Glasgow’s Mogwai rocks long and loud at Congress Theatre

Mogwai’s Barry Burns muses on drugs, his “bastard” band mates, and the meaning of “Xmas Steps.”

By Derrick Teo Wee Ghee

Glasgow rockers Mogwai play lengthy, largely instrumental rock songs that oscillate between slow-burning and mind-numbingly loud. Laced with a smattering of electronics and vocoded singing, the band’s music may not sport life-affirming anthemic hooks, but Mogwai’s towering compositions—which often hover around the eight-minute mark and can stretch to 20—never fail to instill awe in their listeners. One year after the release of their last album, The Hawk is Howling, Mogwai are still relentlessly on the road with their amps turned up to 12. Last Friday they stopped at the Congress Theatre as part of a worldwide tour that has seen them blast eardrums all the way from Singapore to Strasbourg. Barry Burns, the band’s resident multi-instrumentalist (listed on their Myspace page as guitar/keyboards/flute) took some time out of creating awesomely loud and intensely lush epics to answer some of the Maroon’s burning questions about their music.

Chicago Maroon: Would you agree that your music has grown mellower over your career? How much is it a reflection of your longevity as a band?

Barry Burns: I wouldn’t really agree with that. The music always has its quieter moments and more abrasive moments. We don’t think too much about it, though. People still seem to like what we do, but we have no clue why that is.

CM: You’ve been tagged as a post-rock band, and with that tag comes some measure of expectation regarding how intellectual or, dare I say it, pretentious your music is. Do you expect people to derive any messages from your music, or are they just over-intellectualizing things?

BB: It’s only music, no messages; we don’t sit chin-stroking over every note. It’s just five folks playing music together and the result is what comes out. If people want to make mad stories up about dragons eating space and time then they can do that if they want to. It’s a bit daft, though.

CM: I would think that some of your song titles are for the most part a response to this type of reaction to your music. Or maybe, just maybe, there is real existential meaning behind, say, “Stop Coming To My House” or “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead”…?

BB: I suppose we play quite unfunny music, but as individual people, I think we’re quite good-humored, so it’s probably a desperate attempt to make people think we’re all hilarious comedians. Like I mentioned, it’s desperate.

CM: Can you ever see yourself writing overtly political music?

BB: Nope.

CM: What’s the most memorable/ludicrous interpretation of any of your songs that you’ve heard?

BB: That the song “Xmas Steps” was the build-up to opening Christmas presents. It was just the name of a street in the south of England somewhere.

CM: When you play live, is the sheer volume incidental to the music, or is it precisely for the effect?

BB: The volume is one of the main elements, like the bass in your chest. I think we all enjoy that when we go to see bands live. There are other elements that make it different to the CD. Nothing is worse than seeing a band who sound like you are listening to the record in a bigger room. It’s pointless.

CM: I think with regards to volume, the only band that can compare is probably My Bloody Valentine. What was opening for them last year like, and who do you think are louder—yourselves or MBV?

BB: I think we are both pretty loud; it gets to a point where it doesn’t matter though. It was good playing with them at ATP as I’d never seen them live before.

CM: Is there a song you enjoy playing the most at concerts?

BB: Every night it differs, which is quite nice, I suppose. I don’t particularly enjoy playing the song where I sing but the others make me…utter bastards.

CM: Which album do you think is your best and/or favorite?

BB: I have no favorite. I am a very indecisive person. This ruins my life frequently.

CM: Who or what would you say has been a lasting influence on Mogwai’s music throughout your career? Are there any albums that you’ve been listening to on repeat recently?

BB: We all have very different tastes in music which sometimes converge, so it’d be impossible for me to give you one example. I’ve been listening to a band called De Rosa from Glasgow a lot. Their new album is called Prevention and I love it.

CM: You’ve played here in Chicago a lot. What keeps you coming back? Any particular highlights or memories?

BB: The huge amounts of cash and drugs.