It is very often an educational experience when you watch a band that really knows what they are doing. Liverpool kraut rock veterans MUGSTAR most definitely fit into this category with considerable ease. Their experience and musical expertise exudes from their live shows with them being in particularly fine form at Korova for the launch of their new album Sun, Broken.
Bido Lito caught up with the band before the gig and got a unique insight into one of the best alternative, underground bands to come out of Liverpool since the Walking Seeds. They are a band who considers acts such as Sun Ra, Kraftwerk, Mudhoney, Devo as well as John Peel (they appeared on one of the last ever Peel Sessions) to be major influences, have been compared with the likes of Hawkwind, Pink Floyd and Sonic Youth and have toured with legends such as Mogwai, Acid Mothers Temple and Onieda. Some big name dropping there but this is not to say it is not warranted or deserved. Mugstar have built a reputation on improvisation and forward thinking approaches to music which then very much speaks for itself.
They have not intentionally set out to sound like any of the bands aforementioned with some critics even daring to say that they have managed to carve a genre of their own; creating a unique sound that isn’t and shouldn’t be confined to any specific musical association. The guys themselves are very much of this opinion. They don’t like to pigeon-hole their sound: “I don’t think we fit into anything. We are a band that play together to create, we have a vision that relies very much on intuition,” says guitarist Neil Murphy.
“We start of with very loose arrangements. Improvisation is a big part of what we do” adds Neil. Drummer Steve Ashton agrees: “Yeah, we just start kicking ideas around and then let them develop organically. You know when something sounds good.”
They don’t tend to buy into the comparisons that have been made with bands such as Pink Floyd; they very much prefer to be enjoyed for what they are. There is certainly no shame in being compared with the likes of Floyd, however, it is not something the band believes is truly reflective of their sound. “Psychedelic music has become fashionable again. These music critics can’t seem to make up their mind. One minute we are experimental, the next we are progressive rock or even psychedelic rock,” says Neil.
It is exactly this confusion that makes Mugstar all that more special. Their genre defying sound is something they have been developing and nurturing since their early days. The band, as the four-piece they are now, have been together since 2002 and consist of multi-instrumentalists Neil Murphy (guitar, flute, viola), Peter Smyth (guitar, keyboards and occasional vocals), Jason Stoll (bass, saxophone) and drummer Steve Ashton. This wealth of musical abilities epitomises the talent within the band as well as adding extra dimensions to their music that makes them so difficult to categorise. “You get used to how each other play. We have all got different interests and it all comes together in a sort of fragment of noise. It’s hard to describe, it’s just felt”, explains Neil.
Mugstar are a breed unlike any of their local peers in terms of sonic mastery, attitude and style. Their musical lineage side steps the familiar sound of other famous Liverpool acts such as The Beatles and Echo and the Bunnymen and instead shifts perspective from the pop route to something much more cerebrally challenging. The new record, which is the bands second album offering is being released under the American label Important Records. This may seem like an unusual step for a British based band who have had success with labels such as Lancashire and Somerset and the much celebrated Irish imprint, Trensmat which released 2007s ground-shaking 7” single Bethany Heart Star. “This label fits with the philosophy of the music. It has a broad range of artists on the label, the sort of sludge-rock and drone music styles similar to us. We thought it would just make sense”, says Neil.
Their thinking behind the new record is based very much on trying to capture their live sound on record however as Neil describes, it was approached with an even more open-minded philosophy than the first album: “We had even less of an idea when we started this record. There was a lot more give and take on the first album. We would get the core of the track and then tweak it and add layers later. I would say that this album is much more layered.”
With a band like Mugstar it is not surprising to hear that their artistic and creative energies are not just saved for the music as they are currently putting together a DVD which was inspired by the Melvins, who the band saw a few years ago in FACT: “They (the Melvins) had been working with a film maker. They played along to a live soundtrack and Jason thought it would be a good idea if we did a similar thing. We are going to put together a soundtrack with live projections for it which we play along to. It’s going to be separate from the album because something like that has to be seen on its own”, explained Neil.
Mugstar are a band who truly believes in the artistic aesthetics of music. They see their music as an art form and with the incorporation of visuals into their live shows they further expand on their artistic capabilities.
“We have always liked bands that have done it in the past, bands from the 60s and 70s. I think because we do instrumental music it just adds another dimension. We are all quite visual people; we are all into arts as well as sounds so it just kind of grew out of that,” explains Steve.
“A lot of it is quite abstract,” adds Neil. “There is not any particular theme for certain songs or anything like that. Sam (visuals) has particular graphics that he likes to use for different songs. He likes to have a set list so he knows when to use certain images. Stuff we are doing now is more colourful and psychedelic. It tends to be very well approached.”
“Yeah it’s great. We always ask for the lights to be turned down at gigs so that we can fully appreciate the visuals. It feels good on stage”, says Steve.
Adding visuals to music undoubtedly provides more for an audience at a live show however needless to say Mugstar are not one of these bands that need visuals to make their music more interesting. They are a powerful live force with textually layered sonic masterpieces that penetrate your very consciousness. Their epic soundscapes leave you mesmerized, as their meticulously structured yet equally frenzied songs provoke, engage and bewilder. The complexities and unrelenting intensity in songs such as Technical Knowledge As A Weapon leave you in agreement with the fantastic analogy that “Mugstar sound like 10,000 suns exploding.” With a foundation of straight up rock n’ roll riffs, swirling and dense bass lines backed up by pulsating drums, Mugstar are a cosmic entity in a league of their own. Their experimentalism truly pushes the envelope and creates a multi generic cauldron of sound.
Underneath the huge noise they produce are also some beautifully arranged melodies. Their ability to slow things down adds a strangely uplifting darkness and moodiness to their songs which they can then as easily transform back into massively atmospheric, multi-dimensional pieces of music. Epic is not the word, they are grander than that. They are a sonic juggernaut that impresses enormously. They have crafted their art to a staggering level that makes it very difficult to understand why they are not more recognised by the likes of Kerrang! or Metal Hammer. Perhaps that’s what makes them who they are. They are a musical treasure and one of those bands you love to still consider underground and as selfish as it sounds they’re best kept with a degree of mystery surrounding them. They’re the kind of band that you probably won’t have heard of but will be completely blown away by. Mainstream music scenes probably wouldn’t understand or even be able to handle the mighty Mugstar, and anyway they’re too good to be number 1!