Just like the Pop Group, Mogwai are the type of band we need around in 2015. They were prominent voices for the Independence campaign for the Scottish Referendum. They are vocal about the causes close to their hearts, which is ironic given the instrumental nature of most of their repertoire. Mogwai don’t need lyrics to articulate their music though. The sheer dynamism manages that.
This date at the Roundhouse is one of series of concerts to mark the 20th anniversary of their first rehearsals in the living room of Stuart Braithwaite’s mum in Glasgow. For the dates in their hometown, they organised donations from the attendees to local food banks. They are encouraging those attending the London gigs to support similar organisations, a sad indictment of Britain in 2015.
I have always had a soft spot for Mogwai, picking up with them when their second album “Come On Die Young” (CODY) was released in 1999. I’m not sure then why I never got round to seeing them live until a couple of years ago. I saw them providing the soundtrack to the “Zidane” movie live at the Barbican which I thoroughly enjoyed (This is a player cam film of Zinedine playing for Real in the Beckham/Figo “galactico” era).
I first saw them performing their own set at the Royal Festival Hall. I had been prompted to take the plunge having really enjoyed their soundtrack to the excellent “Les Revenants” French TV series. The plot of dead people returning to their loved ones sounds hammy but a combination of the soundtrack, cinematography and acting made it top viewing.
The Royal Festival Hall gig was good but something was missing. The visceral power of their performance was somewhat diluted by the beautiful hall and its surroundings. This changed the next time I saw them at Koko in Camden in July 2014. They were headlining a charity gig for Gendered Intelligence, which raises awareness for transgender individuals. The concert was prompted by the sudden death of their former sound engineer, Julia Brightly, who had begun life as Steve and was doing the sound for Slint when the boys met her. She did Mogwai’s sound from 2008 to 2012. It is typical of Mogwai to champion such an unfashionable cause.
It was an emotional night and Mogwai well and truly clicked with me. The sheer physicality of their sound is best experienced in a standing venue where one can almost lean in to the volume.
As I mentioned earlier, this is part of a series of Mogwai’s 20th anniversary gigs. They have also curated a number of other concerts in Glasgow and London with such diverse line ups as Public Enemy, Tortoise and the Jesus and Mary Chain, all promoted by Barry Hoban at the rather wonderful ATP.
To mark the anniversary, they’ve collaborated with Focus, who are a Scottish skateboard group to design some boards based on their album covers. For every board sold, £5 will go to a skate park under the M74 in Glasgow which will serve as a local community hub. There we go again with another Mogwai pet project. You can read more about it here.
Without an album to promote (there’s a career compilation coming out in the autumn), Mogwai were free to dip into their back catalogue, with at least one track off of each of their albums.
“I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” was an early magisterial highlight but things really took off with “Christmas Steps” from the aforementioned CODY. With added violin from Luke Sutherland, its brooding presence was one of the few occasions that the Roundhouse was absolutely silent.
Which brings me on to my pet hate, which bizarrely is aggravated by Mogwai’s significant volume and dynamics – talking at gigs. Mogwai play mostly instrumental music which you have to pay a degree of attention to get the most out of it. I can’t believe that anyone who had bought a ticket was unaware of this. It is sometimes loud but it is often quiet – again something which is common knowledge. So what was happening was that people were shouting at each other having conversations over the loud bits and when the volume dropped away they ended up completely ruining the atmosphere. Seriously – go home, put on the CD or DVD and have a chat to your mates but don’t ruin everyone else’s evening.
Via the brilliantly titled Neu-like “George Square Thatcher Death Party” and the percussive pulsing “Remurdered” with additional percussion and through to the luxuriant heroic “Mogwai Fears Satan”, what struck me was how important rhythm has become to Mogwai. This really shows in a standing venue where the sense of movement in the audience is so much more tangible.
The boys went all the way back to their debut for an ecstatic “New Paths To Helicon” and ended their main set with “Batcat” as some kind of Caledonian metallic beast. The band stood four square and shoulder to shoulder, like the defence for their beloved Celtic’s Lisbon Lions – none shall pass.
They finished with a mesmerising “My Father the King”, it’s labyrinthine almost Arabic melody moving in and out of total feedback meltdown.
I left regretting I hadn’t stumped up for the previous evening which would have satisfied my one minor quibble – I had missed out on Mogwai’s vocal tracks. The earlier gig included their recent single “Teenage Exorcists” and Gruff from the Super Furry Animals standing in for “Dial:Revenge”.
A quick word about Forest Swords who preceded Mogwai on stage.
They are essentially Matthew Barnes from Liverpool who became a Mogwai fan when he heard CODY (there’s a theme here!). Operating a laptop, electronics and playing a processed guitar live, he is supplemented by a bass player live. Combined their mix of dub basslines, electronic instrumentation and movie soundtrack melodies is heady brew. Between the two musicians, there is enough activity on stage to get over the common problem of “bloke with a laptop plays live”. This is further supplement by some stunning visuals which emphasise how the music has a link back to nature and in particular an English bucolic countryside that has a “Tales Of The Unexpected” feel to it. Here’s a recent track – they are worth checking out.
Anyway Mogwai’s setlist was as follows:
- Superheroes of BMX
- I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead
- Stanley Kubrick
- Christmas Steps
- You Don’t Know Jesus
- George Square Thatcher Death Party
- New Paths To Helicon, Pt. 1
- Hunted By A Freak
- Mogwai Fear Satan
- I Know You Are But What Am I?
- My Father The King
Going back to my introduction, here’s the rarely played theme from “Les Revenants”. They are currently soundtracking the next season for broadcast later in the year.