Tough Questions for Peter Murphy
The Bauhaus frontman and goth-father on vampires, the Cure, and getting used jockstraps from fans.
The ideal setting for a chat with Peter Murphy would be a sepulchre, not a Manhattan sushi bar blaring “Hotel California.” Yet, across the table, the vampiric singer is garrulously discussing David Bowie while slurping miso soup. “The Man Who Sold the World was the first true goth record,” he says. “Listen to it.” Murphy knows the genre well, given that it sprung up around his 1978-83 stint as frontman of Bauhaus, an English quartet remembered as much for the macabre nine-minute “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” as for the decades of postbreakup squabbling.
A triumphant reunion at Coachella 2005 — where Murphy appeared dangling upside down above his microphone — led to a tour and album (2008’s Go Away White), but ended in a meltdown. Now 54 and living in Istanbul, Murphy is talking up Ninth (Nettwerk), a gripping showcase for his haunting baritone.
Your voice has held up nicely. Congrats.
Thank you. I love to sing.
When did you get hooked?
We were Catholics, and so from the early ?stages we would have to sing hymns at mass. The hymns, the incense — high mass was a gig. It was theater.
You certainly know from theatrics. Where does that urge come from?
The first time I saw Bowie, I was 13 and on a school bus. A friend showed me a black-and-white photograph from a proto–Ziggy Stardust show. Bowie was in this kabuki top with no leggings, and I could see just a hint of a testicle. It was a fucking erotic moment.
How exactly does one prepare for performing a nine-minute song while hanging upside down like a bat?
There is a maximum amount of time before you black out; it’s 15 minutes or something. I was okay with that. So I got some hanging boots they use in Pilates exercise, and during rehearsals I got my crossbar set up. The technical difficulty is in the muscles. The vocal muscles are in reverse because of gravity, so you have to teach these new muscles how to sing.
I just noticed that you have a stammer. Have you struggled to overcome it?
With a stammer, you always have to control it. But it’s very difficult, because once you look at it, it’s there. So you can’t really work on it. It’s fear-based. When I was a kid, I would be terrified to go on a bus to ask for a ticket. I could say the word, say it a thousand times, until the moment the woman says, “Yes, where are you going?” But if I didn’t stammer, I wouldn’t sing so well. When I sing, I can speak.
Are you glad you finally have closure with Bauhaus?
What closure? I’m ongoing. There’s no closure. Bauhaus is my family. The difference is now I do Bauhaus in my set. Before I wanted to keep it in its own place, but I’m coming out. They’re my songs and I’m me. Nobody can do it but me. And if the band wants to join me, they’re welcome. You see the shift there?
You’ve been called the Godfather of Goth. What does that make Robert Smith?
Robert Smith is like my pale elder brother, with a no-image vibe when he was in the early Cure. They were an interesting early 4AD [Records] type with no ego, whereas we immediately [hit the scene] saying, “Fuck you — this is the theater of Iggy and Bowie. We’re here.” We spurted. We ejaculated. And in the petit mort, the little death after ejaculation, we split up. Around then, the Cure were obviously losing their caché — and suddenly I see pictures of Robert Smith with high black hair, lipstick, and badly applied eye makeup with black clothes. I’m thinking, Okay, all right, so he’s now goth, right?
It’s so bad to be lumped in with the Cure?
Actually, the Cure were cool. They made very cool alternative pop music. Robert’s bloody talented. It’s just that Joy Division was closer to Bauhaus than anybody else.
Ever hear from Bela Lugosi’s estate?
No, but in 1990 I had a tour stop in L.A. and his daughter asked if she could meet me. She said, “You sang about my father” and she touched me like I was a protector of her father’s life and legacy and conscience — which in a way, I was. It was kind of a David Lynch ?moment, straight from Mulholland Dr.
Please dispel this rumor that I just started right here: You sleep in a coffin.
[Laughs] I never did. But? Bauhaus did own a hearse. We were recording in Wales. We go into the town and we’re walking around and we see this classic 1950s hearse being polished by the undertaker. We go, “We’ve got to have that. Can you imagine having a hearse with our reputation?” So we bought it. We had it cleaned, but it still had the smell of fatality. It wasn’t cool. It was not respectful. There was something wrong with it, like it wasn’t de-sacramented or something. We had to get rid of it. We said, “Well, I guess we’re not goths, after all.”
You must have received a lot of gifts from fans over the years. What’s the weirdest one?
In 1982 we were in Italy and hordes of Italians were going fucking apeshit for us. We’re in a minivan and there’s this crazy, young, nubile tall guy, obviously gay, going “Peter, Peter, Peter! I save this for you! Please have this with you tonight! I know I can’t come be with you, but please have it!” And it’s his jockstrap. It’s, like, well worn and sort of energized with his sweat. I was like, “Thank you so much!”