This interview was originally published by What Hi-Fi? in March 2016.
It is easy, often and now especially, to become consumed by technology. It is easy to allow the romanticism of music, the entire grounds for that technology, to be camouflaged. That is why, speaking with Stuart Braithwaite, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter of post-rock deities Mogwai, it is ultimately uplifting listening to this self-confessed non-techie discuss sound so passionately, relatively unfocused on the mechanics or mathematics behind its reproduction.
Unfocused is not to say uninterested, of course. In fact, when we speak with him, Stuart is in the process of fixing up an out-of-commission Linn turntable he’s been gifted by a friend, and can speak proudly of what is a thoughtfully and impressively pieced together stereo system.
We also speak with Braithwaite in anticipation of Mogwai’s latest record, Atomic, a soundtrack to Mark Cousins’ documentary film of the same name about the atomic age. It’s the band’s third major soundtrack, following on from Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) and for the first series of French supernatural TV show Les Revenants (2012), and we discuss how writing and recording for screen differs to a studio album, also from project-to-project, and about the process of readying a soundtrack for release as a record.
An avid reader of our reviews can hardly have failed to notice our admiration for Braithwaite’s work, nor, in a more pragmatic sense, its worth for testing hi-fi equipment, so we also take this opportunity to ask for his recommended test discs and what it is he’s listening for from his kit. In short, it’s as interesting and revealing a half-hour natter about music as we’re likely to have.
Collaboration outside the band
What Hi-Fi?: Well it makes sense to begin with speaking about Atomic. What’s the process when you’re writing and recording a soundtrack; how is that different to recording a studio album?
Stuart Braithwaite: Well I think the main difference is the music isn’t just for us. When we’re making our own album then the only thing we’re bothered about is the whole band being happy with the music, whereas if it’s a soundtrack then you’ve obviously got other people who are involved, who’ve got to approve and think that the music works as well. So it’s really just more of a collaboration, a collaboration out of the band, compared to an album, which is just the band members getting the music together to our satisfaction.
WHF: Do you see the footage beforehand and write music for specific scenes, or is it more about getting a few ideas together and letting directors decide what to do with it?
SB: The processes have been different. With Atomic, we wrote the music to the scenes, whereas with Les Revenants we just provided an awful lot of music and they just told us where they wanted to put it. So it depends from project to project, but usually we’ll have an idea of the sort of atmosphere of the film. Atomic was a little bit different because there were very different sections of it that have very different emotions and atmospheres to them, but with Zidane and Les Revenants they both had very distinctive atmospheres that we were kind of writing within.
WHF: Had you seen Zidane and Les Revenants beforehand, or was that from speaking with the directors?
SB: With Zidane they’d already made the film, so we came in once the thing was completely shot; they were just editing. Les Revenants we started before they’d even shot anything, it was all just from the story and the references the directors gave us. With Atomic it was kind of self-explanatory, but we were very involved with Mark Cousins, the director, discussing what he wanted, how he wanted things to feel.
In the studio
WHF: You don’t release the album of Atomic until April; what goes on in those in between months?
SB: Essentially the music is the same, but we just spent a bit more time, filled it out a little bit more, wrote a few new parts, changed different sounds; we just really developed it. I think we just wanted to take the opportunity to work on it a little bit more; that was the main motivation.
WHF: What is the recording process like for you; what’s your routine?
SB: We tend to start in the morning getting the basic sounds up; we very often record the bass and the drums together and then overdub the other instruments. [Overdubbing] gives you a bit more time to think about what to play. Usually we’re still writing parts; usually the structure and the basic shape of the music is done, but quite often we’ll still be writing parts.
WHF: Do you ever find yourself not knowing when to stop?
SB: Oh we always put too many parts on, but that’s just a decision further down the line, when we’re mixing we can pick and choose. No-one in the band really has much of an ego about things not getting used or anything like that.
WHF: What sort of things are you listening for when deciding which parts to keep and which to drop?
SB: Really just what sounds good. I mean, that sounds pretty obvious, but really just what works well with the song, what is different, what is new. We’ve made so many records and recorded so many songs that quite often you can do something and it’s not that dissimilar to something you’ve done before. So you obviously pull more towards something different.
Clinging on to CD
WHF: Let’s talk about home; what do you use?
SB: I’ve got a Moon amp, I think it’s a 250i; I’ve got KEF R700 speakers; I’ve got a Pro-Ject turntable, but my friend’s actually given me a Linn turntable that’s missing some parts, so I’ve been getting the parts and I’m going to sort that all out pretty soon; I’ve also got a little KEF Muo Bluetooth speaker for listening to music in other parts of the house.
WHF: What do you use as your main source?
SB: I’d say probably about 50 per cent vinyl, 50 per cent streaming through my Apple TV, to be honest with you. I still listen to CDs actually quite a lot, too; I’ve got a Cambridge Audio CD player. I’m kind of still clinging onto the CD era, even though I rarely buy them I’ve got a load that I bought in the 1990s.
WHF: We often play Mogwai when testing products. When you’re choosing hi-fi, what kind of music do you listen to generally?
SB: I would rather go for something that’s well recorded, like a classically recorded record rather than something really lo-fi. But one of my neighbours has got an insanely good stereo, and actually whenever you play something that was recorded in someone’s garage it sounds really horrible because it brings everything out that’s there. I really like listening to a lot of modern classical, like Max Richter, or possibly some sort of electronic music like Boards Of Canada or Aphex Twin; I think that stuff always sounds really, really good on a great system.
WHF: And what’re you listening to at the minute?
SB: I actually got this really wonderful album on Erased Tapes by a guy called Lubomyr Melnyk; it’s called Rivers and Streams. It’s absolutely brilliant, it’s a solo piano record, it’s one of the best records I’ve heard for years and I’m really, really enjoying that.
I also really like a lot of early African-American music, and I got a great box set on Dust To Digital called Art Of Field Recording Volume Two. It’s a four CD box, and the CD of religious music is absolutely amazing; one of the best things on it I’ve heard for years, I think it’s track four, it’s a piece called New Prospects, it’s just a live recording from a church, it really stopped me in my tracks, it’s one of the best things I’ve heard for a long, long, long time. It sounded absolutely amazing on the stereo, it sounded like you were there, which I suppose is the desired effect.
WHF: With such eclectic taste and the influence of that must have on your own work, is that something you just absorb naturally or are you ever listening intently for ideas for your own writing or recording?
SB: I think of ideas more than actual techniques or anything like that, I’m actually not a very techie person at all, but actually thinking about what’s happening with the music and how that could be applied to the type of instrumentation we use or the way melodies interact with each other, whether that’s something we could use. I’m just interested in how different people work.
WHF: What’s most important to you when you’re listening to hi-fi?
SB: I think space is really important, I think when you can really hear the proper sound of the instrument. I really like acoustic recordings and one of my favourite guitar players is Robbie Basho, the twelve-string player; to be able to hear the way each string resonates with the other strings, having the space to hear that kind of detail is important. I mean, there’s also a lot to be said for having so much music going on that you can’t tell what the hell’s going on as well, I think both extremes are absolutely wonderful.
Mogwai's new album Atomic is on sale now