Perhaps Stuart Braithwaite speaks for all musicians when he reveals the secret to Mogwai’s longevity:
“Probably fear of regular employment,” he says, his Scottish accent creating a delay in processing time for an American brain.
He pauses, laughing, then adds, “and a desire to create mind-bendingly great art.”
He laughs harder, but it’s only funny because it’s true — all of it.
While the lads from Scotland scoff at the pomp of genre labeling, Mogwai has been carrying the post-rock torch since 1995, delivering more than a dozen full-length albums and a handful of soundtracks. Place their music in the box of your choice — shoegaze, math rock, instrumental, ambient, space rock, experimental, avant-rock, neo-prog — the band’s brand of sprawling, escalating, occasionally menacing, sometimes uplifting, often minimalistic but never pretentious rock has amassed a loyal fan base and made Mogwai a logical fit for festivals as disparate as Coachella and the Montreux Jazz Fest.
Among their fanbase is industrial-rock-god-turned-film-score-composer Trent Reznor, who approached Mogwai last year about collaborating on the soundtrack to the Leo-DiCaprio-produced climate change doc Before the Flood.
“Trent just asked us, which was a huge honor,” Braithwaite says. “Growing up listening to his music… it was amazing.”
Mogwai joined three Oscar winners in Reznor and his longtime collaborator Atticus Ross, and Argentine film composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain and Babel) to craft the film’s score in what Braithwaite says was a very short period of time.
“We did everything [remotely] in Glasgow,” he says. “They were really just sending us some clips of the film and letting us do what we wanted. It was amazing. Trent and Atticus took one of our songs and they played it, and we did the same with one of their songs. It was really organic — it was painless. Certainly from hearing the whole record it seems really cohesive.”
Reznor was more than likely aware of the Scottish outfit’s ability to churn out a quality film score because they’d already done it once earlier in 2016, having scored Irish director Mark Cousin’s Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, an impressionistic retrospective of man’s relationship with nuclear fission.
Cousin’s documentary, pieced together using only archival footage, creates the perfect visual medium for Mogwai’s expansive and emotionally stimulating sound, creating what feels like a 1-hour-11-minute music video.
The movie closed the Edinburgh Film Festival, with live accompaniment by Mogwai, in 2016, and was then shown on BBC’s Storyville to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The band decided to take the show on the road, currently on tour in North America playing the entirety of the Atomic soundtrack alongside a screening of the film.
Even without the film, the music is edifying, launching with the optimistic synthesizers and yearning horns of “Ether.” Eyes closed, there’s no struggle to imagine the black expanse of space where the universe sets off atomic bombs, atoms collide and the stuff of life is formed — now cells form seeds and seeds turn into flowers and hydrogen and oxygen form rain that washes the earth, and it’s all just reorganized stardust born from the ether of space.
Other tracks are more straightforward in their message: “SCRAM” is a term used to signify the shutdown of a nuclear reactor; “Bitterness Centrifuge” refers to the process by which uranium is separated and enriched; “U-235” is the form of uranium needed to create a bomb or power a nuclear plant; “Pripyal” instrumentally tells the tale of the Ukrainian town abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster; “Weak Force” is the fundamental force responsible for radioactive decay. And then there are the bombs: “Little Boy,” “Tsar” (short for the western nickname for the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Tsar Bomba) and “Fat Man.”
Perhaps the most enigmatic track — title wise — is “Are You a Dancer?”, a title that may poke fun at the way Las Vegas capitalized on atomic bomb testing at the Nevada Test Site just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas (think: “atomic cocktails” and “dawn bomb parties”).
Creating the soundtrack to Atomic was a logical progression for Mogwai; the band members have been prominent and vocal supporters of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for some years now. They’ve visited Hiroshima and walked through the Peace Memorial Park there.
But these are guys known for their over-the-top support of the Celtic Football Club; the name of their band comes from an ’80s fantasy flick, for God’s sake.
The political nature of their most recent work comes from growing up.
“When we started the band in 1995 I was 18 years old and probably would be really excited about the possibility of someone giving us free beer,” Braithwaite says.
“To be honest, I think it still blows us away that people ask us to do those kinds of things [like Beyond the Flood and Atomic]. I think we’re very lucky that people are asking us to do these things. We’re certainly not blasé about it.”
On the Bill: Mogwai plays Atomic. 9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030. Tickets $25-$27.50.