The guitar, that noble ax, is always threatening to go the way of a six-stringed dodo bird—killed off by electronic bleeps, slayed by skinny boys wielding laptops. Thankfully, Brooklyn trio the Muggabears is keeping the dissonant flame of mid-’90s indie rock alive, one self-released EP at a time. For a band whose name was inspired by a bunch of F.A.O. Schwarz stuffed toys—frontman Travis Johnson was shopping at a mall in Dallas when the cuddly moniker struck him—the Muggabears can rock. Hard. The way people used to before it became inexplicably passé to give in to those simple, primal impulses, like dry-humping the distortion out of a Marshall stack.
Though they’re most certainly sick of the comparison by now, the band’s closest cousin is certainly Sonic Youth—and not just because bassist Emily Ambruso is the Kim to Travis’s Thurston, either. There’s the same palpable joy in shaping white noise into almost-chords, in battering a fretboard with a drumstick, in guitars roughed up and—if my eyes didn’t deceive me—licked onstage at a Mercury Lounge show. For all their high-decibel teenage riot, the Muggabears can still cite a gentler genesis that’s maybe evident beneath the feedback, but perhaps not: Nick Drake, John Lennon, Tortoise. Travis is enamored of noise, creatively sculpted and—technical proficiency be damned—with no apologies from someone who’s “not able to wail or anything.”
“We’re all primarily guitar-rock fans,” he explains (and this from a man who introduced each song during an October set as a different track by the Smashing Pumpkins). “It seems like a dying breed. More and more people are taking easy ways out, like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do to make this more interesting, so I’ll put some drum machine in there.’ ” Rest assured, there’s no such au courant fakery here, though the Muggabears’ latest EP,
Night Choreography, does close with an uncharacteristic number, “She-Bears,” which flaunts twangingly off-tune guitar and Emily’s background vocals pushed out in reverse through a delay pedal. “We kind of wanted it to sound like a séance that a bunch of kids on a Boy Scout rip were having,” Travis explains; “The Radiohead cover of ‘Kumbaya,’ ” offers drummer Gabriel Wurzel.
Elsewhere, “Goth Tarts” comes off like the Afghan Whigs, all barely submerged violence: “You shouldn’t have children, you shouldn’t read books/You shouldn’t have a mouth, my friend, no more wounded looks.” Lately they’ve been playing an unreleased song, “Guitar Feelings,” in which Travis wrestles with the eponymous instrument like it’s a recalcitrant electric eel. The Muggabears might not be taking a blowtorch to the status quo, but if they can bring some genuine emotion—and a touch of danger—back to the overshredded six-string, it’s quite an accomplishment by anyone’s reckoning.
Muggabears play Glasslands Gallery December 6