There are times when a group or an artist releases an album so instantly complete and compelling that there appears to be no conceivable way in which they or anybody else will ever surpass it. Only the very gifted or the very lucky find themselves in such circumstances, and they are few in number.
In recent years These New Puritans set an unfeasibly high bar for themselves with Field Of Reeds, while Sunn O))) did likewise with Monoliths And Dimensions. Ditto Holy Other, whose majestic Held remains understandably his only full-length record. After all, what would be the sense in trying to better it?
The inevitable consequence of scraping the sky is that no matter how inventive, innovative or imaginative future works might be, they can never match the impact of their lauded predecessors.
Where San Francisco’s Oxbow differ from the above examples is that while Thin Black Duke, only their seventh album since forming in 1988, is a record its makers are highly unlikely ever to eclipse, if there is a group who could defy such colossal odds then, on this evidence, it is Oxbow. They sound equally like a band that has discussed and agreed upon every moment of every song and one that barely knows what note comes next.
This is a record that takes rock dynamics and tropes – drums, bass, guitar; verse-chorus-verse – and puts them in a vice. From the opening Cold And Well-lit Place to closer The Finished Line, the four musicians turn the lever steadily and assiduously until the very substance of the record is fit to collapse in on itself. Structures compress and contract, expand and elongate. Eugene Robinson’s vocal performances flit between manic and measured. The punk rock impulse that runs throughout becomes distorted – never diluted – by elements of metal, prog, jazz and, with the addition of orchestral parts scored by guitarist Niko Wenner, symphonic music.
If Thin Black Duke is unclassifiable, it is also unexpected that in 2017 a group formed at a time when post-punk, post-hardcore and noise rock was incubating a welter of innovative American bands should have the motivation and the energy to look for and discover an ultima Thule of rock music, a hitherto undiscovered piece of land in a world everyone thought had been mapped to within an inch of its life.
Guitar music of this stripe ceased to develop years ago as its exponents succumbed to creative stagnancy, caved in to financial necessity or simply grew up. The Jesus Lizard, Lungfish, Drive Like Jehu and many, many more: once upon a time you couldn’t move for crooked guitar music that entertained and energised, challenged and charmed in equal measure. While Thin Black Duke is categorically not a throwback to American underground rock in the late 20th century, it grazes on similar pastures and shares a disdain for torpor and a hunger for beauty amid cacophony with the best practitioners of it.
From the off the fluent guitar, demented vocals and Morricone-flavoured symphonic layers of Cold And Well-Lit Place seem like a puzzle designed to confuse, but stick with it and the dissonant trails and melodic motifs within Ecce Homo begin to serve as cloths with which to wipe clean your ears and acclimatise them to an atmosphere of courageousness last heard on Pony Express Record by Shudder To Think.
Perhaps as a counterpoint to the relative straightforwardness of Wenner’s riffs, which veer as close as comfort will allow to 1980s rock, on A Gentleman’s Gentleman Robinson alternates between the voice of a ranting loon, speed-whispering through the opaque lyric, and that of a drunk preacher, hectoring menacingly as piano expands the palette and contributes a sense of drama and disquiet.
Letter Of Note, however, is where you really start to be unsettled. Almost four minutes into a seemingly routine slice of alternative rock, albeit one with wonky orchestral flourishes and topped by perhaps Robinson’s most conventional performance of the album, Wenner and bass player Dan Adams jump off the path and lead the group down an alley of proggy, plucked weirdness, which serves as a cue for Robinson to leap into the limpid pool of red-eyed insanity and the orchestral players to spin off on a quest to uncover the most dissonant colours possible. It’s exhausting.
As a welcome contrast the first 30 seconds of Host are as stripped down as the preceding five minutes are multi-layered, exhibiting a yen for simplicity that wouldn’t be out of place in the Shellac For Dummies hardback. The song itself takes flight halfway in, throwing off its alt-rock cloak to deliver a cathartic uppercut as Robinson proclaims: “Love, lust, God, end/Debatable points all.”
The Upper finds Oxbow abandoning rock altogether, favouring instead a piano-led waltz beneath Robinson’s spoken vocal until Wenner can hold back no longer and dives in with skronking and defiantly melodramatic guitar figures to mirror Robinson’s contribution. The penultimate Other People, however, both prefigures the comeliness of the ensuing finale and raises the noise rock levels to a new high, Wenner whammy-barring his Strat in unison with chimes, brass and strings. This is questing, heroically odd rock to gladden the ears of callow youths and jaundiced grown-ups.
Like all good things, though, Thin Black Duke has to come to an end. While beautiful, in large part due to Robinson’s echo-swathed falsetto, The Finished Line is harrowing in its desolation, the pace deathly, the orchestra pitched at extremes, until the calm which reigned at the song’s outset reappears. “Pointless, senseless, and now/Endless,” whispers Robinson as a fading guitar signal plummets to earth.
By rights no group should be peaking after 30 years of making music together, yet that is the situation in which Oxbow find themselves. Will they ever transcend Thin Black Duke? Such are the ideas and attention to detail on this record, you wouldn’t bet against them.
Watch the video for Cold And Well-lit Place below:
This article originally appeared on The Quietus website.
When mainstream TV schedules reach their logical conclusion and producers are shortlisting musical candidates for Celebrity Human Centipede, it’s unlikely Ed Sheeran will need to worry about losing his spot to Phil Manley, Nathan Means or Sebastian Thomson. After 25 years as one of the American alternative rock scene’s most compelling and influential bands, Trans Am’s latest long-player is released tomorrow as a strictly vinyl edition of 1000 copies – worldwide.
No matter, because California Hotel is the archetypal Trans Am record – a postmodern mish-mash of electronica and guitar-hero abandon, equal parts Led Zeppelin, John Carpenter and Sade (those comparisons are courtesy of the press release, incidentally, and spot-on), and impossibly entertaining.
Whether your bag is vintage synths (Ship Of The Imagination, Expansions), balls-out dream rock (I Hear Fake Voices) or, er, more vintage synths (the straight-faced 1980s soul/R&B tribute Rules Of Engagement) there is much to savour within the eight succinct tracks on show. And if you dig drums – proper, drop-dead, primal drums – Seb Thomson is unarguably one of rock’s best ever.
Like its 10 predecessors in the Trans Am canon, there are flaws in California Hotel, but, as ever, the glories eclipse them without breaking sweat. Naughty but niche.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
More than 20 years since their inception, Oslo’s Ulver have thrust their tentacles into a warren of genres – black metal, prog, noise, orchestral, electronic; everything, it seems, barring reggae. Those of you anticipating a tranche of Norwegian riddums will have to wait, however – this is pop music.
By pop, however, it should not be inferred that this is in any regard a lightweight collection. Quite the contrary. With studio necromancer Youth helming the mix, the eight synth-streaked tracks that draw on such themes as the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, the death of the Princess of Wales and Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan coalesce into a dark, churning whole, equal parts menace and bliss-out.
From the opening throb of Nemoralia, named after the ancient Roman festival of torches, through the Depeche Modisms of Rolling Stone and tragi-pop of Southern Gothic – redolent of peak Pet Shop Boys’ symphonic impulses – the first half lays bare a group unafraid of the epic gesture, an impression cemented by the magmic finale Coming Home, which culminates in a fizzing sub-bass haar gilded by way-out sax from veteran Hawkwind co-pilot Nik Turner.
Pop, then, but not as we know it. Hail Caesar.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
Although clad in the uniform of the modern alt-rocker – black skinny jeans, black Doc Martens, black hoodie – Sam McTrusty is not long back from competing in the Dunhill Links, the pro-am golf tournament played every year on the Old Course in St Andrews, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie.
Compared to his day job, it felt like a trial. “I was shaking,” he says of partnering English pro Simon Khan over three rounds. “I’m standing next to Rory McIlroy on the range and we’re both hitting shots. Then there are 400 people watching me hit from the fairway. I was more nervous than I’ve been playing any gig – and I get really nervous before gigs. I can’t eat. I can’t stand still.”
Such are the opportunities that come your way if you’re prepared to graft. And graft, as we will discover, is a key ingredient in the inexorable rise of the group McTrusty pilots, Twin Atlantic. Likewise the game of birdies and bogeys, which is why we’re in The Golf Lounge in Glasgow, as low-risk an environment in which to swing a club as any at this time of year.
The singer and guitarist, mildly hungover after a late night at a casino, sits alongside his fellow 26-year-old Ross McNae, with whom he grew up on Glasgow’s south side. Twin Atlantic recently released their second full-length album, Great Divide, the follow-up to 2011’s Free, which went silver with more than 60,000 UK sales. The new record might surprise some followers, evoking as it does such rock behemoths as Def Leppard and Big Country. This week the group embark on a European tour which kicks off with a show in Aberdeen on Thursday and a brace of dates at the Barrowland in Glasgow, which sold out within hours of going on sale.
Beyond a barrier to the side of our table, sinewy drummer Craig Kneale, 28, gamely attempts to use right-handed clubs (despite being left-handed) under the watchful eye of lead guitarist Barry McKenna, 29, who at his peak played off a handicap of four. We would have been here a week previously had McTrusty not received a call inviting him to the east coast, but who can blame him? “Make hay while the sun shines” will be a recurring theme today.
Twin Atlantic, though, might have hit peak golf. “It’s getting a bit much,” McTrusty concedes cheerily, “not for me and Barry personally but this is literally the last golf thing we do. We don’t want people to forget we’re a rock band.” Today they’re playing a virtual round on the Centenary course at Gleneagles, where the band watched the Ryder Cup last month after playing the opening gala concert at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow. It’s unlikely the concert will make their top 10. “It was weird. It wasn’t …” McTrusty searches for an appropriately diplomatic summary. “It wasn’t the craziest reaction we’ve had.” What was the audience like? “Corporate golf people, who are the worst people in the world,” McTrusty says, laughing. “Not all of them but most of them. It was a selfish project because golf is what I do in my spare time. It’s like meditation for me. All I can think about for four hours is golf, so I don’t worry about reviews or band stuff or the business side of things.”
How was the Ryder Cup itself? “Me, Barry and Sam were at the 15th green when the winning shot got hit,” says McNae. Did they dress appropriately? “I did because I’m a pure golf poser,” says the singer. “I tried to get more ‘golf’,” says the amply whiskered McNae. “I had trainers and a shirt on.” You don’t want to stand out in a golf crowd, I suggest. “No, it’s not cool,” agrees McTrusty, taking a slug from his water bottle.
Peak golf or not, before the quartet get on their tour bus there’s a round to get in. Not of beers, but of questions, 18 in all, the aim being to learn how Twin Atlantic found themselves on the precipice of major league success. On the tee, Messrs McTrusty and McNae.
Hole 1 An easy par four to start. Where did it all begin? “We met on the first or second day of school,” recalls McTrusty. “Our whole friendship has been around music. Ross’s dad plays Scottish folk music on guitar – I’d go over to his house and I’d never seen anyone play guitar up close.” He smiles. “We were also listening to the American Pie soundtrack, that pop-punk thing.”
Hole 2 Another par four to steady the nerves. How did the now teenage McTrusty and McNae meet the others in the band? When not studying painting at Glasgow School of Art, McTrusty could be found pouring pints in sundry Glasgow watering holes. “I’m a bar whore,” admits the frontman. “I worked in Nice And Sleazy, Bloc, the Republic Bier Hall. I met Craig working in Bloc and Barry working in Sleazy’s because they were in other bands. The catalyst was meeting them – we formed the band an hour after our first practice together. We were like: ‘We’ve got something here.'”
Hole 3 Time for a par three. What happened next? “We were going to Craig’s mum and dad’s house and practising from nine or 10 in the morning till five at night,” explains McTrusty. “We’ve been pretty much full time since then. Once we’d started it was all we wanted to do.”
Hole 4 A par five now the muscles have warmed up. At this point in the tale Twin Atlantic were building a live audience with UK tours and shows with the likes of Biffy Clyro, Smashing Pumpkins and McTrusty’s childhood heroes, Blink-182. How were they funding their musical activities? “We were still working in Nice And Sleazy and B&Q,” says the singer. “Eventually we had to make a decision – we couldn’t do both,” recalls McNae. “We had to not have a job and be poor, but make enough to get to the next place. You were in the van and the only thing you needed was somewhere to stay and food.”
Hole 5 Another par five: Twin Atlantic sign to LA label Red Bull Records after Meredith Chinn, a member of its A&R team visiting London, receives a tip-off from a certain Glaswegian music business luminary.
“What’s his name?” asks McTrusty.
“Alan McGee,” says McNae.
“Why do I always forget his name? He’s a pure famous guy. So she asked him, ‘Who’s worth checking out?’ and because we’re from Glasgow he said, ‘These guys are doing OK.’ It so happened that her flight home got delayed and we were playing a show. It was serendipity that she even saw us.
“Our band started at the exact time the music industry collapsed, so we were going into major labels and nobody was willing to take a gamble on a Scottish rock band. We were totally disenchanted. So when we spoke to Red Bull I was like, ‘Fuck it, we want to be one of the biggest bands in the world, we want to make this our lives.’ They were like, ‘Give those guys a record deal.'”
Hole 6 A par three. The band records a mini-album, Vivarium. As is common with young bands, asserting their identity fell victim to youthful exuberance. “We wanted it so much that when the opportunity was there we were in a daze for a year,” recalls McTrusty. “We sound confused. We sound excited. We were putting five songs into one and trying too hard.”
Hole 7 With the turn looming, the first in a trio of par fours. What were they listening to at this juncture? “A lot of complicated rock music,” replies the singer. “The Mars Volta, Fall Of Troy … But even the stuff we considered softer sounding rock was still Mew – we thought they were melodic. It was either that or post-rock like Mogwai or Explosions In The Sky.”
Hole 8 Gigs. Gigs. And more gigs. “We went to America and did a 50-day tour with 47 shows,” says McTrusty incredulously, “and we did a lot of European touring. So many tours in the UK. We wanted to be out working.” The graft paid off – once they’d released their first album proper, Free, the band were playing to thousands, not dozens.
Hole 9 Buoyed by their new-found success, Twin Atlantic jettison the ballast of indie credibility and set the controls for the heart of the charts. Says McTrusty, “People ask you: ‘If you could write any song, what would it be?’ And it’s never …”
McNae interjects: “Mogwai’s whatever …”
“It’s John Lennon’s Imagine or Dancing In The Dark by Bruce Springsteen. It’s not like all of a sudden we’re the big pop machine. We started connecting with people and that gave the band a whole other meaning.”
Hole 10 The back nine begins with a par three. How has Twin Atlantic’s audience changed? “When we started it was people like us,” recalls McNae, “then halfway through Vivarium it was a lot of teenagers.”
“Teenage girls, let’s be honest,” adds his colleague. “Then we started to get radio play and on the last tour for Free it was anybody – couples in their late 50s, 60s, across the board.”
Hole 11 A par four called Advice. “I worked with Craig B from Aereogramme in Sleazy’s,” recalls McTrusty. “A crucial point he said was: ‘Don’t be fucking idiots. Take every opportunity you get. My only regret is we held on to our indie morals. All it’s done is stopped us and now we have to split the band.’
“We’ve been at points where our cool-o-meter is telling us: ‘Don’t do that.’ I’m talking about four years after he gave us the advice, and we’ve said: ‘No. Let’s stick to what Craig said.'”
Hole 12 A par four: the recipe for success. “We feel lucky,” says McTrusty, “but we’ve made sure we work 10 times harder than anyone else so we’re in the position to be lucky. The one thing golf taught me is that if you hit 100 7-irons you’re way better than had you not. It taught us the work ethic side of things and patience.”
Hole 13 A short par three. Working hard means they now look after themselves, though it wasn’t always thus. “For years it was seven men sleeping in a van that sits four people,” he says. “We learned how to sneak eight of us into a hotel room.”
“Unscrewing windows,” sniggers McNae.
“When we look back I’m like: ‘How the fuck did we do that?'” says McTrusty. You can get away with murder in your early 20s, I suggest. “And we have,” says the singer. “We definitely have.”
Hole 14 Another par three. McTrusty is the latest in a growing rank of Scottish singers whose brogue is recognisably Caledonian. Is accent an issue any more? “Some people in America have said: ‘I have no idea what you’re saying but I feel it,'” says the frontman. “We’ve had more problems in England over the years,” adds McNae.
Hole 15 The last par five of the round and time to address the elephant in the clubhouse: scale. Size. Stadiums. “We’re comfortable with the idea of becoming an arena-sized band,” says McTrusty. “We don’t want the adulation but it’s hard to explain the feeling of having all those people connecting to your music.”
Great Divide sees the band working with producer Jacknife Lee, whose career was undoubtedly assisted by his work over the years with Snow Patrol, another Glasgow-based group who flew the indie nest (and ultimately Scotland) for more commercial climes. “I always have these sayings,” begins McTrusty. “When we recorded Free we were trying to make a timeless rock record. I don’t know how many times I said ‘timeless’. Then for Great Divide I maybe said the word ‘iconic’ 5000 times when we were recording.”
Hole 16 The final push starts with a par four: the present. All four members have long-term girlfriends and homes in Glasgow, but on the road they have a ready-made tribe in the shape of their crew. “They’re like a big touring family,” says McTrusty. “Our sound guy did our first-ever gig in King Tut’s. He was the in-house guy but we stole him.” The singer chuckles. “If we’ve done 500 gigs he’s done 450 of them. It’s the same with our guitar techs, and the drum tech is Craig’s brother.”
Hole 17 Another par four and a slight curveball: much of Great Divide was written in Canada, where McTrusty fled to stay with relatives. “We toured so much with Free that when I came back to Glasgow I was like: ‘Fuck, I don’t have anything here.’ I’ve got a bit of family but I was used to being away from them and they were used to me being away. I remember going at 100mph when I came home. It felt like everything was in slow motion so I thought: ‘I’m going to try to keep the speed up.’ So I ended up writing a lot of the record in Toronto.” He pauses. “It isn’t as rock-star as it sounds. Like loads of people in Glasgow, I’ve got family over there.”
Hole 18 A simple par three to finish. What wisdom can Twin Atlantic impart to others wanting a slice of the pie? “You have to be best friends,” says McNae, quietly. “What touring taught us from an early point is that if you can’t let things slide, be friends and get over it then you won’t be a band for very long.”
Pity the security guard with the impudence to flash his torch on punters who aim their smartphones at the moptopped bundle of charisma and his four acolytes onstage.
A handful of songs into his set, Ryan Adams harangues said guard. Then, 45 minutes later, he and his band are ad-libbing a new number with the loose title Mr Stage Security Right, Adams repeatedly emphasising his regret at the tenor of his earlier reproach. To Adams’s good-humoured annoyance, the guard is unmoved.
Before, between and after these events, the former poster boy of alt-country revels in the adulation of his congregation – a squealed “I love you, Ryan” is met with: “Text me later, I’m at work. My boss’ll kill me” – as he reaches back into his post-Whiskeytown canon and delivers a masterclass in contemporary American rock. It’s unarguably conservative but hugely persuasive too.
With his acoustic guitar, Adams exerts flawless control over mood and dynamics that finds its apex, if the reception is any measure, in New York, New York, dusted off for this show, he assures us. The closing Come Pick Me Up comes close too.
But it’s with an electric guitar that Adams catches fire, the most invigorating cuts on show from his self-titled new album and 1984, the EP that preceded it, whose title hints at the songwriter’s latest direction.
Among the highlights are the muggy ecstasy of Shadows, the sunburned highway rock of Kim and the swaggering Gimme Something Good, though the Husker Duisms of When The Summer Ends are a welcome shot of amphetamine.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
Almost 60 years on from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, the acme of its modern iteration is a synergy of harmony and chaos, the motherlode a clash of sweet design and brattish accident. Therein lies tension, and it is tension that keeps you coming back.
While large chunks of Commit are bereft of such drama, suggesting the almost-completed audio CV of an aspiring producer – all tricks and tweakery with no tangible purpose other than to fox your antennae – much of it hints at an uncommon bent for songcraft lurking within Aberdeen quintet IndianRedLopez.
At its skin-prickling, synth-soaked best, Commit calls to mind the frosted, shiversome melodicism of Mew (Any Given City), the portentous tragi-pop of A-Ha (Taking A Fall For Me) and, even less fashionably, Trevor Horn’s high-concept production work with Seal and Pet Shop Boys. At its over-programmed, plugin-bloated worst (Signal Novice), you can’t find the skip button quickly enough.
Mostly, though, Commit sags between two stools, being neither essential nor execrable; note perfect and all the weaker for it.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
If you didn’t know him, you’d struggle to put an age on Stuart Braithwaite. His eyes on this untypical winter day are as bright as the sky, his head shaved to a No1 rather than the full-on egghead he has favoured on occasion. Anywhere between 25 and 35, maybe. Not bad, given he’s spent much of the past two decades entombed in the studio and tour bus, or sweating under spotlights as he alternately wreaks diabolical levels of magmic fuzz and delicate spun-sugar melodies from his trusty Telecaster. “Thirty-seven,” he says, “and a half, if you’re being picky.”
Refuting the theory that life begins at 40, the guitar player and de facto frontman of Mogwai – not forgetting Scottish independence supporter, anti-monarchist, Celtic fan, sci-fi geek and vegetarian – could be forgiven for decelerating after multiple circumnavigations of the globe in support of seven studio albums and a panoply of live recordings, soundtracks (the most recent being Canal+/Channel 4 drama The Returned, or Les Revenants), EPs, remix albums, singles and compilations.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however. In a matter of weeks the Glasgow quintet – four of whom still live in or near the city while multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns calls Berlin home – head out on tour, starting in Britain before transferring to Europe, then Asia, back to Europe, then the US and Canada. Before all that, though, comes the release of Mogwai’s eighth studio full-length, Rave Tapes, which coincides with the group playing Celtic Connections.
A sparser, more glacial record than its predecessors, Rave Tapes marks a departure for the band, large tranches of it being embellished by an almost Nordic serenity, neatness and symmetry. Is there an overriding reason for this?
“There are a couple of factors,” says Braithwaite as he awaits lunch – a mushroom burger, the ordering of which is preceded by an outlandish digression on the rights of funghi – in Glasgow’s Mono cafe-bar. “Equipment has a lot to do with it. Barry got a modular synth and used it to create a lot of the music. Also, there is an element of minimalism I don’t think we’ve embraced since [second album] Come On Die Young, where rather than chucking everything on every song there are bits where there are only one or two people playing, so there’s a lot more space.”
This wasn’t wholly planned, however. The group elected to narrow an already limited window of opportunity for recording the album last summer by playing a short run of shows where they performed their 2006 soundtrack to Douglas Gordon’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait in real time along to the film.
“We were pressed to get Rave Tapes ready to record quite quickly because we did those Zidane gigs,” says Braithwaite, toying with a glass of juice. “We’d almost bitten off more than we could chew, but in a way it worked to our advantage because we didn’t have time to swathe everything in extra music. I think the minimalism works with those songs. The melodies and sounds are more apparent because there aren’t more of them.” He pauses to think. “Scandinavian efficiency born of Caledonian bad planning,” he says before collapsing into laughter.
Now there’s a topic Braithwaite hasn’t been shy about recently. Scotland. Independence. Nationhood. You can trace his enthusiasm for the Yes campaign back to his group’s infancy – the Saltire and Lion Rampant have long been on-stage ornamentation at Mogwai shows. And mindful of the upcoming Celtic Connections concert – an alliance that would have seemed preposterous even 10 years ago – it seems apposite to probe whether there’s anything intrinsically Scottish about Mogwai.
“I’d say we’re pretty international, musically,” says Braithwaite. Which, when you view Mogwai in the context of this country’s post-second world war musical history, seems fairly Scottish itself.
“I think it is a Scottish thing,” agrees Braithwaite. “As people in our characters and in our outlook we’re brutally Scottish but musically we’re very international. We grew up with Sonic Youth and Nirvana but there was always a connection between these bands and The Vaselines, The Pastels and Teenage Fanclub. There has always been a web connecting the American underground music culture with the Glasgow underground music culture.”
What does he believe piqued Mogwai’s global curiosity? “It’s maybe because, largely speaking, the London media have had sporadic bursts where they get excited about Glasgow but in general they’re very insular. Maybe that’s been apparent up here and we’ve looked elsewhere because London hasn’t been such a big part of our experience. So we’ve looked around the world – to Tokyo, to Seattle, New York. Even though we’ve stayed put, there’s been an migration of sound.”
Braithwaite is less convinced by the suggestion that his group’s youthful tendency to provoke controversy in the music press might be attributable, in part at least, to their nationality. In 1999, when Mogwai unveiled a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Blur: are shite”, Braithwaite told NME: “We decided to proclaim our dislike of one of the weakest bands on the planet by putting out these shirts … It’s like a dictionary definition. It’s factual and if there are any legal problems I’ll go to court as someone who has studied music so I can prove they are shite.”
Now, he says, it was merely youthful mischief for which he doesn’t apologise. “You get some pretty gobby English folk as well. We were young and everyone was giving us beer and putting microphones in front of us. How could it possibly go wrong?
“Even in my relative dotage I have no regrets about some of the daft things I’ve said. If a band came out with some of that crap now I’d think it was absolutely wonderful. Although I’d probably cringe thinking about some of the awkward situations they’d be bringing upon themselves that I’ve experienced.”
It was, then, mischief bolstered by deep-rooted artistic ambition. “When we started, what we were doing – certainly in the mainstream – was seen as something not to be taken too seriously,” Braithwaite recalls, “whereas other than saying daft things in interviews we couldn’t have taken ourselves more seriously. We were practising every hour of the day, trying to get better at what we did, beating ourselves up if we did something that wasn’t as good as it could have been or should be, so it did piss us off if people didn’t take it as seriously as we did.”
Has that changed? “Not really. There’s a level of accomplishment that wasn’t there, certainly before Barry joined. Barry’s by miles the most musical member of the band and he wasn’t there at the start, but the general ‘all get together and try to make something we feel is special’ has not changed at all.”
Braithwaite seems to be taking his impending schedule chaos well. It will help that his private life is on an even keel. In the summer his girlfriend Elizabeth, an artist and musician, will leave her hometown of Hexham in Northumberland to join Braithwaite and his dog Rambo in Scotland. He is clearly relishing the prospect.
Around this time, Mogwai – comprising John Cummings, Dominic Aitchison and Martin Bulloch, as well as Braithwaite and Burns – will embark on the festival circuit before writing music for series two of The Returned ahead of more touring in the autumn.
“We knew the vibe,” Braithwaite says of composing the music for the first series of the otherworldly drama. “We’d seen pictures and it was all very vague. It was a vague concept – it’s French; vagueness everywhere – but I’ve rarely been as happy with something I’ve been involved in as when I saw it.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to get absorbed by it because I thought I’d remember the songs, and it was such a good story and so well acted I forgot it was even our music. That takes quite a lot. Even when I hear one of our records I can pretty much – unless it was a long time ago – remember playing it, or sitting in the room when it was getting mixed.” The next step for series two, he says, is to “start demo-ing some creepy wee songs and see how it goes”.
Consider all of the above, plus the fact that Chemikal Underground will release a remastered version of Come On Die Young before the year is out, and you might think Mogwai are in danger of entering their 20th year in a state of exhaustion. Maybe, but for now there is much for them to revel in, starting with a double debut – both at Celtic Connections and in the splendour of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
“It seemed too good an opportunity to pass by,” he says, “We’re releasing a record round about this really big, really great event in our hometown celebrating, among other things, Celtic music.”
Supporting them at the show will be RM Hubbert, whose dog D Bone is Rambo’s brother, and whose acoustic guitar-playing Braithwaite views as especially well suited to the venue.
“Playing this prestigious hall is an opportunity to have someone whose music would sound great in it, who thus far hasn’t had the opportunity to play this kind of hall. So it makes sense, rather than getting a band we love who are noisy and would maybe suit the Barrowland better than the Concert Hall.”
Mushroom burger blitzed and his thirst slaked, Braithwaite zips up his parka and shakes my hand before darting into neighbouring record shop Monorail to hunt down sonic manna for his various DJ gigs. Thirty-seven (and a half) going on 17, I reckon.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
Cass McCombs is trying to describe where he lives these days. “New York … California … on the road,” he says, his speaking voice as candied and languorous as it is on record. “I try to live light.” It’s not by choice, he emphasises, but rather necessity.
Forward motion and restlessness are themes that pepper the 37-year-old’s canon, which swelled to seven albums with the release of double LP Big Wheel And Others last October. The rumbling, rolling title track opens with: “I dig the taste of diesel and the sound of big rigs/ Rubber, metal, oil and stone/ Scoring at truck stops, lot lizards and driving far alone.”
McCombs’s music is neither folk nor country, rock nor soul, yet touches on all four, as nomadic as its creator.
There’s no money in touring at his level, he tells me. He can’t put his band on a wage – “There’s nothing to pay them with” – and he can’t afford roadies. So why tour? “It’s a reward, it’s what it’s is all about,” he says. “We get to travel and talk to people and learn about what’s up in these different places, instead of reading it in a newspaper – which is valuable – but to hear what people are saying about politics or whatever, it’s essential.
“What it comes down to is feeding off that moment. It takes a long time to create the space where that microsecond of creation can exist. Because life is just a crazy science experiment, like a mad doctor’s laboratory, and it could go one of a million different ways.”
With nothing but musical satisfaction to offer his band, how does he keep a steady – and happy – line-up? “There’s a loose policy to the band, how it’s organised,” he says. “It’s like a tag team. I understand people come and people go – that’s natural. Everything should be fluid and natural, and imitate the natural world. So if you’ve got to go you’ve got to go. But I’ll find a replacement.”
The singer is speaking from New Jersey, where he is spending time having just completed a North American tour before heading to Europe next week. McCombs’s show in Scotland on Thursday will be his third time in Glasgow. Asked for his fondest memories of the country, the road takes centre stage once more.
“It’s always so wonderful driving into Scotland,” he says. “It’s such an emotional experience just to watch the terrain turn … Scottish,” he chuckles.
McCombs’s oh-so Californian evenness vanishes briefly at the suggestion he should visit the Highlands. “Oh, I would love to,” he says animatedly. “One of these days.”
Until then there is the endless road and recording with which to keep busy. Having delivered seven albums in 10 years, besides his debut mini-LP Not The Way in 2003, McCombs is among the most industrious artists around. How does he view the evolution of his music?
“I don’t really think about it, y’know? I don’t like mirrors. I have this thing with some friends of mine, where if a question is too personal we say: ‘That’s a mirror.’ When you look in a mirror you can do your make-up or fix your hair but it doesn’t actually show you what you look like.
“It’s a reverse image and it’s a distortion. It’s not even three dimensional. It’s a two-dimensional reverse image of yourself. I feel the same way about trying to assess my feelings on myself. It’s not up to me to know.”
While his records are dotted with musical and technical imperfections (his second album, PREfection, concludes with 10-plus minutes of a car alarm going off), it’s possible McCombs’s profile is most hampered by what can be interpreted as prickliness, but which is in all likelihood little more than a distaste for the rules of the game. Here is a songwriter with all the chops of, say, the late Elliott Smith, Josh T Pearson or Jimmy Webb, but little of the kudos. Is he a square peg in a round hole? “I don’t know if I’m a square,” he says, sniggering. “Maybe a rhombus or a triangle. A giant triangle trying to fit into a tiny hole.”
How, then, does McCombs explain his failure to prosper, financially if not creatively? “There are so many factors to making music. There’s music, that’s number one. That exists beyond any business model, before all the chatter. It’s a very tranquil dimension. Then you sprinkle in the physical reality of trying to perform that music, and the gas it takes to be able to do that.
“Then there start to be corrupting agents, and it takes effort to maintain music as just music. You want to keep it music, and everyone wants to turn it into some kind of dialogue. Well no, I don’t want it to be a dialogue. No-one wants it to be a dialogue except you.”
At this juncture McCombs is at his liveliest. Whether by “you” he means music writers or not is unclear.
“It’s not a dialogue. It’s not a concept. It’s not a genre. There’s no reason – it’s just music. Can’t we just have our music be music? Why does everything in the world have to be commerce? I don’t get it.”
His point made, McCombs collects himself and continues: “I actually like this business. It’s fucked up and stupid and wack, and everyone’s wrong, but I kind of like it. It’s like prison – it’s evil and awful and scary but it’s real, and in some ways it’s better than not being in prison.”
I ask what he’ll do when he hangs up the phone. “I’m just gonna walk around in the snow a bit. It’s a winter wonderland out here.” Another echo of restlessness. For Cass McCombs, drifting beats standing still every time.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.