Interview: Barry Burns Of Mogwai

It’s been almost exactly a year since our last Interview with Barry Burns of Mogwai and we’ve been talking to him again – this time it’s our Istanbul correspondent Zulal Kalkandelen who got to chew the fat with the founding member of our favourite post-rock band.

“I don’t think a single musician ever has deserved an award for making music.” 

When I last spoke with Barry Burns of Mogwai, the band was in the middle of a world tour after releasing “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will”. Obviously, they had a very busy 2014 -beginning by releasing their eight studio album “Rave Tapes”, finishing a quite successful world tour and finally making fans happy with the new EP with some new songs and remixes of old tracks last month! And after a short break, they’re about to go on the road and start playing in different countries again. I got a chance to interview Barry Burns before they hit the road next month.

You’ve been quite busy. So, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. How is Mogwai’s current state of mind these days?

Well, it sort of never ends really. We seem to have a lot of work on and they do say that about work when you are approaching your 40’s. It gets busier and busier.

How do you prepare yourself for the grind of a lengthy multi-country tour? Is it exciting (or just intimidating) to have such a busy schedule?

It is quite intimidating because the normal world sort of stops while you are away and you have to try and catch up with it when you finally have a break. The only preparation is to give in and realise that your health is going to quickly deteriorate and your life will become weird again.

“Rave Tapes” is a fairly polarizing album- people either like it or dislike it. With the synth-heavier sound of the album, do you see it as a turning point for the band?

I don’t know. Maybe. We try to do different stuff all the time so it doesn’t feel so strange for us to so this record. The next one, I hope, will be completely different.

“Our own opinion of the creative release is much more important.” 

In terms of your work, what is more important to you: the opinions of the fans or the creative release and your own opinion of it?

Our own opinion of it is much more important. I would think that would be true of anyone who makes things. Listeners can always just listen to some other band and have some disappointment but the musicians will forever be really saddened by a bad job.

“Rave Tapes” has one of the Mogwai rarities: a song with vocals. The only track with real singing is “Blues Hour” and the singer who provided the airy vocals is Stuart Braithwaite. How did you end up putting vocals on it?

If a song doesn’t sound finished with just being instrumental, then we try vocals or vocoder or a sample of something instead. It’s kind of a last resort.

Honestly, despite its beautiful melody, there’s one thing that I don’t like about the song “The Lord Is Out of Control” and it is the vocoder-effected vocals. In my humble opinion, this post-Daft Punk vocoder infused vocals just don’t fit Mogwai’s music well. 

We’ve been using the vocoder since the 3rd album, so I don’t know what to tell you. It’s been a huge part of our music, as much as any other instrument. But I don’t expect everybody to like it. For example, I really hate the sound of a saxophone, but that’s just me.

The new EP “Music Industry 3 – Fitness Industry 1” opens with a song with vocals, too. And the vocal part on the song “Teenage Exorcists” is louder with its sing-a-long approach and catchy lyrics. It sounds different anything what you have done before. What led you to make this change?

We were fed up with the vocals being too quiet so it just came out as pretty bombastic, for a change. Why not try a little noisey pop song. I am not sure we’ll do that again, however.

“Our popularity is never going to get bigger than it is now.”

Do you think the effect will be to draw a new type of listeners to the band?

Probably not. As much as that would be nice, our popularity is never going to get bigger than it is now.

Some Mogwai fans see the new EP as the most accessible release to date. I read some Youtube comments left on the video for “Teenage Exorcists” and it seems that your fans are quite polarized over this new sound. Some say it’s the best thing since Young Team, some say it is sort of mainstream. What do you make of those opposite reactions?

You have to try stuff out and it’s never going to please everyone. I don’t think there’s a single band or musician that has a 100% success with always pleasing everyone.

One of the brand new song on the six-track EP is “HMP Shaun William Ryder”. What’s the story behind it?

That was a song that didn’t fit onto Rave Tapes but it was recorded during that session. We had quite a few extra songs. The title is pretty meaningless. I can’t quite remember why it was called that.

I haven’t seen “Les Revenants”, but I think the original soundtrack album was definitely one of the best releases in 2013. You’ve contributed on the soundtrack for Darren Aronofsky’s movie “The Fountain” before, but “Les Revenants” is a TV series. What was the process like this time?

We didn’t write for Darren, we just played our version of what Clint Mansell wrote. But anyway, we were given the storyline and soe images (not much video) and we tried to imagine what the atmosphere of the show would be. It was done sort of “blind”.

How does a composer conceive musical ideas for a score while remaining receptive ideas to the director’s wishes?

It depends how lucky you are with who you work with. In Les Rev’s case, it was great because they trusted us to get on with it and they shared our vision of what it should sound like. We have had nightmares with other projects.

The interesting thing about film music is when you’re watching a horror movie or something and shut the music off, half of the emotion is gone. Do you like the soundtracks that aid the image, support it or the ones that manipulate the image?

I think the music editor of a film has to be very good at his job. I think silence can work just as well as music to be honest. It’s just about knowing when to use music and when not to.

Are there any film composers that you admire? Which soundtracks/scores are your favourites among all the thousands of them being released?

Clint Mansell, John Carpenter and Ennio Morricone are a few that come to mind. I really like Assault on Precinct 13 by Carpenter.

Are there any directors out there that have caught your eye that you’d like to work with?

I’m pretty bad at remembering directors names but I think we could give anything a shot if the project looked interesting.

“I hope people stay in control of their music, like we do now.”

After almost two decades of playing in Mogwai, what aspect of making music excites you the most right now? What aspect of making music gets you the most discouraged?

I am enjoying going back to hardware as opposed to software instruments. There’s something nice about both things but the hardware stuff is good to play around with, without a mouse or trackpad.

If you had to enter the music industry today, how would you go about it? As a member of a band that founded their independent record label, how has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

I would do what everyone else is doing and releasing stuff on my own. I would have to write an essay to say how much it has changed since we started and I’m not very good at essays. It’s changed completely, in a nutshell. In many ways it is better now. I hope people stay in control of their music in the future, like we do now.

Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine once said that they were banned by the Mercury Prize, because they are not on Amazon or iTunes.  Do you think it’s fair that you have to have major distribution or be on Amazon or iTunes to be able to be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize? What’s your take on the battle between some musicians (such as Thom Yorke and David Byrne) and the streaming services? The corporate-ness, releasing an independent album is a good thing but do you think Bandcamp provides a good solution for independent artists? 

I don’t take too much notice of how other people do it because it works fairly well for us at the moment. I know I should but I don’t. I pretty much detest any sort of award for anything other than humanitarian services. I don’t think a single musician ever has deserved an award for making music.

“The biggest problem in the music industry is the generic nature of a lot of the pop music.”

Recently, Noel Gallagher has taken a swipe at the state of modern music, stating that the artist used to drive the industry and now bands go to the industry and do what they are told to do, and the working classes have not got a voice in music anymore. Would you agree with him? What’s the biggest problem in the music industry today?

I kind of like Noel, he’s pretty funny and often quite smart. I think everyone has a voice in the music industry but like every single other thing, it’s easier for certain people to get into it than others. The biggest problem to me is the generic nature of a lot of the pop music. Pop music can be amazing but it’s been boring to me for a little while now.

What’s your view on the value of music today?

It’s one of the best distractions in life. Headphones can equal happiness for a little while and actually playing music can be a lot of fun, at any level. It’s not going away.

The role of an artist is always subject to change. What’s your take on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?

It’s pretty simple in Mogwai. We play music we hope to enjoy. We try to invent stuff, often without success but sometimes with. We’re individually political but our music is not at all.

And finally, I heard that you opened a bar in Berlin’s Neukölln district in 2010. What’s the most popular drink at your Scottish-infused bar?

I think probably good old beer is still king. German or Scottish, people love that fizzy stuff.


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