A striving sense of experimentation and a restless spirit has taken Mugstar to faraway places, Getintothis’ James Sullivan catches up with the story so far.
“It’s a never ending thing. We don’t get to a point where we say ‘This is it, this is the pinnacle’. We get to a certain level and then the clouds clear and we’re like: ‘Now we need to get to that level!’
For 13 years Mugstar have been not so much ploughing their trade as refuelling their jet packs and shooting for the sky. Meeting around the gig venues of Liverpool and bonding through a mutual love of Krautrock, Sonic Youth and Hawkwind, their steady progress has been in direct contrast with their fearless sense of experimentation.
Starting out, however, and the band had relatively straightforward intentions. “I always remember Lemmy saying he wanted Motorhead to sound like a cross between Hawkwind and the MC5”, says bassist Jason Stoll to Getintothis in the wake of their GIT Award nomination. “I think that’s what the first couple of 7”s sounded like.”
Since then, Mugstar has grown into a many-headed beast. New album Magnetic Seasons draws together everything they’ve done up to this point into a 74 minute tide encompassing delicate glacial soundscapes, sludging riffs, and an overwhelming sense of space. It’s a staggering achievement.
Time and space is something Mugstar are acutely aware of. Sometimes, you just need a little more of both.
“The first couple of 7”s were recorded in a very cheap studio where we had to record everything live and we didn’t have much opportunity to experiment,” Jason says. “But over the years, and particularly with the new album, we’ve had that opportunity. […] It’s allowed us to develop more of an experimental edge and make more elongated songs that go through a compositional process.”
It’s that sense of composition that has led Mugstar to places far beyond your average band of four mates playing songs together. Last year they recorded an improvised live album with Can legend Damo Suzuki. Asked by a Liverpool promoter to be Damo’s backing band, they agreed and requested to record the show. Damo had only one stipulation: “Don’t rehearse“.
“It was quite a bizarre experience. You’re playing to a massive crowd but it’s music you’re making up on the spot. Can have been a massive influence on Mugstar, and Damo’s a lovely guy. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something like ‘the cosmic will bring the music together’.”
It worked. The collaboration with teenage heroes became another one of those signpost moments bands dream of. Like recording a Peel session, or signing to a US label and touring over there – all of which they did. What about performing a live soundtrack for contemporary dance? Mugstar have done that too.
Next April the band head to Marseilles to perform two shows with a dance company. A week of rehearsals, then two live performances accompanying the dancers, or is it the dancers accompanying them?
“Last time we did it, we rehearsed with the company and they basically made this piece that fitted around our music,” Jason explains. “You’d be playing and someone would be doing the splits in front of you. It was quite a different dynamic.”
Jason, along with guitarists Pete Smyth and Neil Murphy, and drummer Steve Ashton, have seemingly cracked the impossible: sustaining both healthy, functioning friendships and a band dynamic. The apocryphal theory that being in a band is like having another three girlfriends/boyfriends proving to be exactly that: apocryphal. “We’ve never fallen out,” Jason says.
The magic question then: how have they pulled that one off? The answer is, inevitably, obvious.
“Sometimes I listen to Mugstar stuff and I can still hear new things each time. That’s exciting for me. It never sounds dull, it never sounds like we’re going through the motions, and I think that’s probably why we’ve stayed together for so long. Each time we do something it feels like a development on the stuff we’ve done before.”
Mugstar’s approach to writing songs is less a process and more an evolution. No one person arrives with a song; instead the band contribute ideas – a riff, for example – and the four let their musicianship take over. Through rehearsals and playing live, the song takes shape. A truly collaborative effort. Ultimately, say the band, the initial rehearsal tapes bear little resemblance to the finished track.
The new album is the first to be released on Mogwai’s Rock Action label, an apparent ideal meeting of sensibilities between band and label. A supportive label willing to put their faith in the band has resulted in Mugstar pushing things further than ever before. “This album feels like a culmination of all the stuff we’ve been doing,” Pete recently told Getintothis.
It’s less heavy, more laid back, there’s a constant sense of journeying into the unknown. Opening track Unearth gives the listener a fair indication of what they’re in for. A looping, reverb-heavy guitar is soon pushed along by some Sabbath-style riffing, unearthly wailing from a distant galaxy and a tempo change worthy of A Day in the Life, before the song folds in on itself to the sound of guitars like squalling seagulls.
Considering all of this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that they’ve never really been part of a scene.
“Obviously a few years ago there was the cosmic psych thing – and we never fitted into that. We never fitted into a metal scene or anything,” Jason says.
Liverpool Psych Fest is one thing that Jason cites as being an important development in recent years, giving bands in Liverpool who might otherwise remain on the fringes a platform.
“There’s a lot of good bands in Liverpool and there’s a lot of good musicianship. But from doing this for a long time we know loads of people in the States, and Europe, and South America. They’re doing quite experimental music, quite challenging music. So I think the psych thing has allowed many of those bands who may have been dispersed all over the world to have a bit more of a connection with people.”
More locally too, there are kindred spirits to be found: Manchester’s Krautrock fans Gnod, Liverpool’s Mind Mountain and Cavalier Song both given as examples of bands mutually prone to sonic exploration.
With Magnetic Seasons out and garnering rave reviews, there is an inevitable sense of ‘what’s next’? The morning after Getintothis speaks to the band they’re off to play in Croatia, Holland, Belgium, Austria, Czech Republic and Italy. And Germany too, which seems a natural fit.
Jason says: “We don’t necessarily see ourselves as a Krautrock band because obviously we’re not from Germany in the early 70s! But there have been certain albums that we’ve done that have been very tied into our influences – like Can and Neu; those kind of bands. I think all of us being into that sort of music has allowed us to expand what we do and give a different take on Krautrock, for example.”
Films are another area where the band intend to keep exploring. The 2012 film Ad Marginem saw them involved with all aspects of production, including writing and performing the soundtrack. But unlike the band’s regular way of working, composing for film requires an obvious change in approach; “One gig we could play one song for five minutes; the next gig we could play the same song for 13 minutes. It’s quite open-ended,” says Jason. “When you’re working with film – or with a dance company – you’re quite constrained.
“But, that challenges us in a very different way. Each time these opportunities arise for us, it’s great to be able to challenge ourselves musically and also as a group of people.”
All of which is a fairly concise summary of why Mugstar continue to evolve as that rarest of things: a band unafraid of progress; undaunted by change; restlessly adventurous and always compelling.
“When I think about it, the Beatles were together for, what, about nine years? The original line-up of Black Sabbath about ten years, if that? We’ve kept it going a lot longer.
“We’ve always found it a lot more inspirational each time we do something. And each time we’ve done it, it’s always opened new doors for us. That’s what makes it exciting.”