First night back in Amsterdam, after too long an absence, and I have the undiluted double pleasure of 1) interviewing John Murry before his show at the Paradiso, and 2) then watching him and his band play. After establishing that I first saw him perform six years ago, on a Sunday morning in the back room of Cleere’s Pub at the Kilkenny Rhythm ’n’ Roots festival, when he was touring with Bob Frank in support of their collection of original murder ballads, World Without End, we begin by dissecting the line ‘It’s not you/it’s California I can’t stand’. This is taken from the song ‘California’, from Murry’s excellent The Graceless Age, an album released last year in the States, and now finding an outlet this side of the pond with Rubyworks.
Now 33, Murry has lived in San Francisco since moving there for graduate school from his native Mississippi, a place where he felt even less at home. So why the antipathy, and why live there?
“It’s mostly to do with the individualism, and the competitiveness. But I’ve never felt at home anywhere.” Indeed, it transpires that Murry’s gripe might well not be with California per se, but with the modern world, thus the album title. “Because of the rise of individualism, people naturally distrust each other now, and don’t communicate properly. But it’s not just that, it’s like: why are we sitting in a tiny glass room 4ft by 6ft in the Paradiso in Amsterdam?”
So it’s an aesthetic dislike?
“Not just aesthetic. Places are ugly, but relationships between people are ugly too.”
Murry has a tight coterie of a support group in San Francisco, and doesn’t see himself as part of any wider scene. Probably because of the aforementioned wariness of competition, he doesn’t feel he has ‘indie rock’ peers, either locally or nationally. He is ploughing his own furrow. One of those few trusted friends and collaborators was the now sadly passed on Tim Mooney, former American Music Club drummer and renowned studio owner and producer, who recorded and mixed The Graceless Age with Murry. John describes Tim as “the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father figure.” Another stalwart in Murry’s artistic evolution has been Chuck Prophet, also on the bill at Kilkenny Rhythm ’n’ Roots this year, where they expect to jam together, including a Chuck Berry song.
“Tim never said this to me, but I’ve heard it from other people since he passed, that although he wasn’t a lyricist or composer, he needed to have a songwriter he could work with. After American Music Club split up, I became that to him.”
Has he discussed that with Mark Eitzel? Eh, no.
‘Lyricist and composer’ seem like much more appropriate epithets to attach to John Murry than ‘singer-songwriter’. The latter term has been devalued, due to the presence of the standing army of ten thousand and counting, which is unfortunate, as true singer-songwriters are the poets of popular music. But it’s important to stress that, on the evidence of The Graceless Age, Murry is up there with the best of the breed, whatever you choose to call them, in recent memory: think Mark Linkous; or Elliott Smith.
Part of what marks Murry apart, and one of the reasons for this hyperbole, is that The Graceless Age is both opulent and raw at the same time. In other words, it has affinities with what used to be called, John laughs, ‘alt. country’, but is also the product of someone just as steeped in My Bloody Valentine and Spiritualized.
“Kevin Shields is one of my favourite guitarists of all time. With Spiritualized, it’s the layering I like. I must have listened to Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space a hundred times non-stop when it came out.” I’d also suggest that it’s because, like Jason Pierce, Murry is interested in the appropriation and personalisation of traditional and contemporary genres – gospel, blues, country and soul on the one hand, garage rock and even free jazz on the other – for his own ends. Of course, it was Tim Mooney who helped John achieve the fuzz guitar soundscapes which populate The Graceless Age, so is he looking for another producer now?
“No, because I learned so much from Tim, I feel I can do it myself now. People forget, he recorded what I played, but I had to record everything he played.”
Murry comes across as someone just as interested in and informed by literature, specifically contemporary American literature since the Moderns, as he is by music. Perhaps this is no surprise, as he is second cousin to chronicler of the south’s darkest secrets, William Faulkner. How big a part does the Faulkner lineage play in his psyche?
“Well, he’s a good model for someone who was not accepted. Round where I’m from they still call him Count No Account. In Ireland, you celebrate your great writers, like Joyce. There’s a blue plaque outside the house where Leopold Bloom was supposed to have been born. I went looking for it the last time I was there. In the south, people are still suspicious of Faulkner. My father made me read all his books, which was a good thing. But my father wasn’t too happy when I started playing guitar. He wanted me to be a literature professor.”
So he’s disappointed in you?
“Well, when I got written up in the Wall Street Journal, he took me more seriously.”
We discuss Pynchon, Denis Johnson, and David Foster Wallace. Murry speaks of his desire to write a novella, although he is conscious of the pitfalls in crossing over from music to fiction. There are precedents, however.
“I really like Willy Vlautin’s novels. He’s coming into his own, finding his own voice. It’s not just Raymond Carver all over again.”
How does he feel about playing live? Does he still get nervous? Does he worry about the reaction?
“I love playing with these guys. Sean Coleman, who’s married to an Irish girl, is a great guitarist. I worry less than I used to. As long as I feel I’ve done my best, then it’s up to people whether they like it or not.”
What are his expectations of Ireland this time? Well, it turns out that aside from the mini tour he’s doing, he’s scheduled to do some recording in Ireland over the summer. He clearly finds the ‘less competitive’ atmosphere in Ireland more conducive to productivity. He even jokes about moving over, if his wife, who works with autistic children, can find a job.
“In Ireland, I feel like, if we needed some girls to do backing vocals, I could just go out into the street, maybe outside Whelan’s, and we’d find four or five girls who’d do the job perfectly. That doesn’t happen so much in the States, when you’re looking to hire someone. It goes back to singing in church, I think. In Ireland and Scotland, the audience joining in always sounds great. It didn’t sound so good in London, though.”
Catching the show later, I can testify that the songs on the album are done full justice live. Murry and Coleman are Telecaster kings, between them coaxing all kinds of arresting and complementary sounds from their guitars, amps and pedals. The rhythm section are spot on too. In fact, it’s quite amazing to hear such a full and yet detailed mix in a relatively small room, and guarantees that the Workman’s Club on 9th May will be the hottest ticket in Dublin town.
It may be true what they say: the dope over here in the ‘Dam is awful strong, ‘cos I’m baked already. But from where I’m standing, John Murry might just be the future of rock ’n’ roll.
John Murry plays at the Workman’s Club on 9th May (Thursday). Tickets are priced at €15.