Mogwai, El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, 3/18/01
"Was it loud enough? We were afraid it wouldn't be loud enough."
Or so guitarist Stuart Braithwaite worried when I talked to him briefly after the show. Having seen the mostly instrumental Scottish band Mogwai twice now in a live venue, I think it's finally dawned on me why it's important that the band's shows be so phenomenally loud.
Mogwai understand musical dynamics and tension. And through volume, their music is told as physical experience. It comes down to the difference between intellectualizing about something and fully undergoing it physically.
It's one thing to wax poetic about, say, the composer Antheil and his conceptual modernism for including airplane engines in his Ballet Mechanique. It's another thing entirely to stand with your hair permanently flattened against your scalp as the blast from a jet engine flings you like a ragdoll down the runway.
There is a precision and a wildness in Mogwai as placid and dangerous as gunmetal grey. Listening to a song like "christmas steps" from their album 'come on die young' (editor's note: apparently a handy phrase to yell at an assailant if you're about to get in a fight in Scotland) is a very safe experience when you're at home and in control of the volume knob and the pause button.
Translated to a live venue, you lose that control. You're lulled into a false sense of calmness by the near-casual noodling warmth as the opening guitar tones cook around you. You begin breathing more rapidly, more heavily as the thick, ominous bass line skewers you as simply as John Williams's famous theme from the movie 'Jaws'. You become momentarily disoriented when the quickening, thudding bass shatters into fractured rhythm and FLINCH you're startled by feedback so loud that it rattles your teeth, rearranges your inner organs, and loosens your joints with sound.
When you know to expect the intensity, it's fascinating to watch the reaction of those around you in the audience. The response to Mogwai live is far more deeply physical than mental. It is almost a primal response. And perhaps that explains the story I've heard going around concerning an early Mogwai show in Glasgow in which two concertgoers were so overcome with Mogwai's sonic power that they were caught, er, shagging in the back of the venue.
There was no shagging to be seen among the sold-out crowd at the El Rey Theatre this night. But judging from the expressions on the faces of the crowd standing behind me during the encore as the simple melody of the adapted Jewish hymn Alvainu Malkanu gradually built hypnotically, repetitively into such roaring waves that the bodies in the room were shaken like instruments for nearly 20 minutes, ecstasy was achieved nonetheless.
Don't worry, Stuart. It was loud enough.
"We decided to proclaim our dislike of one of the weakest bands on the planet. The thing about the shirt is it's like a dictionary definition. 'Blur: Are Shite'. It's factual and if there's any legal problems about it I'll go to court as someone who has studied music so I can prove they are shite."
- Stuart Braithwaite, in NME, discussing the occasionally controversial Mogwai t-shirts upon which the logo "Blur: Are Shite" was printed.
"It's a free country and everyone's entitled to their own opinion."
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