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Mogwai’s Barry Burns: “Everything’s terrible, but at least we can laugh.”

Over the last 25 years, Glaswegian icons Mogwai have made some of the best post-rock around. Fresh from the release of the group’s new album, we catch up with their Berlin-based member.

Image for Mogwai’s Barry Burns: “Everything’s terrible, but at least we can laugh.”

Barry Burns of Mogwai in the studio recording their newest album, As The Love Continues. Photo: George Perks

Over the last 25 years, Glaswegian icons Mogwai have made some of the best post-rock around. Fresh from the release of the group’s new album, As The Love Continues, on the horizon, we catch up with Berlin’s own Barry Burns to talk holograms, Big Brother and the secrets to Mogwai’s lasting success.

How does it feel to celebrate Mogwai’s 25th anniversary?

It’s a constant surprise that people still want to come and see us. We’re good pals in the band and, honestly, not much has changed over the whole course of the thing. It feels a little bit like a gang that never grew up. I always wonder what it’s like to be in a band with someone you don’t like. But we’ve been lucky. I don’t think we’ve ever had one argument. I think that’s a big part of why we’re still around.

Glasgow always had a well-regarded music scene, but it was especially vibrant in the late 1990s. Was there close proximity between the many now-famous acts?

It’s a small town and it was really exciting. I remember hearing Aidan Moffat from Arab Strap singing with a thick Scottish accent, and it was great. All we had before was Lorraine Kelly on GMTV and The Proclaimers. I mean, there was a big cultural cringe about stuff like that, and it’s still there. Glasgow always had that feeling of punching above its weight. At that time, there was a proper push against the classic thing of signing to a label and moving down to London. That, and there weren’t many venues, so you would meet all these bands as well and end up having a bit of a community.

How has that Glasgow attitude served you over the years?

The only thing that we’ve taken seriously is playing the music. Everything else is a complete laugh. I remember doing interviews with French journalists, and they were horrified at our behaviour. They heard the music and obviously thought that we were chin-stroking guys, you know? They wanted to know that all the song titles meant something genuinely profound. Honestly, it was just drunk patter, and we’d name the song at the very last minute.

Maybe we should have done this [sound] from the start and made some money.

I remember being in Philadelphia. This guy came in to do an interview, and he was again quite horrified. He called us cynical and all that. We were just like, ‘What did you expect?’ He just couldn’t believe the fuckin’ sarcasm. It’s like when people ask what our songs are about. They’re not really about anything. It’s just a bunch of people playing music together. We don’t talk about it that much, and I think that annoys people.

Your newest single, “Richie Sacramento”, is a different kind of Mogwai. What changed?

It’s pretty shoegazey. Often if we have a song that we just can’t finish and don’t know what’s wrong with it, we’ll add some vocals or vocoder. This time Stuart had an idea that he wanted to have it as a song like that from the beginning. So, for a change, it’s in the right key for him. Usually, when we do that, it’s either too low or too high because our range is so small. It’s a nice song. Maybe we should have done this from the start and made some money.

You’re launching the new album, As The Love Continues, with a livestream concert. When was the last time Mogwai played to an empty room?

Actually, the last tour we did in America, we had one of those long drives that go from the Midwest to the West Coast. We were playing Jackson Hole in Wyoming, and there were about 15 people there. At one point, I wasn’t playing anything in the song, so I just went out and stood up the front until Stewart saw me in the audience and started pissing himself laughing, and I ran back to play. It’s weird to do it deliberately like this, but I guess it’s the only chance people will get to see us in the next year.

How was the livestream experience?

We should have used holograms to make it seem there were loads of people there, like Kanye did for Kim Kardashian. I remember just playing and actually getting freaked out because it was such a weird thing. But you certainly get used to it after they tell you to play the same song 15 times to get it right. So it got quite boring quite quickly.

Due to the pandemic, producer Dave Fridmann was on the other side of the Atlantic. How do you record an album remotely?

He was like a benevolent Big Brother. It was properly strange at first, but after a couple of days, you get used to the man on the wall telling you what to do. It was as if Dave was there. I remember a couple of weird things where he made me relearn a whole song backwards on the piano, which was a nightmare, and then I don’t think it got used on the album. It’s a weird thing because we can’t tour the album at all.

Do you miss playing concerts?

I miss going to see concerts. Martin, our drummer, was talking recently about the fact that, after the Spanish flu in 1918, people went nuts for going out. The Roaring Twenties happened, and people were just dying to go and see stuff. I hope that when all this starts to level out, people will have a big appetite for going out to see shows. Yeah, I can’t wait.

Have these obstacles forced you to think more creatively?

When we needed to demo the album, I went to my little studio in Kurfürstenstraße as much as possible because there was nothing else to do. I think that’s the reason this album has more of a form to it. We usually just try and get it done and see what happens in the studio. This time I had much more time to organise everything. I think if we hadn’t had that time, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good. So that was a proper silver lining. But other than that, everything’s terrible [laughs]. There’s literally nothing else positive to come out of this, but at least we can laugh about it.

What kind of album does it feel like to you?

It feels confusingly positive. I think when things are going well, we’ve tended to go ahead and write a bunch of miserable, sad dirges. And with this one, when everything has exploded, it has turned out that a lot of the songs are pretty positive compared to the usual kind of thing that we’re doing. So, when World War III starts, it’s probably going to be like Lady Gaga in here.