In an industry where artists’ entire careers can begin, flourish and die out in the space of a single album cycle, longevity is a rare and often undervalued asset. Artists for whom success is accrued, as opposed to being struck upon, can often struggle to gain the recognition they so often deserve. While not many would care to admit it, we’re all too often fascinated by the overnight success stories, forgoing exhibitions of hard work and determination. MUGSTAR are a band whose career has charted a trajectory of measured growth: each album has seen them develop their unique style of instrumental space rock, and each show and tour sees their audiences grow exponentially. They are a band who consistently move from strength to strength, even while shifting the goalposts. Stylistically the band draw influence from the most diverse of sources but every combination is a celestial, out-of-body experience.
As a band for whom success is a slow build, it can be difficult to understand just where Mugstar are on their career path. Recently, however, there have been a number of landmark moments that go some way to help place them. There are few bands who could support Mogwai on tour and release a live album alongside musical icon Damo Suzuki, for example. Even fewer who could do it in the same year, yet that’s what the quartet have managed over the past six months. Perhaps because of their experience, however, Mugstar take it all in their stride. “We tend to go through periods where we’re not doing anything, from our perspective, but people look at us and go ‘You’re really busy!’ and we think, ‘I suppose we are’,” says guitarist Neil Murphy.
These collaborations, it should also be noted, seem like particularly fitting yardsticks of success for a band who have drawn so much influence from both Mogwai and Damo Suzuki. Stacked up, these are moments that look a lot more like milestones in an illustrious career than potential breakouts. Mogwai, in particular, are a band for whom success has also been rooted in hard work, self-belief and a loyal fanbase. While it may have taken them longer than some, this kind of success is rarely fleeting and has given each band a platform on which they can continue to experiment with their sound. “It was pretty spectacular,” says bassist Jason Stoll of playing alongside Mogwai on their recent Rave Tapes tour. “We’ve played with them before but this tour was different. They were playing bigger venues and it’s really interesting to see, for an instrumental rock band, how big they actually are and how many different people they can appeal to.” This appeal is something with which Mugstar are intimately familiar, particularly in alternative rock circles. Despite the recent vogue for psychedelic music, Mugstar remain one of the few active bands with a real passion for mind-altering music. This passion has seen them amass legions of die-hard fans. Across Europe in particular they are renowned for their fearless, transcendental psychedelia. “We recently played a gig in Hebden Bridge and after playing I found there was someone in the crowd who’d flown in from Germany to see us. If people are making that effort to see a gig I’d feel really bad if we did a substandard show.” This commitment to performance is evident, as anyone who is lucky enough to have witnessed their electrifying performances will attest.
Alongside their blistering live performances the band are intent on pushing themselves with each studio release. With Cardinal Fuzz Records re-issuing their excellent album Sun, Broken earlier in the year, now is a perfect time to acquaint yourselves with their stellar back catalogue. The band’s refusal to be pigeonholed, and therefore limited, by the constraints of any one style or genre has afforded them a broad sound palette from which to draw. Their mutability ensures each release is as exhilarating, powerful and challenging as the last. “I like the idea of not having a predetermined sound that we’re working towards,” says Neil. “It’s good to be able to work in that way. I think we always enjoy that element of risk taking. In the studio, someone will come in with a very basic idea but it’s free to go anyway it wants. I’m not sure we’d cope well with a record label or manager making suggestions about creative matters. When we’re working on new music we just go with what seems right to us, and ideas of how others will react don’t much come into it. Because we’ve always released independently, and because our commercial appeal is limited, we’ve always had the freedom to let the music go in the direction we choose.”
Adding to this already impressive back catalogue is the imminent release of a live album alongside living legend and krautrock pioneer Damo Suzuki. Recorded at a show in The Kazimier, the album stands as testament to the strength of Mugstar as performing musicians. Veering through kraut, prog, psych and jazz, each of the tracks showcases a number of different strings to Mugstar’s Technicolor bow. The show, birthed in typical Damo Suzuki style, was entirely improvised. The performance was a chance for the audience to bear witness to this meeting of minds first hand. “He actually said to us, ‘don’t rehearse’. We met with him on the night, we soundchecked, and we played. I can’t remember the exact phrase he used but it was something about the cosmic forces coming together.” Listening to the album – Start From Zero, released on Important Records this month – it’s difficult to argue with the results. The album stands as testament not only to the virtuosity of Mugstar as a live act, but how important improvisation is to the band. This spirit of adventure and exploration permeates everything the band do.
Mugstar have also shown themselves to be exploratory not only in content but in context. Alongside their more traditional collaborations they have explored new forms, as the recent partnership with contemporary dance choreographer Frank Michelletti proves. Specially commissioned for the wonderfully titled Kubilai Kahn Investigations, the piece involved the band playing on stage surrounded by dancers responding to the music as they played. The project was not only hugely successful as a show but proved to be an eye-opening experience for the band. “It was really interesting to see how the dancers responded to some of the intricacies in our music; the bits that I wonder if anyone picks up on. There were a few moments where I would, for example, change the bassline a little and their movements would be altered. It was great to see someone respond in that way.” Spurred-on by the success of the performance, the band are perhaps understandably keen for this not to be the last time they work in such a way. “We’d definitely be interested in doing it again. It gave [us] so much energy. To have people on the stage responding to what you’re doing, it was amazing. Everyone involved felt their performance just went up a level.”
Whether it is dancers, collaborations or live soundtracking a film about the Red Army/Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine, Mugstar are a band constantly pushing the boundaries of their art form. “It’s not a conscious decision to keep going down these different avenues of working, but I think that, when we did our own film for Summercamp last year, it opened up all these opportunities,” explains Neil. It would be a brave person who bets on where they go next. What’s certain, however, is that it will be as exciting, vital and interesting as ever.
Start From Zero is out on Important Records on 21st June.