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Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Destroyers' Paul Murphy explains some stuff

On Friday night at the Cambridge Folk Festival The Destroyers packed a kind of nuclear punch - appropriately enough - all the energy of a show lasting at least half as long again folded into an hour. It. Was. Amazing.

I'm a pretty big fan but believe me when I say that although the video's good, it doesn't do their live shows justice. There's a kind of maniacal passion to them that's the result of fifteen individuals leaping around as if they had several thousand volts going through them. Yes, you read that right. Fifteen.

There are tall Destroyers and short ones. Destroyers who like to lie down to play their instruments, some who stand and those who prefer to hang in mid-air. They move differently from any band I've ever seen: a rolling cloud of limbs and musical instruments emitting a cacophony of perfectly orchestrated noise that worked even better in a tent than it does in a room. I think this was because each of them can really play and there were fewer sounds bouncing confusingly off walls. On this occasion their non-conformity seemed to touch the soul of their Cambridge audience: it had taken six years of toiling to get to this festival and they made it count.

At the centre of it all was Paul Murphy (metaphorically speaking anyway - he's on the right there in the picture that I promised I would credit to eFestivals), the piratical, fez-wearing singer who, at 62, is about 30 years older than most of his band mates. On the one hand his presence seems the most natural thing in the world - but at the same time, when you think about it, it poses a few questions. So I thought I'd ask them and see how it went.

Despite all the leaping around he seemed remarkably calm and chipper as he glided out of the static caravan they'd been allocated behind stage two, moving like someone at least 20 years younger: I've been told that this is because he swims to keep fit.

So how did he hook up with this lot then? "It's an interesting scene in Birmingham," he said, sounding not much like a wild-eyed pirate after all and much more like a thoughtful, cultured pirate.

"At the epicentre of it was a house belonging to Astro from UB40: he was the landlord and he let it out to a group of musicians who made it the focus of a lot of experimentation. At that time my nephew Joel was at the (Birmingham) Conservatoire and he was into Balkan ska - there's a lot of sympathy between Balkan music and ska music. Lots of his fellow music students gravitated to the house and that eventually became The Destroyers. It was an instrumental outfit back then but it's always been big.

"Then about seven years ago they asked me to come and improvise with them and I ended up bringing vocals into the band.

"I write songs and play acoustic guitar - though I mainly sing with The Destroyers. Some of the lyrics we're doing now I wrote as long ago as 1967 - which is before everyone in the band except Mick was born. The Glass Coffin, for instance" (which they started the Cambridge show with) "has found a whole new lease of life. It's brought a gothic element that goes with the rest of what they were doing."

He waxed lyrical for a while about the rest of the band's abilities. "Gaz has already written two symphonies. Dan Wilkin has a deep and strong knowledge of African music that he brings to choral work. Max Gittings  is all about Chinese music. This band has a wealth of stuff at its disposal. It is," he said in a considered fashion, "a juggernaut. And we're ready to take the whole thing up a notch."

However, a band of 15 is always going to struggle to make a living for its members, as I discovered when I interviewed Pete Flood from Bellowhead a while back - and there's only 12 of Bellowhead. The thought that he might mean they want to play even more loudly nearly made me giggle. But the marvellous thing about interviewing Paul Murphy is that he's been around the block a few times and already knew what I was going to say.

"Well, when you look at the history of art and music it's a fairly 20th century notion that musicians just turn up, go into a studio and record. Musicians traditionally have supplemented what they do by teaching and doing other projects. I mean, Renoir also did people's blinds. There are certainly a lot of challenges for a band like us - especially now the infrastructure of the music industry isn't there any more. I sold my first songs in 1966, very shortly after I moved to this country from Ireland, and the music industry was much more accessible then."

He told me a story about Ocean Colour Scene. "I was running a place at the time called The Songwriters' Cafe and that's how I met them. They'd been signed to a label and then at the start of the 90s they were dropped. But they reconstituted themselves and by the time they did their best known album, Moseley Shoals, they owned all the rights to their own music. So every time The Riverboat Song was played they got the money. I don't want to put off anyone who's interested in managing us," (they currently manage themselves) "but I don't trust big institutions."

So what's he been doing for the last 40 years or so? "I came to England in 1966 when I was 16, as a folk singer. I used to hang out with Lemmy from Motorhead - I'm probably the only folk singer mentioned in his book White Line Fever because we used to live on a farm near Blackpool. Lemmy was a member of a band at the time called The Rocking Vicars and there were two other bands living on this farm at the same time. I've always written, always performed..."

What's it like being with guys who are so much younger than him? "I'm used to being surrounded by a bunch of people who are older and younger than me. When I was a kid I used to be the youngest, hanging out with older people, so not much has changed. It's just the other way around."

Where did he get the fez? "I come with a bag of hats." This made me laugh out loud.

Career highlights?

"I always missed my own career highlights."

He mentions something about Van Morrison that I didn't quite manage to catch before adding that he has five kids. And a wife?

"My wife, Honora, died. That was 13 years ago. I released a solo album in December last year that was a kind of tribute to her. It was called The Glen and it was about the experience of love lost. It's available online." Have a look around that website... it's pretty interesting.

But best of all, before he had to leave and get in a van with the rest of the band, he explained that he's built a treehouse at his place in the King's Norton area of Brum. "It holds an audience of 40 and we do evening concerts there, then broadcast them online. There's a microphone embedded in the ceiling." It sounds as if this is an incarnation of his earlier Songwriters' Cafe and operates on a kind of invitation-only basis, although you can ask to be invited, either as a musician or a member of the audience. 

"Musicians come along and have dinner, which I cook myself. I grow the veg in the garden and bake the bread and then we have a concert. Genevieve Tudor's been along and last week we had a couple of BBC producers. It's always good fun."

And with that, he quoted some Blake at me that I was far too mesmerised to write down, a fellow Destroyer came to fetch him and he had to go. Which was a shame.

* This is also from this year's Cambridge folk festival. It's about the recent antics of Mr Forbes Legato, who I see about once a year. 

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