The making of Mogwai’s Come On Die Young
By A.D. Amorosi
There is no better definition than redefinition, especially for a wee band leaving its first fingerprints on impressionable minds with a quick and clearly delineated ferocity. That was the mark of the beast of Glasgow, Scotland’s Mogwai in the years following its 1995 inception under the rubric of harsh, experimental serious guitar music; hurriedly recorded first singles such as “Tuner,” “Angels Vs. Aliens” (a split seven-inch with Dweeb) and “Summer”; 1997’s “New Paths To Helicon” and a raging EP titled 4 Satin.
All these raw, knuckling records signaled that Mogwai was a testy, forceful, dynamic instrumental ensemble with a takeno-prisoners sense of sonics that merged the best qualities of Glenn Branca, Slint, the Stooges (minus Iggy’s voice, yet with his cocksman’s swagger) and Sonic Youth into one uniquely creeping and surprisingly melodic mind-meld.
“I think what we did first and early on was pretty good, and reflected our listening habits,” says Mogwai bassist Dominic Aitchison.
Mogwai’s 1997 debut studio album, Young Team, sealed the noise deal with a scorched-earth vibe and one-long-song feel to its proceedings. From its bellbonging, metal-not-metal processed wall of guitar (via Stuart Braithwaite and John Cummings) to its stormy weather rhythms (Aitchison and drummer Martin Bulloch) to its overall burnt, shimmering crispness, Young Team was epic, loud and hard. Even if the rest of that album had been filled with covers of Iron & Wine ballads, its closer, “Mogwai Fear Satan,” ripped, rigged and panicked the young band’s dynamic shards-of-metal sensibilities into a glistening finale that would forever expand what kids knew of as the whole “post-rock” thing.
Then came Come On Die Young. That’s another story, or rather this one; the band’s 1999 minimalistic second studio album, whose tonic tones, dramatic quietude and un-gentle sparseness—even its vocals—showed that a new dog could learn old tricks and seismically shift the headlines on what little we truly knew of Mogwai at that time.
“Ah, I don’t think that we knew for ourselves, so don’t feel bad,” says Braithwaite of Mogwai’s radically different approach to CODY (the official anagram for Come On Die Young and one that sounds like a cowboy tot’s name) that shifted the band’s still newly devised deconstructionist paradigm.
That CODY was released in the U.S. on Matador connects the Scots with that era’s most prominent American independent label, which is truly saying something considering Mogwai’s ties to Scotland’s Chemikal Underground, itself a haven of critically lauded historical post-punk sounds out of Glasgow.
“We felt close to Mogwai from the start—a real connection to the rest of Glasgow’s punk history—and wanted to maximize everything we could about who they were,” says Stewart Henderson, the bassist of Scotland’s Delgados and one of Chemikal Underground’s CEOs, about getting Dave Fridmann as CODY’s producer and licensing that same album to Matador. “Glasgow is a close community, so our label was a coming-together of geography and mutual admiration. Mogwai lived down the road from where our studio was, and happened to be big fans of Arab Strap, whose records we released. It all was one continuum.”
Braithwaite was taking a break from recording Mogwai’s newest project when we spoke. This new album, the soundtrack to the sophomore season of Les Revenants (a French series for Canal Plus about the undead walking amongst us, or them, or someone), is, like CODY, a zealously spooky and enlightened bit of minimalism in the Mogwai catalog.
“I think you’re right in assuming that doing CODY paved the way for us writing and recording Les Revenants seasons one or two,” he says. “It certainly showed us what we could do with less, or making less sound like more and so on.”
Mogwai isn’t usually a backward-looking lot, yet the last 12 months has been one of reconnoitering. Last year, the band rereleased CODY with an additional album of CaVa Studios demos upon which Fridmann built (“but didn’t add that much to, really” says the producer) and hosted a 20th band anniversary in 2015 with All Tomorrows Parties and a series of shows featuring like-minded acts such as the Jesus And Mary Chain and Bardo Pond. “Yeah, we missed most of the shows we didn’t play,” says Braithwaite with a laugh. This month, Mogwai and Chemikal Underground release an anniversary vinyl box of its most lucid and allusive moments titled Central Beltersthat gives a broad but bold overview to all the noise and nuance the ensemble has wrought since 1995.
“You know, we didn’t start off as strictly instrumental,” says Braithwaite, confi dentially, about Mogwai’s most notable trait. “We actually had songs with vocals and lyrics when we started, and found that the instrumental ones were better, stronger. We all felt that way. Plus, no one in the band really felt good about writing lyrics, and no one felt comfortable hanging about as a frontman.”
The prowess of instrumental-only music that was assertive and kinetic—that which the band finessed throughout 1996-’97—propelled the intensity of Young Team in a manner that, eventually, led to an invisible shield around the band, a hype surrounding who and what Mogwai was. “I defi nitely think there was this thing that preceded them,” says Henderson.
Thinking back to that time, Mogwai was considered the intelligent man’s heavy metal music, an overly intellectualized vibe that the band neither understood nor wanted. “I think people perceived what we did as wise or smart, and I don’t know why,” says Aitchison with a snort.
“There was certainly this hype about us, but I don’t think we had anything premeditated up our sleeves about what we would do about it,” says Braithwaite, who ducks back into the matter of Mogwai being a notably cerebral outfit. “Now people realize that we’re just a bunch of goofs making it up as we go along.”
Going into what would become CODY, there was a feeling amongst its band members—whose ranks had just expanded at that time, 1998, to include keyboardist/fl autist Barry Burns—that their next work would be just as ferocious as Young Team, only quieter. “We defi nitely were thinking of something more minimalist,” says Braithwaite. “We had heard all the applause for us being thought of as noise-rock kings, but we had done the EPs and singles as such, and our tastes changed.”
Braithwaite mentions minimalist giants such as Nick Drake and Low, while Aitchison brings up listening to the For Carnation records as well as Codeine. “We wanted to do something sparser,” the bassist says about music they began demoing at CaVa Studios in Glasgow, the home base of the Delgados and Chemikal Underground. “It just happened; that and the fact that we were disappointed in the dynamics of Young Team, with the way they worked on that record. That made us step back and consider another way in.”
Mogwai, however, just didn’t know for certain what way was in, or which door to take. For Braithwaite, going into CODY meant crafting a more minimalist soundscape for the band’s larger, more discernible melodic strain. “We’ve always had big melodies,” he says. “I just think that, with CODY, there was less noise so that you could hear the songs more.”
Between their first EP, 4 Satin, and Young Team, Henderson says there was a general feeling that there would always be something incredibly exciting about Mogwai, especially after that first album was so well-received. “It was the beginning of a very chaotic, crazy time for Glasgow,” he says. “We had had that whole Teenage Fanclub thing for a while, but Mogwai was different, more experimental.”
Yet, Young Team created a huge pressure for the label, as it had created an enormous buzz for the band, for Chemikal Underground and—in Henderson’s mind—Glasgow. “We had to make certain CODY furthered whatever it was that Mogwai was and did,” he says.
If Young Team was youthful and naïve, an exuberant exercise between band and label, CODY was measured and determined, something both Henderson and Braithwaite considered as a professional approach to making a record. To that end, Henderson’s Delgados relinquished their spot in line to securing Dave Fridmann as producer and hooked up Mogwai with the honor.
“Our general attitude is that we will try anything, and having Dave around just made that easier from day one,” Braithwaite says about Fridmann, whose work on the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin most impressed Mogwai for its open-ended atmospheres.
“I don’t think that CODY was more or less dynamic than their previous work,” says Fridmann. “There were just more quiet moments and approaches to the songs.”
For Fridmann’s part, there was very little to do to CODY but stand back, twiddle some knobs, rearrange the lustrous strings on “Waltz For Aidan,” play keyboards on “Helps Both Ways” and stand back.
“From the moment we started working with him at Tarbox, we found that he wasn’t an ego guy,” says Braithwaite. “Dave was really easygoing, inventive and never pushy.”
Aitchison, a huge Mercury Rev fan, didn’t realize that Fridmann was the guy behind those albums. “He wasn’t our choice, but once we got him, we were really glad we had him,” the bassist says about the exceedingly patient producer (“which was good because we were drunk all the time”) who let Mogwai run amok in his studio as the band saw fit. That even included a rare vocal on the title track—all which was named for an old Scottish biker gang from the ’60s that Burns’ dad had once belonged to.
“I drew the short straw and stumbled into the vocal booth,” says Braithwaite, “because the track had this almost traditional verse/ chorus feel to it that few of our songs had at that point.”
“Davey actually was more hands-off than we expected on CODY,” says Aitchison. “He’s got a distinct production style, so we assumed that he’d really mess with things—which he didn’t. Instead, he kept it all quite sparse, which interestingly is just what it needed.”
Both Aitchison and Braithwaite go on to mention that by the time Mogwai returned to Tarbox Road Studios and his production aegis for 2011’sRock Action, things changed and Fridmann became more of a collaborator, arranger and such. “He’s just a great guy, and we couldn’t help but stay friendly with him and his family,” says Braithwaite.
Most of Aitchison’s CODY experience was based around the social experience of eating there and being in northern New York state, in the back of a house with loads of light looking onto the middle of the woods. “There was a lot of natural reverb in that room; so much so, it was like we didn’t even have to add any,” says the bassist. “It was a very relaxing place to be, the most easygoing recording experience we’ve ever had.” One that easily carries into the sound of the entire album, according to Aitchison: “None of our other albums have that carry-through.”
Working with Fridmann at his studio gave Mogwai an excuse to be in America for the first time. “It really was awesome to think about,” says Braithwaite. “This was the place of Sonic Youth and the Stooges.”
Mogwai was so enamored of Iggy’s Stooges, in fact, that the band used a sample of Pop’s voice from an interview he did on Canadian radio from a 1977 broadcast for “Punk Rock.” Braithwaite says that he assumed Iggy was OK with it, as he never tried to sue them or remove it from CODY. Oakland Raiders football coach-turned-network NFL analyst John Madden felt differently. At least, those who own the likeness of his voice did. The murmuring “Helps Both Ways” sampled Madden’s commentary on a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers.
“He sounded angrily over the top,” says Braithwaite. The use of it, however, was unauthorized, and the NFL doesn’t go for unauthorized, so Mogwai and Fridmann replaced that roaring voiceover with another American football game color commentary, probably from a high school contest.
“We dodged a real bullet with that one, as you don’t want corporate American football on your ass,” says Henderson. Along with the endlessly fascinating minimalist quietude of CODY, there was still verve, ferocity and encroachingly screeching noise with “Christmas Steps”—a song that was as heavily dynamic as any CODY song, only with an ending that was as distorted and dense as anything on Young Team. “That was one of the first songs we wrote, actually,” says Braithwaite. “It wound up last by chance. Oddly enough, we actually wanted the album to be shorter than it wound up being. I don’t recall how that song got tacked on to the album.”
Working with Fridmann in America also gave Mogwai its firstever Thanksgiving dinner, a meal that still sticks with the band. “Not only was he a brilliant producer and an all-around nice guy— we are still friendly with his family,” says Braithwaite, calling Fridmann a fine host and chef to boot. “That meal sealed it. They didn’t have to treat us as one of their own, but they did.”
“I think they were truly enamored of a holiday that had nothing else but all that food going for it,” says Fridmann with a laugh. “I have to admit, I was pretty jealous about that Thanksgiving meal—it would have been ours if the Delgados recorded with him that year,” says Henderson. His band went on to record two LPs with Fridmann, sans turkey, cranberry and stuffing.
Considering the overall vibe that Aitchison says the band was going for, Braithwaite elaborates that the process was one that allowed CODY its own interior logic—a haunted one, far different than other Mogwai record before and since. “All of our albums have their own language and signs and atmospheres, but CODY certainly has this really ghostly echo-y thing about it. It occupies its own space. That was the first time that we were able to do something like that.”
Braithwaite’s obsession with all things The Exorcist surely had something to do with his choice of a cover shot: that famously red-eyed snap of Aitchison captured in ghoulish haze. The bassist giggles thinking about the photo, emphasizing that he is neither that ghostly pale or disturbed-looking in real life. “I think I was drunk and the photographer kept shooting all these Polaroids, then found the spookiest one and made me look even more frightening. I mean, come on now.”
Though CODY was an aesthetic success, it was a shock to listeners and critics prepared for more bombast, à la Young Team. “We heard the demos and maybe expected something more fleshed out—where’s the ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’?—but it was brilliant,” says Henderson. “Of course, you expected this visceral post-apocalyptic soundtrack only to hear this beautiful, tempered, restrained record—elegiac, really—that was so delicate in places. That’s what makes CODY brave. Here was this loud and proud band that defied logic and expectations. Good on them. They shot off in directions no one expected, just like a spider-ing windshield.”
As for Braithwaite, he agrees that CODY was a shock to so many of its fans, at home and in the U.S. “Too much, too weird, perhaps not the right record at the right time,” he says. “Maybe people checked out on us because they didn’t have the patience. We make what we make.”
Still, considering that all that Mogwai has done since, Come On Die Young is alive with silent promise and eerie potential. “It’s an amazingly focused and still record considering how young we were and where the band was at that point,” says Braithwaite. “It is one of my—our—proudest moments, really.”