One of Liverpool's longest-serving bands are finally starting to get their just rewards: Mugstar's Jason Stoll on how both the psych community and their own lack of expectations helped
Don't be fooled by the fact that it's the now arena-striding Tame Impala who appear to have emerged at the top of the pile in the wake of the much-debated psychedelic rock revival. The 'success' of the movement – depending on how you want to define that – really came for the clutch of veteran UK acts who had long been bowing at the temple of hypnotic repetition in the shadows of the noughties. The critical reverence was given to acts like The Heads, Hey Colossus and Gnod – the latter named The Guardian's New Band of the Day at the height of psych fever, some seven years into their existence.
It's a phenomenon that bassist Jason Stoll – who makes up the similarly weathered Liverpool kosmiche explorers Mugstar, alongside guitarists Peter Smyth, Neil Murphy and drummer Steve Ashton – knowingly chuckles at when this is posited to him regarding his own group. They've been together 14 years, yet the forthcoming release of their new LP, Magnetic Seasons, on the Mogwai-run Rock Action label makes it probably the highest profile of their records to date. Yet Stoll is quick to dispel any cynicism. "I think it's been great!" he enthuses. "I've been into psychedelia since I was quite young, so for it to be in vogue for a few years now has really opened doors for us. We'd played with a lot of indie bands, a lot of metal bands, but the past few years has seen us play with a lot more groups we feel more aligned with."
That's true enough; a thousand or so were in attendance for their show at the inaugural Liverpool Psych Fest in 2012 and from there they've gone on to appear at its Eindhoven counterpoint, Psych Lab, and Austin Psych Fest, the Black Angels-founded mecca for touring guitar bands seeking enrichment of the third eye. The opening up of this community has allowed the band to tour Europe, and for Stoll personally to connect with and release music by the likes of Acid Mothers Temple, Bardo Pond and Teeth of The Sea through his own God Unknown Records.
Yet if Mugstar's frequent presence on the reinvigorated psych rock circuit suggests a sound still indebted to the shared love of Hawkwind that played a part in bringing them together, the reality is somewhat different. "For me a psych band isn't necessarily just having jangly 60s-sounding guitars; there's a whole melting pot of different styles of music to be considered psychedelia. For me, it has made more extreme or challenging music a bit more palatable for a lot of people."
"Liverpool's always been a city that regenerates itself" - Jason Stoll
Stoll is speaking to The Skinny off the back of revisiting Ad Marginem live at a show in Bristol. Originally conceived with filmmaker Liam Yates, the film sought to embed the group right into the creative process of not just the music, but the story itself, as co-creators. First surfacing in 2010, the resultant music was a brooding, minimalist take on motorik, based around a film depicting abstract shadows of Liverpool's past. In 2014, they created a specially commissioned piece for crossover arts project Kubilai Khan Investigations, which was interpreted by contemporary dancers in Roubaix, France. "We went to northern France and rehearsed in this 150-year-old warehouse for five days working with the dancers," Stoll explains. "It was a totally different dynamic, a different kind of emotion. It really changed our perception on getting into a mindset for playing; seeing all the exercises the dancers would undergo to warm themselves up made us think more about working ourselves into what we were doing."
It's these more recent experiences, alongside touring with the likes of new labelmates Mogwai and subsequently taking their sound into larger concert halls, that have combined for Magnetic Seasons. In the space of seven intense days last spring, the album's tracks were recorded often on second or even first takes and then mixed at Liverpool's Whitewood Studios. The feeling of consideration that permeates the record then belies a process that existed very much in the moment. "It's that thing of feeling the need to be in a mindset," says Stoll. "I couldn't record something and then come back six weeks later to look at it again. It's about where you're at there and then, but being able to set up and utilise the space and surroundings around that."
As an album, Magnetic Seasons exists on a bedrock of tried and trusted formulas of granite guitars crashing down on the cerebrum – take first track Unearth's formidable opening salvo, which bristles and flexes under a spiritually evocative vocal hum, while Time Machine's riff-and-repeat space rock is effortlessly exhilarating in its acceleration. Yet from these totems come moments of real atmospheric expanse and intrigue, where space begins to dominate the clutter and breathing becomes easier. It's simple to point to the album's sprawling, near-18-minute final track as the clearest example of this, but it's actually the smaller moments of clarity amidst the surrounding fury that are more effective: the sombreness that underpins the resurgent constancy of Remember the Breathing, or La Vallee's brief dip into dusty cosmic blues.
"It's a bit more freeform in a way," Stoll agrees. "As a band there's a definite subconsciousness to what we're doing now too. Steve can just do something on the drums and the whole band will suddenly come down, or Pete'll play something and it'll suddenly become louder. It automatically happens without thinking about it. I'm really happy about it! A lot of musicians obviously say they never listen to their records once they've done them but I keep finding new things to draw me in – it's still exciting to me."
That the record is coming out on Rock Action offers a modicum of stability too for a group whose early period was punctuated by a flurry of albums, split 7"s and limited CD-R releases. Previous full-lengths have appeared on respected but far-flung labels like US indie Important and Agitated (Carlton Melton, Icarus Line). Even having a publicist isn't something the group have particularly been used to. "They've been very supportive," says Stoll of Rock Action. "They want to encourage and nurture and make their records as significant as possible. It feels like that has taken it a step further for us, having pretty much been self-financed in the past."
Up until this point, the four-piece had largely been slow burners of the most gradually blueing flame. Though always cherished by their native Liverpool, the first eight years or so following their post-Millennium inception saw the thunder and fury of early riff crunchers like their Sea Records-released self-titled LP and its follow-up, Lime, very much a cult concern beyond Merseyside. John Peel fans with good memories remember them as the band who recorded the final Peel Session of the late DJ's career, while followers of seminal American proto-grunge group Mudhoney might recall their visceral cover of Hawkwind's Born to Go as part of a split 7" in 2008. To survive 14 years in the underground is no mean feat – to do so with their founding members still intact is even more impressive. "I was thinking about this the other day and the amount of bands we've played with who aren't around anymore," muses Stoll. "We've never really had a direct goal and that's allowed us to continue. With each record it still feels like the creative process is developing."
Mugstar's constant renewal is something Liverpool's music community is primed for, following the recent demise of institutions like the Kazimier and MelloMello. A lack of suitable venues is the reason given for the group's album launch taking place down the Ship Canal at Salford's Islington Mill. Stoll, though is hopeful for the future. "Historically Liverpool's always been a city that regenerates itself; sure, The Kazimier going is sad, but other things will happen. It's a thriving, diverse community really." No better place is that reflected, than the output of the city's most evolutionary heads.
Spotlight Over the Mersey
Every UK city has its fair share of bands who gave up before the wider world could take notice; we doff our cap to a few of Mugstar's fallen comrades
Initially forming as a trio of analogue-synth-obsessed misfits in the late 90s, Kling Klang later expanded to a five-piece before hooking with Mogwai’s Rock Action stable to unleash their formidable EP The Superposition in 2002. The record – a unique blend of Kraftwerkian noise, mesmeric repetition and an almost Slint-ish approach to rhythm and structure – saw them tour with their Glaswegian associates before splitting up the following year. Members subsequently became involved with Mugstar (Peter Smyth) and Part Chimp (Joe McLaughlin) before a new line-up briefly re-emerged to tour their essential discography collection, The Esthetik Of Destruction, in 2006.
Not the first and certainly not the last band to lean towards the wobblier end of cleverclogs pop, Balloons made an almighty racket from a potent combination of post-punk jerks and off-kilter quirks. Recalling Devo, Clor and even the more outré aspects of Blur’s art-school genre mash-ups (only, you know, sans the smug), Balloons released the excellent single Part Hideout and then promptly split up, with frontman Thomas Gorton and guitarist Benjamin Duvall respectively going on to form Skinny favourites Outfit and Ex-Easter Island Head. Still, during their brief lifetime, Balloons managed to be both utterly tremendous and completely unlike any other band in the city.
Something of a local punk supergroup, Salem Rages drew together ex-members of thrash-crossover types SSS and lunatic hardcore kids Cold Ones, leaning more heavily towards the gothic horror-punk of Danzig-era Misfits. Their darkling noise certainly packed a punch, blending the gleefully twisted fun of The Curtain Fall with more subtle instrumental moments that seemed to take influence from the heady rush of DC’s Revolution Summer bands. After a couple of years’ hard work, they released the EP compilation Splinters and then promptly retreated into the night, never to be seen again. Shame.
A much less visceral affair than the bands previously mentioned, Bird seemed poised to have it all at the end of 2014. Debut album My Fear and Me was a triumphantly received slice of murkily atmospheric pop, drawing from the Cocteau Twins and Warpaint, and the band were also chosen to support cult Detroit singer Rodriguez (of Searching for Sugar Man fame) on his European tour. Suddenly, they announced their split with the cryptic explanation of “reasons way beyond our control,” meaning that all we’re left with is one near-perfect collection of eerie, eldritch torch songs and some pretty great memories. Still, nice while it lasted. [Will Fitzpatrick]