John Murry first entered Uncut airspace in 2006 with World Without End, the bleakly brilliant album of country death songs he wrote and recorded with Bob Frank. Six years on, Murry has just released his first solo album, The Graceless Age, an album of almost symphonic emotional turmoil, co-produced by late American Music Club drummer Tim Mooney. The songs on the record deal sometimes explicitly with Murry’s heroin addiction, specifically the 10-minute ‘Little Coloured Balloons’, a harrowing account of a near-fatal OD. I reviewed The Graceless Age for the current issue of Uncut and emailed Murry some questions, to which he replied in detail and at illuminating length, as you will see from the fascinating transcript that follows.
UNCUT: What was the starting point for The Graceless Age?
JOHN MURRY: I wanted to exorcise everything I couldn’t tolerate within. I thought that just as I had tried to do with World Without End, with my own fear of our innate and all too human mortality, I could do the same with The Graceless Age and the hurt that riodes shotgun right beside the knowledge of how painful life can become when you let go of the wheel and let the car run itself into the ditch. Essentially, the impetus for beginning it came from losing my wife to my own fucked up choices and desperately wanting to create something, anything, to exorcise it all. Not out of some desire to use loss to justify crating a record, but out of a fool’s need to create something to avoid madness and lunacy. I thought I could tell the truth – one bigger than facts – and that in telling it, I could create something that might bring her back. We began work on it prior to Bob and I touring Europe in support of World Without End in 2007.
The album took four years to complete. Why so long?
I wanted it to be right. To be real. I knew that I was exposing myself to a flailing world that hides itself behind the screens of iPhones and computers and illusion and wanted to make it all work together, in harmony with the discord and dissonance given us by life, both sonically and lyrically. Not in some ‘Look how fucking dark my sad stupid life is’ way, but in a way that allowed me and, I suppose, others, the ability to hear pain as a tolerable and even essential element of all that’s decent and real and alive, maybe even expansive and symphonic and beautiful at times. I wanted love to sound like the confused and flawed force it truly is. I wanted to create something that perhaps at least one other person could relate to so I could find solace in the knowledge that we’re all fucked up – that I wasn’t alone in feeling something more than frustration over bad seats at a movie theatre or long lines at the grocery store or poor cell phone reception.
Ultimately, though, it was my own self doubt and addiction that kept me from allowing it to be finished. Regardless, I eventually decided that the opinions of anyone listening couldn’t matter because if I allowed them to matter I’d be creating among ‘peers’ and ‘contemporaries’. I don’t want any of those. Not really. Why ‘compete’? There is no value in recognition. Not when what’s recognised is a preconceived farce we are led to embrace and become. There is no value in the trappings of this neo-disco nonsense we call ‘indie rock’. Not in this wasteland of musical vanity and sonic boredom. I prefer my exile to most musical companionship – with Tim [Mooney] and Bob [Ford] being huge exceptions – unless Jason Pierce wants to make a record with me. That’d be fine. Yeah, that’d work. I’m not kidding.
Chuck Prophet , who plays on the Graceless Age, says you made the album ‘in spite of yourself’. What do you think he meant by that?
Oh, I know what he meant. I owe him a great deal. Chuck took me into detox the first time. I get in my own way and often wonder why. Heroin didn’t help, of course. Chuck and I are friends and would be whether either of us played an instrument or not. We talk more about Herzog and Malick and David Milch and Hunter Thompson and records everybody seems to dislike for no good reason and eat lunch and pretend we have money and go shopping for random crap more than we do anything else. Chuck has made records in spite of himself, too. Still does. Don’t we all, though, do anything we do that’s worth anything at all in spite of ourselves, always? It seems to me that in order to create anything of value, you have to bleed a bit. You’ve got to give of yourself. Not in some hippy way, but in a truly visceral way. You have to live and feel and hurt and love and hate and stop and start and give of the blood you’re given. Happiness, as a constant, is fraudulent. It’s delusional. Show me a happy person and I’ll show you an imbecile. Insanity, in theory, is the only sane response to this modern life I can see. Graham Greene said that “Reality is not something to be faced”. In a truly awful sense, he was lucky. He got to die before this century came clanging in like some ice cream truck from hell.
Would you say you have a talent for self-destruction?
I’m not too good at seeing myself as ‘talented’, but I’ll accept that one! Yes! But unfortunately, I’ve gotten far too good at almost destroying myself to actually destroy myself any more, I think. My family certainly thinks I do. That can be satisfying to know at times. As do my friends. Again: often satisfying. My inability to not fuck things up is unfortunate. Things need fucking up. Things are fucked up. I don’t mind the heavy lifting as long as it one day leads to self-annihilation and not ‘chronic back pain’. I don wonder, though, if I didn’t intentionally push as far as I could push before the hinges came undone. I allowed irony to replace reality. I don’t want to giggle overt wordplay any more. I want to feel something real, hear something real, tell the truth, call out all the liars, all that nonsense. I’m sure I won’t, that I’ll become frustrated, and (as I’m often warned against) do something to piss the wrong person off again soon-ish; all out of sheer frustration. I’ll remain the ‘angry young man’ I’m accused of being quite often, even as I age without dignity. I accept the accusation. Fuck it. Short answer: YES. It’s likely my only talent. I’ll wear it like a scar.
‘What keeps me alive is going to kill me in the end,’ from a song on the album called ‘No Te De Ganas De Reir, Senor Malverde’, is a grim prediction. Didn’t it almost come true, didn’t you nearly die?
I died for several minutes, yes. I shot a gram and a half of dope. I don’t know why that seemed a reasonable amount. Maybe it didn’t. I remember the wife of the dealer yelling at me not to sit down, to stay standing up. I sat down, anyway, and the last thing I apparently said on the floor of The Eula Hotel before waking up in the ambulance was, ‘It’s OK. I’m fine with it.’ That dealer, a confused Vietnam vet I saw as absurdly ethical given his chosen profession was convicted of murdering her maybe a year later. EMTs gave me two shots of Narcon and a shot of adrenaline to start my heart back up. The reference in the song, though, isn’t to drugs. It’s about loving my wife from a distance; from a place that had no map, no road, no end. Unless I was to create my end. Which is what I was doing, in effect, by sabotaging my existence. The song was written prior to the incident, so I see it as an odd occurrence and a grim prediction, too, now; though I never thought of it as such until later.
Can you talk us through ‘Little Coloured Balloons’?
I have read a couple of reviews of the record that sort of question whether I’m telling the truth in that song or whether I wrote it out of something other than personal experience. It’s one of the last songs recorded. It’s true. All of it. I find it distressing that some would question honesty in lyrics when there is no glory in the truth that’s being told. I think some of the references, however, do get lost on many listeners (apart from those who’ve actively bought and used black tar heroin in San Francisco). So I’ll perhaps explain some of the phrases. Black tar heroin is quite different than powdered heroin and isn’t seen much outside North and South America. It looks, quite literally, like black tar and is sticky when warm. Half grams are generally sold in The Mission wrapped in Saran Wrap inside party balloons that aren’t inflated. The needle and spoon part are universal, I’m sure. 16th and Mission is an intersection where, prior to the installation of surveillance cameras, it was easier to find dope than food, I died in The Eula Hotel on 16th. I came back to life out front in an ambulance. The song is a prayer of sorts, I suppose. It’s a plea. For mercy, for salvation from myself, for Lori. I wanted saving but didn’t want help. I wanted death, but didn’t want to die. In the end, I got a life I ought not to be living; one I don’t deserve. One I’ve seen stolen from too many people stuck at that intersection; those crossroads. Better people than me.
What did drugs mean to you – were they an escape, an anaesthetic against the world, or did you just like getting high?
I suppose drugs were all of those things. Ultimately, though, all substances allow for the creation of an illusory world – especially heroin. With heroin, everything’s OK. That becomes incredibly problematic, very quickly. All brands of horror can be seen in the light of it all being ‘OK’. Everything becomes murky, life distorts around you as you create the feedback loop that becomes reality. It’s God’s drug. It destroys pain in a way that allows for only melancholia; one that’s tolerable until the addiction takes on a life of its own. In that dull ache, one can still create. I truly did, however, ant – fuck that – NEED something to keep the wolves at bay. I wanted either death or a life that wasn’t the one I felt I had to lead. The answer t that dilemma was heroin. It worked. Too well. Then it stopped working almost altogether. Ultimately, though, being high isn’t all that different than being alone. There was no internal world I wished to escape into, really. It was an anaesthetic above all else. Let’s face it: nobody says to their friends, ‘I think I’m gonna slam a little dope this weekend! Wanna come?’ Heroin doesn’t need ‘pushing’. It sells itself, and for good reason. Then it sells you out to your fears just as quickly. People talk about how addictive it is in relation to other drugs. They fabricate statistics. Yes: it’s addictive as hell because it works so brilliantly. Until it doesn’t.
The songs on World Without End were often based on actual incidents, has your own life replaced history on The Graceless Age, making it a much more autobiopgraphical record?
It’s certainly autobiographical – perhaps insanely so given our modern aversion to reality and truth. But the realities buried within it extend beyond me, I hope. I’m not so sure that World Without End wasn’t, in a sense, a quite direct precursor to The Graceless Age – one I wasn’t consciously aware of. Whole Bob sang in the third person, I realise now I always took on the songs as the killer or the killed and sang them as the victimised or the victim (or both) Maybe there’s something to that; maybe not. But for a record filled with death and destruction to be followed by another filled with much the same is, well, telling. I just don’t know what the tale is. But I’ve heard the story before, I think. Or wrote it. I don’t know. Both records haunt me.
A lot of the songs on the album seem to be addressed to someone who’s no longer in your life. Can you say who that is and what happened to them?
It’s my wife, Lori. We were separated, on and off, for obvious reasons during the making of the record. She’s on her way home from work now. I got lucky. I don’t lose her in the end. And I don’t intend to pull an Eric Clapton and treat her like he did Patti Boyd. Nor do I intend to cover ‘I Shot The Sherriff’ and destroy the soul of what makes music worthwhile: love and loss and all that’s in between – not evading taxes in Barbados or wherever. Hence the Bobby Whitlock tune at the end of the record [‘Thorn Tree In The Garden’]. I became a bit obsessed with Layla (And Other Assorted Love Songs) and the stories behind all those involved in its creation. It’s proof that life, when lived fully, can become art in truly unexpected and beautiful ways if one is willing to suffer. All Clapton needed was love and dope. And Bobby Whitlock and Duane Allman didn’t hurt. Funny thing is that Whitlock wrote that song about a dog, not a woman. It works best if that’s ignored, I think. Tom [Mooney] didn’t tell me that part until later. It was his idea to end the album that way and I’m glad we did.
Now the album’s out, what else are you working on, what’s next?
I’ll tour in support of it this fall. Tim and I had begun another record and had fleshed out several songs. We’d also finished an EP of covers. There are innumerable outtakes and alternate mixes and the like from the sessions for The Graceless Age. What I am thrilled to have, though, is the mastered mixes Tim and I originally created the lyrics and sonics are less accessible but richer and rawer. I’m excited about creating something with it. But I want to make records. Lots more. There’s plenty more to come, whether anyone gives a fuck or not. I’ve no choice. I can create or be created, make or be made. I chose the freedom to exist as I am, with utter confusion and curiosity. Though we may have no windmills, I’ll tilt at something from here to kingdom come. And I’ll keep trying to create a record worth a damn. Maybe this is the one. I don’t know. If I did, I’d be done with the charade. I’m not. Time flees, there will be more. I still don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here. But I’m still here.