Planting seeds

Mike Daane, the bass player for Ugly Mus-tard, welcomes his guest in his elaborate home studio with a hearty smile. You might know Daane's name or his face: For years, he has been known as the friendliest and busiest bassist in local music, a man who has loaned his talent to more bands than he can remember, his bass lines stretching from bands like Last Rites and Methatone and 39 Powers (with Spyche) to regular guest slots with Andy Timmons and Sara Hickman.

As he introduces the rest of the band--guitarist Eric Trent, singer Kelly Barker, and drummer Fred Rush--in the midst of consoles, recorders, and various disparate instruments, one can't help but get the impression that he thinks and breathes music non-stop. But these days, Daane is just one member of the industrial-metal Ugly Mus-tard, which could prove to be his most (commercially) successful outfit to date. The band's single "High" is garnering considerable play on local radio, and Ugly Mus-tard is close to inking a deal with one of the several major labels that have been dangling deals in front of them like carrots.

And like the old rock joke goes, they're already stars in Europe. Just days ago, the band returned from a promotional tour of Europe that included a sprint through Germany, Holland, and Britain during which they gave at least 60 interviews for radio, magazines, and assorted other fanzines.

"And the video for 'High' was just shown on the English MTV," Trent says, boasting just a little.

It is Trent who proudly produces a few bottles of his own stout home brew--his first batch--and shares anecdotes from the promo tour, his recollections told with a mixture of weariness and natural excitement.

"Europe has all elements of music, and everything is entirely underground," he says. "You get nothing on the radio, but you go to a club and you hear great music. We went to a club and they were playing our song 'High.' It was really weird. And it's amazing how political the people in Europe are. Almost everybody thought we're a political band. Some would point at the sleeve and say that it shows mushroom clouds.

"This journalist thought we took our name after the mustard nerve gas that was used in the Gulf War." Trent laughs at the thought.

"High" is the kind of (post-) industrial song that has all the catchy, radio-friendly ingredients that made the other Trent--Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor--a big star. It is the third song on Ugly Mus-tard's self-titled debut album, an ambitious and immaculately produced CD that ultimately brings comparisons to old and new industrial war-horses like Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails. It is industrial spiked with metal and a few soothing pop hooks--Reznor without the bombast and the patronizing verbiage, an album that wears its influences like well-fitting armor.

"Trent Reznor and Skinny Puppy are my main influences," Trent says. "Somebody said we're exactly like Nine Inch Nails, which is kind of insulting. But that's OK, I guess. I'd rather be told that I sound like Nine Inch Nails than the Osmond Family."

He takes a sip of his beer, looks at his fellow band members, and adds: "Don't forget Trent Reznor is one person and one band, and we're all contributing to the songs. This is a wider conglomeration kickassness!"

And where their main influence's monomania has turned into a repetitive, larger-than-life shtick, Ugly Mus-tard's ace up the metallic sleeve is the sheer musical talent along with a constant exchange of ideas and a democratic approach. As Trent describes the creative process of the band, the other musicians nod their heads in agreement: "I'll program something and let it go," Trent says. "I'll get with Fred and he'll start the drum part, putting in a groove. That gives me an idea how to do the guitar parts. Then Kelly will write the lyrics and Mike will come in with the bass parts."

"This is the most collaborative band that I've been in," Daane adds.
The Ugly Mus-tard seeds were planted about three years ago when Trent and Daane began toying with MIDI programming; shortly after that, they decided to add some drums to the mix. At the time, Trent, Barker, and Rush were in "an alternative band" called Sheer Threat, and once Daane entered, the whole thing slowly sprouted into a proper band.

"We recorded a few tracks, and we thought this sounds as good as anything that's out there," Daane says.

The band hooked up with the Real Records label, which released Ugly Mus-tard locally less than a year ago; the album was also picked up by a German label called Edel, which distributes throughout Europe. Upon its release, the band didn't expect much support "except for college radio," Daane says, but almost as soon as it was sent to radio and retail, the album was picked up by about 120 college stations in the country along with eight commercial rock stations in major markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. Locally, KEGL-FM (97.1) was the first radio station to put the disc in a semi-regular rotation--still a rarity for a Dallas band without a major-label deal.

"Right now, we're moving 300 pieces a week," Daane says, sounding very much like a record-industry exec, "and it has slowed down." The band is negotiating with various labels, which keeps them from being more specific about possible deals.

The buzz, though, is not undeserved: Ugly Mus-tard is a cut above the average industrial-metal band, perhaps because the four musicians came to the genre after exploring other styles. It may sound like an oxymoron, but this is almost musician's industrial--pompous and grandiose and more than occasionally too self-serious, to be sure, but there are moments when good melodies, offbeat rhythm changes, and chilling atmospherics make the music interesting and even a bit fun.

And lyrically, Barker tries to avoid the traps of the genre, which is not an easy task. One of the problems with industrial is that its anger becomes listless in its repetition, its targets lost in an endless recycling of the themes of death, pain, hate, blood and the rest of the genre's cliches. Like its incestuous cousin, death metal, industrial metal is so overdone that it becomes a parody; its hatred and manufactured angst are played up ad nauseam until it falls flat on its distorted face. But Barker insists that, most of the time, his tongue is firmly glued to his cheek.

"You pretty much have to laugh at life and death," he figures. "I take a lot of my inspiration cynically. I like to watch people and get their expressions, like panic at a train station, then conjure up stories. I like to tell a story and leave it open to interpretation because a song can have three different meanings. Also you need to let out aggression--you gotta feel the aggression."

And as the album's closer, "Friend," suggests, Barker prefers to pontificate when the subject is serious enough. "Friend" is a cut-up piece about the dangers of gun ownership, and the track abandons the simple song formula and spreads over seven minutes leaving the numbing feeling that the joke is no joke after all.

"I get a positive feeling from Kelly's lyrics," Daane says. "At the end of each song, he caps it off with a moralistic view."

Not bad for a man who appeared on stage at KEGL's Halloween party dressed as the Pope. Ugly Mus-tard has only played 13 shows so far, a very unimpressive number considering its rapidly expanding following (the band's next local show is December 9 at Trees). But this is part of their scheme to make every concert a memorable event in their hometown before they embark on a lengthy European tour in February with British noisemongers Godhead.

Which is fine for Daane, who feels more at home in the studio than at home and says that playing live and touring is not as rewarding as writing good music and preserving it on tape.

"Recording is where it's at," he says. "Write the best song you can, and record it the best way you can. You go to a great show and soon you forget about it. But you can always go back to a great record. You can always go back to Sgt. Pepper's, and that's what I'm trying to make these guys focus on.

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Philip Chrissopoulos