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27th January 2023

Mogwai: “I feel our music, to the music world, is like a Louis Theroux documentary”

The Mancunion talk to Mogwai’s Barry Burns about the band’s 25 year career, spanning powerful live shows and soaring film scores
Mogwai: “I feel our music, to the music world, is like a Louis Theroux documentary”
Photo: Antony Crook

“If someone said that Mogwai are the stars, I would not object. If the stars had a sound, it would sound like this”. These words, from a review, open Mogwai’s debut album, Young Team, and summarise how legions of fans feel about the band. The post-rock outfit lead the genre with UK number one albums and critically revered film score work, as well as live shows famous for their volume and expansiveness.

However, on the other side of the phone to me, multi-instrumentalist and Mogwai member Barry Burns couldn’t be keener to downplay it. “It’s four or five old guys from Glasgow playing the repeated melodies over and over again until the end of the show, and then everyone goes home. Maybe I shouldn’t do these things. Sabotage”.

Mogwai are a unique band. Their attention to sonic detail is beautiful and sits outside the horizons that music traditionally occupies. To many fans, Mogwai has soundtracked the very apexes of their highs and the deepest of their lows, and the largely instrumental nature of the discography allows for more space to interpret meaning. Yet, the band maybe do not share the same level of emotional involvement. On song titles, Barry explains, “It’s nonsense […] we usually have the songs written and then we put the titles onto them afterwards because we’ve got so fucking many of them. We just like to stick them on, like a post-it not.”. The ‘post’ in post-rock is well and truly alive, in multiple ways.

The nerves aren’t shaky hands anymore, it’s more just like, uneasy

Mogwai are about to embark on a UK tour, following last year’s Christmas tour in Scotland and a standalone date at London’s Alexandra Palace. They’ll perform two nights at Manchester’s Albert Hall. When asking about any memories he has of the venue, Burns remembers playing a similar two nights there to perform the score for Douglas Gordon’s Zidane.

“I think it was just after it got done up enough to play it […] it’s a tiny stage, really good. The next time I played there was with Beak, who are literally my favourite band of all time. I’ve had some great times there.” He’s also happy to praise the Mancunian crowd, likening Manchester to his native Glasgow, although he thinks “people from Manchester are more proud of the city than we are [of Glasgow]”.

I’m intrigued by how understated Burns is about Mogwai, compared to their merited critical acclaim. When talking about sampling of phone calls and commentary, it’s openly stated that there’s no method or thought, and the band use whatever’s lying around. They all write separately and then “ruin each other’s songs.”

However, you do sense an element of pride in their 25-year career. “It works. It works good […] I think we’ve probably changed quite a lot in how we do stuff. But it’s quite hard to say how, or why that is, we just get on with it. And I’m never not busy. I’m always doing something, and that’s your practice”.

It’s a good year for the band to reflect on their career so far, with the 25-year anniversary reissue of debut album Mogwai Young Team paired with the reissue of 1999’s Come On Die Young. Burns wasn’t in the band at the time of the debut album’s release, but his piano was borrowed for the sessions. “My ex-girlfriend and I, we used to listen to that album, and ‘Like Herod’ came on and we were just dozing off to sleep, and then the fucking loud bit comes in […] so they’re my most favourite ‘turn that off’ band”, he jokes.

“I didn’t have anything to do with that tune, and when we play it live I just love playing it, it’s so much fun. You see all these people in the front row who have obviously never been to a show before and they get such a fright! I mean, it’s just a noise but it’s really fucking funny […] it’s almost like a wind up”.

Humour appears to be something that keeps Mogwai going. When I bring up a story of the band playing a poorly attended tour show in Wyoming, Burns instantly remembers his feat of leaving the stage, going into the crowd, and waiting for the rest of the band to notice. “Stuart took about ten minutes to look up at the crowd and I was just waving at him! That was one of those shows where it was on the way to somewhere, so we should probably go there and lose some more money”.

Mogwai’s music doesn’t share much with other genres, with songs often topping 10 minutes in length. Post-rock feels like an adjacent wing to the musical landscape. When extraneously talking about Louis Theroux, Burns jokes “that’s what I feel our music is to the music world, a Louis Theroux documentary”. We agreed that the qualities they shared was a lack of ignorance, and keen observance. “That’ll do”, Burns concurs. It’s not even that bad of a comparison.

Burns is working on some exciting projects. Mogwai’s forays into film scoring have seen some of their most astonishing music to date, with films such as Zidane, Kin,and The Flood. A new film that they’re working on will take “2 or 3 years” .Barry cannot give too much away, legally, but there is something to go off: “Here’s my only clue: it’s not Christopher Nolan” .2026 can’t come soon enough.

It feels that Mogwai are in a good place. On pre-show nerves, Barry recognises the progression throughout his career. “The older you get, I don’t want to say the less you care about it, just the less you’re worried about it”.

“I noticed the other day in Glasgow we were just all pacing around and bumping into each other. The nerves aren’t shaky hands anymore, it’s more just like, uneasy […] the more you do something the better you get at it, or the more you tolerate it is the best way to say it”.

As the modern era is increasingly treating music as disposable, there’s a real sense of permanence with Mogwai. Ironically, the nearly fully instrumental music does all the speaking for their talent. Coupled with genuine and engaging character, there is ample space for beauty to be found within Mogwai. You can’t help but feel that this run of shows, kicking off in London on February 6, is going to something really special.

“I’m always like, ‘there’s gonna be fireworks and dancers!’, but there never is”, Barry jokes. Yet, the fireworks will be metaphorical, and the dancers will be in the crowd.


Mogwai play the Albert Hall on February 9 and 10. Tickets are available here.

The reissues of Mogwai Young Team and Come On Die Young are released on February 10. Pre-order here.

Alex Cooper

Alex Cooper

Head Music Editor and Writer for the Mancunion. Once walked past Nick Cave in Zagreb. Enquiries: [email protected]

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