Interview: Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite on Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

Mogwai Barbican

Last week, Greg Johnson headed to the Barbican Centre in London to chat to Mogwai‘s Stuart Braithwaite about Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, football and his mum’s connection to Roberto Martinez…

Hi Stuart. How did the shows in Glasgow and Manchester go compared to your expectations of playing Zidane live?

We didn’t really have any expectations because we’ve never done it before and, as such, it’s quite an unusual thing for us to do. Usually we just do our own concerts and play our own songs. I suppose there were more concerns that it wouldn’t work or something like that. And it did work. The gigs have been pretty good; quite intense experiences, and the music’s pretty heavy so again, different to what we usually do. It’s worked well. People have been pretty receptive to it.

How have you found playing with the film visuals projected behind you?

Really different because people aren’t looking at us, really – people are watching the film. There’s one point where we don’t play and there’s a really great goal, and everyone cheered. [laughs] I don’t know if they’ll do it tonight, they’ll probably feel a little bit more – I don’t know – because it’s quite an arty venue. Maybe they’ll feel a bit too posh to clap. At the other shows the audience had a wee cheer when that happened, which was good.

Did that cheer when the goals was scored add to the performance at the other gigs?

Yeah, I think it adds to the surrealism of the whole thing.

How have you prepared for these gigs compared to your usual shows?

Well, with our normal gigs we don’t really decide the set list until half an hour before we go on, and all that kind of stuff, whereas here we knew exactly what we were going to play, and we’ve just played it over and over and over. It’s been a lot more meticulous really, just knowing exactly what’s going to happen, which has been good because we don’t know or didn’t know the songs having not played them in years. It’s been different, but it’s been good.

I’ve wanted to see you guys perform Zidane live to the film since I first saw it. There just seemed to be so much potential for the various elements come together and create this great spectacle, and hearing the score performed live by has a similar kind of intensity to a seeing players do their stuff in person.

Were you aware of that sort of connection to the subject when you were working with Douglas Gordon? Did he give you a brief or offer up any ideas on what he wanted you to go for with the soundtrack?

Not really, we were just trying to do it. Honestly, just getting on with it: we had a task in front of us and quite a short amount of time to do it. I don’t think we really thought an awful lot about it besides doing as good a job as we could. They really left us alone. I spoke to Douglas about this recently. We did an interview [The Quietus] and we agreed that people, all forms of artists including musicians, just don’t like being told what to do, so quite often when you get collaborations both sides will just respect what the other wants to do.

Was it quite different writing the material in the first place? Did you get inspiration from Zidane and his football, or were the influences more musical?

It was more the atmosphere of the film. I think the fact that he’s a really famous, amazing footballer is kind of incidental in the scheme of the film. The film is more about a person – a guy – working. It doesn’t really glamorise him or anything like that. It makes you think of him just as a – very talent obviously – someone doing his job as well as he can.

When we did the music, we really just tried to be ourselves really. We’d seen the rough footage of the film with some of our old music, and it worked, so we just knew that it was going to work.

It was your track Mogwai Fear Satan that was remixed and first put to the test footage to convince you to get involved with the film, so what did you like about the way it interacted with the visuals when it was shown to you?

It had a real sense – a real ominous sense of something quite heavy happening. It was over the part where he gets sent off at the end, so you could feel the intensity. But there’s a weird bit in that, because I’ve seen it so many times over the last few weeks, where he starts having a laugh with Roberto Carlos. He kind of has a little skirmish and then he’s having a laugh – he’s probably saying to Roberto Carlos, “watch this, I’m going to get sent off because they’re make a film about me.” [laughs]

Considering how his career finished, it’s quite fitting that that’s how the film ends…

Well when that happened [in the 2006 World Cup final], I remember a lot of the press here were like, “it’s so uncharacteristic”, and Douglas [Gordon, co-director of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait] who’d obviously been following him around for years, was like, “nah, he used to get sent off all the time. He was always losing his rag.” He wasn’t at all surprised, and it was good publicity for the film when that happened.

When it comes to football and music, it’s usually bands such as Kasabian who, for better or for worse, are used to represent some sort of laddish caricature of football chants, fans and terrace culture, but recently your music has been heard on montages for Euro 2012 and other football highlights. How do you feel about your music being used alongside football in a less cosmetic way; more trying to get down to the emotions and dramatic moments of the game?

I’m pretty happy to be honest. I’m pretty happy with our music being used in anything. I’m a football fan, I like football, and actually one of my favourite uses of one of our songs was in a trailer for one of the Scottish international games. It was just one of our really heavy songs set to a montage of brutal tackles. I quite enjoyed that.

Why do you think your music works so well in football montages?

I don’t know. I think our music is quite open ended. People can interpret it however they want. Some of it can be emotional too, so if you’re talking about your big finals, it can add a sense of occasion to it.

Post-rock as a genre: do you think, with the way it ebbs and flows and momentum grows – especially with you guys and how you go incredibly quiet and bring it back up again – if you watch a full ninety minutes of football…

It has that element. Yeah, it definitely does. I can see that, and I thought about that quite a lot when we were organising this concert and deciding where to play because in the actual film there’s not an awful lot of music. We actually used a lot of music that they didn’t use in the film, so when we were deciding that you realise, there’s a lot of lulls in the game where nothing happens. It’s probably just people getting their breath back or regrouping after losing or after they’ve lost a goal – there’s definitely a story to every game.

The official soundtrack to Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is available to buy now at

And does that potentially open up a special relationship between football and music? Is music underused in football?

I don’t know. I think because football is such a mainstream part of everything in this country, your musical equivalent is not that sophisticated. Even the normal songs you’ll hear at a football game, it’s Queen or the Black Eyed Peas. It’s pop, chart and rock music. I think the sub-culture of people taking things a bit more seriously is slightly below the surface, but it is there.

Yeah, and with the rise of the so-called ‘football hipsters’ you’ve got fans who are usually very interested in the game as well as being into other things such as music and art too. How would you feel about doing more projects based around that sort of overlap? Would Mogwai ever be interested in say scoring a full, unedited 90 minute match?

It could be good, yeah. We tend to just do our own thing until someone asks us to do something, so if someone asked very nicely, you never know.

How do you think you’d approach it?

I dunno. It’d be interesting but you’d really hope it wasn’t a 0-0, with no bookings! [laughs]

Well I guess the next step on from a live score would be improvisation. Should we do away with commentators and stick some bands in the press box?

It’d make more sense than Craig Burley. I’d probably rather have a drum solo for an hour and a half than listen to that idiot. Who’s the other guy? The guy on ITV? Andy Townsend. Bloody hell…

Speaking of unsophisticated pop stuff, you’ve got Alan Shearer on Match of the Day…

The best description I ever read on them, someone described the Match of the Day panel as a golf clique with a passing interest in football. [laughs]

That sums Alan Hansen up pretty well that too.

Someone will score a wonder goal and it’s always the defenders fault. Sometimes someone does something brilliant and you can’t do anything about it.

I do feel bad for the people working on Match of the Day at the same time though. They have a pretty difficult job.

Yeah, they can’t get too complicated because it’d go over a lot of peoples’ heads. For a lot of people, for each team and each big player they have a certain idea about them. If you started going into real detail on them – like if you had say Gabrielle Marcotti – people might just turn it off. They wouldn’t really be interested in that level of detail.

I guess that’s why more detailed and niche shows are reserved to the paid up satellite channels. People aren’t going to watch them unless they’re interested. Maybe we need a new channel for Mogwai soundtracked football matches?

Yeah I think so. It’s got to happen.

To me there’s a lot of over lap too, with matches and gigs…

Yeah, they’re about the same length as well. One of the reasons they decided to make Zidane the film was that when they were talking about doing something about him they realised that the cinema screen is the same shape of a football pitch, and a film about the same length of a game.

The following Zidane montage sadly does not feature Mogwai…

How successful do you think the film as a portrait of Zidane as a footballer?

I think it’s great. The music and the football are almost secondary, like I said it’s really all just about the person, but I don’t think people would have much interest much interest in the person if it wasn’t for his job, who he was and what he did.

But let’s say if the subject of the film was changed to someone like, say, Lee Cattermole, would it still succeed as a project?

I don’t know, because Zidane is quite an enigmatic and interesting guy. There are lots of other footballers it could have been about, but your average, decent but standard footballer…

You need the subtext…

Yeah, you need the subtext. You need to know there’s something going on beneath the surface. Joey Barton though, that might be pretty good. I loved hearing him with his Allo Allo French accent.

You’ve got Steve McClaren as well with his Dutch-English; it’s funny but depressing at the same time.

Yeah, especially since Joey Barton paints himself as being some sort of intellectual because he’s read a few books and thinks he’s a genius. You’d think he would be aware enough to realise that [in comedy French accent], “and now I will play… on ze left wing…” sounds absolutely bloody ridiculous.

Well do you think footballers are more likely to lack that self-awareness because they’re assumed to have less intelligence than they are?

I think they’re just surrounded by sycophants, especially now that there’s so much money in football. I’ve heard of people who work with footballers getting called to their house at 2 in the morning because they don’t know how to change a light bulb. A lot of them get so much money at young age that they don’t know what to do with themselves, but that’s true of musicians as well. It’s true of us to a certain extent.

If you’re shielded from normality you’re going to think these are reasonable things to do, like put on a French accent. [laughs]

But then you have players like Xavi and Robin van Persie who can both be quite articulate.

Yeah there are a few. There’s a few with quite a bit about them, and of course you can’t completely generalise. Alonso is a big music fan.

And Mata is into films. I hear The Big Lebowski is his favourite.

That’s quite promising.

Those rumours about a swap deal using him for Rooney were bizarre, but then it’s Mourinho…

That would be mental. But yeah, he doesn’t seem like his kind of player so much. It should be an interesting year this year in England, well, England and Wales now. [laughs]

On that note, as a Celtic fan what do you think of the idea of the Old Firm joining English football following Swansea and Cardiff’s rise? Would it be a disaster?

It wouldn’t for me. I’d rather see them try and improve the other Scottish teams. But then I don’t see how it would happen. It’d take a while too. Say in five years, both of them [Celtic and Rangers] would be right up there, which would threaten the Champions League money of at least two English teams.

I think it’s fair to say that Celtic have a reputation, at least historically, for trying to play attractive, attacking football – after all the 1967 European Cup was won by overrunning a classically ultra-defensive Inter Milan side. Do you think supporting clubs like Celtic predisposes you to consider football as an arty or expressive medium?

Yeah, and I do like that about football. I’ve always been a fan of the really attractive teams like Spain, Barcelona and all that kind of stuff. Our label manager, who doesn’t support Celtic, he’s much more into his defensive teams. He’s like a really massive Mourinho fan. That doesn’t really appeal to me that much – I can respect that but it doesn’t appeal to me.

I think there’s always been a tradition, and Celtic have always had some attractive players. Even when they haven’t been doing so well, there’s always been one or two players you’d like to watch. They always try and be watchable.

Obviously, not all musicians and artists are Celtic fans, but do you think your support for the club does tie into your enjoyment of other mediums outside of the game? Was growing up watching Celtic part of a more general way of appreciating things?

Maybe. I do know there’s a large amount of people in the arts in Scotland who are Celtic supporters, and there’s a lot of pontificating about why that is.

Why do you think it is?

I think that that’s probably because they’re the anti-establishment team. There’s always been something more. It doesn’t even necessarily come from the club, but the ethos around the club. It’s a bit more socialist, a bit more against the grain, and I think that attracts more of your musicians and artists.

Do you think that sort of socialism and sense of identity and community maybe lend itself into putting more emotional weight into a goal, a player or a match as something more expressive?

Yeah I do. Certain teams that have of a sort of community or social aspect to them, you can feel the expectation and the shared joy, loss and all that sort of stuff. There’s a lot of interesting things about football that people who don’t like football don’t understand.

It’s funny, my girlfriend doesn’t know anything about it at all but she came to a game with me and she got it straight away. She was like, “this is about something more, this is about a community and a shared experience and all sorts of things”.

Scottish football in general has seen better days, but historically players from North of the border have been famed for their skill and intelligence, especially when it comes to tricky wingers, clever playmakers and strikers. Do you think there’s a parallel there with Scottish music in that there’s some great and really interesting bands who maybe don’t get the platform they deserve?

I think probably until quite recently Scotland punched above their weight in football, which is maybe why people think it’s so bad now, when really, we’re where a country of five million people probably should be, whereas before we were always qualifying for World Cups and European Championships. I think there are some parallels there in music.

Why do you think that is? I mean, there’s yourselves and acts such as Arab Strap, Boards of Canada and even Biffy Clyro who do try to do the stadium rock thing a little differently, who have all put out some really great music. I remember reading David Winner’s book on Dutch football and culture called Brilliant Orange, in which he proposes that the Dutch tradition of conceptualising and manipulating space within their architecture and art has maybe fed into how their footballers approach the game. Do you think there could be some kind of common thread within Scottish pop culture that ties all this together maybe?

I think it’s possibly true. One of the defining things about people in Scotland is the things they’re passionate about, perhaps football more so. People like to see good football. And the weird thing is that even though the Scottish teams and players seem to be declining, or aren’t as strong as they once were, there seems to be a real renaissance for really strong Scottish managers. They’re all quite philosophical about what they want to do and how they see the game; and they’re quite outspoken about these things. I mean, was it not the season before last something like half the teams in the Premier League had Scottish managers?

We’ll forget about Alex McLeish though…


It’ll be interesting to see how David Moyes does at United.

He did do really well [at Everton] – I know they didn’t win anything – but to even be challenging for the Champions League compared to the budgets of the other teams, that’s a pretty big achievement. But have they not lost most of their pre-season games?

Then again Celtic has lost all their pre-season games. I was dreading that game against the team from Belfast. I was really thinking, “fuck, we’ve been beaten by a second division team from Germany!” but I suppose it’s all just training and fitness.

All these pre-season promotional games are ultimately meaningless too. Is there a danger that such commercial exploitation could completely degrade football to the point where it’s worthless?

Maybe. What bumps me out so much with football is just how much money there is and where it goes. The money just doesn’t some to carry through. There’s a great quote from Gordon Strachen saying “if you can pay a footballer £200,000 a week, people should getting in for free.” The money’s ridiculous. It should be a fiver a ticket. And even though there’s all this money flying around clubs are still losing money.

I went to the FA Cup final and the tickets for that were ridiculous. I went because my Dad’s team were in the final, so I wanted to go and support them with him.

I went to the semi-final because my mum’s best friend’s daughter is married to Roberto [Martinez]. I absolutely loved it, going to Wembley. What an amazing place. Apart from the journey there with Millwall fans. It was a bit of an eye opener. I went with my mum, who’d never been to a football game, and I felt really edgy, but I thought it was just because I went with my mum, but it wasn’t. It was horrible, honestly: absolutely horrible. [laughs] Horrible people, well, not all of them but a fair few of them.

What do you think of the idea of football being placed on a similar level to cinema, music and other art forms?

At the end of the day it’s a sport and a business, which is very different to art, but one of the reasons I got really drawn towards football was that it’s so certain. There’s going to be a certain outcome, there’s going to certain consistencies – a team playing in that colour are going to play there every two weeks, until the end of time. Whereas with music, you can’t be certain, and that’s something great too, but I also love the exact opposite of that: I love the certainty and the permanence of it, as compared to music and everything.

I think on an individual basis, these people are artists. Maradona, Messi; they’re amazing. One of my favourite Celtic players was Ľubomír Moravčík who was one of Zidane’s favourite players, and it was like watching something amazing happening every time you saw him play.

What did you think was great about them as players?

Just the unpredictability, the imagination: the same thing that’s great about great musicians, but being expressed in a completely different way.

Thanks for your time, Stuart.

@Plasmatron; @MogwaiBand; @GregIanJohnson; @The_False_Nine

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