The harmonious world of Just Mustard

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Just Mustard interview

In 2019, Dundalk, Ireland quintet Just Mustard found themselves on an upward arc. Just a year earlier, they’d released their debut album Wednesday, an album of darkly hazy noise pop and post-punk that over the course of a year built up a cult following—one that spread thousands of miles from their backyard in Ireland. Only one year earlier, they had begun playing shows in other parts of the British Isles, and by early 2019, they were playing major festival stages and opening for gothic rock icons The Cure. To date, they’re still sold out of copies of Wednesday.

What comes next is a frustrating and familiar story; for all the wins that Just Mustard had accomplished over the prior 18 months, the Covid-19 pandemic left the group with nothing but time. The band had already begun mapping out their sophomore full-length album, one that had initially been conceived as a record intended to be experienced in the dynamic arena of the live stage, but without that element to focus on, the group instead found them challenging themselves in the studio, shaping their sound in more meticulous if sometimes subtle ways, and pushing themselves toward peak performance.

“There was stuff we were writing that was really hard to play, and is still hard to play, but we did want to push ourselves lane-wise a bit out of our comfort zone,” says guitarist David Noonan. “I kind of write stuff that’s a bit beyond it, but I can figure that out later.”

The end result, Heart Under—the group’s first album for Partisan Records—is an album rich in atmosphere and eerily tense. Noonan and Mete Kalyon’s guitars ebb and screech over the taut rhythmic pulse of drummer Shane McGuire and bassist Rob Clarke, with vocalist Katie Ball finding a haunted middle ground between cool detachment and expressive melancholy. There’s an unmistakably gothic sensibility on standout songs such as “Still,” which tap into the kind of ominous tension of The Cure in their early years (and thus a natural fit to share the stage with the legendary band) and a hypnotic sonic element that leans more heavily into the more experimental side of shoegaze.

As friends, longtime musical collaborators and even roommates, the members of Just Mustard are all on the same frequency—and they use that sense of harmony between them to build something uniquely their own.

“We kind of think of it as a world we’re creating,” Ball says. “If [listeners] are able to feel as if they’re immersed in that world, that’d be cool.”

Ahead of the release of Heart Under, we spoke to Just Mustard about making the most of their time, group democracy, and spending an unusual amount of time together.

Treble: Four years have passed since Wednesday, with a pandemic in the middle—how has the band progressed since then?

Katie Ball: When Wednesday came out, that was our first opportunity to get around Ireland a bit more, and we got to go to England.

David Noonan: It felt like we just keep getting busier and busier, and it felt like before the pandemic, Wednesday had been out for ages, but then suddenly two years disappeared. And now it feels much longer ago.

KB: In 2019 we got to play some festivals and stuff like that, Primavera and Barcelona, got to play with The Cure, we played some of our biggest shows in 2019.

DN: But in some ways things haven’t changed—we’re still living here in Dundalk. 

Treble: Wednesday seemed to find a larger audience quickly—and it’s been out of print since.

KB: We kind of just put it out and then, over time—I remember we got featured on Bandcamp, the week of it, and it started selling in America. We thought we’d just have boxes of records sitting in our house for years, we didn’t really expect people to start buying it, so we were surprised when we started seeing so much of it coming from America.

DN: When Bandcamp picked it up, that gave us a good push. One of the writers, I think, just picked it at random. But it felt really gradual to me—looking back, it did take place in six months to a year, but at the time it did feel very gradual before people started hearing the record and wanting to have it. It didn’t feel like it happened overnight.

Treble: Were you surprised at how much demand had grown?

K: Yeah, yeah. 

D: We haven’t been great at keeping up with it. [Laughs]

In having more time to sit with the music during the pandemic, did it lead you to redirect your efforts into taking advantage of the studio opportunities more?

DN: There’s definitely elements of that, yeah. We were so rehearsed in writing them as a five-piece band that we wanted to keep it so all five of us could still play it. I think we were talking about how the layers were more textural than extra parts, so you’re not necessarily missing them live. There were a few moments where, after recording, we thought “oh, we can push to this direction or add some overdubs” but on Wednesday, most songs were one pass from the start to the end. We’ve definitely loosened up on that, it’s not so rigid. 

Treble: Just Mustard has a distinctive sound—there are some major differences between the two albums, but each of them feel like they could have come from only this band. Would you qualify yourselves as a meticulous band?

DN: We don’t throw out a lot of material. It doesn’t feel like we waste much extra stuff, but we do find it takes a while to come up with the ideas.

KB: Sometimes when someone’s working on something by themselves, it comes quickly, and then when you have five people in a room looking at each other, it changes. “Still,” the single that we just put out, that took us from April to the next April to finish. That was a real tricky one, and it just kind of had a couple different formations.

Treble: Are you a democratic group?

DN: I think everyone—we all kind of have to agree on it. That’s the thing, it’s finding something that we’re all happy with.

KB: There’s a lot of talking. A lot of talking about songs.

DN: And sometimes we’ll end up going on a big loop. What we’ve done in the past, like with “Still,” is that we’ll work on it for a year, but what we end up with when it was finished, a lot of the instruments were the exact same as the first iteration. So there’s a lot of going off into different angles, and that kind of wears you out, because you have to listen to it and listen to those micro-changes, and get a bit fastidious. So it kind of takes a long time, unless it’s one of those songs that just happens really quick. But we usually end up back where we started.

Treble: You’re playing a lot of shows this year—do you take something cathartic from the experience?

KB: It is for me, yeah. I always feel really nervous beforehand, and then just absolutely class afterward. Before the gig, you’re like “do I really enjoy this?” because I feel like I’m gonna be sick, and then after, it’s like, “I really, really enjoyed this. It’s fun!”

Treble: Is the way that the band works together reflective of your friendship outside the band?

KB: We’re always together, so it’s hard to know. 

DN: I think it’s definitely a lot more of an intense experience, maybe not for everyone, but being someone’s friend and bandmate. It’s like your best friend is also your work friend.

KB: And you live with them as well. Even when we meet up to practice or gig, we’re always just talking shite anyway, so the two are very intertwined. 

D: We spend so much time doing the band that we never see anyone else anyway. Can’t even relate to other people. [Laughs]

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