Q&A With Peter Murphy, Playing Tomorrow Night at Respectable Street!
After a final album together, 2008's Go Away White, Peter Murphy and his former bandmates have finally hammered the last nail in the Bauhaus coffin. But that's actually good news for the group's rabid fans. Its erstwhile frontman is finally comfortable performing these songs on his solo tours, which have become surprisingly, pleasantly frequent. Wednesday's show at Respectable Street Café in West Palm Beach comes less than a year after his last South Florida performance, in July 2008 at Revolution.
"I wanted to come out and work on the new material and play, basically, to a hard-core audience that would be loyal," Murphy says. "I'm not into doing tours only when there's an album. Playing live is as much as what I do as is making music."
Still, his official Retrospective Tour was last year, and as pioneering as his musical past may be, Murphy isn't content to just dwell on it. A new solo studio album, his first in five years, is due out later this year. He won't reveal too much about its sound, but he has continued to work with his sometime collaborator, producer David Baron. He will, however, reveal that the forthcoming work comprises all original tracks.
Which brings us to the occasion for this tour, dubbed the Secret Cover tour. Murphy has always been a talented interpreter of other people's songs, imbuing them with his own mystical, arty take and rendering them almost wholly new creative works.
His live set lists have long been dotted by his versions of Doors, Joy Division, and Bowie tunes, and before the album release, he's issuing four new covers one at a time. So far, we have just the first to listen to, a rendition of John Lennon's "Instant Karma." Fans will have to check Murphy's official website, petermurphy.info, or attend the show and hope for a clue.
New Times caught up with Murphy by phone recently to chat about the new album, The Hunger, and his role as the "Godfather of Goth." Here's what he had to say.
New Times: I was just looking at the earliest set lists from this tour, and it seems like a chunk of your solo material, several Bauhaus songs, and several covers. Is that generally how the spread is going to go throughout the tour?
Peter Murphy: I'm previewing new material, as well as playing my own work. And also I'm working in some of the last Bauhaus material, only because we didn't have a chance to tour after we made the last album in 2006.
So I'm playing some of that, and I'm also calling it the Secret Cover Tour, because I have an album ready to go , but on tour I'm releasing a cover song every two weeks. The first one was "Instant Karma," and it's on iTunes at the moment.
What made you want to launch another extensive U.S. tour less than a year after the last one? Especially before the album is out....
I plan to tour after the album comes out. But I wanted to come out and work on the new material and play, basically,
to a hard-core audience that would be loyal. I'm not
into doing tours only when there's an album. Playing live is as much as
what I do as is making music.
It also seems like you purposely went for smaller venues this time.
I wanted to take this opportunity to play towns and areas that you don't get to play on the sort of usual main, A-grade tour in this business. There are strong loyal audiences over the tours I've done in the past five or six years. And there's always a culture of the audience who really wants to see you, but they can't go to it. If you look at the schedule for this tour, there are main cities, but there are also areas that I haven't played at all before.
You live so far from the United States, and yet you seem to get over here all the time.
It's a small world now. It's as easy to get from Istanbul to New York as it is from L.A. to New York, it's not so sort of like, difficult, as it maybe once was. The distance has never been a problem. I spend almost half or a third of the year in the United States these past couple of years. I've been working out there with my co-producer, David Baron. I've got a very good creative relationship with him, and we're gonna branch out to production soon, in a partnership, as well as, you know, working on my album material.
David and I were the ones who landed what is in effect the first of the cover songs, "Instant Karma." That really came about through the offer for Chase Bank for their campaign. They in effect licensed my own cover version -- and there were apparently three other Grammy-winning artists, who shall remain unnamed, who were also submitting their versions of "Instant Karma" for the commercial.
And Yoko Ono, of course, has final say because she controls the publishing, and she's very protective. And she just loved my version immediately, and chose it, which was a great compliment in itself.
So that brought the spontaneous idea to give the audience something to have that was actually being made as we're touring. So there's "Instant Karma" out now, and the second cover song is going to come out in about two or three weeks.
Are you going to collect these all for some later release, or are the covers just one-offs for iTunes?
It's only available on iTunes now. But once I get the direction of them, I think it would make a great additional object to go with the new album, which is all original music.
And you said you're releasing and actually making these cover songs as you currently tour. When and how are you going to manage that?
I'm gonna be recording some more up in Woodstock, at the studio which is my base of operations in the States. I'll be working up arrangements with the band during the tour.
The covers you haven't released yet, have you played them live yet on this tour? I'm wondering if the set lists posted online so far will give a clue.
Not yet. I'm going to start playing them live as they're released. The second one is announced.
Oh. I saw that recently in Seattle you also played "Transmission" by Joy Division, "Space Oddity" by David Bowie, and "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails. Those are songs that you've been known to perform relatively often, recently. None of those are part of this new recorded set of covers?
Well, I'm not saying yet. I want to keep a bit of speculation. I've been playing "Transmission" here and there, as it really does have a relationship with my own thing, my own beginnings in Britain. I saw Joy Division and Bauhaus as the main contemporaries. We kind of started at the same time, but didn't really know each other that much. We weren't necessarily fans of each other, but we could see there were interesting parallels.
I also have a tradition of releasiog covers and making them my own over the years. There's nothing new in that. The thing about covers is that you can really give a different interpretation of them. When they work well, they also work in context of what you're doing, and themes coming up.
These covers are kind of a precursor, or a hint as to what sort of general area the new album is -- not specifically, but it's a taste, in a way.
Going back to your acquaintance with Joy Division, at the time when both groups were playing, did you recognize that parallel in what you all were doing?
We were aware of each other, but we were not sort of influenced by each other at all. Still, if you look back in British music history, I think the two bands that really were seminal -- for different reasons -- in that post-punk period were Bauhaus and Joy Division. It was a lot of cultural similarity. We came out of the almost identical British working-class background, the sort of depressed Britain of that time. So there were great parallels there, and great kinship, even though we really didn't know each other.
When Bauhaus started to take off, did you have the sense that you were actually spearheading a movement?
I knew immediately, the moment I started writing songs with Daniel Ash, that there was a great sense of powerful destiny about what we were doing. It can sound quite arrogant -- but I sort of say, yes I know! It was just so obvious.
You're known as the "Godfather of Goth." How do you feel about that title?
That's all in its place. To me it's sort of giving an entitlement on one hand, which is very gratifying. But you've got yo remember, there was no such sort of notion of "gothic rock" at all. I think where I come from is more of an art band, sort of independent, very British sensibility. That whole label really covers a lot of things. I think people like Dead Can Dance are gothic, as well as people like Joy Division and a lot of those early 1980s sort of alternative bands.
Do you remember when you first heard the term "goth?"
I think it was NME, back in 1981. When they reviewed us, the headline was "Gothic as Brick" or something like that. I think it's due to -- if you look at early Bauhaus live shows footage, the whole aesthetic was really based around shadow and light. It was a lot like black-and-white surrealist theater, which also was kind of also like a re-morphing of the tradition of early glam and the Velvet Underground.
Bauhaus were the natural followers, the kind of Doors of the 1980s. The "gothic" thing really started to bloom around that. You've got to remember, "Bela Lugosi's Dead," which was a nine-minute song which you couldn't hope for any radio station to play -- that was on the alternative European top 20 for something like five years! So we kind of crossed over into the mainstream. I think that led to more longevity, even though I swim under the surface, as it were.
I've always wanted to know: How exactly did you all wind up featured in the movie The Hunger?
I appeared in the Maxell tape ad in 1982 in England -- You guys got it over here with a guy stitng in a chair, but that was not me. You can find that on YouTube, the Maxell tape ad. The director of that commercial had worked with me and knew my own work.
He came to see me do a perofrmance of "Bela Lugosi" during a Bauhaus show, and he reocmmended that I would be a great character to have in that opening scene of The Hunger. Origianlly they were just looking for a band to play in the background of the club scene. But once they saw that I was a character, which was quite terrifying, he decided just to let the cameras roll and edited in those shots. I was astonished at what he'd done. It was excellent.
Did you get to talk to David Bowie?
He was there all day, doing his scene with Catherine Deneuve, and we were there together.
Well, back to the present, on those early set lists for that tour I saw you didn't perform either "Cuts You Up" or "Bela Lugosi's Dead," which are two of your biggest hits! Are you getting tired of performing those songs?
I change the set live as we're doing it. Like a performance is one act, I use the music to shape a certain continuity, rather like editing a film, I suppose, with raw material. So sometimes a song may not make that evening. I'm not necessarily, like, avoiding them, but some songs need a rest now and again, just so that the band appreciates it. We all like to shift the expectancy of the sort of rote habit of playing just one set of songs. Also, I can adjust the dynamic of the show according to the audience.
It seems, though, that you are playing more Bauhaus material this time out than you did last year.
Well, now Bauhaus is no more; we gave it the final word. And as Peter Murphy, I've been a solo artist longer than Bauhaus ever existed. But I've never played -- I made it a point not to play Bauhaus music up until the end of 2006. I wanted to keep Bauhaus in a very exclusive place, because I always had an idea that I would want to get the band together again. Which we did, and we got one album out of ourselves. But then we called it a day.
Then I thought, well, now is the time to play this music. Go Away White really deserved to be played, because as an audience you really haven't heard it. And so I tip my hat to those who really want to hear some of the Bauhaus songs, because there's only one person who can sing them.
When did you definitively decide Bauhaus was over? And how did that feel?
I forget now; it was sometime in 2006. It was a relief, really. We didn't really get on that well. We're good friends -- we're kind of like brothers. I think in my own work, I'm way past the Bauhaus notion, and past focusing on that work and back catalog alone. For all of us, it was very limiting.
Let's talk about the new solo album. There have been rumors you were working on it with Trent Reznor.
No, Trent wanted to work on it, but --- he wouldn't be as featured as I would like him to be on it. Maybe one day we'll make a Murphy-Reznor album.
I think the rumors may have come from the fact that there's a whole 16-track session which are called the "Murphy-Reznor Sessions" that he and I recorded during the Nine Inch Nails/Bauhaus tour in 2006. That's where Trent and I did improvised radio performances live from backstage at some of the venues.
That's really become kind of like a classic underground set of songs, so that sort of morphed into the idea that he was working on this album. He offered to, but like I said, I think it would be much more powerful to pursue just he and I working on a Reznor-Murphy album. There are no plans for that at the moment, though. He's a pretty hard-working guy. I think he's going to be wrapping up Nine Inch Nails for a bit after this tour, so who knows. Maybe we'll get together.
So what about the sound of the new album? Are you going to be revisiting those sort of eastern influences you've explored, or is it back to more rock stuff?
Well, Arielle, I'd rather talk about the album once it's out.
And when is it going to be out?
I'm still looking at that now, talking to various people with that in mind. I'm hoping autumn at the latest. But you can hear almost half of the album during the show. So look at some of the reviews, maybe, and see what they say.
Peter Murphy. With the Mission Veo. Wednesday, June 24. Respectable Street Cafe, 518 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Show starts at 8 p.m., tickets cost $29.50 in advance. Ages 18+ with ID. 561-832-9999; respectablestreet.com
Peter Murphy's Maxell Tape Commercial:
Bauhaus in the Opening Sequence of The Hunger:
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