Digging for the rhythmic gold at the core of the Scottish rock institution.
Driving, methodical, precise yet bombastic…these are the qualities we rock drummers strive for when we pick up a pair of sticks. But in reality it’s rare when players fully grasp the depth of such profound attributes, and rarer still when they get to put them to exquisite use in a band that gets more popular with each passing year. Martin Bulloch, the driving force behind Glasgow, Scotland’s revered post-rock band Mogwai, has long since mastered the deceptive art of laying down a rock-solid foundation, and with the release of his band’s latest full-length on Rock Action Records, As the Love Continues, the world at large is finally beginning to recognize it.
In their twenty-six years together, the four core members of Mogwai — Bulloch, singer/guitarist Stuart Braithwaite, bassist Dominic Aitchison, and multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns (the newbie, having joined in ’98) — have gone from playing regular nights in their local Nice N Sleazy club to being able to sell out rooms like Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall. In the process they’ve blazed a musical trail and redefined what it is to be a rock band by all of today’s standards.
After establishing their sound on small independent labels like Chemikal Underground in Glasgow, Mogwai stayed true to themselves and their art as they continued to release albums, gaining notoriety and popularity along the way. In 2010 they founded their own Rock Action Records label, on which they’ve released numerous albums, EPs, and singles, and upon its release this past February, As the Love Continues topped all major streaming platforms and radio and sales charts in the U.K. — hardly a predictable feat for a mostly instrumental band. On the Drums… contributor Jeff Ryan gets the scoop.
OTD: Congratulations on the success of As the Love Continues. We all think it’s an amazing album, and after working so hard for twenty-six years, the accolades are well deserved.
Martin: Thanks, Jeff, that’s extremely kind of you.
OTD: Mogwai’s albums have always paid close attention to the sound and dynamics of the drums and how they fit into the songs, in an almost puzzle-like way. Is there a lot of planning prior to going in to record?
Martin: There is, aye. By the time we get to the studio I will usually have most things worked out. If I’m winging a part in the studio, I find it difficult to relax, and it can sound all a bit forced. That said, the producer can sometimes ask you to vary the part, but as long as the nuts and bolts are written it usually works out okay.
OTD: How did the recording process for As the Love Continues compare to that of previous Mogwai albums? Was it made at your studio Castle of Doom?
Martin: We had a lot of fun doing this record. Dom, Stuart, and I had started working on a bunch of songs in our rehearsal room at COD for the first couple of months of last year, but then we had lockdown and didn’t see each other for three months. That was really frustrating, as we were starting to make some decent progress with the songs we had. Once things got a little better we decamped to the studio again to resume the work we’d started. Barry had been sending us demos throughout this time from his studio in Berlin, and we would run through those too.
We were meant to go to Tarbox Road Studios in upstate New York in May to work with Dave Fridmann again, but that all went a bit tits-up when COVID hit. We decided we still wanted to get these songs down, so we asked [producer and Castle of Doom cofounder] Tony Dougan if he could engineer the record with Dave overseeing it from the U.S. We ended up going to a cool residential studio in England called Vada, as we seem to do more work residentially. We had a great time there. It was summer and the grounds of the studio were beautiful. We were treated unbelievably well by the guys there too — thanks, Matt and George! We would start our working day in the afternoon instead of morning so that Dave could join us via Zoom. It was like he was in the room with us, as he had a desk feed from Vada and could control whatever sounds he wanted with help from Tony. It was like Big Brother watching over us.
OTD: The dynamics and how you all work together play a central role not only in how your songs are created, but in what makes the band so powerful in a live setting. Do you all tend to play a lot together during the recording process to let songs evolve, or is a lot of it predetermined?
Martin: I would say that most of it was predetermined, as we only had a couple of weeks to get the songs down and didn’t want to waste any time. Dave would push us a bit and suggest different things for us to try, so it was completely regimented. Most of the evolution happens in the rehearsal room before we record.
OTD: I’ve always enjoyed the loops and programmed patterns that have flown in and out of Mogwai’s albums since as far back as Rock Action , with the drum loop that opens that album. They always seem sto play a major role in the way they help sculpt the songs and direct them in certain dynamic ways. Is this a responsibility that falls on your shoulders, or is it a collective creative decision that the band works on together?
Martin: The loops can come from anyone; it’s not solely my responsibility, thankfully. I find it quite cool to work around a loop that someone has used whilst demoing their song, playing in and out of it and trying to combine both in the tune. Barry is quite good at writing drum loops that don’t necessarily sound like drums, which gives me a good bit of freedom to try something that’ll complement it.
OTD: You seem to take a methodical approach to creating your drum patterns. They seem to be inspired more by the melody of either Stuart’s guitar patterns or Barry’s keyboard lines, and it’s never about trying to play a flashy, “drumistic” part. The parts always make rhythmic and melodic sense, which is something that a lot of drummers strive for. How did you develop this style of playing over the years?
Martin: I’ve mostly tried to be true to the main melody of the song, to emphasize the tune and try not to distract the listener. The guys write really strong melodies, so I’m very fortunate in that respect, as it seems quite easy to hit the right spots. I will still try to make the part sound interesting enough for me to want to play the song. I can’t think of anything worse than overbearing drum parts, they’re worse than shite guitar solos.
OTD: What gear was used during the making of this album?
Martin: I had an old Ludwig kit stored at my pal Ally’s house in the U.S. He moved from Scotland to the U.S. and now works for the Foo Fighters, and he moved my kit over to their studio. When we were in L.A. playing with the Cure, he asked if I’d like to take it back home, which I did.
I found that kit in a wee drum store in a town I can barely remember whilst on tour in the 1990s. I paid about $600 for it. It has 13" and 16" toms and a 20" kick, with a ’50s WFL snare. I had my pal Jeansy, who restores vintage kits, give it a once over before we started recording. He dated the kick to the early ’60s and the toms to ’67. It sounds unreal. The Foo Fighters actually used it in a video. I think the drummer guy thought it was his.
OTD: Did you switch out gear depending on what was needed for the song, such as the snare, or heads?
Martin: We changed the heads on practically every song, as Dave would have specific ideas for the drum sounds. To be honest I can’t really remember what we used. It was a mix of Evans and Remo. I have an endorsement with Sabian, and used their cymbals. I apologize for not knowing what models. I went to their warehouse and tried a bunch out, fuck knows what they’re called. Sorry for being crap. Ha ha!
OTD: Growing up in Glasgow and watching bands in and around that city or the U.K. in general, was there any one in particular that inspired you when you were younger to play drums or to possibly to develop a certain style?
Martin: Not really with Glasgow bands, no. The first drummer I really noticed would have been Reni from the Stone Roses, and wishing that I could do what he did. Part of me still does. At that time I didn’t have a kit, but it was certainly him that made me interested in drums. I think it wasn’t until I heard Mudhoney and Dan Peters’ parts that I decided I was going to get some drums and try and do what he did. I really loved his drumming, still do, and without doubt he singlehandedly inspired me to get a kit.
OTD: You’ve sat in with Arab Strap, as well as with Gruff Rhys. Have you done any other musical collaborations or have any plans to do more of that in the future?
Martin: I didn’t really do much with either of those guys. I played the song “Soaps” on a boat in Sydney with the Strap, which was amazing for me as I love that song. And with Gruff, he needed a drummer for three or four gigs on the Candylion tour, which was great fun. I also played a gig with Bardo Pond in Manchester, as their drummer couldn’t make the first show of the tour they were on with us. That was terrifying, as I only had soundcheck to rehearse a forty-minute set.
OTD: Now that there’s a faint light at the end of the tunnel in regards to the pandemic and hopefully we’re all able to play live soon, what’s next for Mogwai as far as touring and recording?
Martin: I think like most bands we want to get out there and play to people. It’s the best part of being in a band, and I’ve really missed it. We’re starting to get offers now, which is great. Hopefully they’ll all go ahead; with the vaccines there might be an end in sight. I pretty much missed the whole of the last touring campaign due to ill health — I had sepsis for three or four months and ended up having open heart surgery about two years ago, so I’m really itching to get back.
Regarding recording, we have a few songs that could’ve made the album that we want to have another look at, so we might think about putting them out later this year or early next, depending on how they turn out. We’ll just have to see how the gig scenario pans out. If they don’t happen then we’ll probably go into the studio to give ourselves something to do.
OTD: Thanks again for taking the time to speak to On the Drums…, Martin, and best of luck this year.
Jeff Ryan is a freelance contributor to Modern Drummer magazine and On The Drums… who’s played and/or recorded with St. Vincent, the War on Drugs, Daniel Johnston, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Motorcade, and Keren Ann, among many others. He lives in Dallas, Texas.