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Let's See Action

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.