Find out why the duo is attracting national attention
Hot Mustard, led by Nick Carusos (far left) and Jack Powell, released its sophomore album, Seconds (inset), this spring.
Hot Mustard has never performed a live concert, but the band’s songs already are receiving heavy airplay on radio stations like Asheville’s WNCW and glowing coverage from national music publications such as Relix and Glide.
That’s not because Jack Powell and Nick Carusos—the duo behind Hot Mustard’s deeply grooving, ambient sound—carried clout from a previous band. Their longest-running project, the Key of Q, is a Charleston Pour House favorite but never built buzz beyond the Carolinas. Hot Mustard’s success is due to a process that begins with an earworm and stretches it into a song, guaranteeing head-bobbing consistency. “This is backbone of hip-hop stuff,” Powell explains, seated in front of a record collection that spans a wall in his John’s Island home.
Powell’s compilation leans toward ’60s and ’70s soul and funk. At home during COVID, he looped drum tracks and sent them to Carusos, who recorded bass lines over them. Though they now use spliced, live drum recordings for licensing reasons, they still record a song’s rhythm section first. “If we can make it groove with just the bass and drums before other elements are added, then we know it’s going to be locked in,” says Carusos.
Next, Jack adds guitar and organ, choosing from an assortment of classic instruments at his home studio, Opus Thimble. For Hot Mustard’s debut album, 2021’s Mother Sauce, Powell recruited trumpeter Jordan McLean (Antibalas) and trombonist Dave “Smoota” Smith (TV on the Radio) to write and record the horn parts. McLean and Smith are integral contributors to Seconds, released this spring. The nine tracks also heavily feature keyboardist Ross Bogan (Doom Flamingo).
Powell, a digital animator, creates cinematic videos for the band’s groovy songs, such as “Nickel Empire”.
Apart from a brief vocal from singer Alanna Royale on “The End of Time” (which segues from a spooky shuffle to a slinky organ to a guitar break), the tracks are instrumental. Unlike previous projects, Hot Mustard embraces traditional song structure, including a repeated chorus. “It’s a song and not just a jam session,” explains Carusos. “We want to build familiarity with the listener. If something is catchy, it’s coming back. That’s the pop and soul influence.”
Seconds achieves that goal from the opening moments of “Gravy Boat,” a minor-key organ-and-slide guitar interplay that develops into an addictive organ/horn section. “Nickel Empire” opens with a snare roll before the trade-off between a groovy guitar riff and horn arrangement that could set the mood in a film score.
Scene-setting sounds are part of the point. Powell is a digital animator by trade, and he’s created full-length cinematic videos for four of the album’s songs. As a husband and father, touring isn’t an aspiration, so licensing is the primary business model. Hot Mustard’s albums—pressed to vinyl—sell out before they can get new orders.
Powell says his biggest challenge is simplifying things—letting some ideas go and retaining imperfections rather than embellishing every moment. “We made a very intentional point to say that we want Hot Mustard to be easy to listen to,” says Powell. “It’s the kind of music that I like—something that’s always grooving and puts me in a good mood without being overly complicated to process.”
Watch the music video for “Nickel Empire,” created by Jack Powell: