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Mogwai had barely made it to Detroit before drummer Martin Bulloch's heart started skipping. He felt the off-rhythms in his chest that told him his pacemaker was acting up -- his body even rejecting it, maybe, as he'd been warned.
Nobody wanted to take any chances, so Bulloch made his way to a downtown emergency room before sound check. There he sat, the Scots timekeeper with a bum ticker, waiting to get called in by the specialists. Nearby, low moans emanated from another supplicant at the altar of modern medicine, a crumpled young son of the Motor City who'd arrived in the emergency room bleeding vigorously from eight separate gunshot wounds, including one to the head.
This was the city that birthed Motown (Mogwai's sound engineer was visiting the Motown Museum while Bulloch held his nervous vigil) and Iggy Pop, whose lyrics provide the title for Rock Action, Mogwai's third full-length release; truly, a town steeped in relevant musical history. But there was fear in the details, an oppressive ugliness just out of sight, that prevented the Detroit gig from being the luxurious culture-soak it might otherwise have been.
"Detroit has the lowest sky I've ever seen," says brass/flute/guitar player Barry Burns -- the newest member of Mogwai, having joined the band three years ago. "It's hard to explain. It's just . . . really . . . low."
Low and oppressive, as it turns out, and full of unexpected troubles. Martin Bulloch's regulatory heart medication, for example, which runs about five pounds in Scotland, cost him $160 and tax to obtain in the States. (Glad to report, he's in fine health.)
Burns didn't need a brick to fall on his head. "I didn't go into the city," he says a little sheepishly. "I was scared to. I stayed in the hotel and watched Charlie's Angels."
A strange reticence, perhaps, for a man who venerates the Stooges' raucous Fun House ("Yeeeeaaaaaahhhhhhhh!" he whispers excitedly, when it comes up in conversation), a man whose band, during one memorable stretch, sold and wore tee shirts that read "Blur Are Shite." But you can't blame even a lippy and smart-assed band like Mogwai for playing it safe, when we're dealing with recurrent heart troubles and shots to the head.
Generally speaking, though, Mogwai, a witty and talented band of Glaswegian noisemakers, has never shied away from corrosive situations, usually brought on by talking shit. Burns himself, in an interview with Spin magazine this year, idly opined that Brit-pop wanker Robbie Williams' heart ought to be forcibly removed from his chest cavity via one of the human body's smaller and less generally visible orifices.
"Did I say that?" asks Burns, in what might or might not be actual surprise. "Oh, Christ. Actually I said something much worse than that. The guy who did that interview, we've known him for a while, and we have got to the point where we can manipulate the press a little bit, so it was in fun," he continues, laughing now, "but after that I said something really over the edge that made the other fellas in the band look at me like, 'You didn't just say that, right?' As it turned out, the interviewer didn't use the really awful one, just the one where I said Williams' heart should be pulled out his arse.
"But really," he concludes as if by way of summation, "what a cunt."
And despite the look of such words in cold type -- I swear this is true -- Burns' delivery is as charming as can be.
The genuinely affable (if you're not a Brit-pop wanker) Barry Burns has been tapped to play gentle word man this afternoon, on behalf of a group that made its name on decidedly ungentle and mostly wordless sound montages. Mogwai came together in 1995, a mostly instrumental collective which survived endless comparisons to the Velvet Underground, Low, and My Bloody Valentine to produce a string of singles and EPs (and two compilations of same), two sprawling albums of swirling guitar noise (1997's Mogwai Young Team and 1999's Come On Die Young), and a wide reputation as the loudest live band in the world since Pete Townshend's hearing went ugly.
As evidenced by the "Blur Are Shite" tee shirts, Mogwai found contemporary music somewhat, er, lacking in its immediacy. And so, to all appearances, did a great number of bands from the Glasgow area. Groups like Belle and Sebastian, the Beta Band, and Boards of Canada all graduated from the local to the world stage during the latter half of the '90s.
Mogwai, at once more avant-garde and more technically advanced than most of its geographical contemporaries -- a musician's band as well as a post-punker's -- released its first two albums to high and moderate critical praise, respectively. But Come On Die Young sold well enough to allow the band more studio time in preparation for Rock Action (which, like CODY, was produced and recorded at Dave Fridmann's Tarbox Studio). That leeway resulted, oddly enough, in a tighter and more abbreviated record than either of its two predecessors.
"With [Come On Die Young] we were kind of bullied into putting it out quickly," says Burns. "There was a significant amount of pressure. But when we went back into the studio for the new record, we were able to take more time. From about 23 songs, I think, we cut it down to the eight that made it onto the album. It is a lot more focused, in that sense."
Rock Action is, at 38 minutes, nearly half an hour shorter than Come On Die Young, but the pleasures therein have been distilled: Concentrated, rather than lopped off short. It's also decidedly (and somewhat deceptively) calmer than the two full-lengths that precede it. Only one track, "You Don't Know Jesus," follows the slow crescendo-to-devastation formula that Mogwai previously mined; the rest of the songs move slowly, quietly, unfolding a grim horror or a startling beauty as it may be, in their own measured time.
"I think what most people expected from us was another extended record, but we really didn't want to do that again," says Burns, who agrees that the CD format too often encourages self-indulgent running times. Rare these days is the album like Fun House, which says all it needs to say in barely 30 minutes. "Or Nick Drake's Pink Moon," offers Burns from left field. "It's only a half-hour long, but it's absolutely complete. That's what we really wanted, in the beginning, especially -- to work in that quick, shorter mode."
Like Fun House, Rock Action is full of surface noise, but like Pink Moon, it contains passages as fragile and beautiful as spun glass. But contemporary reviews have largely missed the point in calling the record a tuneful sea change for the formerly eardrum-puncturing Mogwai, when that's not quite it. Rather, the slower tempos and prominent melodies of Rock Action reveal aspects of the band's musicianship which, upon reflection, were evident all along; they've just come to the fore here in a way they hadn't previously.
Horns, banjos, bowed strings and ambient noise all make Rock Action sound like a folk record from about a hundred years in the future, and it's all accomplished through nuance and low-decibel suggestion. One can only crank one's amps to 11 so often, in other words, before longing to make a point by indirect means, and it's this element that makes Rock Action the true avant-rock record that Mogwai has always threatened to release.
"I think that's probably right," says Burns, whose multi-instrumentalism provides Rock Action with much of its eclectic sound. "It's not that this is such a great change for us, as a band, but it probably is for people who've seen the live shows. Our live approach has changed a great deal, on the strength of the new record. We'd been testing the songs out live, you know, before we recorded them, and so the feel of those songs rubbed off before we went into the studio. It even affected the parts that we wrote in the studio. And it was great, of course, working with Dave; he always seems to know what we want, even before we know."
Mogwai's determination to let the writing take its own course, however, was just as important to Rock Action's final sound as Fridmann's production work. "Dial: Revenge," for example, was an instrumental that sounded half-finished to the entire band until Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys added the Welsh vocal that gives the song its enigmatic title. Welsh public telephones feature the word "dial" in their printed instructions; but "dial," it seems, also means "revenge" in Welsh. (Of the few vocal tracks on Rock Action, then, one is built entirely around a Welsh play on words. So what's not to love about a record like that?)
In addition to dissing acts like Blur and Robbie Williams, Mogwai members have, as long as they've received mainstream press, been shameless promoters of themselves and of bands they love (one of which -- Bardo Pond -- will be accompanying them on their eight-month tour). Their confident braggadocio, plus the seemingly careful construction of Rock Action, would seem to indicate a methodical approach to the writing, a plan that leaves little to chance. But when asked about the band's intentions behind making this album a subtler, more intricate piece of work, Burns half-groans.
"We always have to tell people the same thing: We don't really plan anything. We just let it develop as it might. I know how stupid that sounds, but really, it's the truth. There was only one song that we'd really written start-to-finish before we went in to record. The rest were developed as we went along."
"That's true," insists the man who 10 minutes ago was talking about manipulating the media. "Somehow we always get asked about the process, how it must have been so closely monitored. But it's all shite. We're not really that great," he says -- a lie, but so charming a lie that you can't help but go along with it.
"Now as soon as someone else hears that, really figures it out, we're all fucked," Burns says. And of course, he's laughing hard.