The thing that surprises you most, reading Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite’s memoir, is that anyone involved can remember anything at all. Such was the full-body commitment with which the participants of the 90s Glasgow music scene he documents threw themselves into during the last days of real music industry money, that the whole era should, by rights, be one big blackout.
The subtitle of his book Spaceships Over Glasgow is Mogwai, Mayhem and Misspent Youth, and from early days experimenting with sniffing Tipp-Ex solvent while listening to the 13th Floor Elevators, the madness rarely lets up. On Mogwai’s first foreign tour, to Norway in 1997, they partake of the ferry bar so enthusiastically – snorting the booze for extra intoxication – that for a few hours they are genuinely not sure whether one of them has fallen overboard. Musical milestones whiz by in a drunken blur, relationships suffer and minds fray at the edges. At one particularly dark moment, Braithwaite responds to his breakup with his teenage sweetheart, Adele Bethel (later of Sons and Daughters), with a months-long psychedelic bender and manages to convince himself his right hand is demonically possessed.
While Braithwaite, 46, feels no shame in recounting Mogwai’s feral days eating baby food on tour, “raking over some things that happened that are painful wasn’t the easiest thing”, he says. “Like, really thinking about losing my dad or getting divorced … I’m not the kind of person that talks about myself at all, so it was weird. But then you think about the good things that happened after it or before.”
Some of the best memories recount his teenage initiation into music growing up in the Clyde valley: a lost world of taping songs from the radio, skiving school to queue at record shops for gig tickets, and staying up for live performances on late-night TV. Most entrancingly, it conjures a sensation familiar to anyone who has stood close to the front at a Mogwai gig: the physical rush, the consuming force with which bands can swallow you whole. At 13, Braithwaite saw the Cure for the first time: “I’d never heard anything so loud in my life, but it wasn’t just volume, there was a clarity to it as well,” he writes. “I felt transformed.”
A couple of years later, having witnessed Nirvana at Reading in 1991, he realised with joy that Kurt Cobain was a fan of Scottish bands such as the Vaselines and Teenage Fanclub. How did the support of Cobain, the figurehead of ambition in alternative music at the time, affect the Glasgow scene that followed? “It really was quite important,” he says. “Because there were two camps. There was the ‘move to London and try to sell millions of records’ camp, and then there was the Pastels, Teenage Fanclub camp, and it was the ‘stay in Glasgow and be like the Pastels’ worldview that won. I think representation really matters. When I did start making my own music, I wasn’t thinking: ‘Oh, I can never do this’, because I’d seen people like me already do it.”
The dark grandeur of the bands of Braithwaite’s gothic youth plus the vaulting guitar noise and dynamic assault of US indie rock, post-hardcore and grunge fed into the sound of Mogwai, the band he formed with bassist Dominic Aitchison and drummer Martin Bulloch in 1995 (guitarist John Cummings, who left the band in 2015, and multi-instrumentalist Barry Burns joined later; former Teenage Fanclub member Brendan O’Hare also played with them for a short period in the late 90s). Their largely instrumental music, by turns aggressively loud and heartbreakingly delicate, became central to the disparate, chaotic gang of bands based mainly around the Glasgow venue the 13th Note – whose bookers included Alex Huntley, later Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, and author David Keenan – and the record label Chemikal Underground, managed by the Delgados and home to the likes of Bis and Arab Strap as well as Mogwai.
The explosion of talent served as a countercurrent to the very English vision of mainstream 90s indie. Britpop seemed to Braithwaite, he writes, “the complete antithesis of everything we cared for. It lacked imagination, beauty and scope.” He rarely lost an opportunity to let people know it, from Mogwai’s “blur: are shite” T-shirts to Braithwaite’s declaration in their first NME interview that they were on “a crusade against the kind of person who chooses to be in a band not because they think people deserve to hear their music but because they want their face to be on the cover of magazines”.
In the book, Braithwaite describes Arab Strap’s 1996 debut album, The Week Never Starts Round Here, as “probably the first time I’d heard something that properly reflected my experience of growing up in Scotland”. In coming years, bands such as the Twilight Sad, Glasvegas and Frightened Rabbit became more confident in their identity; before then, Braithwaite says, “even in Scotland, people would just think the Proclaimers were absolutely hilarious, because they sang in a Scottish accent … you wonder what was going on in the national psyche, that people were embarrassed to sing in the way that they spoke.”
Raised in a pro-independence family – a rarer thing in the 90s than now – Braithwaite lent his voice and his music to the yes campaign in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish referendum, and is unwavering now that a second vote is never far from the headlines. “I hope all Scots are looking at the Tory PM leadership contest closely,” he tweeted in July. “Do we really want these people to be running our country? … We have an out. Let’s make sure we take it.”
Independence wasn’t a priority for him or his peers in the music-focused 90s, he says, whereas now “I think I can probably count on two fingers the musicians I know who aren’t pro-independence up here. When you realise the democratic deficit in Scotland and the fact that we’ve been ruled by Tories, despite not having voted Tory since before we were born, it kinda sinks in. Definitely the arguments against seem a lot flimsier than they did in 2014.”
Mogwai are also committed to independence in a wider sense. Never signed to a major, they have released their albums through their own label, Rock Action, since 2010, and established their own studio, Castle of Doom, in 2005. “I would advise everyone to try to have as much control over what they do as they can in every walk of life,” says Braithwaite. “It’s good to know when you’ve made a terrible mistake that it’s your own terrible mistake.”
And while the recent return of Arab Strap and the Delgados to the musical fray is cause for great celebration, Mogwai have never stopped: their most recent album, last year’s Mercury-nominated As the Love Continues, was their first to top the UK charts; in July they released a soundtrack for the Apple TV+ crime drama Black Bird, and are already working on another, as yet unannounced. And music is still thriving in Glasgow. “It’s got to the point where a lot of people move here because of the music,” says Braithwaite. “And the community aspect is maybe even stronger now because of the internet – it’s even easier for weirdos to find each other than it was back then.”
Mogwai’s weirdo bond remains strong, and Aitchison and Bulloch have read the whole book and approved, says Braithwaite. “Although they got it before it went anywhere near an editor, so they were like: ‘Someone is gonna have a look at this, aren’t they?’ Martin helped me probably more than the internet, I was phoning him all the time. He keeps joking that he’s gonna bring out his own book called The Truth.”
The band have just finished a run of festival dates, and Braithwaite, bolstered by the discipline of writing the book, intends, next year, to “try to write a ridiculous amount of music”. Looking further afield, he still keeps alive another childhood dream, one referenced in the book’s title: that of life on other planets. His late father, whose gentle, free-thinking presence comes through strongly in the book, was an amateur astronomer and Scotland’s only telescope-maker, and taught his son to stargaze. In a strange coincidence, the young Braithwaite and Aitchison first caught sight of Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton at a public meeting in Bonnybridge, near Falkirk, called to address the town’s mid-90s spate of UFO sightings. In the book, he ponders the possibility of hiring someone, as Jimi Hendrix did, to watch out during Mogwai gigs for alien craft drawn to the music. So, does he still believe?
“Oh, more than ever!” he says. “Through my life, I went through periods of doubt, but the New York Times UFO expose from a few years ago threw me straight back in. I mean, I don’t actually know what they are, but there’s definitely weird things flying about, 100%.”
While we await confirmation of intelligent life beyond the solar system Spaceships Over Glasgow will provide comfort and inspiration to all those souls abducted by music who, like Braithwaite, have never stopped watching the skies.
• Read an exclusive extract of Spaceships Over Glasgow at theguardian.com/music
• Spaceships Over Glasgow is published by White Rabbit (£20) on 29 September. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.