The thought of the Atomic Age can conjure up anachronistic scenes of Cold War-era bomb shelters, civil defense films, and cautionary science fiction.
But with the geopolitical landscape in flux and disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima not far removed, it’s clear that dangers and anxieties of the Atomic Age still exist. In recognizing that we do not occupy a separate timeline and must reflect on our relationship with nuclear power, reflection often sparks resistance.
In Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, director Mark Cousins set out to examine the various and often destructive impacts of nuclear power, poring over archived footage of everything from x-rays to weaponry. In the spirit of the documentary, Cousins figured ‘why not have a band noted for their high volume shows and minor key compositions provide the score?’ Enter Stuart Braithwaite and Mogwai.
“The seriousness of the subject matter was kind of daunting,” says guitarist Stuart Braithwaite. “People always say that our music is quite heavy anyway, [but] literally soundtracking the apocalypse…”
When scoring this film though, Braithwaite and his bandmates let the visuals do the talking. “I think we were quite cautious to [not] be too bombastic because the images themselves are so powerful. It definitely was something that we took as a challenge rather than a problem.”
Part of the decision to undertake such a challenge, Braithwaite explains, stemmed from their years of traveling as a band to countries affected by nuclear warfare. “We’ve been to Japan probably more than we’ve been to any other country. It’s a country we’re really fond of; we played in Hiroshima and visited the peace park. And the film was shown on the TV back home of the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombings.”
For Braithwaite, lending their music seemed not only necessary, but vital to the conversation. “Seeing the letters that the mayor of Hiroshima writes to every country to try and tell them to stop using nuclear weapons because of these terrible things… I like to think that we, by being involved with this film, have also shown people how bad it is and that this is something that people should not just think is something happening somewhere else.”
The soundtrack puts Mogwai in the same class of artists that have taken on these issues in their work. Artists like Kraftwerk, Ryuichi Sakamoto and, more recently, Boards of Canada come to mind. “I think, especially with Kraftwerk, and the Radioactivity album, I think that they were evoking the nuclear science and the sounds. And even though I don’t think we took much from their music, I definitely think those sounds…that sort idea of what the future would sound like…was something that we had in mind.”
As Scottish citizens, this is a daunting reality. Less than an hour away from their home base in Glasgow is Faslane, site of the HM Naval Base Clyde and the country’s nuclear weapons. “One of the main reasons that I campaigned and continue to campaign for Scottish independence is to get rid of the nuclear base. To remove this danger, hopefully completely, and get it the fuck away from our houses. That was a really big thing.”
The decision to take such a film on tour in the United States, coinciding with the most recent election, wasn’t intentional. This relevance of its message is one that Braithwaite hoped wouldn’t be as strong. “There seems to be two levels of rationality left in public discourse. It’s really a weird time. To be honest, that hadn’t even started, I didn’t think so much, even when we were making this [score] and it just seems like the world has just gone mental in the last year.”
After toying with musical “retrofuturism” and rallying against the lure of supposed nuclear progress, Mogwai will refocus their efforts back to their own discography. The band has just finished mixing a new album in upstate New York with producer Dave Fridmann, whom they last worked with on Rock Action in 2001. “It’s all done and we’re really excited about that. It’s going to be out later in the year and I’m sure we’ll be back to play those songs before the year is out, too.”
For now, they’re raising the alert as activists and don’t seem keen on stopping anytime soon. In this heightened time of divisions, there’s always a cause to champion and a voice to amplify.
Mogwai performs a live score for Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise at the Berklee Performance Center on January 27th. The show begins at 8pm, and tickets are $29.50. A recorded version of the score is available through Temporary Residence Ltd.