Murphy discusses his new album, the band's return and David Bowie, at length
Who’s playing the Fripp-style guitar on American Dream?
It’s half me and half Al Doyle. On “Change Yr Mind” it’s Al, and I play the really simple David Byrne rhythm guitar, the chop guitar, and Al plays all the fast, crazy guitar. On “Other Voices” I play the weird guitar, and on “Call The Police” it’s split.
Does it feel strange referencing Bowie in your music once you’ve known him?
Not to me. It’s a different experience than being a kid fan. He was a remarkable person, in that you never had a negative collision between your vision of him and who he was, at least I didn’t. And it wasn’t because when you met him he seemed like Ziggy Stardust, or something – quite the opposite. He was an incredibly disarming and human person, and really respectful, and appreciative and thoughtful. But you were never disappointed, because he was so incredibly good about being a person. We were having a discussion when we were making ★, we were talking about The Next Day. And he said, “I felt like I really liked that record, and there were too many songs, I wasn’t ruthless enough about sequencing it down to a single record. It would have been a much stronger single record. I was a little at a loss, I was like, this is interesting, he’s having this review thinking that you don’t think of people having. And I said, “Well, I’m not really the person to ask.” And he said, “Right, but you only ever nine songs on your records.” And for a moment, I was like, I’ve not really talked about, it’s not something that is a Wikipedia fact – which means I had to confront the fact that at some point, David fucking Bowie looked at my three albums and went, ‘Hmm, they’ve all only got nine songs on them’. Of all the nice things he ever said, all the remembering my wife’s name, or thoughtful, human interactions I had with him, which were many, that one really was like, “Fucking hell.” You can’t fake that – if you can, boy, are you good. So there’s no hole in my admiration based on knowledge, there’s no lessening. I’ve met a lot of artists I admire, and they can be really juvenile and really small, just like, ‘We didn’t get respect for this, and so and so…’ It’s like, you’re really whining about this right now? It’s stunning that this is someone who’s made amazing things that have changed your life, and who are lauded for it, and then you’ll just realise they’re mad at Steely Dan or something. And you’re like, why do you care? Whereas [Bowie] had nothing to do with any of that, there was no bitterness about any of that.
I’m just glad he didn’t get to see your 10-song tracklist.
Yeah, he’d be really disappointed.
You’ve said you were feeling ‘uncomfortable’ about the reunion – is that still the case?
I wasn’t uncomfortable, I was really clear about it. I knew that I had to make an imperfect decision, and that, I think, really healthy to do. Breaking up the band was in a way smashing something, and then putting the band back together was in a way smashing how perfect breaking up the band was. It was really like a glorious swan dive… and then to be like, ok, I’m gonna get rid of all that safety that was in that having done the perfect finish, and get back in where I can be judged again. Which if you don’t make music, I think it’s a thing you don’t think about, which is the invitation to judgment to a certain degree is what making music is. When you don’t make music, I think it’s easy to be like, ‘Oh, it’s fucking awesome, it’s just the best, you’re out there and you make music!’ I remember someone said something online and I said something back to them, and they said, “Can’t you take criticism?” And I was like, “Dude, my life is taking fucking criticism. [laughs] You are an anonymous person on the internet, you don’t know fuck all about strangers thinking that you’re annoying or whataver…” It’s a part of life. It’s not a bad thing, it just is part of life, but it’s still a human thing. When people do like your band, to risk getting rid of that… it’s a nice feeling, and it’s a weird feeling.
Personally, I didn’t expect the album to be this good.
Oh, that’s a good feeling.
You mention a lot of technology in these songs – you’ve always written about social interaction, but it feels like, in the seven years since This Is Happening, the way we interact via social media has gone insane. Has that had a bearing on American Dream?
There are things from that perspective, but I’m coming a little bit to terms with that. I’m recognising that a lot of what I don’t like about social media has a lot to do with me being old. And what I think is terrible about it is very similar to what my parents thought about television. I was born in 1970, so I was raised in front of a television – like, literally. Then it suddenly dawned on my parents, “Oh my god, this is toxic. He’s being pounded by advertisements, there’s all this shit…” To them, advertisements were seductive, and they didn’t realize that I, like everyone in my generation, developed a lot of immunity to it. I wasn’t swayed by fucking television adverts. And I think that my instinct is looking at social media and imagining myself at 14 years old, going to school and it being a harrowing, weird experience, then leaving and it continuing in my pocket. I at 14 would have killed myself, I had no immunity to any of this shit. While there are kids that are being destroyed, there have always been kids that are being destroyed – it doesn’t make it any less terrible, it just means it’s not the technology… ‘Oh, rock’n’roll is making kids crazy…” “Oh, television is making kids crazy…” “Video games are making kids crazy…” But they’re all much more immune with each generation to the thing that they’re exposed to. So I’m a lot less negative – I still try to be quite positive, and I think if you come and see a band, don’t film it. Not because it’s so terrible, but because you’re watching a live experience on a little screen. And also, when people come up and try and take a picture with me, if they haven’t told me their name I’m always like, “No, because you’re gonna take a picture and say that we met, but we didn’t, because I don’t know your name.”