Stuart Braithwaite

White Rabbit, £20


The strangest thing about this book is that it exists at all – the sheer unlikeliness that an almost entirely instrumental and defiantly non-mainstream group like Mogwai should not only make it out of the 1990s but become one of Scotland’s most durable and internationally respected musical exports. Their refusal to water down their creative vision has been their greatest strength, lending the band a mystique and gravitas that’s playfully dismantled in this candid and articulate autobiography by co-founder and guitarist Stuart Braithwaite.

Even if Braithwaite had never picked up a guitar, Spaceships over Glasgow would still stand as an electrifying memoir of the joys of being a teenage music fan. Born in Lanarkshire in 1976, and spending most of his formative years in Hamilton, his tastes were shaped by bands like Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. His account of seeing his favourite band, The Cure, for the first time at the age of 13, is written with undimmed passion and excitement, as though he’d been waiting his whole life, reliving every detail of the gig over and over again, to set it down on paper. That same infectious enthusiasm is poured into the retellings of successive adolescent landmarks, like sneaking into his first over-18s gig (The Jesus and Mary Chain) disguised as a girl to get past the bouncers, and attending his first festival, a trip to Reading where Nirvana played “a performance that would change everything for me”.

The vivid memoir of a teenage pop fanatic transitions smoothly into the chronicles of a professional musician, so that even when he’s playing the Albert Hall and Glastonbury, or scoring motion pictures, or getting the seal of approval from heroes like Robert Smith, he remains a knowledgeable and enthusiastic consumer of new, obscure and challenging music.

Key to Mogwai’s success has been their seriousness about their art. “From the first day,” he writes, “we had an almost religious drive to make something really special – music with permanence.” But from a very young age there were signs that a bumpy ride of drug-fuelled chaos lay ahead too. One of Braithwaite’s early memories is of hallucinating geometric patterns whilst under anaesthetic for an adenoid operation. On another occasion, he was left unscathed after running down a flight of stairs and crashing through a plate-glass window. “The impression that I was apparently invincible was one that I would carry with me into my adult life,” he writes.

Taken together, those two anecdotes set the scene for the reckless abandon that would accompany Mogwai’s ascent, as Braithwaite consumed mountainous quantities of alcohol and mind-altering substances without paying much heed to the consequences. Much of Spaceships over Glasgow is like watching a tightrope walk, waiting for the point where it all inevitably comes crashing down. The moment when Braithwaite finds himself snorting crushed-up ecstasy from a church altar must be the turning point, you think. But, no, the briefly chastened Mogwai continue to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, their discipline and dedication rescuing them from the fate of becoming “some drunken circus act”.

Braithwaite has written a book he can feel justly proud of, detailing the struggle to keep a band together while facing up to his flaws and failed relationships as he slowly matures and learns to take on greater responsibility. There’s a touching warmth to it too, as he pays tribute to the people he’s met along the way and remembers his late father, Scotland’s last telescope maker, a man whose story he generously admits is “probably worth a book in itself”.