Like the tides, ska music has had multiple rises and falls throughout its history. During the high tides, bands would sprout up in hopes of riding the waves of popularity, but as the tides receded, many of those bands would be left beached and forgotten. Mustard Plug, however, knew how to persevere the ups and downs of the genre of music they were passionate about, and were never thirsty for the spotlight that would focus on ska from time to time.
"It was a weird phenomenon how fast ska exploded in the late '90s and how fast people jumped on and off the bandwagon," says frontman David Kirchgessner. "You had MTV, radio, and press jump all over it and then ignore it within the span of two years."
Mustard Plug has been around for over 20 years, starting in 1991 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At that time, Kirchgessner was still coming down from the hardcore/punk music scene of the '80s, but he wanted to do something more than start another Midwestern punk band. Loving the energy of punk music but also captivated by reggae, Kirchgessner found his answer: ska. The ska scene at that moment was going through its third wave, but wasn't making headlines just yet.
"I looked at ska as rebel music you could dance to," Kirchgessner explains. "Plus, ska had this amazing culture and scene to it."
As the only ska band in the area, Mustard Plug faced adversity from the start. But like all artists with passion for their craft, the band never let it knock them down.
"I was always attracted to the challenge of doing something completely new for our area. I think that is the most fun time in a band, when you're building things up and seeing where it all takes you, not knowing where it leads," says Kirchgessner. "We never had any fear of getting a bad reaction from the crowd. We were playing the music we loved, and we didn't care too much if there were people who didn't get it."
Their unconditional love of the genre is a key component of the band, especially since it formed at a time when critics and trendsetters were denouncing ska at the drop of a dime. "
Pray For Mojo came out at a time when it was terribly fashionable to hate anything ska-related," Kirchgessner recalls.
And ironically, when ska music had its boom, it wasn't the most ideal situation for Mustard Plug, either, due to the oversaturation of bands taking their shots at the "flavor-of-the-month" genre. "Our biggest album, Evildoers Beware, may have been lost in the shuffle because critics were buried in other ska releases," Kirchgessner says. But Mustard Plug stuck to its guns. "We never started the band to be rock stars," Kirchgessner explains, "so if the mainstream press said ska was dead, we just went back to the grassroots scene we came from."
Along with the general discrimination that ska faced, Mustard Plug in particular has been treated poorly at times; the most notable example was the first year they performed on the Warped Tour. After being ignored and undermined by the people running the stage, things got to a boiling point in Detroit when the sound guys cut off Mustard Plug's performance after three songs. With the already revved-up crowd turning livid, a near riot ensued. "It was a bizarre experience," Kirchgessner recalls. Fortunately, the people responsible for the poor treatment of the band weren't a part of Warped Tour much longer, and Mustard Plug played with Warped Tour again a couple years later, considering that first experience water under the bridge.
What's funny is that Kirchgessner values a good tour van over commercial success. "Kids in bands think they need a record contract or guitar tech or whatever. What they really need is a reliable van," says Kirchgessner. "A crappy van can make touring miserable." And any true fan of Mustard Plug knows about the legacy of their beloved tour van, "Old Blue." "I think I have spent more time in that van than I have in my house." But unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, and after 317,116 miles, Old Blue's time was up. Surprisingly, they sold the van to a junkyard for $100 instead of keeping it in a garage for sentimental value. "We didn't have the space to keep her. It was better to sell her for scrap and let her be reincarnated as a Chinese skyscraper or something," Kirchgessner jokes.
Before you get the idea that Mustard Plug is just a washed-up ska band, know that they're still recording, and at the moment are working on a new album. Their most recent album, In Black and White, is their most critically acclaimed. Perhaps it's the fact that Mustard Plug have more than succeeded in establishing a dominant role in their genre, or perhaps it's because they decided to take a risk and make a darker-sounding album, which isn't the norm for a ska band. As for the upcoming album in the works, Kirchgessner has a simple mandate: "I want to write and record songs that the band and our fans like. I want the songs to be as good as our best work, but not sound exactly like the stuff we've done before."
Though Mustard Plug is alive and kicking after 20 years, they know they won't be around forever. But they're more than certain ska will be here to stay. As for bands worthy of carrying the torch, Kirchgessner says he's inspired by younger bands like Deal's Gone Bad and Green Room Rockers and gives them an extra nod for repping the Midwest. Kirchgessner is also fascinated with the Latin ska punk scene that has been budding in L.A., Chicago, and Texas but has been very under-the-radar in the rest of the U.S.
"I have no doubt that people will be playing and enjoying ska music long after I'm dead."