In his new memoir, Spaceships Over Glasgow, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite describes his teen years in terms eerily similar to my own: waiting eagerly for The Cure’s Disintegration to come out, whiling away the summer skateboarding, waiting to see them on “The Prayer Tour” in 1989. I did all of those things. Our paths diverged when he started making music and I started making zines. When he picked up a guitar, I picked up a copy-machine. We still revere the power of music in the same manner though.
I’ve always thought of music as being romantic. It can take you from wherever you are to somewhere else in an instant. When I was a teenager, in particular, I romanticized about music and musicians endlessly. I’d daydream about how records were made and what the lives of those making them were like. The music itself would set fires in my imagination.
The son of Scotland’s last telescope-maker, Braithwaite was perhaps destined for a life looking beyond the limits, his head aflame with sound. Once armed with his first guitar and exposed to the post-punk noise of the Jesus and Mary Chain and Sonic Youth and the shoegazing drone of My Bloody Valentine and Ultra Vivid Scene, as well as the goofy goth of The Cure, of course, he was on his way to the stars.
Mogwai is consistently one of my most-listened-to bands. Their blend of mellow prog, raging guitars, and soundtracky drama has held my attention for years. It’s no wonder they’ve scored several films throughout their nearly 30-year career. There’s a lot of slowly building tension and cathartic release. For a long time there were no vocals, and for a while after there were, I didn’t hear them. They were disguised, machine voices, awash in layers of guitar squall and feedback, vocoded beyond recognition.
Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, ready-made genres, and audiences lying in wait, some sounds still don’t seem to fit anywhere. When genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Will Straw, Josh Gunn calls this “canonization”: The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (I’m thinking of Godflesh, Radiohead, or dälek) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble.
Post-rock would seem to be just such a genre. Ever since Simon Reynolds posited the word as “perhaps the only term open ended yet precise enough to cover all this activity” in The Wire in 1994, there has been a post-everything-else. Sometimes it’s just lazy writing, sometimes it’s for marketing purposes, and every once in a while a genre has truly emerged alongside its parent designation. There seems to be very little consensus on exactly where rock crossed the line and became something else, but the desire to push rock past its limits has surely been around since those limits were established.
Even so, the roots of what has become post-rock run deep and in many directions, from previous genres like prog, ambient, jazz, industrial, techno, and Krautrock in general, to specific acts like CAN, Brian Eno, PiL, Jim O’Rourke, and others. Just when you think post-rock is too narrow a designation for the bands discussed, with one quick list, one sees how wide its waves crash. Jack Chuter’s 2015 book, Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock, goes as far back as the New Romanticism of Talk Talk and its separate ways before moving on to Slint and Slint-inspired rock.
If any band is worthy of its own genre, it is Slint: a band certainly more talked-about than listened-to. About such talking and genres as they emerge in writing, the media historian Lisa Gitelman writes,
As I understand it, genre is a mode of recognition instantiated in discourse. Written genres, for instance, depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for.
As both Straw and Gunn describe canonization above, Gitelman contends that genres emerge from discourse, the talked-about. Subsequently, we internalize them. They are inside us. She continues,
Likewise genres—such as the joke, the novel, the document, and the sitcom—get picked out contrastively amid a jumble of discourse and often across multiple media because of the ways they have been internalized by constituents of a shared culture. Individual genres aren’t artifacts, then; they are ongoing and changeable practices of expression and reception that are recognizable in myriad and variable constituent instances at once and also across time. They are specific and dynamic, socially realized sites and segments of coherence within the discursive field.
With all of that said, the brand of post-rock that I am drawn to owes more to Mogwai than to Tortoise (e.g., Explosions in the Sky, This Will Destroy You, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, God is an Astronaut, Kinski, Hovercraft, Flying Saucer Attack, and Mogwai themselves, of course). Where Tortoise tends toward a sparse shuffle and strum, Mogwai has a propensity for layers of bump and rumble. Structurally, if the former were a lattice partition, the latter would be a brick wall. This is not to paint Tortoise (and their brethren, June of 44, Rodan, Rachel’s, The Shipping News, et al.)—or Slint—out of the picture. One of my all-time favorite bands, A Minor Forest, owes at least some of their sound to Slint. Any band pursuing this aural area has to contend with the mathematics of Tortoise and Slint, the guitar textures of Mogwai and My Bloody Valentine, the orchestrations of The Cure and Radiohead, and the electronic experiments of Aphex Twin and Autechre, among others. There’s a there in there somewhere.
It isn’t all taken so seriously though. One look at the track list on any post-rock record, and you’ll see that. Mogwai’s “Like Herod” from Young Team (1997) was named for the mishearing of someone saying “lightheaded.” Incidentally, that song’s working title was “Slint,” pointing to a post-rock cross-pollination years before Slint’s David Pajo sang back-up on “Take Me Somewhere Nice” from Rock Action (2001), which was notably as far from Slint as they’d ever sounded at the time.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Happy Songs for Happy People (2003) and Mogwai’s latest, As the Love Continues (2021). The former has been my main going-to-bed record for almost two decades now, since I picked up the CD at Off the Record in San Diego the day it came out. The latter is not only their newest record, it’s one of their best. Almost 30 years on, they’re still pushing themselves and making their best music. Not bad for the son of a telescope-maker and his music-obsessed friends.
It doesn’t matter what you call it, but noting the gauziness of genre doesn’t necessarily negate the pursuit of classification. As radically subjective as music fandom can be, it’s nice to have some buoys floating about.
Stuart Braithwaite, Spaceships Over Glasgow: Mogwai, Mayhem, and Misspent Youth, London: White Rabbit, 2022.
Jack Chuter Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock, London: Function Books, 2015.
Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.
Joshua Gunn, Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre, Popular Music & Society, 23, Spring, 1999, 31-50.
Jeanette Leech, Fearless: The Making of Post-Rock, London: Jawbone Press, 2017.
Simon Reynolds, Shaking the Rock Narcotic, The Wire, May 1994.
Will Straw, Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music, Cultural Studies, 5(3), 1991, 361-75.