I am still plenty of festival shots of bands I haven’t published and this is a good time to go through Mogwai’s pics. I have been following (and photographing) this band for years but for some odd reasons they haven’t yet found a place on this little blog.
Waiting for the overload of Autumn shows about to arrive, it’s their time. And it is also the time I can plunge into my archive of old negatives to fish out the ones of a show they played at the Junction in Cambridge in 2006. I am not sure they have ever been published anywhere. A double gallery with quite a few years of Mogwai (and of me) in between.
Mogwai formed mid-nineties in Glasgow. To me, they have always been the band responsible to have both brought post-rock to the masses and many patients to NHS otolaryngologists. I didn’t forget my earplugs to the 2012 IBYM ATP, but for that 2006 concert at the Junction I did and I believe I still pay the price.
Wikipedia was probably not yet complete enough to teach me that: “According to Chinese tradition, mogwai are certain demons, which often inflict harm on humans.”. Everything would have been crystal clear.
Following the path of Post-Rock pioneers, from Slint to Dirty Three, mixing it with noise coming from Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, a small dose of slowcore courtesy from Low and Codeine and even some British pop by The Cure who supported on tour many years ago when The Cure were a great band, the Glaswegian cocktail have proved the most successful in the post-rock bars worldwide for over a decade.
Contemporary to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai music roughly belongs to the same galaxy, although, instead of opting for the soundtrack inclination of the Canadian anarchic collective, the Glaswegian always looked like a proper rock band.
They compose mainly instrumentals, have guitar strong tunes, but sound like rock “songs”. There is neither the feel of the soundtracks that GY!BE would put on top of utopic movies by radical directors nor the grandiose modern classic symphonies Mono would want to last for centuries to come.
Mogwai are here and now. Their debut, 1997, Mogwai Young Team is probably their best record. The guitar assault introduced the band to the world and blew away most of the competition. They also gained some of the fans pissed by waiting for Kevin Shield band next album (still to be seen… and counting). Mogwai Against Satan the closing tune is the quintessential example of what Mogwai wanted to be and managed to achieve.
I am not willing to go through the entire analysis of their discography, now counting 7 full album and as many EPs. Mogwai production, as any other band, has had highs and lows. Young Team and Rock Action are my two picks. Mr Beast signed what is their softest side. The latest Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is the best title of the decade. It marks also their return to the producer of Young Team. I don’t know if it is because the world has changed or they have, but the original power still well present in the speakers has a bit dissipated in the composition.
Despite the change of style in their studio albums, Mogwai remain a band with a very consistent sound. Superficially the mix has been defined as alternating quiet passages that rise the tension till it bursts in loud guitar explosions. Quiet-Loud-Quiet-Loud. Well, quite loud for sure. The result is emotionally liberating. It’s the music analogue of a growing anxiety that in the end erupts and crumbles giving the listener a sensation of liberation.
Words aren’t needed and very rarely used, despite the potential lyrical skills emerging from the titles of albums and songs. Mogwai point at listeners’ emotion, they don’t need to define it with words, they stimulate a internal reaction by the use of dynamics, volume. Sound waves that reach all organs to the point of dizziness.
At home, whichever your hi-fi system is, unless you want to fight with your neighbours and convince the upcoming police that you need to resolve the anxiety through music, you are limited to use headphones that constrain the experience (and do no good to the earing).
Live the Mogwai approach reaches its apex. In front of the stage, the feeling of constrain and liberation is complete. As an art installation the band presence is never oppressive, instead multiple layers of guitars pile up towards the audience. The experience is fulfilling for the mind (and beyond fulfilling for the ears).
Arrived to London to curate a day at the I’ll Be Your Mirror festival, the event brought the best of Post-Rock & Co. you could get on tour in 2012. Sharing the stage with, among many others, the exceptionally reunited Codeine and the comeback of Dirty Three after Ellis duties next to Nick Cave, the arrive of the Scottish group was the perfect topping over the only glorious sunny weekend of this British summer. The festival was, erm, indoor!
Either together with the thousands gathered at Alexandra Palace or the few hundred who joined them at the Junction, being at a Mogwai concert is as a group meditation that instead of happening in complete silence it does in saturated, distorted volume. Opposites touch.
I have the feeling my 35mm activity is gone for good, so this could be the swan song. It’s a long time I don’t shut behind me the door of the darkroom to the hours spent printing negatives. I haven’t shot and developed B&W films for a while and, sincerely, I feel I am enjoying the abundance of time I have to dedicate to other things. This didn’t seem to affect my career. People stopped asking for classic prints long before I stopped printing. The latest request I had, weeks ago, for someone I shot on film replied that it wasn’t a problem to have a digital print from the negative. He could not tell the difference from a digital print and a silver gelatine.
Agency, journals, websites want a jpeg. Nothing else. They don’t know what to do with a negative or a piece of coated emulsion.
There is not much reason to be nostalgic. When I shot Mogwai in the smoky darkness of the Cambridge Junction, overwhelmed by unbearable volume so that even the cameras shook to the decibels, it wasn’t a photographer’s easy task.
Last May photographing Mogwai at the ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror in London, with the potential to push ISO to 6400, using colour and a large capacity card, was easier.
To the point of sounding pretentious, since I moved to digital I said gig photography has become to me a simpler task.
When I opted for pixels and changed my gear, I also went from manual focus to autofocus, from fixed primes to zooms, from a 36 X2 rolls to as many photos I could shoot.
Basically from one day to the other I found myself downloading a CF card onto a computer and playing around with few cursors to get an incredibly sharp/balanced/colourful image out of the most adverse conditions. That is why I rarely complain about bad lighting. I used to shoot at f1.4, manual focusing on my 35mm or 85mm and push a 400ISO B&W film to 800 or 1600 to try to get something out of 72 frames. If that was possible doing the same on a modern D-something camera it’s more possible.
The awkward photo tip for the aspiring music photographer with a small budget who wants to start today is: Save money from an expensive camera, a fast zoom lens, a powerful computer with a pricey editing software and go for one of those dusty cheap film cameras in second hand retailers. Couple it with a pair of those fast, brilliant old lenses nowadays available at the cost of a curry. Then invest in some films (and eventually in a tank and a scanner if you don’t bother to bring it to a lab and get a CD back with the negatives). Than go shoot.
Shooting on film means to not be able to see the results for few days, to think each frame carefully, to understand how the exposure work to the point of predicting what is the light and the right exposure. “Is this a f1.4 – 1/60s show or I can push the aperture or the shutter a couple of stops and still impress the negative?”
It is all more difficult, but once you will be able to control a film camera, to understand how it works, you can control every other camera. It’s like learning to drive on an old car then moving to a modern fully automatic vehicle.
This doesn’t look the most convincing of tips in the era when “we want it all and we want it now” but if you learn how a camera works on a film device for a quite long time and eventually develop on digital a style, I am pretty sure the photography will be far better. There is also the risk to stay on film and buy a second hand M6 and some leitz glasses with the price of a digital camera/lenses/computer. Which is like being able to drive a Ferrari but deciding that the old beetle on e-bay is way more cool.