John Murry and Tim Mooney (Photo: Jude Mooney)
John Murry, a Tupelo, Mississippi native who moved to Oakland ten years ago after getting his start in the music industry in Memphis, released his Graceless Age LP last week domestically via the Evangeline Recording Company, the label owned and operated by his wife, Lori. The album, which is Murry's solo debut, was released last fall in the UK, where it received a great deal of attention and placement on year-end lists.
It's been a long ride for Murry. Shortly after moving to the Bay Area from Memphis, an addiction to pain pills led to a separation from his wife and daughter. The separation led to a heroin addiction, which led to an overdose in the Mission that nearly killed Murry and is recounted in the epic "Little Colored Balloons".
Despite the gloomy foundation for the album, Murry found redemption. Eventually, he cleaned up and was reunited with his wife and daughter, who both appear in the video for "California", where he explains, "I swear it ain't you, it's California I can't stand." In fact, Graceless Age is more about Murry's love for his wife and daughter and his quest for redemption than it is about his drug use. The most powerful moments on the album take place when he is seeking or discovering that redemption, such as the moment in "Balloons" where he cries out to his wife, "I miss you so goddam much," the uplifting outro on "Things We Lost in the Fire", or the key change toward the end of "Southern Sky".
I could spend all day talking about how much I enjoyed Graceless Age or going into detail on his story, but you can learn all about that from his features on NPR's Here and Now, The Wall Street Journal, or The London Times. Plus, Murry has an awful lot to say that's worth hearing. Just like on his albums, a conversation with Murry is wildly entertaining, deeply philosophical, and brutally honest. Some highlights of our conversation are below.
The Bay Bridged: Could you talk about producer Tim Mooney’s impact on the album?
John Murry: I don’t think that any of this would exist in the least if it weren’t for Tim, in any form. It’s fair to say that the time that we did that, the condition that I was in was kind of beyond the condition that anyone would tolerate in any environment, and Tim was very much a lifeline and he was easily my best friend. I think all of that factors into what he did and why it’s sort of difficult to explain really what he did, because what Tim really did was sort of created a way for me and him to work together and sort of sonically...and he allowed me to lyrically say what I wanted to say but to find the textural elements and the sonic foundation...to sort of transmit it. I know that if Tim were still here and the world were maybe the world that Tim and I liked, we’d still be working on that record. I really liked that, and it was kind of a world that we got sucked into really easily – the world of waiting until you find these brilliant mistakes or these sounds that sound like they haven’t been created before or a way to break the box without anybody knowing that what they’re looking at are fragments. We spent a lot of time doing that.
After his death I’ve tried to work with a lot of folks and I’ve realized that there was this way that we were able to communicate through music with one another and I really didn’t know the depth of what he had given, both to that record and to me until after he was gone. That record is as much Tim’s record as it is mine, just because he taught me in creating that record how to do what I do, and it’s by default an extension of what Tim learned to do from a number of people, but it’s also sort of doing it with me - he just gave me a lot.
Tim Mooney was someone who will always be completely and utterly misunderstood because people like Tim don’t exist these days much any more. He cared far more about other people than himself, but he never made it appear to be that way, he never gave that appearance - he would take on other people's problems or their burdens and he would allow himself at times to let himself look like. He would take an uncle role at the studio and it was kind of phenomenal but he quite literally the more I opened up to him the more space he gave me...sort of sonically to do the same and it became the most truly collaborative thing I’ve ever done. What’s so phenomenal about it is that it remains so personal and collaborative. It’s a strange record for that reason.
TBB: Why did it take so long for the album to be released domestically?
JM: Yeah, not because I felt like it had to have a label over here. I’ve watched labels drop friends and I’ve watched the money come and go, and I think the only way to do it in the United States any more is to quit paying attention to what white people do in music. Well, they’re not making any money. I mean I’m seeing the desperation in the Mission every time I go to people’s shows, but I don’t see that as often in hip hop as I do in rock and roll. I know a lot of people that can play a hell of a lot better than me, so I just started thinking, “it’s probably smarter to hold onto the rights in the US,” but I didn’t sign to a European label because the label I was on passed on the current record. So I sent it to a reviewer (Nick West) to see if it was worth trying to send it to a label or move on and try to do something else, and he said it was worth it. So two years go by and nobody will put it out, and now some of the labels that have passed on it have come back off and said they would, and I just said, “fuck you.”
TBB: Is the album chronological in any way?
JM: I think there’s kind of an element of it that is...not in a timeline kind of chronology, it’s almost like a spatial or sonic chronology..."Ballad of the Pajama Kid" starts the record and the Bobby Whitlock cover ends it, and everything that happens in between is sort of a chronology of the emotionality of the time. And it was an intent, and we really tried to create a way to do that, and create the segues between songs so that there would be this kind of cohesive element beyond just the story arc.
We talked a great deal about the state of modern indie rock, which Murry says should now be called "disco", but we discovered we both enjoyed Father John Misty’s 'Fear Fun', which led John to explain how he approaches songwriting:
JM: My favorite records provide these images, these things that last or that stick with me, at least beyond the song itself. I have a difficult time detaching...a lot of the stories, the images that I see in my own thoughts, and the images that are created when I listen to a song for the first time or when I work on something and generally when I’m writing I’m just trying to create something that has the strength to have an image, or that there is an image inherent...as it is in the picture, there is a picture that is bigger than the words are, and that’s what I think that Fear Fun does so well, there’s a wold to be lived in inside the record, and you can hear it and you can feel it...it’s more than just a record. All I wanted to do was try once to create a world inside a record...to create a sense of place and maybe a little a bit of claustrophobic sense of place, but at the same time a place that was claustrophobic enough but could also kind of said..."here’s a blanket and some warm milk, too"...like it’s okay, you know.
Murry brought up Misty's line in "I'm Writing a Novel" where he asks Neil Young, "what was your name again?":
JM: That's hilarious. When was the last time Neil Young made a good record? I don’t know! It’s been a long fucking time!...Why take advice from Neil Young? Neil Young needs to take advice...I keep waiting for the next great Neil Young record and I keep getting let down, and I’m like, “Damnit!” I want to hear Neil Young, not this weird version of Neil Young. When I heard that he quit smoking pot I was like, “oh, maybe that’s it,” but then somebody said he quit smoking pot before he made Psychadelic Pill and I was like “Dammit, that’s not it – he should start smoking pot again.” Really the problem with Neil Young is that all he’s got around him is a bunch of yes men. So I’ve intentionally surrounded myself with a bunch of “no people.”
TBB: Who are your “no people” now?
JM: My wife. [laughs] It affects my family so my wife is really involved in the decision making, but they’re not “no people," really. Chuck Prophet doesn’t lie to me. He tells me when I’m doing something stupid or when I’m showing my hand, or when I’m acting like an idiot. Carlos Forster....is just an incredible guy, but as far as the business side goes, I don’t trust any of those people. I really don’t think you can. I’ve done it before and I was told not too long ago: the music business is the most crooked and most desperate and most ridiculous business in the world, but the reality is that at the end of the day it doesn’t exist without the music. And sadly, all of those people don’t make the music, so they can’t stop us. You’ve gotta beware of mother fuckers like me who don’t have nothing, because we do not have anything to lose! So, I’m not gonna play the game, and I don’t have the game and I can just make fun of the game, and in doing that, it’s kind of refreshing in a way. It’s refreshing to me to not have to play it. I mean it’s probably nice to not hear the same bullshit that you hear in every other [interview].
On his release show:
JM: I wonder...will it be like every other thing in the Mission? Probably. There’ll probably be like 30 people there. Or, I could be completely wrong. People keep telling me I’m wrong, and I keep being proven wrong...sometimes...I don’t know...it’s like terribly confusing. I hope like 20 people show up. That would be a Make-Out Room record. If like 13 people came instead of 11, that’d be amazing.
On the dark theme on the surface of the album:
JM: There’s an absolute darkness to it, but there’s an insistence and a hopefulness (I hope), and there’s some kind of salvatory element too because I feel like I’ve been given...just to be able to talk about this stuff, and to be able to create a record about it...I’m being given kind of a second chance as a human being, as a dad, and a husband, and I don’t know that I could do any better than that.
Murry will be performing an album release show this Sunday at The Make-Out Room, with support from Bob Frank, another Memphis transplant who released two albums of murder ballads with Murry several years ago. I have a feeling more than 13 people will show up, so you may want to get there early. You can stream Graceless Age and see the video for "California" below.
John Murry, Bob Frank
April 14, 2013