If you've followed their 20-year run as a band, then by now you might already have your own idea of what the Muggs sound like. But I realize I was wrong. Because what it comes down to is a pair of lifelong best friends simply following their hearts toward whatever sound felt truest and most invigorating for them, first and foremost. And it's the heart that comes through most of all; what winds up happening is the band's passion for Beatles-esque melodies, '60s pop harmonies, and sludgy '70s electric blues powerfully transmits — especially on its fifth studio album, Slave to Sound.
"It comes down to following your instincts, instead of trying to play what people expect, or what's popular now," says Danny Methric, a.k.a. Danny Muggs, the band's singer-songwriter and guitarist. When he checks in with the mainstream, he says, "it all sounds so bland, but I know that there really are so many other great bands out there, just following their muse," even if they aren't on television or at the top of the charts.
"At the end of the day, all you'll have is your self-respect as a songwriter and as a musician," he says. "In 10 years, you want to still hear the songs that you needed to hear when you wrote them, instead of trying to change or cater to the present."
Since Day One for the band, back during the mythologized "garage rock" days of the White Stripes-centric turn-of-the-millennium period of time around the Detroit music scene, Methric has been recording and performing with his friend Muggs bassist Tony DeNardo (or, if you will, Tony Muggs). The band's longest serving drummer, Todd Glass, recently departed after a little more than a decade of providing a backbeat for Methric's raspy-lionlike vocals and mustang guitar riffs while rhythmically pairing with DeNardo's Rhodes keyboard bass. Glass completed all the drum parts on Slave to Sound about a year ago, and the Muggs have since welcomed percussionist Zach Pliska to the band.
"We've proven ourselves to be whatever we want to be," says DeNardo. "We can take chances. I think there's a bit of everything on (Slave to Sound); some things you haven't heard yet from the Muggs, and some of the more tried-and-true. But it's never a dull moment. We're always challenging ourselves."
"It's funny," Methric says. "Just with 20 years of doing what we want to be doing, we were once the young kids coming up, just as 25-year-olds playing blues-rock, when nobody was playing blues-rock. Now we're getting to be the old men on the scene, and younger kids are coming through — how did we turn into the old men of the scene so quickly?" There's quiet defiance in his voice. "There's still a lot of fire in these hearts."
That fire has remained remarkable because this band has exceptional dedication, not only to their music, but to each other. DeNardo suffered a stroke in 2001, paralyzing his entire right side, even robbing him of speech for a while; the doctors didn’t expect he would survive, but survive he did. After a lengthy recovery, he returned to his role as the bassist of the band, adapting to the Rhodes with the full reach of his left hand.
They followed their self-titled 2005 debut with 2008’s On With The Show, a defiant statement of resiliency following their appearance on a fledgling reality TV show on Fox called The Next Great American Band. They were actually one of a dozen to make the cut out of thousands, at that time, even if they didn’t wind up winning the popularity contest.
Their third album, which came in 2011, was produced by Jim Diamond and was titled with winking self-deprecation, Born Ugly. For a while, they even self-applied the title of “ugliest” band, sort of a throughline to their consciousness of an underdog or outlier status. Nevertheless, they still just kept doing exactly what they loved.
But there was another kind of fire crackling over these last two years, it seems, one that just couldn't be extinguished. "I didn't know if this record was going to happen, but all of these songs just kept coming and coming," Methric says. "I said, 'Aw, man, Tone, I think we got one more in us.'" Methric describes the song ideas as arriving essentially as unstoppable tides in his mind. They started moving quickly and had the rhythmic and melodic components worked out with producer Adam Cox in his Hamtramck studio in less than two days.
Both DeNardo and Methric consider Slave to Sound to be a sonic sibling to their most recent album, 2015's Straight Up Boogaloo; it continues to forge the grit and ferocity of Methric's geysering guitar riffs with DeNardo's melodic driving bass, galvanizing the composite of their influences, like Peter Green's bluesier Fleetwood Mac tunes, the punchy-pounding bravura of AC/DC, and the pop perfection of the Beatles or the Clean.
"My aesthetic for writing a song has always been to write a good riff first," Methric says. "But there has to be a melody over it. The songs have to stand on their own melodically if that riff is going to have any sort of relevance." One of the Muggs' most epic songs to date is on this record, a building organ and acoustic guitar ballad called "Occupied Blues," which turns into a flat-out arena-rock-ready anthem, interpreted by this reporter as an ode and a plea to the muses of music to continue delivering ideas and opportunities to write and perform and play guitar. (But it could just as easily be flipped to be marking the necessity of the sustainability of employment from a blue-collar experience, too.)
"'Occupied Blues' is one of my favorite songs on the record," Methric says. "I actually wrote it at Wendy Case's house when I was house-sitting." Case is one-half of the group Royal Sweets, who are joining the lineup for the Muggs' upcoming album-release show, but she was also the lead singer in the Paybacks, the powerhouse garage-rock band from the late '90s and early 2000s, in which Methric also played lead guitar. "(Case) is such an inspiration to me, lyrically, melodically," he says. "I thank Wendy for everything."
In fact, adds Methric, upon considering a couple of softer songs on the album, including a song he dedicated to his mother, Methric says that this is probably "the most Wendy Case-influenced record we've ever done. In terms of how to be vulnerable and not embarrassed about writing so honestly. Because this is the most honestly I've ever written. I had some songs I was almost worried about putting on the record, but I was just writing honestly, really. And it was cathartic for me and felt very substantive. I had to get it all out."
What also felt cathartic, says DeNardo, was just the energy and, they both agreed, "the fun" of working with Cox and capturing these tracks in the studio with former drummer Todd Glass. And fun is an important factor, says DeNardo, when he considers what advice he would pass on to the next generation. "Have fun (with music), be in the moment," he says. "Have enough fun with it to make it a community, and make it become so big to where people can't deny it. Sometimes it feels like the odds are stacked against you, which they are, but there's got to be somebody ... there's got to be some band that shows the way. There's nothing to say that you can't be that band."
The Muggs no doubt still have that fire and creative energy. Over the last five years, the band saw its fanbase abroad in Europe (especially in Spain) surge. There's also the added inspiration of DeNardo embracing his songwriting (and lead vocalist) side with a side project called DUDE, and Methric wanting to explore filmmaking (he has a lifelong obsession with horror movies) by writing screenplays. Beyond that, they've also formally established their own label, Muggs Music.
But before we wrap, Methric has his own advice for any rock songwriter listening: that making your own music "might not do anything for you career-wise, but at least, at the end of the day, you can say that you wrote something you believe in. And one day, you'll see, it lasts the test of time. The fad of what's going on right now never lasts. Rock's always gonna be there."
The Muggs perform an album-release party for Slave to Sound on Friday, Jan. 3 at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-1992; themagicbag.com. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.
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