“How did you find out about my music” he asks me via Facebook messenger. I tell him it popped up when I searched for the tag ‘political’. The title of Pete Murphy‘s latest album was enough to catch my attention and as I listened to the album I knew I had to send him some questions for a Shouts interview.
Pete is a very honest human being as you will see while reading the interview below. Honesty in this time and age is also precious and refreshing. Pete is a very efficient musician who has an impressive track record on Bandcamp and other music service pages.
His latest album focuses on a variety of issues all of which stem from his confusion about why we as humans are still having to discuss things that to him seem normal.
Halldór Bjarnason: For those not familiar with your work, who is Pete Murphy?
Pete Murphy: Pete Murphy is an independent songwriter / musician from the West Midlands in the UK, not to be confused with Peter Murphy, the famous songwriter / musician from the East Midlands in the UK (I’ve been asked many times if I’m the Bauhaus frontman, and even have people liking my social media pages and tagging me in posts because they think I’m ‘him’).
I started playing the guitar 37 years ago, and have been a professional musician for almost 25 years. I spent many years playing in bands, but these days I just stay at home and write/record my own music. I’m a ‘one man band’, although I occasionally have a friend come and play a part that I’m not good enough to do (like my friend Matt Malone – https://www.malonerocks.com/ , a brilliant rock n’ roll artist from Birmingham England, who has done several vocal parts that are outside of my range. He’s a far better singer than I, and he can reach some ridiculously high notes).
I’m an unapologetically gentle guy, who treats making music as a form of therapy.
I don’t really have a style, and I don’t subscribe to the concept or confinements of genre. I’ve made what might be considered rock concept albums, musical soap operas, experimental electronic/techno, comedy, avant pop, and lots more.
I make unpopular music that doesn’t really fit in anywhere. I have a song called ‘Grotesquary’, which is on my ‘Theatre Of The Absurd’ album, and the first line is “I’m not weird enough for the weird people, I’m not normal enough for the normal people”, and that pretty much sums it up.
Halldór: You have an impressive arsenal of work on your Bandcamp page, with several albums released last year and many more albums, EP’s and singles before that. Where do find the time and the creative spirit to write so much music and what is your background in music?
Pete: I think I actually released seven albums last year, and a handful of EP’s. Although I wrote songs for the bands I played in, I didn’t start releasing solo music until 2017. I didn’t think I was ‘good enough’. I can’t play the piano very well, I’ve never been a great or confident vocalist, and I’m a socially awkward guy who suffers with anxiety and various other mental health disorders. I’ve always felt that I had a knack for writing a decent melody, and I think I’m pretty good at arranging, but for a long time I felt that I fell short in every other area. I guess I still do, but I no longer allow it to stop me from putting my music out into the world.
In 2016, I had recorded what ended up being my debut album. It took a long time to record, the sessions were frustrating, and I ended up in a cycle of self-doubt, and on a constant and futile search for perfection. I ended up abandoning the project for a while, and I decided that my music career was pretty much over. Several months later I revisited the songs, with the intention of releasing them as a collection of demos, as it was likely to be “the last musical project I would ever work on”.
Shortly after its release, a number of things coincided that made me feel that I had more to say musically.
Since early 2017 I’ve released a total of 25 albums, 10 EP’s, and a few singles. I make albums quickly these days. Generally, an album will take between 2 and 4 weeks, from inception to completion.
Some are made more quickly. A few have been made in 11 or 12 days. Some were completed in a couple of days (mainly the solo piano albums I’ve done). I write very differently these days. I’ll often just let my hands drop onto the piano keys or guitar neck, and whatever notes I happen to hit will form the basis of a song. Sometimes a concept will come to me in a dream. I wrote an entire album based around a dream I had. There are numerous ‘dream songs’ scattered throughout my work.
Mistakes are left in, there’s a lot of running on pure instinct, and I leave myself very little time to reflect on what I’ve done. I’ll often release an album within an hour of finishing it. I like my albums to be as pure and ‘in the moment’ as possible.
As far as finding the time… music is what I do. It’s pretty much all I CAN do. I don’t make much money from my solo work, but I have other projects which allow me to work from home and make music all day.
Halldór: Your latest offering kind of says it all in the title but at the same time leaves much for the imagination (or listening). Why did you make this album now and what do you hope to achieve with it? Have you made such protest pieces before?
Pete: I’m at a strange place right now, as far as hopes and achievements go. I have no following to speak of. Very few people are interested in what I do. I know I don’t particularly make it easy for the listener, with the fact that I produce music that is stylistically all over the place, recorded at home, low production aesthetic, etc.
I had a somewhat naive thought for a while, that out of the billions of people on the planet there might be a few who would get what I’m doing, and support my art in a sustainable way. Say, 50 or 100 people who have no interest in commercial radio, who are into music that is experimental, music that takes risks and isn’t afraid to occasionally fall flat on its face, music that is sometimes lyrically challenging, sometimes lyrically stupid or nonsensical or whimsical, music that sometimes mixes several styles in one song.
But, no. At best, I’m currently selling one or two copies of an album. People don’t write about, talk about, or share my music, so I was very pleasantly surprised when you asked me to do this interview.
Having so few listeners means that I have complete freedom to create what I want, as there are no expectations, but it also feels like shouting into a void, and it puts a lot of pressure on mental health and the like.
As far as whether I’ve made such protest pieces before… I’m often protesting something in my songs, but I don’t think I’ve made an entire album based around a political statement before (‘I Can’t Believe That We’re Still Having These Conversations’). A song like ‘Vaudeville’ from the ‘Theatre Of The Absurd’ album is pretty obvious in its intent. It’s also kinda childish, but I felt the childish nature was appropriate, with it being about a big man child.
Incidentally, I recently made most of my music free (or ‘pay what you want’) on my Bandcamp page.
Halldór: Some people seem to think that art should be separated from current affairs, politics, activism etc. and that music should be the escape from all that. What is your take on that?
Pete: I think there is room for it. There is room for anything when it comes to music. To me, music is about expressing yourself in your own unique way. Who is anyone else to tell you to ‘stop trying to be a politician and stick to music’? There will always be overlap in any area… politics overlaps religion overlaps music overlaps philosophy overlaps literature, and so on.
Music can be a lot of things. It can be an escape, it can be cerebral, it can be meditative, it can be political, it can do good, it can do harm… endless options… so why should an artist be lambasted for tackling current affairs or politics? If people don’t like it, they can always ignore it and find something that is more appealing to their ears.
Some of my favourite artists have been accused of being self-indulgent because they tackle certain subjects/styles or use uncommon instrumentation or arrangements. My view is that music and art SHOULD be self-indulgent! It certainly shouldn’t be diluted by marketing people and accountants, and people shouldn’t ever feel pressured to make music that other people want or expect them to make.
In my opinion, some of the greatest music ever created is politically motivated. For example, Funkadelic’s ‘America Eats Its Young’ (‘If You Don’t Like The Effects, Don’t Produce The Cause’ has never felt more relevant).
But sure, go ahead and listen to “I wanna rock n’ roll all night, and sleep all day” or “Unskinny Bop” or “Uptown Girl” or “Call Me Maybe”, if that’s what makes you happy.
I’ve been told that I should ‘stick to one style’. No thanks. That would bore the hell out of me. I don’t follow societal norms, trends, or fashions. I have no idea what’s in the charts, or who the current ‘big thing’ is.
I wouldn’t consider myself an overtly political artist, in that I don’t try to sell myself as a ‘political musician’. I write about what I see happening around me, and that will often include political issues. Any subject is just a step away from being political anyway… the overlaps I mentioned earlier. If you look at online discussions about pretty much any subject, at some point the conversation will invariably turn political. I write about religion, child abuse, poverty, sexuality… all subjects that are ripe for political discourse.
I also make a lot of cross album references, and sometimes wrap very personal things up in double or triple meanings. If anyone ever took the time to unpack those ideas, they would discover a lot about me.
I know artists who avoid writing about anything political or challenging, for fear of losing followers/fans, or ‘damaging their brand’. I have to speak my truth, however uncomfortable it gets, and however damaging it might be to any ‘career aspirations’ I may have.
Halldór: On your Bandcamp page you write “In some cases I didn’t know exactly what I was going to sing until I hit the record button.” How was making this album different from your previous albums?
Pete: I don’t really have a set approach. Sometimes I’ll wake up and think “today I’m going to make a solo jazz piano album, even though I can’t play jazz”. Sometimes I’ll have an entire concept planned out in my head before I go anywhere near a guitar, piano, or computer. Sometimes I’ll just start writing and recording and see what happens. In those cases, sometimes the overall concept will reveal itself at some point during the recording sessions, other times I’ll end up with a collection of disparate songs or elements that I force together, like hanging Santa Claus, a nativity scene, a chocolate coin, and a Christmas cracker on an evergreen conifer.
I have made other albums where I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do until I hit the record button, but in those situations it was with the instruments more than the vocals. I remember that on my ‘Thelonious Punk’ and ‘Junk Funk Hospitle’ albums, a lot of the guitar and bass parts were made up on the spot… lots of improvisation, and probably numerous things that don’t make sense harmonically, but that kind of hang together in the context of the song.
As far as the latest album goes, I would usually have at least a rough idea of what the lyrics were going to be, but I was making melodies up on the spot. Some lyrics were improvised, but always accompanied by a strong idea of the point that I wanted to get across. Some lyrics were written in advance, but may have changed ‘in the moment’.
Halldór: How is the music scene around you where you live? Are many artists using their voices for good, for a specific message or in protest?
Pete: In the immediate locality, there isn’t much going on as far as original music goes. There are lots of cover bands, open mic nights, and so on. I spent a while visiting open mic evenings, hoping to discover some great new music, but I didn’t hear one original song.
A lot of people would rather go out and watch someone pretending to be Meat Loaf than discover something new. It’s one of the things that contributes to the stagnation of our society – stick with the familiar, “that’s the way we’ve always done it”, “the old music was better”. There’s no mental effort required on either side of the tribute artist/audience transaction.
There are a couple of local initiatives which strive to give a voice to protest/political artists. Namely, the Erdington Arts Forum, which is run by a guy called Jobe Baker Sullivan, and the Sutton Coldfield Arts Forum, which is run by Joe Cook. They provide a platform for alternative musicians, comedians, actors, and other types of artist. I admire what they do. It must take a lot time and effort.
There is also a great venue in Birmingham town centre called Centrala, which puts on experimental acts, political artists, jazz musicians. I saw Matana Roberts and Kelly Jane Jones play an incredible show there a couple of years back.
Halldór: What about outside the music, do you partake in any activism of any sort?
Pete: I’m a homebody. I don’t really like leaving the house. It’s a big effort to go out, and I sometimes have to force myself. I have social anxiety, and often struggle to function properly in society. Crowds, noise, and bright lights can be pretty hard to deal with. Sometimes just going to the local shops to buy a loaf of bread can be challenging.
There are various causes that I believe in, and touch upon in my music. Just a few of these are veganism, mental health, homelessness, and trans rights.
I recently released an album called ‘See Me Safe’, and half of the profits from that album go to Maria McKee’s ‘See Me Safe FFS Fund’, which helps trans individuals with the costs associated with facial feminization surgery. Maria is a lovely lady with no rock star pretensions, despite the successes she’s had. The campaign takes donations via their Go Fund Me page ( https://uk.gofundme.com/f/1lu3zwtd2o ).
My most recent album lingers in political territory, sometimes overtly, like on the song where I sing about “drowning in the deep end of all the political rhetoric”, and “hollow point two party system got you hoodwinked”. On the song ‘Death After Death’, I tackle things like families being separated, as well as – “… and we’re told not to give money to the homeless, in case they spend it on alcohol or drugs or glue, we’re a nation of selfish fuckers, if I were on the streets I’d want to get out of it too”.
I can occasionally be sarcastic or biting when it comes to lyrics, but my music is made with love, and a big part of the intent is to put more love out into the world.
Halldór: What other protest or political musicians do you follow these days? What artists inspire your work?
Pete: When it comes to political music and inspiration, I guess we gravitate towards artists who share similar political leanings. You won’t find me listening to pro conservative artists. I like to keep myself informed, and study various political issues and opinions, but when it comes to music, I don’t care how great someone’s melodies are, if they’re spouting pro Trump or pro Tory rhetoric, then I’m not interested.
One of my favourite artists is Ergo Phizmiz. Discovering Ergo’s music in 2017, and subsequently getting to know them, is one of the things that made me decide to continue making music when I was at the point of giving up. Ergo is a multi-disciplinary artist who writes and directs anarcho-political stage shows, creates collage art, radio plays, operas, and is one of the most prolific and brilliant musical artists I’ve ever heard. Ergo’s music can be found here: https://composterofmusic.bandcamp.com
I’ve been a big fan of the aforementioned Maria McKee for many years, and she does so much great work for the trans community.
Some of my other current musical obsessions and inspirations (not all of them politically motivated) include Christina Schneider / Locate S1, John Coltrane, Miles Davis (specifically the ‘Live Evil’ and ‘Cellar Door Sessions’ era), Sly Stone, JPEGMAFIA, Jake Tobin’s ‘1 3 5’ album, Alessi Laurent-Marke, Zach Phillips, James Hall, and an incredible experimental / avant garde performance artist / singer / songwriter from Israel called Netta Goldhirsch, who I discovered randomly on Instagram.
Halldór: What is on the horizon for you, new music, touring, something else?
Pete: I’m always writing. Always singing into the voice recorder on my phone, or jotting down lyrics, or running to the piano to find the right notes. I’m usually carrying around several concepts / albums in my head at any given time.
I no longer perform live. I remember back in the 90’s, I would play shows to sold out rooms. People would be queueing at the door, being turned away because the venue was at capacity. When we’d start playing, people would PAY ATTENTION. In the late 2000’s, the audience was still there, and still appreciative, but I started noticing people’s attention being split by their mobile phones… taking pictures, filming, messaging, scrolling through Facebook while my bandmates and I were drenched in sweat. I took a break from live performance for a while, but when I returned (I think it was sometime around 2015), I noticed that audiences were dwindling, and promoters were, and still are, having to put 6 bands on the bill in order to break even. Even with that many bands, the audience just wasn’t there. People weren’t attending small scale gigs in the same way. I don’t know where they were… sitting at home with Netflix and Instagram? At the local enormo-venue watching Ed Sheeran?
I always perform like my life depends on it, no matter how big or small the crowd is, and I hope that energy will affect the audience in some way, but when you’re met with apathy and indifference, or when you end up playing to the bar staff and the soundman, it takes its toll. When promoting my music, I’ve often said “I hope that you either love it or hate it.” I really mean that.
I want to affect the listener, whether their reaction is positive or negative. It’s indifference that I can’t stand – “yeah, it’s ok”, “it’s pretty good” – I’d rather hear “THIS IS THE WORST MUSIC I’VE EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE” than “it’s alright, I guess…”
Halldór: Thank you very much for participating. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
Pete: I’d like to say thank you very much for inviting me to share my thoughts, and also…
I’m an idealistic dreamer, who hopes that people will eventually tire of music that sounds like other music, and start to explore the wonderful world of current experimental music instead of commercial pop.
I also hope that people will tire of politicians who sound like other politicians, and start to explore the wonderful world of truth instead of tabloids, compassion instead of coveting, gentleness instead of greed, the pursuit of knowledge instead of the pursuit of fame and celebrity…
Tradition hinders progress.