“It’s scratch and sniff,” says Marc Mueller as a young man reaches for his business card. “It smells like me right now.” He gives a somewhat contemptuous half grunt before returning to his instruments. On this particular evening, the seasoned musician is stationed under the dull subway tungsten of Penn Station, coaxing psychedelic jungle sounds from a didgeridoo-inspired pipe while all four limbs accompany him on percussion. He looks disheveled, wearing his grey stubble with a touch of “wild.” He sprawls himself on a box that doubles as both seat and instrument, occasionally pointing at bewildered passers-by with his didgeridoo. As I’d come to understand, the scratch-and-sniff comment is one of his stock responses to the skittish commuters who make up his audience.
Not that I fully comprehend the meaning of the phrase, but it is emblematic of what makes him different from the typical polite and distanced busker. Every now and then Mueller, who is tall and lanky with sharp eyes, lightly scolds his underground listeners. That’s right: scolds. The reason? Around 2007 he started noticing that people became fixated on taking videos of the performance instead of enjoying the live presence of the performer. “People are much more interested in collecting data and capturing something for 5 to 10 seconds rather than stopping and being part of a collective public group,” complains Mueller.
He views the taking of videos for Instagram and Facebook as an obsession, one that jars directly with his sensibility as an artist. For this old-school musician and his ilk, the act of performing music is about forming a meaningful connection, however fleeting, with another human being. “We’ve had to respond to that phenomenon of disconnect by trying to engage people with either conversation or stopping a song,” he says, defending the need to scold.
Mueller performs with impressive frequency, averaging about 170 shows a year. Both his solo act as StreetMule and his band Mecca Bodega have been widely successful. He co-founded the latter with his brother 25 years ago, and together they’ve played at venues ranging from Lincoln Center and the Celebrate Brooklyn Summer Festival, to the Sydney Fringe Festival in Australia. But through bouts of public notoriety, Mueller remains grounded to his roots with the Music Under New York (MUNY) performing arts program, one that he’s been associated with since 1995.
Over the course of the evening, I began to empathize with Mueller’s frustration– it is kind of irritating when streams of people stop for only as long as it takes to get a photograph or video. That being said, the scattered audiences that do gather are respectful, attentive and seem to appreciate Mueller’s uncommon talent. A handful of people walked up to him, reverentially asking about his instruments. He plays on an assemblage of world music and hand-made instruments; his didgeridoo, originally meant to be wood, is really just a painted PVC pipe. He also has a string of bells wrapped around an ankle, two shakers, a plastic drum and more, relying heavily on his wooden seat/box to provide a percussive base.
One young tourist was so moved that he bought a CD, got Mueller to sign it and asked me to take a photo of them together. The true delight on Mueller’s face at these interactions– particularly with little children– undeniably outweigh the irritation of constantly being filmed: “It’s wonderful,” he says, “that’s why I’m out here. I get a chance to share my energy which is the most important thing and hopefully I’ll get some energy back from those conversations.”
Watch this video of toddlers enjoying Mueller’s music: