Ahead of the release of their eighth record Magnetic Seasons, Getintothis’ Jamie Bowman caught up with Mugstar to discuss their new album for Rock Action and their noise-fuelled journey.
It’s been 13 long years since Liverpool’s Mugstar first set out on a noise-fuelled odyssey which has taken the four piece to the kind of places most bands can only dream of.
While many young men in the city’s past might have joined the Royal Navy if they wanted to see the world, for Pete Smyth, Neil Murphy, Jason Stoll and Steve Ashton, a berth on the good ship Mugstar has seen them travel the globe, release a split single with grunge heroes Mudhoney, record a live album with Can legend Damo Suzuki and somehow find the time to record the last ever Peel Session before the DJ’s untimely death. It’s been quite a journey.
“The nice thing about being in a band for such a long time is we know when we play live we can just slip into it really easily,” agrees the band’s focal point and occasional vocalist Pete.
“Someone can play something at a sound check and suddenly we are all there getting into it and it’s like something taking wings,” interjects bassist Jason. “When we come back together after a break I still get a buzz when the music takes you over. We can do a couple of really good gigs and people are into it and it really energises you.”
Talking about energy, Mugstar’s new album Magnetic Seasons (their eighth) sees the band produce a sprawling double set which still retains their characteristic live instrumental power while also introducing a whole new sonic palette to these epically beautiful slices of noise.
“The new album feels like a culmination of all the stuff we’ve been doing,” says Pete. “A lot was improvised.”
“A big element was Pete’s new Fender Rhodes,” says Jason. “It’s made a huge difference to the sound.
“I pretty much used it to its maximum and plugged my guitar through it,” grins Pete. “It’s a beautiful instrument: you can hammer it or play the littlest of touches. It’s a very intense, emotional thing.”
Clocking in at an expansive 74 minutes, Magnetic Seasons is Mugstar’s first album recorded for Mogwai’s Rock Action label, bringing together two of the UK’s finest noise-rock explorers. But despite working with a band who mean such a lot to them, the actual recording process was not without its complications as Jason explains.
“We were supposed to go up to Mogwai’s studio to record it but a few days before we due to go the engineer was taken really ill and it had to be cancelled. We ended up doing it with Rob Whitely who we’ve done albums with before so I suspect it might have been a very different album if we’d done it up in Scotland. Instead it’s a snapshot of a time.
“We felt a bit of pressure with it being for Mogwai’s label,” says Pete. “I’ve known those guys for years but it was still a shock when they asked us. They basically just said that if we wanted to release an album on their label we were more than welcome. They’ve always been really friendly – they’re a good band and good people and very supportive of a lot of bands.”
While it’s almost a cliché to list the usual psych rock influences (you know the ones: Hawkwind, Neu!, Sabbath) that meld themselves through Mugstar’s music, it’s hard not to see the resonance in the band’s recent collaboration with Mr Suzuki which resulted in a live album Start From Zero.
“It was weird,” explains Jason. “We played when the European Championships were on and I remember watching Germany vs Greece with Damo on his lap top. You don’t expect that – watching a football match with Damo Suzuki. The era when he was with Can is their best work as far as I’m concerned. There was something amazing about that band’s line up.”
After a flurry of e-mails Damo requested Mugstar not to practice or figure out any music prior to the performance leaving the whole gig to be entirely improvised on the spot.
“We got this email saying we should just wing it on the night basically,” adds Jason. “So we did. I’ve worked a lot in music improve so I like risk taking but on that night something really came together. Damo was quite poorly at the time and when we listened back we realised he thought we’d finished 25 minutes before we actually did so he was quite drained too.”
Taking risks is something Mugstar have never been afraid with their 2012 soundtrack for the film Ad Marginem a case in point. Involved in the writing, directing, editing and acting, future film work seems a natural fit much like it has been for mentors Mogwai.
“I’d be very interested in doing more soundtracks,” agrees Jason, recalling another of Mugstar’s stranger collaborations. “There was an exhibition in London of revolutionary posters from Palestine in the 1970s and there was a film to go alongside it made by some Japanese Marxists. I don’t know why but we were asked to create a soundtrack and perform it with the film and that was really good.”
Touring the world may have been a sizeable fringe benefit of life in Mugstar but as the band’s various war stories from trips to America it has not been all plain sailing. Various tales of stolen instruments, broken vans and extreme tiredness bring home how remarkable it is that this tight-knit gang of friends have stayed just that yet alone produce over a decade’s worth of wonderful music.
“We went from playing Austin Psych Fest where you’re obviously going to get a crowd to playing at El Paso where one person turned up,” adds Pete.
“We do music because we love it not so we can make a living out of it. It’s really tough and the only reason we’ve stayed together is the music. If you’re in a band you’re going to get ripped off – there are so many Del Boys out there. It’s the stuff that breaks bands up and it tests you as a human being. It’s not easy because you will travel places for no money and come back physically exhausted because you’ve had no sleep or your van had broken down.
“There are situations that have tested us as a band but you soon realise when those special moments happen on stage that that’s ‘why I’m in a band’. We’ve been through a lot, have seen a lot of the world as a band and gone to places we would never have gone. It’s still special.”