"What elements go into the choice of music to which to listen while writing? I’ve heard how some authors select the sounds of rain and the waves to get them into the mood. Others crank up heavy metal to help them find a space where their writing will flow onto the page. Many more lose themselves in classical music. Why?
It is of course subjective but perhaps the answer comes in the first ten seconds of Mogwai’s debut album, Young Team:
“Because music is bigger than words and wider than pictures”Even the Scottish lady who recites the words as the band begins to play their first song, Yes! I am a long way from home, doesn’t seem to believe it. But the band members do and over the course of eight Mogwai albums (more if you count their scores for film and TV), I have come to as well.
Mogwai - Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home (youtube)
It is the Post-Punk Scottish noise merchants who will be the subject of this piece as I try to describe why I listen almost exclusively to them as I write.
|Mogwai live on stage 2007 via Wiki Commons licence|
I was first introduced to Mogwai by a pal from school in the mid-2000s. Wylie convinced me to head up to the Queen’s University students’ union in Belfast to hear the band live in the famed Mandela Hall. I was a little bit reticent, listening at that time to bands like yourcodenameis:milo, Clutch, The Mars Volta, Fugazi, and Tool, very much different to the style and substance of Mogwai. Wylie described them as being like dance music, but slower – much, much slower – and without lyrics. It did not seem like my thing at all.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I can’t remember if they started or ended with Christmas Steps that night but I remember that you could’ve heard a pin drop in Mandela Hall at the beginning. By the crescendo of the song you could not have heard Slipknot if they had started up two feet away. I didn’t even go to the bar (which is very unlike me), but merely stood there with my brain shaking in my skull as a band in full denim and plaid shirts pumped out some of the loudest, most beautiful songs I’d ever heard. Immersed, entranced or beaten up by sound? Who knows, but I came out of there having had a very different experience from every other gig to which I’d been.
Mogwai started out in Glasgow in 1995 with the aim of creating “serious guitar music” and having some early success on the Indie circuit. Their first LP, Young Team, beautiful and brash in equal amount, soon appeared, but their real break-out album, Come On Die Young, was produced in 1999. In their own ‘words’:
Mogwai - Punk Rock: (youtube)
Rock Action in 2001 was a bit of a departure, but a welcome one, introducing an electronic vibe and more vocals to their almost wordless canon. A single, My Father, My King, wasn’t on this album but was released at the same time. Clocking in at a whopping 20 minutes, it remains the song I listen most often when writing battle scenes. I haven’t been to war but I would imagine that it is an all-out assault on the senses which develops and abates as does the song itself. In its quiet moments the song evokes the requisite feeling of apprehension as I find myself anticipating the storm of sound which I know is coming again. By its end I can almost see the broken earth, discarded arrows and ripped banners left by a medieval battle. I’m ready to write about war:
Mogwai - My Father, My King (youtube)
At the end of my next book, Lord of the Sea Castle, which will be published by Accent Press this month, there is a long fight sequence which pits a Norman force of 120 against a 3,000-strong Viking-Irish army from Waterford. This climactic battle, lifted almost in its entirety from actual history, took place over around six hours in 1170 and was, without giving the game away, one almighty encounter! It was also written with My Father, My King playing in my ears, its surging and plummeting soundtrack keeping the action moving (I hope!) from scene to scene.
2003 saw the release of Happy Songs for Happy People. It is distinctive due to its heavily synthesised and almost comprehensible vocals which act to draw you in, to make you listen more closely as if the Mogwai secret is just within your grasp, that if you strain your ears just a little bit harder you’ll derive the deeper meaning. I think Kids Will Be Skeletons is my favourite song off the album but perhaps Killing All the Flies is the best pointer to this album’s content:
Mogwai - Killing All The Flies (youtube)
“I think most people are not used to having no lyrics to focus on,” guitarist Stuart Braithwaite told one music journalist. “Lyrics are a real comfort to some people. I guess they like to sing along and when they can’t do that with us they can get a bit upset.”
And that statement about sums it up. Mogwai provide the backdrop and the listener can imprint what images they like upon it. Sometimes words cannot do justice to the feelings produced by music. But that is my game and I find myself attempting to do just that, to put lyrics to Mogwai’s sounds. Given that I write about the era of medieval romance when chivalric knights listened to and were motivated by stories put to song by troubadours and bards, I think that this is quite apt.
|Detail from The Hawk is Howling album cover ('fair use' image)|
Mr Beast (2006), The Hawk is Howling (2008), and Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2010) are albums that continued to show Mogwai excel while their most recent, Rave Tapes (2013), added an almost Celtic electronic feel to their repertoire.
However, as well as gigging and writing albums, the band have produced a number of soundtracks are the film and television industry. As you can imagine their music, cinematic in scale, fits perfectly with each director’s vision, but I love this scene from the 2006 film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.
Zidane - A 21th Century Portrait - best scene (youtube)
With immersive and evocative sounds that Mogwai produce I can go under for four or five hours at a time without surfacing from writing. While almost overwhelming and often muted, it creates an atmosphere of edge, an anxious accompaniment to the words I’m trying to get down on paper. There are no boundaries. It is instrumentation that conjures images in my mind without intrusion and that is what makes it the perfect music for me to write novels."
Mogwai - Folk Death 95 (youtube)
Edward Ruadh Butler is a writer of historical fiction from Tyrone in Northern Ireland. His debut, Swordland, based around the little known events of the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, was published by Accent Press in February 2015 and in paperback on April 2016. The second in the series, Lord of the Sea Castle, is available now at Amazon (US) and Amazon (UK).
He also contributed to a recent blog post where three authors argued - politely - about the 12th Century