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Inside Mogwai’s number one week: ‘I’ve had no sleep’

For the first time in their 25 year history, Mogwai are number one in the charts. Guitarist Stuart Braithwaite took The Big Issue inside one of the band’s most exciting and tense weeks ever.
Mogwai are number one. Photo: Antony Crook

How do you celebrate finally getting to number one in the charts after 25 years of releasing records – if you’re living in the middle of a global pandemic? With a group Zoom call and a takeaway curry, of course. But first of all, if you’re Mogwai, you’ll want to get on a video chat with The Big Issue to give the inside story on the most exciting and tense week the band has ever had.

“It’s been so nerve-racking,” says a grinning Stuart Braithwaite, speaking just after he’d heard the good news. “The only thing I can compare it to is, like, a penalty shootout, when it’s the most stressful five minutes of all time – it’s been like that, but half a week. I’ve had no sleep.”

The Scottish band’s new album As The Love Continues was released on Friday, February 19. Their 10th full-length record, it’s a sweeping and evocative record, drenched in big effects-laden guitars and building to the sort of noisy crescendos that will hopefully soon soundtrack sweaty hugs in venues across the land. That’s in the future. For now, this is music to make the horizon of your living room seem broader.

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The rollercoaster began the very day after release, Braithwaite recalls. Label manager Craig Hargrave sent him the first of the midweeks – the figures that track how records are selling in real time.

“It didn’t even occur to me that it was the real charts. I was like, what is this?” Braithwaite laughs. “At first, I was like – there must be a chart for Scotland, or indy shops, or something. And then it was like – no, that’s the chart. And really from then on in, it was a sort of slow period of realisation that we could hold on that. We could do it.”

Braithwaite’s wife, musician Elisabeth Elektra, suggested that the band start a hashtag and really start to campaign for the top spot. And so the #Mogwai4Number1 fight began.

“We started incessantly tweeting about it,” says Braithwaite. “I thought people will get really annoyed but everyone just seemed pretty into it and pretty supportive. Then it kind of snowballed.”

Fans jumped on board to share photos of their vinyl or CD purchases, boasting that they’d set their Spotify to play the album on repeat, and encouraging others to join the movement. Famous fans including actor Elijah Wood, Tim Burgess from The Charlatans and The Cure’s Robert Smith even got on board. The great desire to be unified by music – untapped in a world without gigs – had found an outlet.

“My wife was really psyched when Robert Smith tweeted,” Braithwaite says. “A lot of it [the tweets] was people we know, and bands who’ve toured with us, and that’s great because they didn’t have to do that. But a lot of it was people we don’t know. I mean I’ve never met Elijah Wood!

“That kind of support definitely helped. Maybe some people checked out our record that wouldn’t have.”

As each day rolled by, the Glasgow-based post-rockers maintained their unlikely grip on the number one spot. Even when London grime MC Ghetts drove a tank into the race – literally taking to the streets of his home city in an armoured vehicle to promote his latest release Conflict Of Interest, it was not enough to knock Mogwai off the top.

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It was the right record at the right time says Braithwaite. “People have taken the record to heart. Our music’s quite emotional and it’s been an emotional year. Because there’s no lyrics in most of it, people can kind of feel about it in whatever they want. I think that might have been part of it.”

And more than that, it was just good for people to feel “excited about something”. Everyone loves an underdog story, a tale of triumph against the odds. And for Mogwai’s passionate fanbase, this felt like a much-needed win.

“Bands like us don’t normally ever get to number one,” says Braithwaite. “We’re not all over Radio 1. I don’t know what means people have of being famous… We’re not on TikTok or whatever. You know what I mean? It’s a bit different.

“I think in the lockdown people have really appreciated things like music and films, TV, books, all that kind of stuff. There seems to have been a real appreciation of what culture brings to people’s lives. Because when you’re stuck in your house, other than friendships, that’s kind of all you’ve got. You can’t do much else. And I think people realise that it plays a big part. Maybe our record’s a part of that story.”

Mogwai number one
Mogwai photo: Antony Crook

Recorded last August during the brief period when lockdown was loosened enough to allow the band to go from their Glasgow base down to a studio in Worcestershire, As The Love Continues had a difficult birth.

“Making the record during the pandemic was a bit of a struggle,” says Braithwaite. The band had been supposed to record at producer Dave Fridmann’s studio in Buffalo, USA, in May – but obviously that was cancelled. Committed to their long-time producer but stuck on different continents, they ended up with a disembodied Dave on video call from the States, bringing the album together “from afar”. 

“I think we were all conscious of not letting the limitations affect us negatively,” says Braithwaite. “And maybe that brought the best out of us, in a way.”

Though having the record to work on was “a godsend” that kept him busy throughout this unpredictable and arduous year, Braithwaite said it’s still been rocky. “I mean, there’s been really hard things, you know. Not being able to go to my mum’s for Christmas. Everyone’s life has been affected. So yeah, it’s been tough, you know. I think everyone’s been affected in different ways.”

The most surprising effect of lockdown for Braithwaite has been a massive change in how he sees travel. “As musicians, we get really moody about travel. There’s brilliant things about travelling, but when you tour a lot, you start to kind of obsess about the annoying things,” he says. “That’s completely over. Like, I will eat the worst, overpriced airport food and won’t complain at all, just to go somewhere. So yeah, I definitely miss travel a lot.”

Known for being politically outspoken, Braithwaite has long supported The Big Issue. Back in 2015, he tried his hand at selling the magazine, during an event to mark international #VendorWeek – the global week of action to support street paper sellers around the world. As successive lockdowns have stopped Big Issue sellers from being able to work, he says he’s been thinking a lot about them as well as other people without stable housing.

“I live on a busy road, so I’ve talked to a lot of the vendors and people that don’t have housing,” he says. “Sadly, a really lovely guy, Sean, that we used to talk to every day, he passed away just a few weeks ago. I don’t even know what happened to him, but it just kind of shows you how tough people’s lives are.

“He would sit in the street and we talk to him every day. He was a really, really lovely guy. Really smart. You know, he just had a tough time. And ended up in a bad situation. It could happen to anyone.”

Braithwaite says he sometimes despairs at how fleeting public outrage can be over big social issues.

“You know, there was that photo of all the people in Glasgow, in George Square queueing in the snow and everyone was really appalled by it. And I was just thinking, they’re queueing every day. There’s people queuing every day. Like are they going to just stop it because the weather’s crap and it looks bad in a photo?” he explains.

“I mean it is appalling, but it’s appalling every single day of the year. You know?

“I think people have this weird thing where one image can really, really shock them. Like that poor wee boy that drowned. [Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose image made global headlines in 2015 after he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea along with his mother and brother.] And then a month later, you start hearing people banging on about refugees on the telly again. You’re like, well, what happened about giving a shit about that little boy?

“All these people have kids or are part of a family. Selective outrage is a bit of a modern problem.”

Is the album title a message, then? Is As The Love Continues an instruction for 2021, maybe a rallying cry?

“We don’t really think in those terms,” Braithwaite says. “It was something Martin’s [Mogwai drummer Martin Bulloch] little girl said. I think she was trying to say something else. A lot of our song titles come from things people say by accident, or people say randomly and just kind of sticks in our head. And we just liked it. But I definitely like the positivity.”

Maintaining positivity, the band are “very tentatively planning some gigs” for later this year.

“If things, when they open up, just kind of all clicked into place it’d be lovely to be playing gigs for the second half of this year,” says Braithwaite. “We’ve got definite plans for next year but it’s just waiting to see when we can when we can go out.”

It didn’t take long for the band to make good on the promise – a Glasgow show has already been announced for November.

Though he doesn’t think things will change “drastically” for Mogwai in the wake of their chart triumph, Braithwaite hopes it’ll at least help them get a bit of attention for their next tour. “It can’t do any harm,” he shrugs.