The Quietus | Features | Volume on the range
Stuart Braithwaite (c) Tommy Ga – Ken Wan
I read Stuart Braithwaite Spaceships above Glasgow with a certain personal interest, in addition to the apprehension that accompanies having long accepted Mogwai’s music. I grew up in Hamilton, the Lanarkshire town where much of the book is found in the chapters dealing with its author’s formative years, a place that then hovers throughout the text in the mind. Braithwaite’s mother was our family GP and I vividly remember her injecting my arm when I had my jags in primary school. Scotland is a small place and yet what I think the book perhaps does best is to show how connections between people and place can lead to new, larger possibilities within. and from the country.
While discussing the book with a photographer-writer friend, I mentioned that Braithwaite was unhappy with how his band’s debut album Mogwai Youth Team proved. Yet we both agreed that he and Go die young were probably still our favourites, with my friend saying the former managed to sum up Scotland sonically as it perfectly captures the town/country dichotomy and the expanses and pockets of space and dissonance.
I think deep down that’s what the book does as well. References to his family history and relationships, friendships and value formation are most compelling when contextualized on location – whether in Lanarkshire, the Outer Hebrides, New York State or Spain. of the civil war. This is further reinforced by learning how people and place came together in the cover art of Mogwai’s albums.
An underlying strength throughout the book is Braithwaite’s honesty about his own failings and his sometimes suspicious motives, whether in personal or group relationships, interviews, or simply acting like a cock-fueled by drink, drugs or ego. When I asked him why he wrote this book, he replied:
“A lot of the realizations I had were part of the process of writing the book as opposed to why I was writing it. Lee Brackstone [editor/publisher] asked me if I was interested in writing a book a few years ago and it was the sudden decimation of the live music world that led me to come back with him to check that he wasn’t kidding. I think writing has helped me a lot to understand how important my father was in my life.
He also admitted that he was “definitely more nervous about criticism than I would be about a record”. With the sheer volume of musical memoirs coming out in addition to older classics of the genre such as Julian Cope Head on and the more recent ones likely to be by Cosey Fanni Tutti, for example, I think is understandable. To his credit, Braithwaite also does not claim to be a fully trained early writer, saying:
“I don’t think I’m a good enough writer to base the book on someone else’s work, although I was aware of the things I had enjoyed in other people’s memoirs and kept that in mind to some extent. I didn’t want to be too serious or unnecessarily serious and I don’t want to use it as a vehicle for playing grudges. Other than that, I just carried on and really thought about what I wrote afterwards.
I read a proof so the finished work might differ a lot but I would say this approach shows. However, I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing because for me the book is something of a learning document. As he has clearly demonstrated over the past few decades, Braithwaite knows how to train and perfect himself at times.
The book for me is an honest answer to the question I suppose all music fans ask: how does someone from a small place in Lanarkshire end up traveling around the world and being able to do the kind of music he wants to make and have it’s their life? That Braithwaite wrote the book in part because that life was being eroded by the pandemic and the fact that much of the response to Covid was grounded in the structures of global capitalism is equally interesting that Mogwai once ‘turned deadly’ more before, during and after a concert. Being a touring musician is an identity that may have no other true equivalent in the arts, and the impact on those who have made a living out of it through hard work – as well as partying – is important.
Speaking of album reviews in the book, Braithwaite says he wants critics to look at what they hear rather than what they want to hear, which I think is a legitimate point. That said, I think there are many different ways to read a book – even more so than how mood, time, place, memory, and circumstances affect listening to music. Spaceships above Glasgow can be read in several ways. It is very clear from this and other memoirs by musicians, writers and artists that the ability to live a creative life cannot occur without motivation, support from family or other loved ones, whatever whether they are, meeting the right people, friendships, access to equipment, a certain amount of luck and – as Braithwaite clearly illustrates – knowing when to say no to the wrong opportunities (like turning down offers from labels) .
You could read the book with the subtitle (the word ‘mayhem’ chosen by the publisher; ‘misspent youth’ by Braithwaite) as the guiding context, but perhaps I found that perspective the least interesting. There are definitely some good anecdotes (especially one involving a manhole cover) and funny incidents that make it feel like you’re at the pub with your friends the day after a long night out. But for me, it’s the quieter parts where Braithwaite’s writing voice comes out.
There’s a long paragraph about a morning where he finds a sense of peace alone in a park in Japan, and that to me is the writer he could become. His openness to recounting naivety as well as wild nights is what also kept my interest. Not knowing what cheesecake is, not having heard of Gladys Knight and then loving her, her love of skateboarding and its mental health benefits. It’s those little moments that give us a truer sense of who someone is, which is surely what memoirs are all about.
The sense of family that is evident everywhere – whether it’s his own, the band itself, touring buddies or recording with Mercury Rev’s Dave Fridmann – is what lingers beneath all “chaos”. I would also say that a youngster isn’t wasted when you’ve accumulated Mogwai’s body of work and this book, if any, shows that what society tells children is wasted time, it often isn’t the case. When they are given the means to use their time differently, they can and often will do so in positive ways.
More than anything though, Spaceships above Glasgow was a wonderful opportunity to be where the realities of people, time and space merge – an opportunity that only music truly provides. The anticipation of a concert, the shared music, the connections and the memories, the false identity card, the journey to a place, then its layout and its specific qualities. These are the common spaces, where the artist, the fan, the dealer, whatever, exist collectively in a kind of suspended time.
The points where music, movies, video games, and books intersect lead to this moment and the early sections of the book convey it particularly well. Again, I have to declare a personal bias and say that the bands mentioned are among my all-time favorites: Mercury Rev, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, My Bloody Valentine, Tortoise, Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, Labradford, Smog, Pavement, Broadcast, Pram. Reading it was like being sent back to a different self that is still essentially the same but, like Braithwaite, a bit wiser. It was this transport via muscle memory of the music – not the nostalgia – that made this reading extremely enjoyable.
Braithwaite says of Sonic Youth that they “blurred the lines between rock and roll, poetry and art” and that “it was like he had managed to meet the moment”. There were times in the reading where I was really at the time of past concerts. This merging of realities is reflected on the page as well, with Mogwai first supporting and then headlining their various heroes, like Low. It’s this ability to change bands, with music remaining the constant (just like friendships), that really stands out.
In Niall McCann’s film about a trip to a Scottish indie music festival in Brittany, Lost in France, a concert and a journey that Braithwaite documents in the book, he says it’s impossible to explain music and what it does to you, and I think that’s true. But sometimes that inexplicable feeling can be reignited by someone else’s memories, just as Braithwaite himself found out when writing it down, saying, “One of the funniest parts of it all was to talk to old friends about what had happened. A lot of the best things in the book were things that I had completely forgotten about until other people talked about them.
Throughout the book, Braithwaite recounts the concerts he attended and the songs he listened to, and I found it quite amusing that he considered so many of them the “perfect”. Yet also, at a very fundamental level, he is right. The music is an endless repetition of different perfect moments and it really made me realize that.
Braithwaite told me, “I love to write, but I really didn’t know if I would. It was totally new to me. It was a bit of a leap of faith to decide to do something I had never done. I think music and literature are very different, although there’s definitely a bit of overlap in people who are drawn to both. I don’t think this will be the last thing I write, so it’s good to have found something new that I enjoy”
There are definite clues in Spaceships above Glasgow as to what he might want to write if he had perhaps had the confidence that (as with musicality) comes with practice. This is where I feel he will amplify a dry, silent voice under the suggested chaos. At various points in the book, he alludes to things like magic, aliens, the occult, BDSM, the kind of liminal spaces perhaps more commonly associated with psychogeography. I suggested to him that these might be areas he might consider writing about in more detail in the future.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I am obsessed with the strange. I always was. I think I would like to write something Fortean or occult. I would also like to write about other musicians. I carry an unhealthy amount of information about loads of other bands. Might as well do something!
I think, given Braithwaite’s track record of how he spends his time, something will be done with it.
Spaceships Over Glasgow: Mogwai, Mayhem & Misspent Youth by Stuart Braithwaite is published by white rabbit books. You can read today an exclusive excerpt from the book on the Quietus