One of the most influential British bands in a generation, Mogwai aren’t just stalwarts within their field – they’re auteurs continuing to push its boundaries.
This year has seen the Scottish band enter the next stage of their ongoing creative evolution, writing the soundtrack to critically acclaimed French horror series Les Revenants (‘The Returned’) and releasing an album of the same name this February. The symbiotic relationship between their work as Mogwai and their soundtrack projects is being celebrated this month with three unique, never-before-seen live performances of their soundtrack to 2006 art-doc Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait. Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s gorgeous film tracks the legendary French midfielder Zinédine Zidane for the duration of a Spanish league match at Madrid’s Bernabéu Stadium, and does so with a sombre, moving elegance that won near-universal praise for filmmakers and band alike. The performance will get its world premiere at the Manchester International Festival, with further airings planned at 220 Broomielaw in Glasgow and the Barbican in London. To mark the trio of performances, FACT spoke to Mogwai about their soundtrack work, how their own sound has evolved from such commissions, and what audiences can expect from these very special live shows.
When you were first approached about scoring The Returned, is it true that you submitted the soundtrack before the series was actually filmed?
Well, yes and no. It was a very reciprocal process. When we first got the synopsis in the very early stages, they asked us for some music in return, so we sent them a bunch of demos. It was all pieces that we’d already written beforehand and recorded in our houses, so they weren’t tailored towards the film at all, but they came back and told us that they liked most of it. We were on tour when they were going to start filming, so we went into the studio and recorded quite a lot of what became the final soundtrack before seeing any footage. What was interesting, though, was that they were playing the original demos we sent them whilst they were filming. Drawing up ideas, developing the production – they already had an “active soundtrack”, if you will.
That’s cool – it kind of makes the music like a character in the film, being developed alongside everything else.
That’s pretty much how they described the music: as being a character within the film as much as the people involved. Which is also, you know, very French. I thought this was a really unusual thing for a film to do, but I was talking on the radio about the project not that long ago with Ben Wheatley – the director of Kill List and Sightseers – and he says he always works like that. He always has the music at least partially done before he makes the film. He’ll listen to it when they’re driving to location sites and discussing characters and so on, so maybe it’s not that strange for them.
It may not be unusual from a director’s perspective, but as a band it must have been something of a shot in the dark; working on the tone, the atmosphere, all the nuances, without any visuals to go on.
As musicians, trying to get a grasp of the atmosphere that they wanted that was the main focus. They’d given us a lot of visual reference points like Let The Right One In, The Shining and Dead Man, so we had a vague idea of the tone, but they still wanted us to ‘do us’, as it were. Be Mogwai, but work within this ‘horror ballpark’. Still vague, I know. Anyway, flesh got added to the bones as we got to see some of the scenes a step at a time. We got the script, then photographs of where they were going to film, then photos of the actors. Once it all started to add together in our minds, they started to say, “Okay, we’re filming now. This song has to be this long to fit with this particular scene”, “We need more music in order for this scene to be fully realised”, and so on.
Yeah, definitely, it was very involved. We loved it though, so much so that we’re going to do the second series as well. We just have to make sure we’re not on tour again when they’re filming so we can become even more involved in the process this time round.
What I find interesting about The Returned is that the soundtrack as a record isn’t styled as an official soundtrack. When you listen to official soundtracks, they’re quite fragmented, but The Returned has a clearly delineated structure of songs. It’s a different kind of release altogether.
We actually re-did most of the songs from the show for the record. Very few of the final recordings you hear on the album are actually used in the show at all. We wrote the music and then thought, “Well, this isn’t going to make a very good album”, so we went back to work fleshing it out again.
Did you initially plan for it to be a full album though?
Oh yeah, we always knew it was going to be a record in itself.
Well, that makes it even more of a double project then? People often buy an official soundtrack to evoke memories of the film, so restructuring it as an album is interesting.
Yeah, and it can be frustrating sometimes. When you’re watching a film, the music can be so effective and moving, but you’re also only hearing it for a minute or so at most a lot of the time. It’s really the story and the characters making the music so moving in the first place. It was a challenge in itself to recapture that evocation of emotion from the series back into the music as an album format: songs with starts, middles and ends.
The whole process strikes me as something of a creative limbo. You’re approached because of your own sound, which you then have to tailor to fit a project that is detached from your everyday way of working. Where do you fit the Mogwai soundtrack work amongst the rest of your output so far?
I do think of our soundtracks as proper records, definitely. The films we’ve scored have always just basically let us do whatever we wanted, so in that respect we weren’t constrained by a set of absolute requirements of what should be like what for whichever part of the film. Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait was very freeform and open, and with The Returned we were given such room to experiment that it didn’t feel like us working on someone else’s project. I guess if you completely stop being a normal band – doing albums and gigs – then you might get into the position where someone approaches you and says, “Right, make us a score for a comedy”. I think at that point we would really cease to be Mogwai. Would probably be such a bleak comedy as well.
You say it was a gradual and mutual process, but were there any creative conflicts?
There were a few where they would want the music to be really bombastic and crashing, and our idea of what a soundtrack should be didn’t fit with that. We thought it would seem really jarring and heavy-handed so we went back-and-forth about that a fair bit. I think their idea of what they wanted or expected from Mogwai wasn’t what Mogwai felt was worthy or ideal for a soundtrack in itself.
Yeah, where I feel The Returned is set apart from others is that it’s got a very delicate timbre to it. It’s more about a cold, lingering dread than visceral shock. It must be difficult to score a horror soundtrack without constantly thinking about the more obvious references, like John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream.
I don’t think we even have the technical dexterity to be like those producers, channel those motifs or even use their technologies to pander to stereotypes of what a horror soundtrack should feel like or reference. Those people are so iconic that it would seem pretty heavy-handed to try and go down that route. Besides, that kind of 80s VHS horror is the sound of the moment. I mean, the new Boards Of Canada album is such a ‘video nasty’ record to me!
Considering Mogwai have done a few film scores now, what do you think of the general climate of bands scoring soundtracks? I’m thinking of Chromatics and Kavinsky on Drive, Johnny Jewel reportedly signing up for the remake of Logan’s Run – do you think it’s become more fashionable for pop artists recently?
I think artists like to do them now partly because it gives a sense of gravitas to their name. It’s a challenge because it’s a totally different discipline, so if you can pull it off, I think it speaks pretty highly of you. There are definitely more pop artists scoring films these days, also because it’s probably a much easier sell in the movie world now than, say, ten or fifteen years ago. I mean, we didn’t get asked to do anything for years and years, and Zidane is really more of an art piece, but I think it’s definitely more of a normal trajectory for bands of that ilk now. Having said that though, if you look back to Tangerine Dream, in the 70s and 80s, it was the done thing.
Do you have any more future soundtrack work planned?
Only the second series of The Returned. We’re going to record our next album pretty soon, and then we’re on tour again, so I can’t imagine a time in the very near future that we’ll be able to do any more fully realised soundtrack work. That’s also been the problem in the past. Lots of people have asked us to do scores, but they often need it in six-to -eight weeks and we’re usually on tour or recording our own material. Hopefully our next album will be out early next year and we can work on a new score then
The two kinds of work seems to run in a nice tandem. Do you feel that Mogwai’s own sound has become influenced by your soundtrack work?
This reminds me, we actually did a soundtrack once that we ended up getting fired from. I don’t want to say what the film was because we hated it that much – I don’t even want people to go and check out the film because they were total dicks about it – but we ended up using quite a lot of what we’d worked on for it for Hawk Is Howling. Don’t get me wrong, I like that record, but I almost think that its not quite Mogwai. It’s almost too “soundtrack-y” in some ways.
I’d argue there’s an inherently cinematic element to your work that people are drawn to. I’m sure many Mogwai fans would say much of your work is “soundtrack-y” in of itself. Maybe filmmakers are drawn to Mogwai because of this. How do you feel going back to writing another Mogwai album after a soundtrack? What’s different about the experience?
It feels like you’re getting let off the lead. I always think that when you’re doing a soundtrack you have to always be aware that you are not the focal point of the piece. To me, you shouldn’t really notice the music in the first place. You should appreciate it, but have it as an afterthought. When you make a record, though, people need to know who you are and why they’re listening to you, otherwise it serves a lesser purpose. Doing soundtrack work has definitely added an element of excitement to our own work now. I’m even thinking of other bands’ records that are coming out now with a different perspective – if we did something like that, what would we sound like?
Do you feel that publishing is a commercial necessity as a band now?
Yup, absolutely. The ownership of the song-writing and the material has become the main thing. That and playing live, of course. No one is really expecting to make any money off record sales and, even then, you end up spending so much on your record than you just break even most of the time. I remember when we first started we were with a big publishing company, and we got a really good feel of what we did and didn’t want our music to be associated with. Most bands wouldn’t touch publishing with a barge-pole back then though.
Probably because they didn’t need to back in the ’90s so much, but now it’s gone the other way where it’s just a complete feeding frenzy. We don’t get asked as much as we used to – probably because all the majors are wining and dining with the advertising agencies. It’s pretty flakey and unreliable from an artist’s point of view. You can go years with nothing, then agencies will come to you with the most insane numbers and… it’s great, but you can’t necessarily rely on it. Granted, we’ve never done anything that we’ve ended up really unhappy about, but it was still an education. Put it this way: you wont catch our music at a Tory conference sponsored by McDonalds any time soon.
See, that’s what I find so interesting about bands scoring films. It strikes me as a very controlled way of publishing. It’s entirely your own work for an express project, not bought by a company and taken down different avenues post-production.
That’s a good way of looking at it. I guess also if you’re lucky enough to have people buy your records and come to your shows then you’re onto a winner.
Speaking of shows, Mogwai are performing the Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait soundtrack live this month at three really different and unusual venues for you. What are you trying to convey through these settings?
I think the main thing is that we didn’t want the shows to be in places that we’d normally play. I always take a lot of interest in how people behave in different live music environments: how a really po-faced place like an art gallery differs to a big outdoor spot down by the river in Glasgow. I think the most important thing is that they’re all really unique events.
It’s apt you’re using gallery spaces though, considering you call it more of an “art piece”.
We actually wanted to do it at Old Trafford, playing behind the goals! The premiere of it was at the football stadium in Basel for the Basel Art Fair, and we showed it where the goal posts are. It felt more like a football event than a concert, which put a different spin on it for us. The difference between the way people behave in a normal gig space and in an arts space is incredible to me. There’s been times where we’ve played the same cities a few months apart and one time it can feel like no one’s paying attention, just rowdy and drunk – and you know you’re playing to the exact same people – but go to another venue in the same city, stick some curtains up and arrange some different lighting, and the whole tone of the crowd changes. You can hear a pin drop.
This got me thinking of the reaction to Low’s show at the Minnesota Rock Garden recently, where some of the crowd felt that they didn’t “get their money’s worth” from the live show. What will the Zidane performance be like, and what do you think people will expect of it?
I do hope people realise that we’re not doing a typical Mogwai set. We’re playing the soundtrack in full along with the film on a massive screen behind us. There’s much more music in this live show than in the film though: it’s not going to be as broken up or coming-and-going as when you watch the film itself. We will play continuously for the full duration. Besides that, I think it’s going to be an interesting and very different performance from our usual style because it’s such a precise structure and concept. That’s my one… well, not reservation, but I’m certainly intrigued to know how that’s going to pan out live.
So, besides the obvious structure and concept, do you think the tone of the show will be different to that of a typical Mogwai show?
Oh yeah, really different. I don’t even think any of us will have microphones. We’re probably going to be sitting down while we play, actually. It’s important to think of us as not the focal point. The film is. There’s going to be really specific cues for us to come in on and work around so it won’t be as active or unpredictable as our normal shows. The music is much more subdued and much more “background”. Ideally, I’d like the audience to forget we’re there and just get into the film to be honest. I see it as a Mogwai show where we’re not the centrepiece, y’know? I just hope the screen’s big enough!