ONLY KNOWING PETER MURPHY FOR HIS WORK IN THE SEMINAL GOTH BAND BAUHAUS IS LIKE ONLY KNOWING PETER GABRIEL FOR BEING IN GENESIS, OR ONLY KNOWING DAVID BOWIE FOR BEING IN THE MOVIE LABYRINTH. TO HAVE MISSED THE STUNNING WORK THAT MURPHY HAS PRODUCED OVER THE LAST 20 YEARS IS TO DENY YOURSELF FRESH MUSICAL OXYGEN. HIS MULTIFACETED GLOW HAS PRODUCED A SERIES OF ALBUMS WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN ALTERNATIVE ROCK GOLD. THE TRANSFORMATIONS FROM DEEP TO CASCADE TO DUST ALONE ARE MORE COMPELLING THAN MOST MUSIC MADE IN THE LAST 100 YEARS. NOW IN THE STATES TOURING BEHIND HIS 2004 RELEASE UNSHATTERED, NIGHT WATCHMAN HAD A CHANCE TO TALK WITH THE BEST VOICE IN MUSIC: PETER MURPHY.
Night Watchman: I wanted to ask you about your new album, Unshattered, compared to your previous album, Dust. With Dust you used a lot of lush Middle Eastern instrumentation, and now youíve kind of stripped down and gotten away from that world sound. What brought about this change?
Peter Murphy: Yes, well, Dust was the album that had been gestating in me for a long time since I started to go to Turkey. I met my wife in the early Eighties, sheís Turkish, and we ended up moving to Turkey. So after moving there I developed a taste of what was the quality against the mundane aspect [of the music]. I especially feel a bit of a convergency with what was the best of the Turkish Ottoman music; I guess youíd say the classical music. I think in the West we tend to listen to any Arabic scale and think itís a mystical experience. (laughs) Thatís sort of like a joke after a time. Obviously, a lot of DJs or other people who are propagating world music are often just sampling random sounds that may have an air of that world music sound. Theyíre not that well versed. Iím not a music snob in that sense, but when I went to Turkey I really got to know what was really cool there. Also, I wanted to make an album that was as integral as, say, a Peter Gabriel Passion, or a Dead Can Dance album, or some of the jazz albums that Iím a great admirer of. So it was an idea that was really nebulous in my head, but I thought thereís an album in there somewhere that is not like either the East or the West, but right in the middle. It could stride both of those cultures, so I thought, "Well, theoretically, I would be a good candidate to do that, since Iím apparently an alternative music icon...." (laughs) In other peopleís minds, at least. Now I understand that the source of a lot of the material from the Turkish or Middle Eastern or Islamic world could be grouped together. The moment I knew I was about to pursue it was when I heard Mercan Dedeís album Sufi Dreams. It had that element of East/West. Actually, his album was much more a propagation of Sufi music mixed in with an immense understanding of that form, and he sort of colored that with a Western approach, which I liked a lot. It was an album that I set out to make, and made it really quickly once he and I set out on the task of doing it. It was kind of by osmosis. Itís a Turkish album, but it comes out on a label [Metropolis] that mostly has darker industrial music. Itís an album that has a wide reach, but itís still completely alternative in its approach. So with that in mind-- and like I said, that was done really quickly-- I think itís an album that hopefully will be recognized as a classic album in the history of rock 'n' roll or popular music. But thatís neither here nor there. I came to write Unshattered and I went, "Where do I go after this?" So I certainly wasnít going to make a sequel to Dust-- that would diminish the idea-- so I gathered lots of reference rather than contemplate the album too much. I decided to travel while making it. So the first place I went was Planet Studios in Montreal, which I love. I wanted to work with the engineer Daniel Cinelli before I started to write, so I brought a number of formed and half-formed instrumental ideas that I had lined up. I wrote most of the album; I did all the vocals and the writing and the final vocals in a week.
NW: Really? Wow!
PM: Then I went to Toronto. I wanted to write with people I didnít know; people who I hadnít met, but had heard of almost by chance. I had been into Kurt Swinghammerís album Vostok 6, so I set up a meeting, and we wrote over a couple of days. By the end of three weeks I had a lot of material, and most of it ended up on the album. Then I took it to find a label and I met with Gardner Cole. He did the production in L.A. over a ten day session, and he added some amazing performers like [Jane's Addiction's] Stephen Perkins on drums, and some guitars here and there. He really supplemented the album with a lot of the live replacements; drums and some of the guitars... all the basics.
NW: It has a really live feel to it.
PM: And it sounds great! So thatís how it happened. It was really understated in its approach, and it was done really quickly with that in mind-- just wanting to write and be prolific and let what happens happen. Of course, you see all this melody coming out of all these songs and it sounds like a really grown-up album, like it could be really big.
NW: Itís really accessible and easy to get into.
PM: Yeah. So thatís how that happened. I titled it Unshattered because Gardner Cole suggested it-- it being one of the moments on the last song on the album-- and that really worked. Itís really evocative; itís a made-up word thatís very typical of the way I write. My lyrics are often conundrums that somehow evoke a space or state; thereís not always logic in that way, but there is a beauty in the absence of logic.
NW: That was something I really wanted to ask you about. It seems like you are lyrically able to convey something with a really abstract phrase or poetic line that is very beautiful.
PM: Intimations, yeah. Thank you.
NW: What inspires that? Is it particular authors that youíve read, or is it just a rejection of having to describe something literally?
PM: As a child I would very much enjoy listening to and reading the lyrics to a song, but also the poetry of the music. Words were always something that I was drawn to when I listened to music. I was brought up in a household where I was the youngest of seven, so I heard everything from Elvis to Doris Day to The Rolling Stones to The Beatles-- everything. We also had Irish traditional songs and, of course, all the hymns in our musical repertoire, but that was always there. I like to use words to evoke emotion, and I suppose thatís a personal style that I have. I find it really easy to write that way. Itís not a labor for me; I think in those ways. I think in more of an abstract intelligence. Iím not too comfortable with trying to record life events in a very didactic way. Itís kind of like when you describe a dream-- itís always awkward. If you use imagery to take a listener into that space, they may get nearer to that.
NW: It seems like itís easy for people to form their own ideas about what the song is about in that way, as well. Some of it is subject to interpretation.
PM: Yes. Although, I must admit itís not random. Itís not just pure random speak; there is a definite meaning that I hold.
NW: Something that always struck me about your albums is that everything seems well planned out, but there is also a real sense of spontaneity. In talking about your last couple albums it sounds like you make them pretty quickly. So how do you balance that degree of looseness with the structure of your songs?
PM: Iíve had the help of a lot of great co-writers, Paul Statham being one of them. He would come up with all this stuff and Iíd have to capture it as it was bouncing off the walls. He was content not to shape any of it, and I was able to use those primary colors, if you like, which I could work with. So thereís a lot of those structures inspired by those starting points, and if somethingís not broken you donít fix it. So thatís why I donít overstress and work an album for two years. Iím a post-punk; I got into music in 1978 with Bauhaus, and we used to really get off on writing and recording a whole album in a couple of weeks and just making that the limitation, so I know that it works.
NW: Well, I know you have to run, but can I ask you one last question?
NW: It has nothing to do with anything else weíve talked about, but we ask everyone this question. The question is, do dogs have lips?
PM: (long pause, laughs) Oh, thatís so funny. Thatís a really funny question. (laughs) I donít think they do, you know? No, they donít. But theyíve got very nice ears.
NW: They do, donít they? Alright, Peter, thanks for your time.
PM: (in a Southern accent) Alright then. Itís a pleasure. Saddle up and hit the road.