really was not inspired by Stanley Kubrick?
Well, we like Stanley Kubrick films. We do like his films, and that was a bit of a nod in his honor, trying to call something after something, like a lot of children are named after people, like their parents or whoever. So yes, calling something after Stanley Kubrick is a bit of a nod of the hat. But Jim Morrison, we're not inspired by Jim Morrison. That's completely humorous. We don't really like Jim Morrison at all.
So, you're just stating a fact: Jim Morrison's dead.
Yeah. He's dead.
See also: Mogwai Talks Rave Tapes, Post-Rock, and Running "Very Much a Democracy"
One of my favorite titles is "The Sun Smells Too Loud."
Mmm, yeah. That's quite a special one.
Where did that come from?
I'm not sure if it was constructed by an adult. But it's an excellent form of ridiculousness created by a wee little child, one of those things. I'm pretty sure it came from [producer] Dave Fridmann or one of those cats, or someone who knew combinations and possibilities of those kind of phrases that are quite enjoyable.
Do you play it live?
No. It's too difficult
Oh, that's too bad. I'd love to hear it.
We don't do it at all. It's quite complicated, and not really too organized. It's a strange inorganic beast. It'd be hard to wrestle with that every night.
So it was something that was pieced together in the studio. It wasn't live?
Yeah, it's very much a studio creation. There's a lot of loops and samples involved.
Actual songs are few in your catalog. When do you guys decide to add lyrics?
I think, usually, it's quite late on in a piece of music's life. Once we've tried everything else, and there's no obvious lead part or melody. Sometimes, a song sometimes needs to be a song and sometimes they don't. It depends on how the songs start, like the start of their creation. They could start with the intention to put vocals on it, but it depends on the style of music.
Is there a designated lyricist or singer?
No, but Stuart does most of it. Barry does a bit of it. He's got the backing vocals, and I don't really enjoy the sound of my own voice, so I don't write any lyrics. It's basically the people who put the lyrics in the song and Stuart's more into that than any of the rest of us.
Where did you find that Led Zeppelin are Satanic rant?
On the "Repelish" song? From a recording of some Christian DJ, a talk show host kind of guy on the radio, just going off on a theory as to what all these rock singers were up to. We've a fond eye for the ridiculous and the extreme and just nonsense. I think that's got a lot of humor in it. And we love Led Zeppelin, quite a band for someone who's had so much nonsense to put up with.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Crossfade's Top Blogs
Mogwai. With Majeure. Tuesday, April 29. Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $25 plus fees via ticketfly.com. All ages. Call 305-377-2277 or visit grandcentralmiami.com.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.