The Herald Arts Magazine, December 9 2017.
HOME. Mogwai’s Barry Burns is unsure where it is. He enjoys the easygoing way of life in Berlin where people still smoke in bars and swig beer on trains or while walking down the street. But Burns, who is a multi-instrumentalist for the postrockers, also loves the Glasgow patter and relentless sense of humour. Oh, and the scenery.
“It’s a bit flat here,” says Burns, while cyclists shoot past the window outside the busy Vietnamese restaurant in Berlin’s hip Neukolln district. But it has its benefits. “It’s the freedom of being able to do anything here, like walk down the street with a beer,” says Burns, who is 42 and has a strong west coast of Scotland accent.
Burns, who grew up in Uddingston, South Lanarkshire, takes a sip of his coffee and pauses for a moment. “If only there was an exact mixture of the two cities – it’d be fantastic,” he says.
Burns’ life is spread across these two places. He lives in the German capital with his wife Rachel and their one-yearold daughter Rosa (named after the Polish-born German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg) but they often travel back to Scotland.
“We like to go between the two cities a lot so it’s quite hard,” he says. “I hope it’s not affecting my daughter too much but I think babies are quite adaptable. There’s parks everywhere – here and Glasgow too. So we’re really spoiled with these two cities.”
As one-fourth of Mogwai, an instrumental band that has defined the post-rock scene since releasing their first album, Young Team, in 1997, Burns splits his time between composing and touring, as well as working on other musical projects.
The band – Burns, Stuart Braithwaite, Dom Aitchison and Martin Bulloch – are in the middle of a world tour following the release of their ninth album, Every Country’s Sun.
The tour will finish with a homecoming show on December 16 at the SSE Hydro. It will round off a year of hard work for the group, and for Burns personally.
Burns tries to avoid reading what the critics think of Mogwai records but made an exception for the latest record.
“I don’t normally read the reviews and I haven’t for a few years because I don’t see the point of it,” says Burns. “But I did with this one because I had a good feeling about it.
“Pretty much all of them have been really positive. So it was a bit of an ego boost after a pretty tough year just generally with the band, and having the kid and all that – it’s just been loads of work. So to get that it was like: ‘Aaah nice.'” Burns and his wife moved to Berlin in 2009 after friends recommended it.
“We’d heard really good things about it,” he says. “After we moved we were just walking down the street wondering what we’d done. It was quite a brave move, I think. That’s why every time I hear a foreign voice in Scotland I think: brave person, well done.”
Around a 10 minute walk from the Vietnamese cafe is the couple’s very own slice of Glasgow.
From the outside, Das Gift (the Poison in German) looks like a typical shabby chic bar. Inside it’s different. On a Saturday night in November there’s a guy wearing a Celtic top among a huge table of buzzing hipsters. Like Berlin, the bar has an international clientele.
There are sausage rolls (albeit gourmet) on the bar counter, along with Caramel Wafers and a sign offering haggis, neeps and tatties.
Another giveaway is the large whisky menu.
The couple, along with video artist Phil Collins and his partner took over a Berliner kneipe (old man’s pub) in Donaustraße 2010 and turned it into Das Gift.
Now the pub is run solely by Burns and Rachel but only one half of the couple deserves the credit.
“Rachel will ask me a lot of stuff about it but most of the good ideas are hers to be honest,” says Burns.
“I don’t know what I do actually. I go there sometimes and test the drinks. I DJ in it sometimes.”
The reaction to the food has been mixed. “At first there was a bit of nervousness about it with the haggis but it’s basically a sausage without skin on it,” says Burns.
“It’s totally fine, all the other stuff; square sausage and black pudding. I wish it was more popular but you can see how people in Germany even react to spicy food – they’re very slow to take to it and it’s been the same with our food. The haggis nachos were a great idea. Mexico and Scotland together at last.”
Don’t expect to see Burns pulling a pint there any time soon. “The last time I worked on a bar was at the Balloch Oasis gig [in 1996], I must have been about 17 or 18,” he says. “I was pulling 12 pints at a time for the promoter.”
Sadly, the bar’s juke box, which featured mixes from Robert Smith and Irvine Welsh broke recently, but Burns says they’re on the hunt for another one.
When the bar opened, Neukölln, which is situated next to Kreuzberg in the old American sector of West Berlin, was a poor district with plenty of diversity. Curated cafes, dimly lit bars and more English speakers show the area’s gentrification, although Sonnenallee, which once divided the city, is still one of the most multi-cultural parts of the city and is arguably the best place to eat hummus.
“The city’s changed a lot since we moved,” says Burns. “When we did come down to Neukolln it was really grimy. Slowly you’re starting to see, ‘Oh, you can get a flat white in here.'”
BURNS compares Berlin’s gentrification to Glasgow. “Finnieston has been supergentrified really quickly. And other parts like Dennistoun, it’s taken a long time. But here it seems like this constant pace of gentrification. You come back to a street every few months and it’s changed.
“The cafe we’re in used to be a spati [nickname for a late-night opening shop] called a Spatkauf).”
Burns is positive about his life in Berlin and plans to apply for German citizenship next year, a decision influenced by the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Brexit, he predicts, will be an “international embarrassment”.
His German is not up to scratch yet, though, and he plans to take classes with Rachel.
His daughter, who is at nursery, will be bilingual. “We thought it was really important because it’s really good for your brain to be bilingual,” he says.
Mogwai’s longevity is a “constant surprise”, says Burns.
“I think five or six years is the lifespan for most bands. It’s good for us – it’s been 22 years and I’ve been there for 19.”
Life hasn’t slowed down for Burns. “I thought in my 40s I would calm down but it’s got busier. I’m 42, I feel about 90 though.”
He feels for up-and-coming bands who don’t have the same opportunities as Mogwai. “We witnessed it go from people buying records to this weird streaming model now,” says Burns. “As much as I hate not being paid for stuff at least people are putting a little bit towards it. To start being in a band now, I think it’d be really soul destroying.
“It must be brutal.”
The secret to making it last is to have a laugh, says Burns. “The only thing we take seriously is when we play the music, the rest of it is a hoot,” he adds. “John [Cummings] left the band two years ago and I think if you’re not enjoying something, you’re quite right to stop doing it.
“But it’s nicer now because I think you can feel if someone is being negative.
Everyone’s getting on really good now.”
The band find touring difficult at times but rarely get sick of each other . “On tour you don’t tend to do much stuff, it’s sort of mild depression because you think: ‘ah, wish I was home,'” he says. “An hour and a half every day when you’re playing is the best part of your day.”
He is, however, in no doubt that being on tour is harder for his family.
“I don’t feel bad for me, I feel bad for the kid and Rachel,” says Burns.
“She’s pretty much a single mum at that point. I’ve got alcohol to get me through. I don’t think I could do that, I think she’s amazing.”
The old-style wooden bar and yellow lighting in Das Gift has the distinct feel of a Glasgow pub, like the Press Bar in Albion Street or the Allison Arms on Pollokshaws Road.
If you lean over and check the fridge you’ll also spot cans of Irn Bru. The giveaway that you’re not in Glasgow is the stale smoke smell coming from the second lounge room. Still no enforced smoking ban here.
Maybe Burns has succeeded in merging his two favourite cities together after all.
Mogwai, plus Ride and Sacred Paws, play the SSE Hydro in Glasgow next Saturday. See http://www.thessehydro.com
Picture: Brian Sweeney