Peter Murphy’s Existential State. A Long Interview with the ex-Bauhaus Singer and Solo Artist
by Sean Nelson • Apr 6, 2016 at 11:33 am
Even if the name Peter Murphy isn’t familiar, you’re certain to have heard his voice booming through the echoes of his old band Bauhaus’s statement of purpose, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” You may also know “Cuts You Up,” the hit from his fantastic 1990 solo album, Deep. The former is guaranteed a certain immortality because it’s the definitive goth gateway drug, but the latter is a better song, and both are just the twin tips of a very big iceberg. Murphy has amassed a near-40 year career, and his recent albums (especially 2014’s Lion) are full of dark vigor, urgent energy, and mystical swoon. His voice is stronger than ever.
Murphy is playing two shows TONIGHT at the Triple Door, at 7:30 and 10pm. (The first one sold out quickly, so a late show was added, for which some tickets remain.) The current tour is called Stripped, and features songs from throughout his career liberated from the electronic and symphonic rock arrangements in which they appeared on his records. He spoke to me from a hotel room in Los Angeles (funny to think of Peter Murphy in a Sheraton, or indeed anywhere in the mundane, corporeal world—a subject we address in the interview). His voice was sonorous AF.
I wanted to ask you about your regimen for vocal preservation. I first saw you play in 1991, and saw you most recently in 2011. I’ve always loved your voice but in revisiting your recent records I’m struck more than anything by how strong the singing is. Stronger than ever, maybe. Do you have a discipline?
I don’t have a discipline. I’ll tell you that I do tend to rest it a lot. As you can hear, I’ve got a very deep baritone tone in my speaking voice. In a sense I’m actually quite lazy if you look at it from the point of view of practice and warming up and stuff like that. Once I get on tour, I’ll be rehearsing and practically working my voice for two weeks or so before the rehearsals… I am aware that I need to—I know how it works. It’s my instrument. So, during the tour, it goes through certain phases in the early parts and then the muscles gets strong and the diaphragm gets strong. I do realize that at that point that’s where the physical maintenance is important. I do rehearse, by singing and everything else but also health. General health affects it as much as anything else.
Thanks for your compliment. I love to sing and that’s what I do. I write and I’m a composer, you know, lyrics and everything else. For me, what I do is to express what I do lyrically in a sort of a voice that evokes something else. Other than just the literal. The words on the paper as it were.
You’ve been touring a lot the past few years. When write new songs, are you thinking about how they’re going to fare as live performances?
I came from a very impromptu, sort of spontaneous workshop group whereby we would write on the spot. That gave me the reassurance and the standing of enjoyment of playfulness and diving in. Letting go of the intellectual’s mindset. I am a very contemplative sort of observer type although I’m very sociable and very vocal with a group. I do live a more withdrawn—not a hermetical or depressive or inverted—lifestyle or personality. I am a very outwardly quiet person. I’ve always … See, it’s difficult to talk from myself because you get these impressions from the exterior of who you are, but my natural sense in comparison to others around me is that my nature is one of contemplation. If I look at my impressions and my thought forms or whatever and then tap into that, something’s always there.
To answer your question more directly: When I start to write, I don’t think of melody or song or form of a musical element. I start to write word for word’s sake and play with that as it’s happening. It tends to be very fast and very natural. It’s something I do quite easily in a way. It comes very easily to me, very fast. As does the composition of and application of words to a piece of music. I often come up with my vocal compositional elements almost in one or two takes. I can hear it happening as it happens. It’s kind or very much doing that conduit.
Musically, I tend to withdraw a bit on that because I never thought of myself as a musician. I didn’t learn an instrument but I realized how much musicality I do have. When I do sit down with an instrument, I can pick it up and even if I’ve got three or four chords or something. That’s enough, in a sense.
It’s an oh so lovely idea and that’s what I think we come from. We’ve been … Our generation … Very influenced by that oblique sort of playfulness, that so-called “experimentalism,” though it wasn’t experimental. Brian Eno, those early albums or whatever. Non-sequitur elements of words that that may sound nonsense but it makes sense.
Playfulness is important. Over my albums, I always like to shift from say one—I don’t like to call it “genre”—one type of rhythm or speed or style, as it were, to a very open, kind of almost non-musical-but-it-still-works-somehow-once-the-vocal’s-in-it sort of piece. So on Lion, the album, just as an example, you go from “Hangup” to “The Rose.”
Those two cover a lot of ground.
They’re not related actually, those songs. Sometimes writing very quickly, we write deeper. With [producer/collaborator] Youth, I wrote that album in nine days from scratch. That gives you a vibrancy and a kind of feel that that you do resonate with as you listen. Yeah, the listener’s important in the end because you’ve got to let it go.
If you like the analogy of a song being a snapshot in time of a particular idea… Well, when you come to do it live, this approach I’m taking right now—I’m taking very big, symphonic pieces now, often, into bare bones. Which is terrifying, really, for musicians who walk on stage. I’m not worried about it at all. I just love to be—not on an edge, as it were, in terms of angst… I’m confident that if it’s sung again or performed with a certain soul with that intention, it speaks still.
You get to revisit those songs. Once you’ve let them go and they’re printed, as it were—a listener has that in his possession—well then live is an entire new chance to do it again, actually. Live, which is, once again, redone, as it were. Re-performed, as it were. Even though you may not change the structure or the arrangement, it has to be, by definition, rewritten, in a sense. It’s a waste of time carbon copying.
You might as well ride a bicycle down the road.
It suggests a very different approach to the idea of meaning. When you said that you like to write words for their own sake, for the sound of them—
Yes, partly. Once I write, there is a definite consciousness of what I’m writing about. I like to describe it in a way that is—and write it prose-like, almost, I suppose. I’ve got an abstract mind in that sense. It’s not a stylistic strategy to confound the listener. It’s the opposite: The way that I’m expressing a certain idea that often very unseen notions or ideas or ways of describing something coming from behind rather than straight at a person. The voicing is important, too. But when I read words alone, often I think, they stand alone. Once they’re sung and voiced, that’s an entirely different thing. It’s kind of… It gives it beauty. It’s almost like giving it four dimensions rather than two dimensions, you know.
The song “Holy Clown” on Lion seems like a good illustration of that principle. The song, struck me as being a kind of dialog with yourself, about some of the more oblique, or kind of artful, elements of the creative impulse, and the far earthier desire to stand on a stage and do a show for people.
That’s it, but there’s an element—I was reading a piece of critical thinking quite randomly. I don’t go around looking for critical thinking. It was something that somebody emailed me, just no relation to anything. It was interesting but it talked about how the seers or the shamen or the spiritual martyrs in all societies down the ages have been sort of cloaked in normality. They’re cloaked in the mundane. They’re hidden, as it were. They’re never extrovert in their sort of circle of wisdom or whatever.
So, for instance, the joker in the court of the king, the jester, he’s the wisest one. He’s actually the closest advisor to the king with his wisdom but he cloaks it in jest, in absurdity. He cloaks it in a way that is not confrontational and is not attached. I really liked that idea so I thought “the holy clown.” That’s another aspirant. It’s also a great phrase that works from that more deeper meaning to a much more populist, sort of jestful in a way. You know what I mean? It’s very… It’s not obvious what it’s about. Something resonates about it.
It is a good phrase, good title.
Of course, musically, there we go: When I got together with Youth, we had nothing planned. Although, Youth had thought about what he wanted to do with Peter Murphy and was dedicated to what this project might be. He was very open in that sense and very considerate of that. We threw ourselves into… Almost like throwing ourselves off a cliff. And Youth wouldn’t let me review. Which I consented to. Because he was right, because he saw that it worked, immediately.
How do you mean, “review”?
He wouldn’t let me think too much. Obviously, when I’m doing it, I’m aware of what I’m doing. One knows when it’s a good take, as it were. That sort of fine art of get the best take rather than construct it for a year, you know. Rather than get the best edit, get the best performance. At the end of the day you’d have three pieces done.
Do you work quickly when you record?
Yeah, I do. I’m very impatient in that sense. That’s why I really enjoyed working with Youth. It was quick. Not that I wanted to get it over with but it’s in there. I do have to be pulled back sometimes. I can think too much and one can think too much. That’s when things get a little bit over-analyzed and you lose the boil.
In 40 years of making music with Bauhaus and as a solo artist, your body of work has become a very substantial, big bunch of records. There’s a lot of music there, which I’ve kept up with it over the years—
It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
You’ve been helping me feed my children.
Well, I do what I can. I wonder, looking back, if the songs and albums of yours that are the most beloved by your fans and your audience correspond to the ones that you love the most? Or it there are any that have sort of slipped through the cracks for you.
There’s such a lot of songs that I’ve played over the years, it’s one of those things where you do get into a certain pattern. I’ve toured a lot this past five years and it’s kind of to the point where the Bauhaus thing spelt itself out. But with my own work, it’s down to what the band know and also, perhaps, a few other ones. When I listen back to albums, I lose perspective. For me, a lot of things are old. I also know that the band necessarily wouldn’t get their heads around a certain thing without a lot of pre-production on it.
For instance, a song like “Socrates and Python” and say “Never Man,” I’d need to spend more time with getting that organized before I bring musicians onto it. I know that sounds like a bit over the top but actually, I also design a set with the practical things I’ve got in hand, too. Because I live in Turkey. I don’t have the resources to sit around and make pre-production. Which I should do. There are songs that I’ve got ready-made stems for, just shapes. There’s a repertoire that my band know. I extend that often, but it tends to be—mostly, I think that they’re the songs that work in terms of a set order and performance of a show.
And you’re right. One does think back over the years. Like in the early days, I used to do some really long pieces and I do enjoy doing it. I’m doing this on this tour, actually. Obviously, this is really breaking stuff down to essentials and seeing what’s in there. Like it or not, it might fall on its face. I don’t think so because I’m always there to sing and I love to sing, so… I don’t think many people could do this. It’s not just an acoustic show.
It’s you and two other players?
Yeah. They’ve got to work. The songs have to work in a way. It does give me as a vocalist this space where the audience is going to hear it and if it doesn’t work, it’s not going to work. You know? It can’t be closed behind that sort of wall of arrangement.
That brings me back to the question of your voice and how it has served you and held up over the years. If the show is called “Stripped,” it suggests that the voice is necessarily foregrounded.
That’s really what I do. That’s what I am, really. That’s how I live. That’s what I do. That’s my existential sort of state, you know? I’m a singer. I know this sounds kind of crass to say that because there are a million singers out there but, for me, when I hear a singer, with a capital “S,” that’s when it knocks the ball out of the park. And many can sing along, as it were.
Who are some other capital “S” singers?
Well, I don’t quite know how to— It’s very difficult because I’m not one to really criticize and preach about anybody. When I heard the first Antony and the Johnsons album I thought, “Oh, there’s a singer. Thank God for that.” You’re just magnetized by listening to that voice. Well, Elvis had that, didn’t he? Elvis. Bowie certainly had that in the early days. In the early days, of course, up until 1982 or whatever. Something there was, obviously the music and songs and themes and image and everything else, but there was a voice there that drew you in. If it wasn’t the case, it wouldn’t have completed the circle. It would have just become some bloke dressing up looking beautiful like a woman and now a very asexual, beautiful, and theatrical but there wouldn’t have been—It would just be Slade or the Sweet. You know what I mean?
It’s like calling Bowie “glam rock.” Not at all.
Glam rock should be so lucky!
Totally. That’s why I have a contention with calling me “goth.” It’s like calling Peter Murphy “goth.” [laughter] That’s a bit narcissistic today. I shouldn’t say that. Somebody else should say that.
This actually brings up an interesting subject: Everybody talks about how the music business has changed, but one of the biggest changes lies in the relationship of artists to their audience. There seems to be an increased expectation of accessibility of the artist. Even in terms of being around after the show to shake hands and meet people.
You’re quite right. Yes.
I wonder how that affects the element of mystique which has always been very important in rock music. I think, maybe, particularly in your work.
No, you’re talking my language. I understand totally what you’re talking about. I think, if I do … When I started to do VIPs [after-show meet and greet sessions], it wasn’t like, “Oh, let’s get some people in there.” It’s like, if I meet them, I meet the person. I want to show them that if there’s a mystique, look, “you’re right here now. Yes, it is here.” But it’s kind of like a wake up moment, too. When I met one of my musical heroes, I realized that what I’d created of them was my own. It degenerated from that source and there was that person in front of me. I was actually thinking while they were talking to me, “look at the pasty skin, those teeth…” Wait a minute, what’ve I done? In my generation, all you had was the music and a few images.
One always knows it’s not important to meet anybody, really. One knows that inside. It’s you that does that. One has to accept the audience is their creation. That doesn’t actually devalue the mystique of the source, of the person, of the artist as it were, because that’s important. He’s a catalyst. He embodies that, voices it, brings it into being. It fires up generation. That’s what art is. I know this is getting into more subtle sort of spiritual… but it becomes a unifying action to meet somebody. I don’t mind.
But I totally agree with you. There is a mystique. One mustn’t affect that. There must be what people call “charisma” or “presence.” That presence has its own quality and that quality is determined by the work and the quality of the artist. I think it’s important to keep a mystique with the audience without being secretive or pretentious or aloof. Be charming and actually the performance continues there, because I’m still in front of my audience. I’ve got a responsibility. I’m not going to tell them I made eggs this morning unless it’s hilarious.