The past is never dead. It’s not even past – an interview with John Murry

John Murry’s 2012 album The Graceless Age was hailed by MOJO magazine with a 5 out of 5 rating, UNCUT called it a “masterpiece”, both magazines included it in their Top 10 albums of the year; American Songwriter put it in their Top 5 of the year and The Guardian included it in their best of the year as well. Written and recorded in the wake of a heroin addiction the album was candid in its depiction of his struggles and near death encounter, the grim tales delivered with an almost suffocating beauty concocted by Murry and his producer, Tim Mooney. On stage Murry seemed at times to be reliving the events described, his performances raw, an exorcism of sorts. The sudden death of his mentor Mooney and a marital breakup derailed whatever momentum was being achieved and although he has continued to perform and has recorded several EPs, many were wondering if he would ever record another album. At times Murry himself seemed to regard the album as a millstone around his neck.

Five years down the line however and there’s news of a new album, A Short History Of Decay, recorded in Toronto with Michael Timmons of The Cowboy Junkies producing. In stark contrast to the highly stylised The Graceless Age, A Short History Of Decay is stripped back and direct, recorded in just one week with little rehearsal. Now living in Ireland, Murry is preparing to tour the UK to promote the album’s release and he took some time out to talk to Americana UK about the album and his participation in a documentary exploring his Mississippi roots which is currently in production. We started off by asking how he came to work with Timmons.

If it weren’t for Scotland this record wouldn’t exist. It was at Celtic Connections (in 2013) that I met Mike when I played a show supporting The Cowboy Junkies and the idea was hatched. We were talking about how bad the sound was (note: the gig was in a museum with the sound quality at times abysmal). They struggled with the sound and he saw that I had big problems with it and said he felt bad for me and I felt bad for having him have to say that to me. Anyway, we started talking about music and he said that he had enjoyed my show despite the sound problems and after that we stayed in touch and he said that we should make a record together. But I was getting pushed in multiple directions back then and it was some time before got back in touch and I thought well, this is the right time so we did it.  I’m happy with the record. It took me a while but I got there. It was a totally different process from what we had done on The Graceless Age. The way Mike produced the record was so different from the way that Tim and I worked and it took me some time to kind of, to feel comfortable with the way it sounds. I don’t know if naked is the right word but you know just how direct it is. We recorded just in the course of a week and listening back to the mixes initially I felt a little uncomfortable with it but over time it’s kind of grown on me and I’ve really come to admire Mike’s production and the sound that he’s got on the record.

It’s basically just you along with Josh Finlayson on bass and Peter Timmons on drums with Cait O’Riordan singing along with you. So how important was Michael’s hand on the tiller?

Well I played all the guitar and keyboard parts although Josh Finlayson did a little bit of piano as I can make up stuff on that but I don’t really know what I’m doing.  Mike showed me in the process of making the record that I get in my own way quite a lot and he quite flatly stated that one of his intentions was to stop that. The way that I’ve worked in the past, well, at  Tim Mooney’s memorial service a friend of his who I hadn’t met before came up and said that Tim had given her a copy of The Graceless Age and said that she would love my production on the record. And I thought, “My production? It was Tim who did it.” But looking back I guess I must have had something to do with it and I suppose that we did work kind of collaboratively and until I met Mike I hadn’t really had anyone tell me what to do, he gently orchestrated the entire thing. I just think the man’s brilliant and he’s a really sweet dude and amazing to talk to, he had good stories and read good books. When I went to Toronto to record the record I was staying in his flat above the studio and was looking through his vinyl collection and pulling out records like The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy and it just made sense that we kind of ended up working together. I mean when you are dammed to create music, hell, I’m effectively unemployable and I don’t have a choice except to make this thing work, the more you realise that the people that you end up working with are kind of on the same wavelength, you’re tuned into the same frequency.

What was Toronto like?

It was fun, I really loved Toronto and I can’t wait to get back there. When I was there they were saying stuff like, “It’s getting rough, there were eight people killed here last year” and I was saying, “Man, there were eight people killed in Detroit yesterday and that’s just across the bridge!” It’s the easiest city to get around and there’s all these great little neighbourhoods. There was one day that I locked myself out of the apartment, I went out for a smoke and the door shut and I was standing there with no shoes on in the snow. It was about eight in the morning and no one was due to turn up until eleven so I just waited and Cait turned up first and I walked barefoot with her to a really nice coffee shop. It was a fun experience.

You recorded the album in just a week. Had you rehearsed any of the material?

Not really. When Mike and me were talking about it he said, “I think I know the drummer for the record but he’s not really a drummer, he’s really wanting to be a guitar or bass player first.” And then he told me he was talking about his brother, Pete and I was like, “What are you saying?” but I guess he was talking about Pete being more of a lyrical drummer and he was right. And then he got Josh Finlayson in on bass and Pete and Josh just worked together so well. We would be in the studio and they would be talking and working out their parts and really understanding what was going on. At one point Pete said about one song that he was really thinking of Cheap Trick’s Surrender when he was playing it and I was, “Whoa, I’m totally obsessed with that song.” We hadn’t met before but it was amazing that they could hear those things.

I was wanting to ask you about two of the songs on the album in particular. One Day (You’ll Die) seems to me to be the most personal song included as you sing that “no drugs revealed a thing to me” before going on to  say, “ashes to ashes and dust again into dust, nothing I’ve done will stop this march into rust.” Do you think that life is just one miserable journey to the grave?

Well, I don’t think that most folk think that they will die. Sigmund Freud said that all men believe themselves to be immortal and I was thinking of that song by Malcolm Middleton (We’re All Going To Die) although maybe his song is a little darker. I think the more aware we are of our mortality the more human we’re able to be. The world and the age we’re living in – and not just because of Donald Trump although he is a symptom of it – people don’t seem to realise that their actions affect other people. We are so disconnected from reality now that and I think that this has led to a total disconnect from the reality of death although that’s been the case in America for so long now.  Jessica Mitford wrote about it in her book The American Way of Death as did Ernest Becker in his book Denial of Death. RD Laing was right when he said life was a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% mortality rate and we should be able to accept that. Once we’ve done that we can then consider what Camus said, if we can acknowledge our death then we can go ahead and live. And I suppose that’s what the song is about.  I did kind of think it was funny but at bottom it’s not really. I just wanted to make a pop song reminding us that we’re all going to die.

In the following song, Countess Lola’s Blues (All in This Together), aside from your opening lines, “focus your microscopes examining everything I wrote” which I’ll conveniently ignore,  you sing that we’re all in on the joke so is that more of this black humour?

I mean, Einstein said that God doesn’t play dice with the universe.  I hope that there’s something bigger than us and that life is not one big cosmic joke but if it is and we can accept that then we can maybe move on.

The album title is from a book by the Romanian E.M. Cioran whom some have called The Philosopher Of Failure.

He was a brilliant writer. I got kind of obsessed with philosophers, him and Thomas Ligotti and some others who have been called nihilists but I don’t really think Cioran is a nihilist, he’s more of a realist. I think the title is fitting conceptually in the way I thought about life in general over the past five years and I think that maybe he used the title in pretty much the same way so it’s kind of  a homage to him.

I haven’t read any of his books but I did look him up and he’s quite a complex figure, a forerunner of existentialism with his work described as “a philosophical romance on the modern themes of alienation, absurdity, boredom, futility, decay, the tyranny of history, the vulgarities of change, awareness as agony, reason as disease.”I was particularly struck by a quote from him when he said that his mother told him that if she knew he was going to be so unhappy with life she would have aborted him!

Yes, his life and his thoughts are the reasons why I was drawn to using the title.  I’ve been going into my family background  as part of a documentary that’s being made and I’ve realised that there are a lot of things that I didn’t understand and so I am referencing that darker side of his existence as well as mine. I’ve had some dark moments in the last five years and it’s taken me a while to get to a place where I felt that I could engage with the world as myself. It seemed easier for a while to just play it out in a grotesque way, just saying, “To hell with it.”  So, in the way that The Graceless Age can be seen as a document of my life back then so can the new album now.

The documentary takes you back to Mississippi and looks into your ties with the family of the Nobel Laureate William Faulkner. How did that come about?

Well they approached me about doing it around a year and a half ago and we’ve been shooting it ever since. We’ve got a lot of footage and have just released a trailer. Right now, Sarah Share, the director, and I are talking about our ideas of how to go about creating a narrative for the film without really telling the story directly. We’ve gone to Oxford, Mississippi and traced the ways of am I or am I not related to Faulkner or whatever and we found out some really strange things about his connection to James Joyce that have never been documented before, that was really interesting. It seems that Faulkner went over to France and found Joyce but when his friend urged him to speak with him Faulkner said no, he just wanted to make sure Joyce was real. I can understand that because when I was given the opportunity to meet Bob Dylan  I did exactly the same thing, I didn’t want my illusion burst but the interesting thing to me I suppose is that you’ve got these two guys writing in very similar ways but effectively unaware of each other at first. We also went throughout the Delta and we found my biological mother. It’s really a meditation on being stranded and at times I’ve been fascinated and then horrified at the turns my life has taken, the choices I’ve made and that other people made.

How important was it to you to move to Ireland, to get away from the pressures you felt following the success of The Golden Age?

I mean when I got here to Ireland at first I felt happy to be in a place that felt simpler.  I felt removed from so much that had gone on but then over time I kind of felt stuck. I didn’t know what to do creatively, I was getting frustrated and I was thinking was The Graceless Age the only thing I’m ever going to do that has any value. But the documentary has helped me to face a lot of things that I didn’t know I was avoiding and now I’m happy to be here. When I was in the States it hit me at some point that this was no longer home and the sound recordist, Bob Rennan, said that, “Sometimes going home is just going backwards” and that’s exactly what it felt like. So it’s been a really weird five years and I don’t know if I’ll ever make sense of it but now I don’t really feel that I have to any more.

Well, the album’s out in a few weeks and you’re going on the road to promote it.

We did a couple of dates in Winchester and a few other places as a band just to test the waters and then we’ve got a couple of dates in July before a full UK and Ireland tour in September. I’m excited because I wanted to make a record that I could play out on the road. After The Graceless Age I recorded enough songs to make a couple of records but they’re sitting there and probably won’t go out because of various problems and I was finding it harder and harder to write but then one day I just said, fuck it, and I wrote a song and then another one and kept going with it. I was still writing them when I went to Canada and I was wanting to put them all on the album until Mike told me to stop. But everything that’s on the record I like to play live and a lot of it is just fun to play and I want to enjoy doing it. I believe that an audience can tell when an artist is having fun and is really engaged with the material. Some people maybe are good at phoning it in but I’m not and when I was playing The Graceless Age it took a lot out of me. That’s not to say that the new songs don’t have an emotional weight but I feel that I was pretty sneaky with this one because it allows me to have some fun. There are little digs in some of the songs that are funny to me and on the weightier ones I think that I’ll do a better job of it because I won’t have to dissolve a portion of myself on stage to get it over. I’ll be playing with Tali Trow on bass, Dave Hart or Pat Kenneally on drums and keys and Joe Molloy on guitar along with some others depending on who is available. I have Oliver Gray to thanks for all of this, he introduced me to Tali who mastered the John Murry Is Dead EP and we just clicked and the band just grew organically out of that.

Finally, I read somewhere that you chose the release date because it’s Bastille Day.

That’s just another little dig. The French had all these amazing writers and philosophers who at times were not really recognised. Cioran was Romanian but he spent most of his life and died in Paris so it just ties it all up.

A Short History Of Decay is released on TV Records on 14th July.

Author: Paul Kerr

Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.

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