By Steve Stav, for Pandomag, Seattle, 2000.
Searingly powerful and eerily seductive, Peter Murphy's hypnotic voice has been on public display for twenty years now. While it would have been easy to become a caricature of his famous "persona noir" more than a decade ago, Murphy continued to musically distance himself from his beginnings as Bauhaus' frontman; albums such as Love Hysteria (1988), Deep (1990), and, more recently, Cascade (1995) blended a certain languid exoticism with the erotic intensity he developed early on in his career.
On the heels of a wildly successful Bauhaus reunion jaunt and a mesmerizing solo "greatest hits" tour, the Dark Prince is back - and still in a retrospective mood; Murphy's new venture -- a "stripped-down" performance with two accompanists -- is a dive into the black, rarely-tapped well of his early solo material, with the Gothic icon collecting sonic bits from more recent years on his way back to the surface.
Two weeks into the tour, on Nov. 10, the surprisingly self-effacing and expectedly eloquent singer candidly discussed this bold new step, the inspiration for it, and the nightly encounters with his fans... and their expectations of him.
SS: I understand that this tour is quite a departure from past performances. Was the popularity of your acoustic encores part of the motivation for a stripped-down show?
Murphy: Yes, it was. It was the first time, during the last tour, that I really played any of my songs in a very stripped-down version. The songs had a very different quality to them; I wanted to go on a low profile tour, and "re-approach" my back catalogue, as it is, with that approach.
I'm previewing some new material that I've been working on this year, and particularly the songs that I've been writing with Mercan Dede, he's a Turkish musician who works in Montreal. It's almost like I've been exploring (while) working with him because, for one thing, he has a great knowledge of traditional Turkish music, but on the other hand, he's like a... DJ. There's a very interesting cross-breed between an ethnic-organic-acoustic approach with a lot of electronica effects which is something that I’ve incorporated into my work in the past... though not on such an overt, "trancy" level, I suppose.
So, it's really a natural continuation, if you like, on the kind of atmospheres and textures that I've worked with in the past, which have tried to blend that "Turkish" atmosphere with a technological approach. Those two songs ("Just For Love," "No Home Without Its Sire") are basically songs that we threw together during a three-day writing session, and they worked out so well, that I wanted to put them out now. They're in an early, sketchy form now, and have fuller arrangements.
Most of the other material [on the tour] is very... naked. This is almost like a busking tour... I've got Peter DiStefano, who was the guitarist on the last tour, and an extraordinary violin player, Hugh Marsh. I'm really adding textures - replacing atmospheres, the soundscapes that occur in the original songs, stripping them to their essential forms. It's not exactly "unplugged," but I wanted to prove to the audience, and to myself, that without the artifice and decoration around a concert, that it can work and be just as powerful without them.
SS: I felt that those encores [during the Wild Birds tour] were the most intense aspect of the show.
Murphy: I was feeling that, also. It was kind of like meeting the audience "face-on"... it was very, very strong, in that sense. I'm glad you saw that, too. So this is really trying to extend that "space"... the only risk, of course, was could I make it work over an hour an a half? That was a challenge... a month ago, we started rehearsing. We rehearsed for ten days, just the three of us getting together, making it work and exploring. I probably had about thirty songs that I possibly was going to play, and some of them I just wasn't comfortable playing without fuller arrangements. The ones that I've distilled out of all that happen to be songs that I've rarely played, or played early on in my solo career -- so there a real freshness to the show, and it's a... contemplative one, as well.
SS: So we're going to hear a real violin play "Cuts You Up."
Murphy: Yeah, Hugh is a virtuoso, basically. I would say he's like the Michael Brooke of the violin, in that he's an experimentalist -- he likes to treat the violin, process it. He can switch from traditional violin to any sound he wants. As does Peter DiStefano, I mean he's not only playing guitar, but he's sometimes playing piano along with the guitar. He's creating all of these interesting, undulating sort of sounds. We're all experimenting quite a bit. And then, of course, you've just got me in the middle of it... the songs with no theatrical trappings, if you will. So, I'm not really able to hide anywhere [laughs]. It has a real "precipice" feeling to it -- it could fall apart, or it could be really wonderful. There's that danger to it... which I think the audience really feels, too. I've tried to communicate the nature of the performance to the audience before the show -- through the press. But obviously people are going to come and kind of expect more of a "rock show," if you like. It's interesting to see the audience not leave, actually [laughs].
SS: It seems that your voice will be focused upon more than ever. Did you grow up singing, or is that something you had to be coaxed into?
Murphy: Singing was like a therapy for me, and I guess it's still a therapy. As a child, I would sing all of the time, and search out harmonies, listening to my favorite records. Of course, the family was a great singing family. My father would sing -- being an Irishman -- and as the youngest of seven children, I had a lot of brothers and sisters who would play everything from Doris Day to Elvis, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the whole British explosion of the Sixties. I was surrounded by music... I remember singing at school, on the way to school, at home, everywhere.
And, of course, when we're playing live... the other point you brought up. For years, people have told me I should do very "minimal" music, with more voice arrangements, because there's always been a great comment on the quality of my voice... which I take as a great complement. Definitely, this tour has really been giving me a platform, an opportunity for the audience to hear what I sound like [laughs] over and above the arrangements. It's like a showcase -- either way -- as to whether I can really pull it off, it's like I'm proving -- either way -- whether I'm a singer or not. There is a lot of texture to my voice, I do play around with range, tones and harmony a lot -- perhaps people get this subliminally by listening to the albums, but here you'll be actually hearing the real thing.
SS: I saw Bryan Ferry attempt a similar feat very successfully earlier this year, with the vocals way out in front...
Murphy: Was that with the album he just put out?
SS: Yeah, the jazz album [As Time Goes By].
Murphy: I saw him do that on the Jools Holland show, he was brilliant. I also saw him play at the Istanbul Jazz Festival [last July], where I also played. I think it worked very well, he had full arrangements -- violins, horns, percussion. I was really happy for him... there was something very genuine about it... he was doing it because he wanted to do it.
SS: Was Ryuichi Sakamoto's perfornance at that festival an inspiration for this "minimalist" tour?
Murphy: It's very interesting that you've brought up Sakamoto. I didn't know what to expect... it was kind of a jazz/electronica/modern experimentalist/avant-garde show, with an ethnic aspect to it, which was quite amazing. Sakamoto is very much an intellectual, but it didn't come across as "dry" at all. His Music has that very Japanese inner quality, that "stillness" that works very well. I could never compare myself to someone like Sakamoto, because basically I'm a working-class post-punk... my stuff's "beautifully inept," if you like, my work is a sort of reflex. I really loved that show, and I wanted to meet him afterwards, but I'm too shy to go and say hello [laughs]. Whether he had an influence on me or not, I don't know... it proved to me this sort of thing can work. Also, working with my wife, she's a choreographer -- she's the artistic director of a modern dance company in Turkey. I'm involved in a lot of her work - and have been for years -- and having this theater to come and watch, be a spectator of, there's a lot of great inspiration I get from watching her company perform.
SS: You have a trademarked method of commanding an audience, but those who saw you perform last year had an occasional glimpse of your lighter side -- has your attitude towards performing changed?
Murphy: It changes according to the moment, in a sense. I'm definitely attempting to strip away the conscious artifice of the theatrical event... so my approach has been to consciously walk out alone, and put myself on the line without the histrionic and vital power of a band. It's something I'm walking through now, and feeling out; it's like that emptiness forces me to pull something out, without having to resort to the pure use of... charismatic power, if you like. [laughing] So, it's kind of very funny process, it's a very psycho-dramatic process, it's kind of like "I must be mad to do this," but at the same time, it's clearing my head. So my approach changes according to the nature of the show that I'm putting on, because there's a big part of me that is an actor, and I get into the role. Although, it's an unspoken, undefined sort of a role, it's kind of all about reacting to an audience, and the terror and the madness and the...audacity of walking onto a stage and assuming that people are going to listen to you.
SS: You're almost like a lion tamer onstage. I remember a woman screaming, propositioning you to father her children during a "quiet moment" -- it was in Sacramento, on the Holy Smoke tour. You stopped the band, and told her to shut up...
Murphy: [chuckles] There is that definite interaction with an audience. There is a lot of projected expectation of me. In Bauhaus, I was a lion tamer, in a sense. I mean, we were playing to audiences in England in the early days, where it was a riot, basically. We were never punk rockers, and we were dealing with an audience that was sort of pushing us to be violent and to be anarchic, and we weren't exactly that; we were like a sort of bizarre cabaret, which was like a mix of glam-rock casualties and art-rock, art-experimental rockers, more akin to what Bjork is basically about nowadays, or Tricky, whatever. And we were confronted by a complete, raging spitting machine; I'd walk off literally dripping with slime from the spit of the audience, which was their way of complementing me [chuckles]... and we weren't going to take that.
So I developed this sort of ... it's interesting for you to say that "lion tamer " a tamer of wild animals [laughs]. There wasn’t that confrontational aspect ... when I'm up there, I'm also baring myself completely, and I can feel the projected expectations from some of the audience -- not all of them -- that have been influenced by what I've done in the past. So, I'm sort of playing with it but rejecting it, resisting it, trying to find my own space... part of that is actually talking to the audience and reacting. You know, I may be on the stage, but I'm with you in that hall and I'm part of the collective there.
SS: I've pulled two songs out of the hat. How were "A Strange Kind of Love" and "Canvas Beauty" written, what inspired them?
Murphy: "Canvas Beauty" isn't being played... it's the first song I wrote as a solo artist, actually. It almost has no music to it, there's just two chords that jangle in this ambient sort of space, over which I wrote a song on a train, I was on my way to record with Howard Hughes, who was to become my cohort on that first album, Should The World Fail To Fall Apart. It was a continuation of the theme, the character portrayed in The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, and the relationship he has with the actress, Sybil Vane... lyrically, it's a love song about the necessity for a partner in your life to enable you to complete yourself.
SS: And "A Strange Kind of Love?"
Murphy: That song's got a quality to it that's very alluring and very moving -- it's a classic ballad, in a sense. It really relies a lot on... feeling and "state" if you like, the state of emotion in the performance of the song. "A Strange Kind of Love" is [about] the kind of awe that's felt in the safety and the comfort zone of your intimate moment with whomever -- whether it's your lover, your best friend... there's a moment where you feel completely in awe and safe and unified with yourself and that other person... it's almost like the both of you don't exist, there's only that one thing, this sort of “space.”
SS: Your hard-core fans have been clamoring for The Grid for years. What has prevented it from being shown until now, and could you tell me something about the film itself?
Murphy: I never felt it had the quality to it, that it was ready for release; but after Bauhaus' resurrection tour, there's been so much interest in "clearing out" the memorabilia of those days. It's a curious piece of memorabilia for those who have followed my work since then; it isn't a Bauhaus project, it's just a film that I made with my then-girlfriend, Joanna Woodward, the director. It was a handmade thing, made in the spirit of that whole period, where almost everyone was making art, some piece of creativity with no money, no technology. It has a sort of oblique connection with the kind of themes that I've been writing about in my work -- and I guess Bauhaus' work as well -- it also shows me in that very early state ... it was done within six months of Bauhaus' formation. It's quite an oddball, left-of-field, out-there film, really. Some people might hate it, but there will be people that will really get off on it, I think.
SS: So you have a movie as an opening act...
Murphy: Well, it's only 20 minutes long... this show couldn't have an opening act, it's so naked... unless I had just one person doing a magic act or something. I almost thought of having a magician go up there...
SS: Or you could have a real lion tamer up there, getting the crowd under control before you go on...
Murphy: [Laughing] A lion tamer? Yes...
Peter Murphy • Wild Birds 1985-1995: The Best of the Beggars Banquet Years • 2000 • Beggars Banquet Records
Originally published in Pandomag, Seattle, 2000.
copyright 1997-2001, Steve Stav