Mogwai has just released Rock Action, an often gorgeous disc that filters its Jesus and Mary Chain-meets-Joy Division essence through Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann's looking glass. It's an album that encourages thoughtful, romantic imbibition. The songs bristle with potential volume, serving on disc as both affecting, layered compositions and a blueprint for the loud quicksand castles Mogwai builds in concert. There isn't much rock on Rock Action, but the action is stunning: String sections collide with banjo, and small tsunamis of guitar give way to sepulchral pianos.
"To be honest," Braithwaite says of the disc, "we didn't expect a good reaction. We thought a lot of people would peck holes in it and think of reasons to say it was shit." (That's "shite"-rhymes-with-"height.") The opposite has happened, with reviewers frothing at Rock Action's newly beautified wall of sound, trying to push the band from cultdom to underground sensation.
"We've tried to consciously avoid being the kind of band that gets on the cover of magazines for their first album," Braithwaite says. Over here, Mogwai has recently been anointed as the kind of band whose interviews are listed on the magazine covers. In the U.K., where Braithwaite attributes the killing hype he disdains to a competitive weekly music press that requires constant feeding, Mogwai's attitude has mostly exempted the group from mention among the big boys. "People fall for bands hook, line and sinker because someone gets on the cover, then a couple of months later it's someone else," he says of New Music Express' and Melody Maker's tactics. "They create phenomenons [that aren't there]" (and feuds -- Braithwaite and Arab Strap's Aidan Moffett aren't about to record a duet, but they drink together without incident). Mogwai's expectations are more basic.
"I think there was a point when we could go everywhere and play to a couple hundred people," Braithwaite says. "Now it's more like a thousand. We're building a small band of dedicated fans." The group has one of its most devoted audiences in Japan, one that has just been rewarded; despite Braithwaite's claim that the band is "immune" to label pressures that result in such fan favoritism, only Japanese buyers get a version of Rock Action that's longer by two songs.
"The simple equation is selling more records in America and Japan," Braithwaite continues, "because then we've got more time in the studio, so we get to work on things there. We have the chance to think of things in the studio. We still rehearse in Glasgow, but now we get in a car and go over to a studio to work."
This time, band members drove to an airport and flew to New York, where Mogwai recorded Rock Action at an upstate studio with producer Fridmann. The isolation from fellow-Scot drinking buddies, such as the members of Arab Strap, and the broad palettes of Mogwai's individual members probably helped, but after two double-record-length epics, the magic this time came from scaling back. The waves of tremulous, oscillating pressure remain, but in concentrated form. Opening track "Sine Wave" (a meaningless title, Braithwaite told Spin recently, copping again to the band's haphazard way with naming its music) is a friendly steal from, and improvement on, Nine Inch Nails' "A Warm Place," a swirl of sound that isn't matched until the Built to Spill-meets-Pet Sounds "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong" (the best Prince title he never thought up himself).
"Most of my favorite bands have guitarists who are kind of rudimentary," Braithwaite says. He and the rest of Mogwai (drummer Martin Bulloch, guitarist John Cummings and multi-instrumentalist and arranger Barry Burns) are notorious rattlers of other bands' cages, taking good-natured (and sometimes not) shots at fellow U.K. acts. "I'm actually pretty lazy when it comes to guitar playing, but I can get waves of unreasonable judgment toward other guitar players," Braithwaite says with a laugh. "They didn't put those frets for you to look at," he says, imitating a catcall he's directed at lesser lights. "I could probably teach guitar," says the onetime surgeon's receptionist. "I could do that if I got fucked."