"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."