Listening to Just Mustard’s music, it would be easy to assume that they take life very seriously; as they join a Zoom meeting with NME, however, they are borderline giddy with excitement. They’re beaming in from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, some 5,000 miles away from their hometown of Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland, during a US tour supporting Fontaines DC In between enthusiastically talking about how they caught sight of a real-life eagle on their last Drive through the American wilderness, they are full of wonder for the scale of shows that they are now a part of, too.
“We had just come straight from doing South By Southwest,” says singer Katie Ball, “And we were just playing really small, cool pub stages. Then we flew to play the first gig with Fontaines in Madrid and I mean it was just a giant stage. It was like, oh Jesus. The difference was mad. ”
If the recent ascent of Fontaines has been meteoric, then Just Mustard’s own rise from releasing their first album, ‘Wednesday’, on the small, local independent label Pizza Pizza Records in 2018 to now preparing for the release of the follow-up ‘Heart Under ‘on Partisan (IDLES, Laura Marling) on May 27 amid a wave of hype and support is pretty remarkable in itself. A blistering recent showing at Austin’s SXSW festival kicked things up a notch: “no wonder The Cure are fans” purred an NME headline.
It is a testament to the distinctiveness of their sound that they have been able to build up such a head of steam. David Noonan and Mete Kalyoncuoglu’s dense, industrial walls of guitar and Shane Maguire’s metronomic drum beats contrast with Ball’s dreamy, airy vocals to create an aesthetic that is introspectively gothic in spirit, but feral and menacing in its final execution. When listening to ‘Heart Under’, Just Mustard break free from the typical dynamics of a rock band, creating a singular, coherent fashion that is broody, primal and combustible.
“It’s something we’ve always done, making guitars not necessarily sound like guitars. It’s a lot more about the tone and textures, ”says Ball.
“It’s definitely at our core,” agrees Noonan. “Finding ways of arranging songs with traditional rock band instrumentation, but trying to find ways of doing it that reflect other types of music that we are interested in, not just guitar-based music. It’s fun to push the instruments as much as we can into different directions, that’s the main fun bit for me. ”
Sonic motifs recur throughout ‘Heart Under’, such as the clanging, horror-soundtrack-ready screeches of guitar that appear on multiple tracks, including ‘Mirrors’ and ‘I Am You’, or the guitar strings played with a violin bow that both begin the album’s opening track and end its final track. These details bind the album together tightly, making a record that makes much more sense when taken in as a whole than if divided into constituent parts. The band view the experience of listening to it as akin to driving through a long, dark tunnel, with no option of escape and no abrupt changes in the environment.
“We definitely wanted it to sound like a unified thing, the whole album as one piece,” says Noonan. “It’s that thing of trying to make something that feels like it all lives in the same world. I wanted threads to come across. ”
If there is a sense of a dark kernel at the heart of the record, a sense of being smothered under the unbearable weight of something too real, then Ball will go as far as to say that she was going through a period of “personal struggles ”And“ sorrow ”during the time that the record came together in late 2020, although she also concedes,“ we all lean dark anyway ”.
‘Heavy Under’ marks the latest stage in their sonic development, a further shift away from the swirling, more shoegaze-inspired headiness of their debut record. The 2019 singles ‘Frank’ and ‘Seven’ served as a handy mid-point between the two albums, those songs popping with a brash and direct sheen, further accentuated by Ball’s vocals, which the band had moved front-and-center. This time around, the decision was made to maintain some of the same crispness, but to re-submerge the vocals back into the mix.
“We are naturally evolving, and we treat every project as its own thing,” says Noonan. “For this album we felt that if the vocals were too loud, then it makes the band sound too quiet. Your ear just hears it as quiet music. ”
“Which would be false advertising,” retorts Ball with cat-like reflexes. “Because if they then came to a gig, they’d be very scared.”
There is certainly no danger of Just Mustard coming across as quiet on ‘Heavy Under’. For a record set on maintaining a constant aesthetic throughout, the band still cannot resist letting themselves off the leash on occasion. The climax of the song ‘Seed’, for example, captures them sounding like a hardcore garage band, with drummer Shane Maguire particularly in overdrive, perhaps channeling his own love of black metal.
“We definitely wanted to make sure we had some uptempo, aggressive, noisy, dancy songs too,” says Noonan, who explains that at every turn, the band take into consideration the importance of future live shows and the need for songs that will pop a crowd.
For an album with its genesis during a pandemic, Just Mustard admit to having struggled to adapt to creating new music without an outlet to road-test the songs live. “We thrive the best in a live setting,” says Ball. “More so than recording, most of the time. A lot of my feelings towards our songs come from memories of playing them live, so not having that, it was hard to know if they were any good. ”
If they remained in any doubt about that, then the shows with Fontaines have blown the uncertainty away completely. Despite their nerves having been racing every night before they took to the stage at the 2000-seat arenas across the States, the reactions of the crowds have confirmed that their instincts were right all along. With their confidence now higher than ever, Just Mustard might just be ready to challenge Fontaines’ throne before we know it.
Just Mustard’s new album ‘Heart Under’ has been released on May 27 on Partisan Records