Words: Dean Van Nguyen
Photography: George Voronov
Jack Daniel’s and District share an authentic love for music culture and as Ireland continues to produce innovative and subversive new sounds we’ve teamed up to chart the key acts and developments that got us to where we are now. Dean Van Nguyen sat down to chat with Just Mustard, one of Ireland’s most exciting up and coming bands.
Just Mustard’s music is sometimes called shoegaze, but that’s not quite on the button. For sure I can’t imagine anyone spending one of the band’s sets with their head bowed, gaze firmly fixed to their Nikes. This is music for transcendence. It’s almost savagely loud, stifling in its intensity. Epic soundscapes are wrangled out of your commonplace guitar, bass, and drums. The band float in the darker end of the Irish post-punk revival canon—though, like almost every band on the planet, they reject all tidy genre labels, citing punk, rock, and electronica as equally important influences.
Whatever the case, the five-piece arrived to the nation’s rock consciousness extremely well formed having quietly honed their craft in their home town of Dundalk. Just Mustard were established in 2015 and quickly put out some singles and EPs that have by and large been discarded (maybe someday the recordings will end up on a rarities compilation). Constantly upgrading, they wrote songs to play in their local venue, the Spirit Store. These songs eventually made up their still great debut album Wednesday, which was forged over a course of a year or so and released in 2018. Of course, it netted them a Choice Music Prize nomination.
“At the time everyone was telling us not to release an album because no-one really knew who we were,” says Kate Ball, the band’s frontwoman. “We thought we’d get it pressed and it’d be sitting in a shed for a while, probably forever, and we wouldn’t sell too much. We released it and I remember sending a copy to America and that being crazy. I didn’t know anyone from America. I was just like ‘how is someone from America buying this’.”
At the time everyone was telling us not to release an album because no-one really knew who we wereJust Mustard
More recognition in the UK and beyond followed. The band’s rise was as close to an unbroken upward line as you can get. Then, Covid-19 struck. Initially, they tried to make the best of limbo, passing the hours by working on new material. But as the months dragged on, inertia set in and imagination began to wane.
“I was so happy for some time-off to write,” says Ball. “At the start I thought it was going to be like two weeks or something like that and it ended up being much longer. I lost a bit of inspiration.”
Adds guitarist David Noonan, “After a while, especially when the hardcore lockdowns were happening, you’d be working away on something and then you’d remember or you’d catch a glimpse at the news or check your phone for a second, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a horrible situation going on’… It got you out of your zone.”
I speak to four-fifths of Just Mustard – Ball, Noonan, bassist Rob Clarke, and drummer Shane Maguire, with only guitarist Mete Kalyon missing from the conversation – via Zoom, each in their own little window that we’ve all become so accustomed to staring through. Though physically apart today, they have been adjusting to life reunited. Recent gigs have finally meant an opportunity to play new material, which is particularly important to Just Mustard, a band that likes to workshop their songs in front of an audience. “Some of them, we have no idea how to play at all,” says Ball. “We’ll have to figure that out now.”
“It’s been class playing new stuff, especially because we were sitting with stuff for so long with no way of playing it outside of our practise room,” says Noonan. “When we write music, we write it and leave it a bit open with structure and stuff, play it live, keep refining it live, and then finally land on the finished version because of how it feels live. We couldn’t do that for the last two years.”
As things work out, I speak to the band just a few days before they surprise release a new single. “I Am You” features a mean bassline and aching industrial rattle and clank sounds, contrasting Ball’s spider web-thin vocals that eventually ratchet up to more desperate shouts as the arrangement grows more chaotic. “Change my hair/Change my dress/Change my head,” she exclaims, an unsettling transformation of the interior and exterior that comes off as the inner voice of a lonely and brooding antagonist in a thriller movie. It’s not exactly a new sonic direction, but presents a band refining their methodology. It’s their inaugural release on Partisan Records – the UK and US-based home of Fontaines D.C. and John Grant, among others – after they inked a deal with the label last May.
Signing to a record company might have been seen as essential for young bands pre-internet platforms, Just Mustard weren’t desperate to earn a contract or anything. This particular agreement just felt right. “We didn’t really have a goal to get signed to a label specifically, but when the opportunity arose we felt very lucky to be considered,” says Clarke. “For some people it might not be the right decision. Going fully independent, there are pros and cons to that. Anyone has to evaluate their situation as it stands. For us, we just had a really good time hanging out with them. Knowing other bands on the label – Fontaines specifically – maybe that helped us understand what the label is about and where their priorities are.”
Indeed, it was supporting Fontaines D.C. on a tour that helped build Just Mustard’s momentum in 2019, so joining them on Partisan is a tidy part of their ongoing story. “It seemed to feel there was a bit of traction,” says Maguire of that tour. “I think the Fontaines support tour was when we first sensed that.”
Signing to Partisan is another step in a rise that could reasonably be described as stunning. This is a band that formed without a solid conversation of what exactly they wanted to do. “If anything we talked about what we definitely didn’t want to do,” says Clarke. “We don’t have three minute long solos, we don’t want to have super theatrical bits.” They do credit alternative rock institution The Pixies— palpable in the bassline of “I Am You”—and trip-hop pioneers Portishead as early influences.
We don’t have three minute long solos, we don’t want to have super theatrical bitsJust Mustard
On the mid-pace “Feeded”, from Wednesday, they resemble Massive Attack; “Pigs”, a single, is like Radiohead at their meanest. But this isn’t indie history revivalism. Though the DNA of some of the greats is detectable, it’s hard to mistake a Just Mustard song for anything else. Ball’s vocals sit low in the mix, Maguire’s drums are twacked extremely hard, the colour scheme is crimson and smoke.
The melodic “Deaf” has proved a particular calling card, clocking up serious plays on streaming platforms, though its popularity has seemed organic, and not by design. At one point the band even dropped the tune from their set – that is, until fans started asking why they didn’t perform it. “We didn’t realise that people like it [as much as they do] until we started playing shows and not playing it,” admits Ball. “Now we’re playing it and it gets a few cheers, people connect with it.”
With a handful of singles dropped since the release of Wednesday, Just Mustard are now prepping a new album, though details at the moment are scant. Like the unexpected release of their new single, they’re keeping things under wraps. One thing seems likely, though: they’re trusting the same methodology.
“We’re very collaborative when we’re writing, we all chip in ideas,” says Clarke. “When someone has three seconds of music they like, that can go into a song, just by repeating it over and over, adding things and taking it away. There’s no mission statement about what a new song might sound like, it’s just a combination of all of our tastes. It’s a democracy of ideas.”
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