There are fleeting moments in music when everything aligns, time appearing to halt momentarily as the sound engulfs those fortunate enough to be present. On a still August night with a milky white moon watching over the Brecon Beacons, Green Man festival headliners Mogwai conjure such a moment seven songs into a triumphant set. From an eddying whirl of delayed notes emerges the celestial storm of Ritchie Sacramento, one of 2021’s most electrifying songs, 20,000 starry-eyed onlookers glorying in the return of live music.
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Despite the ceaseless pandemic trauma of the past 18 months, this has been the biggest year in Mogwai’s career, with 10th studio album As The Love Continues crashing into the UK charts at No 1 in February. Suddenly, as Stuart Braithwaite, backed by a pair of Fender Twins and Marshall JCM900, teases out one of the year’s most memorable riffs from his trusty 1990s Telecaster, all is briefly well with the world again.
On the eve of the Green Man show, guitarist and occasional vocalist Braithwaite has been reflecting on the madness of it all. “I’d have thought you were out of your mind,” he replies when asked how he’d have reacted to the news Mogwai would top the charts 26 years later upon forming the band in 1995. “It’s been a really rough couple of years in almost every way, but for the band it’s been really good. We enjoyed making the album and it was great to have a focal point for the last year. It was really fun making it, a really enjoyable experience and the reaction to it has been amazing.”
Mogwai’s trajectory over 10 albums and wide-ranging soundtrack work has taken the form of a steady incremental rise, their transcendent mostly-instrumental symphonies unfurling into passages of tender meditative beauty alongside ear-splitting tremolo-picked ferocity. While standouts such as 16-minute calling card Mogwai Fear Satan from 1997’s Young Team and Glasgow Mega Snake (Mr. Beast, 2006) have drilled themselves into our collective consciousness, Mogwai are emphatically not a singles band, nor have they followed any kind of overarching commercial strategy. Yet since 2008’s The Hawk Is Howling, each album has climbed higher in the charts than the last, with Every Country’s Sun elevating them to arena stages in 2017. Braithwaite is proud that they’ve arrived at their pinnacle without a plan.
“We’ve never been too careerist about things,” he says, “we just want to make music we like and play it to as many people as possible, it’s grown organically. I’d love to say there was some kind of plan, but it’s just the way it’s happened. I’d rather be in our shoes than having one massive album, then have to find something different to do.”
As The Love Continues was recorded at Vada Studios in Warwickshire after plans to hole up at Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road facility in New York were scotched by Covid-19. Instead, the veteran producer watched over the sessions remotely like an “Orwellian oppressor”. “He was there almost every minute of our recording, listening and working with Tony our engineer,” recalls Braithwaite, who gave up alcohol prior to making the album. “It was almost as if we were in the same room.”
In the studio, Braithwaite, for many years a Telecaster devotee whose main guitar was a blue 1990s American Standard retrofitted with a Seymour Duncan pickup, switched things up for the band’s 10th album.
“I’ve got quite into offsets in the last few years,” he reports. “I swapped an old Tele I wasn’t using for a Jazzmaster and fell in love with it a little bit. They’re kind of just beefier Teles in a way, and I’m definitely in an offset zone right now. I just got a ’63 Jaguar the other day, too.
“I didn’t use a lot of guitars on this album, I took loads with me, but pretty much used the same guitar on almost everything, an American Pro Jazzmaster. I’ve got an American Pro 2 as well, which I love for the extra fret, and then on one or two of the heavier songs, I used my old early-70s Les Paul.”
As he talks us through the most important guitars in his enviable collection, Braithwaite confesses that he’s developed something of a “guitar hoarding” habit during lockdown. “The 90s Tele is still one of my favourite guitars and I love the Les Paul, although it’s so heavy I feel like I’m going to break my back. I’ve just got a Fender Acoustasonic, which I’m enjoying playing, and I really love Coronados – I’ve got two 60s six-strings and a 60s 12-string. They’re amazing studio guitars, but we play so loud on stage that it would be a disaster of nightmare feedback if we used them live.
“I’ve got an old Gretsch Country Gentleman, I play a Fender Bass VI quite a lot, I’ve got a Shergold Masquerader and a new Shergold that I really like. They’re really good guitars and quite versatile, like a Strat you can get a lot of different sounds from them. I’ve got an 80s Strat and those guitars Gibson made, The Paul and The SG, I’ve got both of those. The SG in particular is really good.”
Up to the mic
The latest album’s mesmeric standout track, Ritchie Sacramento, with Braithwaite contributing a rare lead vocal, finds him reaching out sorrowfully to “my oldest friend that I barely knew”. It was written as a tribute to Silver Jews and Purple Mountains founder David Berman, who took his own life in 2019 having released the best album of his career that same year.
“I knew Dave a little bit and I was a big fan of his. I’d been listening to the Purple Mountains album a lot, it’s such a great record. I just wanted to pay tribute. I sent it to his wife as well, it was good to celebrate his life. He’s one of my favourite writers, a super-talented guy, and one of the best.”
The song began life as a simple looped riff, blossoming into a coruscating shoegaze anthem, proof that in the right hands effects pedals can become musical instruments in their own right. Braithwaite employed a pair of boutique delays to conjure the heavenly flurry of echoing notes, with a third the, AC Noises Respira, lighting up the song’s icy mid-section breakdown.
“It happened a strange way round, it started out as this weird experimental loop, and it ended up being as close to a pop song as we get,” says Braithwaite. “It’s two pedals – the Red Panda Particle and a Mastro Valvola Lysergic Emotions Module Delay, a really good pedal. They’re both totally analogue. The two delays are on together, they’re two of the most idiosyncratic pedals I’ve used, and I had to take a photo of the settings I had on the demo to be able to recreate it.”
Braithwaite is a lifelong Big Muff addict, and alongside the delays on his rejigged pedalboard is a new signature dual distortion built for him by Danish manufacturer Reuss Musical Instruments, with two distinct sounds wired in parallel. The initial run of 100 sold out in four days, and the pedal is certain to see action during major dates at London’s Alexandra Palace and the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow before a sprawling North American tour next spring.
“I was working with Anders Reuss and he built me the Plasmatron, based on circuitry from the Danelectro Fab Tone and the 1970s Op Amp Big Muff, the orange one. It’s pretty mighty! We spoke about different distortions and he’s super-technical, which I’m not. We wanted a way to have them both working together. You can switch between them, but I usually have them both on, which creates a completely new distortion.
“The main problem was the Fab Tones are not really built to last. No joke, I’ve been through about 40 of them over the years. It was having something with that sound that would always work, but I didn’t want to just copy a pedal, so we worked out a way to make something new while solving that problem.”
Having heard the new drive in live action, we can confirm it sounds absolutely filthy – most notably on the grungey As The Love Continues single Ceiling Granny. It will also come as little surprise to long-time Mogwai fans that Braithwaite’s live board is still pretty expansive, although he has made some efforts to consolidate it. “It has got smaller, it used to be two boards, but now it’s one with two rows. I can’t really think how to get it smaller, especially with the distortions I use, as they’re all at different levels.
“For a lot of the weird sounds on the new record, I used the Eventide H9, which Barry [Mogwai co-guitarist Barry Burns] had to persuade me to get into because it’s more complicated than most things, but it’s actually really incredible. I’ve got the AC Noises AMA reverb, oscillator and bit crusher and then I’ve got a lot of classics – MXR delays and phasers, a Boss flanger, an RV-5 reverb, a Cry Baby wah, that kind of thing. There are a lot of pedals people bring out variations of, but at the end of the day the real ones are probably still the best.”
As well as rebuilding his pedalboard, as has been the case for many musicians over the past 18 months, lockdown has given Braithwaite more time to expand his guitar-playing horizons away from the rigours of touring. “I definitely have, I’ve been playing more varied music,” he says. “If you’re on tour all the time, you’re always playing the same thing, but I’ve been stuck in the house so I’ve been trying some different stuff.
“My stepson is into metal and he asked me how to do artificial harmonics a couple of months ago and I hadn’t done that since I was a teenager, so I’ve probably learnt some things from him too, but he did ask me why I use pedals instead of plugins,” Braithwaite says with a sigh. “That was a real generational change.” So there’s no chance of one of the great stompbox architects of the last 20 years packing up his board and going fully digital? “No, I’m too old for that,” he replies firmly.
Whether he’s too old to embrace new technologies or not, Stuart Braithwaite remains one of the most influential post-rock guitarists ever to turn up the mix control on his delay pedal and play a tremolo-picked riff. The site of him at Green Man alongside Burns and live band member Alex Mackay sending out waves of towering noise on set closer Mogwai Fear Satan will live long in the memory.
While many bands have emulated the scintillating atmospheric washes that are central to the band’s sound over the years, few pull off the technique as well as Mogwai. Braithwaite is initially vague about how he does it. “Oh I don’t know… I just turn everything on and play gently I guess,” he says with a wry laugh, before obliging with further detail. “For us, it’s probably three delays, and the last one is fully wet. If you have everything wet, it just sounds like a lorry parking in the distance. It keeps the musicality in it, but towards the end of the chain go towards really wet reverb and delay and you get a nice wash.
“On my board at the moment, I use an MXR delay, a Boss DD-20 and the AC Noises Respira, but that’s just for live. In the studio, it can get even more full-on, you can just grab a bunch. We’ve got drawers full of pedals and it’s kind of fun. I remember when I was a teenager and I only had one pedal, the idea of having tonnes and tonnes would have been so exciting. I have to pinch myself sometimes.”
This has been a year in which Braithwaite and his bandmates have presumably spent a fair amount of time pinching themselves. Still surfing the residual joy of their chart success and once again turning festival fields into vast cathedrals of sound, Mogwai “have our hands full” with soundtrack work as summer fades into autumn. Any thoughts of how the Scottish quartet might follow up their first No.1 album are on hold for now. After all, they’ve done pretty nicely without a plan thus far, so why start now?
“We may put out another single because we’ve got a couple of songs we didn’t quite get finished for the album,” confirms Braithwaite, “but I don’t think we’re quite ready to start thinking about a new album. Once we’ve done all the gigs and the soundtracks, we can get started thinking about that.
“People have really missed music, we’ve certainly missed playing it and having that connection with fans again is really great, really emotional, it’s just so nice. The first gig we did after lockdown in France, we hadn’t soundchecked for two years, and we’d forgotten how loud it is. It was kind of hilarious: ‘Jesus Christ, what the hell is that noise?! Oh it’s just the kick drum through the monitors’. It’s all good fun, though…”
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