”I don’t know why CSI Miami likes us so much,” confesses Mogwai guitarist and co-founder Stuart Braithwaite. “Maybe we are the perfect soundtrack for murder. Maybe we’re on all the murderers’ iPods as they go about their daily killings.”
Whatever the show’s fascination, it is shared in film, television and games, which have lifted Mogwai’s stunning songs without returning the favor to ask for an original score. The Scottish rock quintet, which also includes guitarist John Cummings, instrumentalist Barry Burns, bassist Dominic Aitchison and drummer Martin Bulloch, is so overdue on that front that it is no longer funny.
Since dropping the debut full-length MogwaiYoung Team and the ephemeral compilation Ten Rapid like twin nukes in 1997, Mogwai has built a rep for cinematic noise. Its latest effort, The Hawk Is Howling, continues that fine tradition of mostly instrumental wide-screen epics. So where the hell is Hollywood?
Who cares? Mogwai has been busy infiltrating film and television regardless. In 2006, the football fans scored the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, about the renowned but controversial soccer star. Its music has also landed in films as different as The Fountain, Sicko and Miami Vice. And then there’s CSI: Miami, which has dipped into Mogwai’s catalog so many times that the band should be invited to score the whole spinoff.
Yet the revenue from Hollywood’s borrowing binge hasn’t trickled down to Mogwai’s Glasgow-based independent label, Rock Action. “We don’t see too much of the license money that comes in,” Braithwaite says. “We’re pretty unrecouped. But thankfully, Rock Action is starting to pay for itself these days. We can pimp other bands’ music out for cash, as opposed to ourselves.”
That self-deprecating humor has made Mogwai a perennial anomaly: The quintet is known for serious, extended guitar epics but undermines them with meaningless titles. The Hawk Is Howling’s expansive opener, “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead,” might feel like a slap in the face to the Doors and Los Angeles, but it’s just another smart-assed day at the office.
“We come up with the song titles after the songs are written,” Braithwaite explains, “so they have nothing to do with the music. ‘I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’ doesn’t mean anything at all. Los Angeles has had some amazing bands, anyway: Love, the Avengers, Jane’s Addiction. [Ed. note: The Avengers are from San Francisco.] I think that that song turned out really well.”
So did the entire effort, which, unlike its predecessors, lacks vocals. “We just didn’t write any songs that sounded like they needed singing. We don’t really plan things too much.”
Morrison wasn’t the only ’60s icon who’s tangentially channeled in The Hawk Is Howling. The oft-troubled 13th Floor Elevators lifer Roky Erickson was also summoned, literally, to contribute vocals to “Devil Rides,” from Mogwai’s 2008 Batcat EP.
“I asked Roky to sing after hearing that he’d been doing some shows around Austin,” Braithwaite says. “We tracked him down using our Batman detective skills. I grew up listening to the Elevators and loved the idea of getting a legendary musician back in the studio after years of no one knowing what he was up to.” Braithwaite is also a fan, and friend, of another reclusive genius, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, who invited Mogwai to open for his band’s hotly anticipated All Tomorrow’s Parties show in New York later this month. It has brought out the fanboy in him.
“I don’t see anything wrong with bands getting back together as long as they sound good,” Braithwaite says. “I saw My Bloody Valentine in Glasgow and really loved it. All Tomorrow’s Parties should be awesome.”
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Even more awesome would be watching Hollywood wake up and sign on Mogwai’s discerning film buffs for an original film score. The Dominic Hailstone–directed video for the band’s newest anthem, “Batcat,” looks like it crawled out of Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson’s closet. Are you listening, Middle Earth?
“We would love to drop some jams for The Hobbit,” Braithwaite cracks. “In fact, I think that Barry should do the voice for Smaug.”
Mogwai performs at the Wiltern Theater on Tuesday, September 9.