Image from Mugstar website
Interview by Billy Hell
One of the best things about living in the Northwest of England in the early 21st century has been the chance to catch a hell of a lot of Mugstar gigs. Liverpool's finest instrumental heavy psychedelic rock band seemed to support almost every band I went to see in that city for a few years, and they've played a lot in Manchester too. There was a time when every gig was better than their last, but now they seem to have leveled at a peak that ought to get them regularly hyped as one of the best bands in Europe. Their most recent album Axis could be their best, but Lime and Sun, Broken are just as heady. I put questions to Pete Smyth (keyboards, guitar), Jason Stoll (bass, saxophone), Steve Ashton (drums) and Neil Murphy (guitar) just before their Fat Out gig at Islington Mill, Salford in March with Hey Colossus, Drunk in Hell and Ten Mouth Electron. The month before, they'd been recording their next album.
PSF: Why did you call the band Mugstar?
PS: It was a mis-hearing of a word. It was called Mugstack originally. Someone misheard it and it became Mugstar.
JS: Who was in the band at that point?
NM: It wasn't even a band at that point. I was playing in another band and it was Ade who came to our gig and said, "Me and Steve are going to form a band called Mugstack" and it became Mugstar. The name was there, we just kind of walked into it. We were quite into mis-hearings, breaking structure and twisting things. It seemed to fit.
PSF: Is the song title "Upturnsidedown" a mis-hearing?
SA: It came from a friend who's dyslexic. The way she says "upside down" is "up turn side down." Itís about logic and straightforward things being misconstrued. It fitted in with that. We have trouble labelling tracks so we keep things to one side to use later.
NM: We've done a few interviews over the years where there have been a lot of mis-hearings!
PSF: You don't have a lot of lyrics obviously, but you do shout "Today is the wrong shape" on "Today is the Wrong Shape."
PS: That came about from how I used to mess around cutting stuff out of magazines and putting words together and that was one of the things that came about. It seemed to fit with the song I was doing at the time and it just stuck. There aren't a lot of words in our music but I don't think that subtracts from the feeling. If it lacks words, I don't think that it's any less important.
PSF: However you have some interesting song titles and I know some have stories behind them.
PS: I think with titles we pick one that fits the mood of the song and how that might describe the mood of the song but a lot of the time, it's very difficult to label an instrumental. We usually play them live before we have a title for them.
PSF: You need to have titles for publishing if nothing else.
JS: They eventually get titles to them. I always think we rehearse a track, but it doesn't really become a concrete thing until we play it live.
PS: It forces you into a situation where you have to play it again and again so it becomes more solid, then you get more of an idea. Really, the titles of most of the tracks come about in the studio when we're recording. Then you're forced to actually label it. You can't just say that's jam one and jam two. The melodica tune was called "Melodica" for ages.
PSF: So "Today is the Wrong Shape" has nothing to do with a bad day?
JS: Pete never has a bad day! None of us do!
PS: It hasn't got a meaning but it fits the music so maybe people can interpret what they want and I'm quite happy with that really.
PSF: A lot of songs with lots of lyrics can be very open to interpretation.
PS: I think it's a lot harder to write a more direct song. Easy to write badly but quite hard to write a good direct song.
PSF: There must be many more bad ones, especially love songs, the most overdone lyrical song subject.
JS: We just recorded over Valentine's Day so that'll be our love album. There's a lotta love in there.
NM: That'll be our Valentine's album.
PSF: You have a song called "Ouroboros," isn't that an old mystical symbol of two snakes swallowing each others' tails?
NM: It's one snake swallowing its tail, generally. There are versions where it's two snakes. The infinity sign is related to the Ouroboros, that figure eight on its side is derived from the ouroboros.
SA: Quite often, we'll give a title to a track and it doesn't seem to fit somehow, but I think the riff of that one does loop and loop and loop and the idea of a cyclical progression fitted.
NM: I think at one point, I had the idea of a concept album based on the ouroboros but that never happened.
PSF: You got one track out of it.
NM: A concept track.
PSF: You have an album Sun, Broken and (the song) "Sunburnt Impedance Machine." There are a few references to sun in the titles.
NM: There are a lot of things about the sun and the moon.
PSF: What is a "Sunburnt Impedance Machine?"
PS: Again, I just looked at some words that were lying about the practise room and they just seemed to go together so that was the name of that song. Some of the titles of the songs are a bit throw away but the music isn't. We get accused of not having any meaning in our music but I think there is a lot of meaning in the music emotionally. I think that's something a lot of music lacks.
PSF: Music is generally an emotional thing.
NM: I do have some sympathy for the view that music can express nothing. Music is just what it is. The way people bring emotion to music is a very subjective thing so it's up to them to bring their own emotions. Sometimes different people will hear the same piece of music as joyful or aggressive or sad. Emotional responses can be very subjective.
PSF: You've never played "Tangerina" live have you?
PS: No, it's always been one that's harder to play live.
PSF: Why is that?
JS: It's the repetetiveness of the arpeggiator.
PS: It just worked a lot better in the studio.
PSF: It's much brighter than a typical Mugstar tune and much lighter than the rest of Axis. It's a really uplifting track.
JS: Yeah, it is a lot lighter.
SA: It changed quite a lot in the studio. We go in with a plan of how a track might be but it often seems to change. With "Tangerina," it was a lot busier, there was a lot more going on when we practiced it. We stripped things out and raised that arpeggiator (a synthesizer feature) up and worked to that so it had a different kind of feel for the album. There's a lot of stuff for the album we've just recorded that we've not played live and whether we will or not, I don't know. There are three songs that we've played live but the rest might just be studio tracks.
PSF: When's the new record going to be released?
JS: We've only just recorded it and sent it off to the record label. It should be out in October.
PSF: Is it going to be on Agitated Records again?
JS: No, it's on Rock Action.
PSF: Are you doing anything more with Agitated?
JS: Not at the moment, no. We had a period with Agitated where Simon (Keeler) introduced us to a lot of people like Robert Hampson and John McBain. Simon knows Robert Hampson from years ago and asked him to remix us.
PSF: This is Simon who used to work at Cargo distribution years ago?
JS: Yeah. Me and Neil saw Loop play many years ago in their original period, so it was quite a nice thing to have him remix our music. We played a gig with Robert in Paris which was amazing. He just turned up. He'd learnt most of the Lime album and he wanted to play it.
NM: It was his first rock gig in nineteen years. It was before he'd gone back to play with Godflesh.
PSF: I think Loop now is him plus some guys from the Heads.
JS: It's the drummer from the Heads and the bass player Hugo from the Heads. I don't know who the other guitarist is. I saw them at All Tomorrow's Parties and they were great.
PSF: That was still the A Guilded Eternity line up, wasn't it? I saw that and saw them more recently after drummer John Wills and gone but they sounded just as good. Very shortly after that Scott Dawson and Neil Mackaye left.
JS: They were very much from the period when I was getting into music- great band.
PSF: They were the first band I went to see twice on the same tour, on the Fade Out tour. Is there any possibility Robert Hampson would do anything else with you in the future?
JS: We were going to do another record with him. It was going to be a kind of Faust Tapes thing. We were going to record something and he was going to take it away and mix it and do something with it. It never happened but hopefully it will in the future.
NM: Who knows?
PSF: There's a good story behind the song title "Bardo Head Finder" isn't there?
JS: We played a festival in Portugal. It was a big festival with a room full of everyone's gear, tons of bands. When we finished playing at the end of the night, we packed everything into the van. Everyone counted their gear. I thought I'd counted my gear but obviously hadn't. I left my bass head.
PSF: Had you had a few drinks?
NM: It must be said as well the roadies at the festival weren't used to working in the venue and were quite panicky. It was very difficult for all the bands and everyone was getting rushed around. Then they were changing their minds, so it was quite confusing.
JS: We were playing at a festival the following day in southern Spain. It was an eight hour journey or something like that. As soon as we pulled up I realised I hadn't taken my bass amp. It wasn't there so we ended up calling the Spanish tour booker and he ended up getting in touch with Bardo Pond to ask them to pick it up from the venue where we left it.
NM: They were playing the following night at the festival.
JS: They put it in their van and then their driver dropped it off on the last date of our tour of Spain.
SA: It was a beautiful moment.
JS: It was good to know that there are great people out there who would do something like that.
PSF: Bardo Pond are a great band and really nice people. I put on their first gig in Manchester around the time of "Set and Setting." Am I right in thinking Mugstar began as a trio and Pete wasn't involved initially?
JS: No, it was Steve who started it with a guy called Ade. He was in a band called the Teenbeat as well.
SA: We got together as a side project, just a release really. We'd get together and make a racket.
PSF: Was Ade playing guitar?
SA: Yeah, and I was playing drums. We'd swap over and play guitars with bottles. After we'd been doing that for a bit and got some things together, it was Chris who suggested we get Neil in. Neil came in with his guitar which made it even more of a racket for a while. Then we got a bass player in, Chris, and it solidified into a four piece. We did two gigs then Ade moved to London.
PSF: Were you called Mugstar then? AS: Yeah, we were for those couple of gigs. Jason was playing the same night in his previous band. Jason was always around in other bands as we were playing so we knew each other. After Ade left, we advertised and Pete arrived which was brilliant as it gave a different kind of energy and it started to form more this way. When Chris the bass player left Jason came in and that's how the four of us became the sound we know as Mugstar. It's been well over ten years now.
PSF: You can't have played many gigs the first time I saw you, which was supporting Melt Banana in Liverpool?
JS: We'd done Jump Ship Rat and Warrington with a punk band who were terrible.
PSF: I know Pete was in Kling Klang but what other bands were you in before Mugstar?
JS: We've all been in other bands over the years. I was in a band called Playhouse. We did a couple of seven inches and supported Gary Numan, bizarrely. The seven inches were a bit more Sebadoh-esque but we were hoping to sound like Dinosaur Jr.
PSF: How did you end up supporting Gary Numan?
JS: We had a manager who said, "Alright lads, I've got an amazing gig for you, supporting Gary Numan. We were a bit like... (incredulous face). But it was in front of about two thosand people so it was pretty interesting. Everyone hated it. Gary Numan seemed like a lovely fella, but his audience hated us. We sat at the back when Gary Numan played and in front of us, there was a family, a mum and dad and kids of around ten and twelve and all of them were moving in synch all the way through the gig.
NM: And the children were called Gary and Numan.
JS: John Peel played the Playhouse seven inches a few times.
PSF: Would that have been the early nineties?
JS: Late nineties.
PSF: You recently started a seven inch mail order record label, God Unknown, didn't you?
JS: I'd thought about doing a label for a long time and I wondered how I could do it as I've never really had the money to be able to do it, and potentially lose money, so I came up with the idea of doing a singles club: ask lots of people for the money and that funds the releases that are coming out. It's worked really well. I asked loads of bands who we know, who we've played with, and everyone we asked apart from one band said yes.
PSF: Can you reveal the band who said no?
JS: No. We've sold quite a lot in England, Ameirca, Europe and Hong Kong.
PSF: It's just a mail order subscription thing, isn't it?
JS: Yeah, so there's no distribution. It's not in shops.
PSF: Have you had anyone complain that a record hasn't turned up?
JS: A couple of people, yeah.
PSF: So what did you do?
JS: Sent them another one. The first subscription run has nearly sold out so I've started another series with Mainliner, British eighties psych band Bevis Frond and Mogwai said they'd do it.
NM: Nick Saloman from Bevis Frond was on Countdown (British TV quiz show). We met him when he played guitar for Oneida in London.
PSF: What keyboards do you use?
NM: Broken ones!
PS: Yeah, they're coming to the end of their lives really. A Roland, Saturn 09 and a Novation K-Station (synthesizers). The Roland was a very unpopular model because it wasn't like an analog synth. It's more like an organ really. It's a great keyboard. The Saturn's great as well as you can make some really horrible noise on that, and on the K-Station as well. I need to invest in some new keyboards.
PSF: I remember that gig at Gullivers where the keyboards wouldn't work and you had to drop out but the other three carried on and still sounded really good. They held it together really well but you were getting very frustrated and angry.
PS: It was just one of those bad gigs.
PSF: It was that all day John John Peel tribute. Despite your setback the only band I saw who I enjoyed more were Anthroprophh. They were great.
PS: Yeah, they always are.
PSF: You reissued Sun, Broken in a completely different sleeve. Why was that?
PS: Just because it was a reissue really. The guy who did the original cover thought he'd go with something a bit different.
PSF: The same artist did both covers?
PS: Yeah, Sam Wheil, who does our live projections sometimes.
JS: He was in a band called Chevette, and another one called Spitting Cobra.
NM: You may have noticed there's a dragonfly on the cover of the reissue and just after it came out we were playing a small festival in Shropshire.
PSF: That's be the one organized by Lancashire and Somerset Records?
NM: Yeah. A dragonfly landed on my back and stayed there for hours which is really weird behavior for a dragonfly. I even got interviewed about it on the local BBC news. That's what makes the news in Shropshire. It was a really weird coincidence.
PSF: Can you remember the first record you bought?
PS: Well, I bought tapes. The first tape I bought was De La Soul 3 Feet High and Rising. I used to be quite embarrassed about liking it but it's a really great album. I got into music when I was about fifteen. I remember really liking Metallica and then hearing Bolt-Thrower on John Peel and not hearing anything like that before. Like what the hell is this? After that it was just a gradual progression of getting into more extreme and weirder things. Back then, music wasn't as readily available as it is now.
JS: You had to search it out.
PSF: And listen to John Peel.
PS: Back in those days, you'd risk buying records by bands you hadn't heard. Black Flag and Big Black albums were hard to come by. It's all so easy to get hold of now with the Internet.
JS: The first record I ever got given was the greatest hits of Abba. I used to play that regularly. My cousin, luckily, was into metal: Motorhead, Iron Maiden. He was a few years older and influenced me. To impress him, I bought the "Ace of Spades" seven inch. When Princess Diana got married, there was a big party at the woods near where I grew up. The person who was organizing it asked everyone to bring records and I brought the album Ace of Spades and they actually played it at this party. So, Motorhead and Abba, at a very impressionable age. Like Pete, I was into metal when I was at school. Listening to John Peel, I got into Napalm Death and I realized Bill Steer used to walk past my house, after watching an Arena documentary. I watched it with my parents and my dad said, "That's that lad who walks past, with long hair." It was Bill Steer who used to walk past to go to a guy called Midi's house in Bromborough on the Wirral. There was quite a scene of people on the Wirral into hardcore and metal.
NM: At a very impresssionable age I had a weird art teacher who used to play prog rock records to ten year olds. She was a big Rick Wakeman fan and I think it was more because I liked the teacher than anything else, because she was young and pretty and wore afro wigs, and a bit weird. I remember one of her projects was to get a wooden coat hanger and paint psychedelic patterns on it. It was the first time I'd come across the word psychedelic. I wanted a Rick Wakeman record for Christmas and got Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
PSF: Did you play it until it wore out?
NM: Pretty much, yeah. I got into music when we got a record player when I was seven, in the early seventies. My mum had a lot of early rock n' roll 78ís and early Elvis and Little Richard singles, Little Richard especially, the voice was incredible. That's what got me into music and after that I was hooked.
PSF: Have you heard anything recently that's really inspired you?
PS: Richard Dawson, I've liked him ever since The Magic Bridge. "The Vile Stuff" is amazing, really great song. The music's interesting and he's a really good guy as well.
PSF: He doesn't sound like anyone else.
PS: I like a lot of songwriter stuff, but his stuff is so unique.
JS: Pete's just done a solo album.
PSF: And are you going to put it out?
PS: It's all acoustic and it's called Black Smoke.
PSF: Is it under your name Pete Smyth?
PS: Peter J. Smyth. It's all songs with words plus a few acoustic instrumentals.
PSF: Is it showing off your Richard Thompson influence?
PS: I'd like to think so.
PSF: Because you covered a Fairport Convention song.
NM: It was not written by Richard Thompson. It was a traditional song but the arrangement was more Sandy Denny and the bass player. Sandy Denny is amazing. Unhalfbricking is an amazing album (ED NOTE: amen).
JS: Liege and Lief is a great album by Fairport.
PSF: Some Fairport Convention recommendations from yesteryear there, but how about more recent music? I remember you (Jason) recommended Dead Skeletons to me when you worked at Probe Records in Liverpool.
JS: There's loads of great stuff out at the moment. The new Bob Mould album Beauty and Ruin is amazing.
PSF: The one before that Silver Age is as good if not better, in a similar loud guitar vein.
JS: Really? I'll have to check that out. The new Hey Colossus album is amazing. It's their best so far.
NM: I'm into fairly obscure avant garde music and one of the things I'm currently obsessed with is a Swiss composer called Heinz Holliger who is also an absolutely superb oboe player. He just gets better with age. He writes these really dark, dense pieces, ultra-virtuousic and when they're performed they're amazing. He's writen a lot setting texts to music and he tends to set texts by a lot of writers who are either very obsessed with extreme states or diagnosed with mental illness. He's in his seventies now.
(Steve had already left early to set up his drums and the rest of Mugstar had to go and play their gig, but Jason had a quick look at the list of questions and chose the last one from those I hadn't asked.)
JS: Were you going to ask us about "Furklausundbo"?
PSF: Yeah, the last track on Sun, Broken looks like two names. Is it a dedication?
JS: We wrote the song and we thought it sounded like Neu! and Bo Diddley.
NM: It had a Bo Diddley shuffle feel to it and the Neu! apache beat so it was Bo Diddley and Klaus Dinger but...
JS: They both died within a week.
NM: They both died shortly after we started calling it "Dingerdiddley" but "Dingerdiddley" sounded a bit disrespectful so "Furklausundbo" sounded a lot better.
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