Set during the 1973 Glasgow garbage strike, Lynne Ramsay's film Ratcatcher depicts an urban wasteland as grim as any you're likely to see. A drab, overcrowded housing estate rises from a sea of trash, through which rats burrow, kingly and plump; the canal is brown and stinking with the residue of Glasgow's industrial past. And yet, Ratcatcher is a film about transcendence: Its young protagonist discovers a heaven of his own making.
The movie is worth citing in a story about Scottish post-rockers Mogwai, and not only because it provides a necessary context in which to understand the band's largely instrumental music. A period piece in name only, Ramsay's film was conceived and shot around the time Mogwai unveiled its 1997 debut, Young Team, and its peers on Chemikal Underground Records were likewise reimagining the Glaswegian psyche in new kinds of sound.
Mogwai's hometown has been in an almost continual economic fade since the turn of the last century, and now it's a city where "the kids drink to throw up," as David Byrne recently noted. The Glasgow outskirts are Scotland's answer to inner-city Detroit, and as with that hotbed of house, hip-hop, and R&B, it's a place where diminished expectations have, against all odds, fermented a vibrant, creative nihilism.
The other reason Ratcatcher is worth noting in connection with Mogwai is the way it finds a dreamy, maybe hopeful beauty amid the blight. The title of Mogwai's latest LP, Happy Songs for Happy People, might seem misleading upon first listen: The layered squalls that have become a Mogwai trademark continue to serve as sounds of sorrow, perhaps even the sound of approaching Armageddon. And yet a theme of transcendence runs through the dour sonic landscape of Happy Songs: God among the shrapnel.
Or -- looking at it from another perspective -- Happy Songs for Happy People is simply a reflection of the fact that the Mogwai men are actually pretty happy guys.
"We just wanted to make a good record," frontman Stuart Braithwaite asserts cheerfully, in his rich Scottish burr. "I mean, there were some sounds we wanted to experiment with, but aside from that . . ."
No Nietzschean polemics from this guy, apparently. Braithwaite goes on to note that not much has changed for Mogwai as far as its musical aspirations or strategies are concerned: Rule No. 1, be loud; rule No. 2, be good. Ongoing implementation of the latter has required a bit of fudging with the former, but not much. Just enough, as Braithwaite puts it succinctly, "to do better."
"Aye, there's not much different in this album than in the other ones," he acknowledges. "The biggest change, I think, is that it's more to the point. On our last record, there was a lot of debate -- oh, should we do it this way or do it that way, or have this part here or not -- and then we'd go with what we wanted to start out. That seemed kind of stupid. So this time we just went in and played."
As Braithwaite notes, the pace of recording of Happy Songs contributed a great deal to the fact that its atmospherics are "more controlled" than on its predecessor, 2001's The Rock Action.
"I think the decision to work faster this time came out of us feeling quite bored with the recording of Rock Action. Not the music, but the way we worked -- quite a lot of it was maybe Dave Fridmann, our producer, doing something, or one or two of us would be in there, and everyone else would be waiting around. There was fuck-all to do. So with this record, the idea was to be more concise -- more organic -- and have everyone playing and working all the time.
"Actually," he adds, chuckling, "the whole process moved so fast -- one of our songs got used on Sex and the City, and I remember I saw the episode and it freaked me out, because it felt like we'd just finished recording it the week before."
As Braithwaite suggests, some notable if subtle changes to the Mogwai sound emerged from those to-the-point recording sessions. On Rock Action, Mogwai sounded like a band flush with ideas, time, and studio gadgetry: In addition to the surprise appearance of vocals, the album introduced all manner of real and synthetic instrumentation into the band's graceful, textural aesthetic, alongside skips, glitches, and fractured electronic beats. Produced by Mercury Rev member and Flaming Lips helmer Fridmann, the album was typically seamless and gorgeously ethereal, but less seismic than Mogwai's much-lauded debut, Young Team.
In other words, Rock Action sounded as much like a Dave Fridmann album as it did a Mogwai album. (And as Braithwaite notes, Fridmann even wrote parts and arrangements.) Happy Songs, the first recording sans Fridmann since 1999's Come On Die Young, comes closer in sound and spirit to Young Team than any of Mogwai's intervening releases.
"It was a much more different process than we'd expected," Braithwaite says of recording with former Fridmann assistant Tony Dugan. "It was like Dave was a sixth member of the band, and so we'd gotten kind of lazy about certain things, you know: Dave'll figure it out. Like, he's all about fixing things in the mix. Whereas Tony wants the live take to be great, which maybe is part of the reason why the songs are shorter." Braithwaite laughs. "But that's worked out well, now that we're on the road, because these songs are much easier to play live than our other stuff."
Braithwaite also notes that, due to the band's lack of both time and interest with "muddling around," the symphonic arc of Happy Songs is, well, a happy accident.
"We didn't have a chance to tinker with the sequencing at all," he explains. "It was just like, all right, this one, then this one, then this one -- done. But maybe because all the songs were done in this very short space of time, the mood or tone of them is coherent. Maybe any sequence would have made sense. I'm not sure, though," he adds with another chuckle, "because we never tried it any other way.
"In fact," Braithwaite goes on, "that's always the best part of recording for me, and making music in general -- that feeling when you realize that something that started out kind of small, just a guitar part or something, has turned into something really impressive. We don't have any grand ambitions when we write our songs -- but somehow or another, something happens. But I don't know why."
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