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A Protest Music Interview: Pete Murphy

“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…

And…

Tradition hinders progress.

Cheers!

A Protest Music Interview: Evan Greer

“There is no such thing as a-political art. There is art that challenges the status quo, and art that doesn’t.”

– Evan Greer

This time we got somewhat of a legend here at Shouts. Evan Greer has been moving around both the music business and the activist world for quite some time now and she recently released a new album titled she/her/they/them .

Out of Make Shift Boston, a co-working space, she works as the deputy director of the nonprofit Fight for the Future, she is a friend and active supporter of Chelsea Manning as well as a hard working independent musician who has spent 300 plus days on tour in a year and more recently while parenting along the way.

It’s been 10 years since her last album and now, through Don Giovanni Records, a new piece has finally come to light. I contacted Evan to learn about her new album as well as her thoughts on music and activism and how the two are as she puts it “inextricably linked”.

10 years between albums is quite some time. Can you tell us why the long time between the albums and what you’ve been up to in that time?

I wish I could claim that I was just toiling away in the studio for all those years trying to nail the perfect guitar sound. But the truth is that I just got really busy! I’ve always balanced my music with my activist work, and for many years when I was working as a full time artist, I had to tour about 300 days a year to make ends meet.

Even after I had a kid I kept touring pretty relentlessly, but eventually I had to slow down a bit and so I put more focus into my activist work, becoming a campaigner at Fight for the Future, an activist group focused on Internet freedom and opposing government surveillance.

I’ve also been organizing a monthly queer dance party in Boston, providing a landing pad for other touring trans and queer artists. Getting into the studio and recording an album just never quite made it to the top of the list for years, but I’m so glad that I finally did.

In a recent interview you said that for you “music and activism have always been inextricably linked”. Many people believe the two should be separated, that the arts shouldn’t be political. Shouts is about exploring these two things just as well as the idea of journalism and activism being linked. What’s your take on all of this?

The whole “just stick to music” narrative is based in a false concept of “neutrality.” There is no such thing as a-political art. There is art that challenges the status quo, and art that doesn’t. We’re living in a deeply unjust world with ongoing and active state violence, growing white supremacy, and we’re on the verge of a climate catastrophe.

The choices we make about what type of art to make in this moment in history are political choices, whether we like it or not. That doesn’t mean that every single piece of art needs to be an overt form of protest — it just means that we shouldn’t pretend that art is somehow detached from society or our collective human experiences.

Six Strings is very straight forward, deeply honest and uncomfortably sad. Do you play this song live and if so what kind of emotions does it bring out on stage? 

“Uncomfortably sad,” is the review I was looking for with this tune 😉 I do occasionally play it live. When I do I actually introduce it as a bit of a comedic song. It’s a snapshot of one of those moments when you just feel so, so down, when everything feels pointless and you can’t see your way out of the hole.

I don’t feel that way most of the time, so it’s kind of neat as a songwriter to have been able to create this piece of art that captures how I felt in one of those moments. It’s a good way to remind myself and others that when we get to that place, it will pass. In some ways it’s a song about resilience, because in the end, we move past it.

The song also made me think of the guitar as a living creature – do you have a special guitar, the one you’d bring out of a burning house and if so, why that one?

I have a trusty Taylor that I’ve dragged all over the world, played at hundreds of shows, and that I’ve had to rescue from teargas filled streets at a protest at least once. I love that guitar, but honestly I’m pretty utilitarian about musical instruments.

I’ve never really been a gear head. I’ve done a lot of touring in both the US and Europe by bus and train, and I often don’t bring my own guitar with me — I’ll work with the show organizer to borrow a guitar in each city, playing a different one every night. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re pretty beat up. I kind of like the challenge of finding each guitar’s voice.

For me the focus at a show is always about the connection with the audience, not about creating the exact same sound every night. 

Children’s Song is a humorous, yet very powerful song, and it could just as well have been called ACAB. Why do you think there is such a problem with the police state today in your country?

Modern policing in the United States is an extension of hundreds of years of structural white supremacy dating back to slavery. The primary role that the prison system and police violence plays in our society isn’t public safety, it’s social control. I try to teach my kid that this is not about individual police or whether they’re good people or bad people, it’s about the system itself, which is designed to uphold unjust power structures.

Going back a bit, your tour diary from 2015 is an absolutely brilliant read and hugely inspiring. How important was it to tour Europe with your friends and kids? Is this the new standard for future tours?

Parenting is punk rock. There are lots of musicians out there raising kids. But often this isn’t really visible. Our pop culture conception of touring artists is that they’re all in their 20s and party hard after every show. Touring with our kids, and documenting it so other parents can see, was a cool way to push for more visibility.

Can you tell me how the creative process was different while making/recording this album from 2009’s Never Surrender? What did Taina Asili and Gaetano Vaccaro bring to the process?

I’m totally not a studio musician and I never really have been. But when I write songs I hear them with full instrumentation and studio polish. My live versions are my best attempts to approximate that with just myself and a guitar. Going into the studio has always been stressful for me — something about the permanence of recording music makes me feel like I’m never going to get it good enough to match that thing that I heard in my head when I first wrote the song.

But Taina and Gaetano’s expertise helped so much. They’re brilliant musicians and amazing friends. Sometimes the role they played was very concrete: adding harmony vocals, electric guitars, and bass.

Other times it was more like therapy — helping me figure out what I wanted when even I wasn’t sure. In the end, the album is special because it’s different from what I heard in my head when I wrote the songs. It’s a living breathing project that evolved over the course of a few years, with help from an awesome array of guest artists that shaped the sound.

A question I often ask political rappers is how they balance between the message and the flow. Do you ever experience a conflict between the words you want to use and how they fit into the song?

Yes this can happen. One thing that’s been helpful for me is to realize that not everything I want to express politically needs to be a song. I’ve started writing a lot more opinion pieces for outlets like The Guardian or Washington Post, or scripts for short videos, or infographics and other types of creative projects.

If you could have any artist, living or dead, featured on your next album who’d be your top 3 picks?

Hah. Tough one. Honestly it was a huge deal for me having Chris #2 from Anti-Flag and legendary riot-grrrrl cellist Bonfire Madigan play on she/her/they/them. Let’s go with: guest feature from Janelle Monae, guitar shredding from Sister Loretta Tharpe, and Keith Moon on the drums.

When you need someone else’s music to inspire your fighting spirit, what do you listen to? Any active, contemporary protest musicians, or not, that you want to throw a shout out?

Too many to name. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of indie pop punk stuff like Worriers, Potty Mouth, Sad13, Aye Nako, etc. I’ll also never stop loving stuff like Rilo Kiley and Sleater Kinney. When I need political inspiration I’m all about Ana Tijoux, Shadia Mansour, Calle 13, La Santa Cecilia, Chumbawamba, Saul Williams. I’ve also been loving the other artists on my label, Don Giovanni Records, like Mal Blum, Screaming Females, Bad Moves, and Waxahatchee. And then I just listen to a ton of radical artists from my broader community like Taina Asili, Climbing Poetree, bells roar, Sihasin, and Anjimile.

What is on the horizon for you?

The future is always unwritten. For the foreseeable future I’ll likely continue to balance my music with full time activist work, so I’ll probably still put out new songs here and there and do some occasional shows and short tours, but I’m not likely to be back on the road 300+ days a year anytime soon. And I’m okay with that.

For me music has always been an outlet for work that I wanted to do. The longer I make music and do the work, the more I see how the pieces fit together.

5 Fresh Feminist Albums For The Summer

So far, 2019 has delivered some great protest albums. In order to filter through the music a bit here’s a short list of some brilliant feminist, riot grrrl, powerful albums that dropped just in time for some summer fun and protest!


Post Modern Siren by Peach Club

“Never thought of my feelings
Only ever of your own
You know it’s not quite appealing
Living in your own little world

Pain was all you had to offer
Your sad little life I had to suffer
You made me yours and I don’t want that
I just want my fucking life back

So don’t tell me what to do
‘Cause I don’t belong to you
And you don’t have my trust
And you don’t have my love

I’m not your girl
I’m not your world
I’m not your anything
I am a person
I’ve got more worth than you
Ever show

I just want to forget every fucking word you said”

– from Not Ur Girl


she/her/they/them by Evan Greer

For her first album in a decade Evan Greer teams up with veteran protest musician as producer and comes out guns a blazing although in a very, soft, acoustic caring kind of way. A beautiful album you shouldn’t miss.


How Am I Not Myself? by French Vanilla

A fantastic sophomore album from the funky band. They are on their way to create their own sound which is as welcomed as it is hard. Keep your eyes on this band.


Cut & Stitch by Petrol Girls

“The majority of the lyrics were written in the studio. I was having a difficult time, unsure about where to live after we finished the record, and burnt out from a tough year of personal and legal challenges. Something that I’ve reluctantly allowed feminism to teach me is that we have to tend to our own wounds, and that sometimes being vulnerable is just as radical as being angry – it certainly scares me a lot more. Rage on its own isn’t sustainable. We hope this is a more honest and human record.  “

– from the introduction ben Ren Aldridge on the band’s Bandcamp page.


Swearing Is Caring by Misbehavin’ Maidens

“Nerd folk comedy band comprised of four women from the Washington, DC / Baltimore area with a love of sex-positive music, parodies, drinking & fandom references for 18+ geeks. 3rd album, “Swearing is Caring,” now available!”

– from the band’s Bandcamp page.