When the LIGO experiment recently detected gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes on the other side of the world, the scientific world rejoiced at finally being able to complete the proof of one of science’s great feats: Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The ripples this massive event caused in space-time reached us after 16 billion years of travelling across the galaxy, having literally shaken the fabric of our universe. As I watched simulations of the event, I put my own soundtrack to it in my head – and I found that there was only one entity who could do justice to the drama, joy, elegance and sheer primal might of it. MUGSTAR are the perfect cosmological composers.
The colossal, many-limbed space-kraut beast that is Mugstar formed in 2003, and they’ve been slowly burrowing their way into our collective conscious all these years as they’ve honed their own style, which is now a standard in the psych scene. They specialise in grand vistas of instrumental rock that are made to be played on the loudest volume setting, at which point the dense web of layers in their music becomes apparent. The four muted and genuinely very pleasant blokes who make up Mugstar – Pete Smyth (guitar, keyboards, groans and yelps), Neil Murphy (guitar, knowledge), Jason Stoll (bass, upper cuts), Steve Ashton (drums, persistence) – would be embarrassed by this description of them as a giant machine working in perfect unison, but that’s because they’ve been doing this for so long that they feel the music now rather than force it.
Up to now, Mugstar’s mightily impressive output of six albums and countless singles and remixes has all been done under their own steam. Numerous underground labels – Sea Records, Agitated, Important, Cardinal Fuzz, Critical Mass – have released an assortment of tracks by the band, but it’s with new LP Magnetic Seasons that Mugstar have raised the bar. Released on Rock Action Records, the label run by instrumental rock behemoths Mogwai, Magnetic Seasons is their most nuanced work to date, and is a huge seal of approval for a band who’ve been plugging away for 13 years.
Sitting down and discussing the expanse of the album’s sweeping four sides with bassist Jason Stoll, you get the impression that Mugstar are a group who are impervious to outside pressures of expectation: they just do. “It was the first time we’ve ever had a label pay for anything, which is weird!” he begins. “Did we feel any pressure with that? Not really, no. We just went in and did what we normally do, which is experiment. For me it was like having a bit more freedom to challenge ourselves. I think it worked really well having that expectation, and also in having some support behind us.”
When recording the album in February 2015 with long-term producer and friend Rob Whiteley, the band soon found the project expanding in front of them as they allowed their natural creative instincts to take over. “We spent five long days in the studio and recorded the initial tracks that we had, and the rest of it just grew from little ideas we had in the studio which we then built upon,” Stoll explains. “One track in particular – the last track Ascension Island – is a 17-minute, dark piece of music that’s quite free-flowing. I think it works really well more as a piece rather than a song. I suppose that’s always something we’ve worked towards: we haven’t always gone in with definitive ideas of trying to write a song, it’s about composing a piece of music.”
“The thing we like when working with Rob is that we go in the studio and just record and record,” continues Stoll as he warms to the memory of putting together their latest work. “It was quite nice having that freedom to just experiment and do lots of different things. Rob’s got loads of different instruments in there – we used a Fender Rhodes keyboard on some of it – so it gave the album a totally different dynamic to what we anticipated. I suppose we always find that when we go in the studio – it’s that experimental thing that you just start getting into. And I think it challenges us, quite significantly, to write music that we wouldn’t necessarily come up with in a rehearsal room.”
Having taken some time away from the band on various solo and side projects, and coming at the album off the back of their own soundtrack work Ad Marginem, Magnetic Seasons almost inevitably has a more measured tempo to it. There are still flashes of that ‘classic’ Mugstar attack in Unearth and Time Machine (both on side one), which brings to mind both Harmonia and Hawkwind; but the overall feel is one of adventurous restraint rather than all-out assault.
“I saw one review that said the album kind of shifts through different emotions, and that might be why we called it Magnetic Seasons…,” Stoll muses when I push him on this less brutal Mugstar. “We didn’t have that in mind, to be honest! But it does move through different moods, they were right about that. It starts with, I suppose, a more traditional Mugstar thing, a bit more riffy, and it moves into something elongated that’s more ‘drifty’ and flowing, then back in to more hypnotic, traditional Mugstar song-based territory, then into something else which is a bit more freeform. Some of the bits, on sides two and four, are definitely more gentle passages, and possibly even fragile, in a way. Which is more than we have ever gone down that route in the past.”
The Fender Rhodes lends a bit of Miles Davis jazziness to some of Magnetic Seasons’ tracks, and there is something decidedly fluid in the way the parts slide around each other. But Stoll seems quite sceptical about the term “jazzy” when I bring it up – he prefers to call it natural.
“This is now our 13th year as Mugstar – because we know each other so well, musically and personally, it’s a thing where you just fall into a natural way of working with each other. I hate to use the word, but there’s a sort of telepathic thing there now! I don’t necessarily believe in telepathy though, ha ha, but I definitely think there’s something there in our core being that allows us, musically, to be able to respond to other people.”
And yet, underpinning the expanses of space that characterise La Valleé and Remember The Breathing are the trademark cyclical pulses of the Mugstar machine. Building layers through repetition is still the band’s great skill, but to truly appreciate this they need to be experienced live. When the lights are low and Mugstar are at full throttle, they pull on all your primal instincts: the motorik, gut-throbbing bass that gets even the most lily-livered souls nodding along, and bright, spiky guitars that get your brain neurons firing. It’s no surprise that supernova explosions and large-scale galactic imagery are regularly associated with them.
In recent years they’ve pushed themselves in this arena too, performing their Ad Marginem soundtrack live to the film (directed by guitarist Neil), and even taking on an improvisational score to a contemporary dance performance at a festival in France. “Going from doing a film score to working with dancers allows us to flex our experimental muscles a bit more. We wanna develop rather than stick with a certain sound,” asserts Stoll. “I think it’s a total different thing that we’re doing now compared to when we started. What we want from it has changed quite significantly. Now it’s more about getting the chance to be creative, and having the chance to play to different audiences.” That ambition to seek out variety keeps the whole thing from stagnating too. Is this, I ask, how they keep the thrill in what they’re doing? “Oh yeh, it’s really exciting,” Stoll agrees. “In some ways that’s why we’re still doing it after so many years. We still get that buzz from the four of us working together. In the last interview we did for you there was a comment along the lines of ‘we don’t know at what point Mugstar are in their career’, and I don’t think we ever do! Many bands would have fallen apart by now, with not really achieving what they may have set out to achieve. But for us it’s more about having open-ended goals and trying to challenge ourselves.”
Mugstar are evidence that you don’t need any grand design or arch master plan to have longevity in this game, so long as you’re willing to totally immerse yourself in your passion.
“I think,” Stoll muses as he tries to sum it all up, “it was Dylan [Carlson] from Earth who said to us once: ‘if you do it for long enough people will get it in the end’. I’m a strong believer in that!”
Magnetic Seasons is released on 4th March via Rock Action Records.