By MICHAEL GOLDBERG
The walking dead have a grip on Barry Burns’ brain.
As the Mogwai tour bus rumbles through the Southwest U.S. desert, Burns — guitarist, keyboardist and flautist for the long-running Scottish rock quintet — and his compadres have been thinking about how they might approach scoring the second season of the eerie, supernatural French TV series Les Revenants (The Returned, as it’s called here when it airs on the Sundance Channel) as they did with the show’s inaugural season, in spare and haunting style, to great acclaim.
The band, which is steadily making its way to the area for a May 8 show at Union Transfer, was also just having a laugh about last year’s Brad Pitt zombie epic, “World War Z,” which was set in Philadelphia but mostly filmed in the band’s native Glasgow.
“I remember watching all these zombies going around George Square, which is the center of town, but I don’t think any of them were actually extras, they were just the people of Glasgow,” Burns deadpans. “Is Philly like that these days?!”
Say what you will about anyone else, you can’t accuse the members of Mogwai — Burns, guitarists Stuart Braithwaite and John Cummings, bassist/keyboardist Dominic Aitchison and drummer Martin Bulloch — of just shuffling along rotted and moaning, going through the (slow) motions like lost souls. Nearly twenty years in, the largely instrumental band is as alive and as creatively fertile as ever.
To wit: The excellent Rave Tapes, Mogwai’s recently released eighth full-length recording that’s the impetus for their latest jaunt across America. Although the title’s a smirking misnomer, in line with 2003’s cheekily named Happy Songs for Happy People, electronic sounds occupy a more prominent position this time than on past albums, with synthesizers occasionally driving the melody rather than being deployed as mere textural accompaniment. Which isn’t to say the band has abandoned the stormy, coiling guitar riffs that fed the cacophonous symphonies of their earliest work. Those are here, too. But Rave Tapes is further proof that Mogwai has left the loud-quiet-loud dynamics of old — borrowed from the likes of Slint and Sonic Youth and reshaped to their own ends — in the dust, at least in the studio, in favor of more nuanced, sophisticated compositions that retain the band’s dramatic flair and remain gorgeously elegiac and powerful.
“I would find it difficult to believe it’s the same band, except for maybe the drummer,” Burns chuckles when asked how the him of 1998, when he joined Mogwai for the making of the following year’s sophomore LP Come On Die Young, might regard Rave Tapes.
The experience of crafting the subtle, gorgeous dread that inhabits their Les Revenants soundtrack — recorded in 2012 and released last year — may have seeped into the Rave Tapes sessions, but, says Burns, the album was also meant to be a divergence from its scorching-yet-sanguine predecessor, 2011’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.
“We record about 25 songs for every album, and then ones that sound the least like the last album are the ones that make it on the record,” he explains, adding that the band still wasn’t quite sure at first what to make of the new batch of recordings.
“Once we finished this record and sat in the pub trying to decide which songs to use, all of us were like, ‘This is a (expletive)-up of a record,’” Burns admits with a laugh. “Artistically, we weren’t used to the sounds of it, but after a few weeks and months we realized we quite liked it.”
That sense of uncertainty and, at times, terror, is crucial in keeping the band excited about what they’re doing, Burns says. “It’s good to be anxious and nervous about stuff. You never want to get too comfortable with what you’re doing. You can name a million bands that have gotten too comfortable — Metallica, for one.” He lets out another laugh. “Yeah, it’s scary, but it’s definitely rewarding once you get to the end of the process.”
The band is even happier with the position they now find themselves in after almost two decades together, and with its members closing in on their forties. Those milestones often mark a tipping point for musical artists, where they start thinking about slowing down, resting on their laurels, forsaking the new to revel in the past.
Not so for Mogwai, however. After years of constant recording and heavy touring (and simultaneously working various side jobs to make ends meet), the band has reached a place where they’re financially secure and independent — in Europe, they release their albums on their thriving Rock Action label; in the U.S. they have a distribution deal with Sub Pop — and busier and more inspired than ever.
“It’s a lot nicer, career-wise, to be driving instead of being the passenger,” says Burns. “It’s given us complete control over everything. We’ve always had artistic control over the music with all the record labels we’ve been on, but now, having the ability to release it and control all the licensing and things like that, it’s a really nice thing to have and it’s opened up a lot more doors.”
Old, noisy favorites like “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Helicon 1” still make it into the current setlists — “We’re quite proud of the old songs so we’re happy to play them and we get lots of enjoyment out of them,” Burns says — but the present and the future, which is set to include a lot more soundtrack work in addition to their own albums, is the bigger priority.
“This is our only job, to concentrate solely on making music, and we have no intention of stopping,” says Burns.
Follow Michael Goldberg on Twitter @mg_thereporter.
IF YOU GO
WHERE: Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St., Philadelphia.
WHEN: Thursday, May 8 with opening band Majeure.
TICKETS: $20, and doors open at 8 p.m.
INFO.: Check www.utphilly.com