Chris Murray - Four Questionaganza!
Interview by Abram Jones


I had the good fortune to run into Chris Murray when he came through Berkeley to play with Go Jimmy Go and Monkey. Despite his car breaking down in L.A., he made the eight hour trip and managed to put on a great show despite setbacks. We discussed his new album, 4-Trackaganza!, which I had previously dissed in my review, but found a new appreciation for after seeing him live.

Abram: Congratulations on the release of your new album, 4-Trackaganza! . How long did it take to produce? What made you pick the particular songs that you did?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Murray: Thanks a lot. It's hard to say how long it really took to make 4-Trackaganza! The album is a collection of tracks selected from the numerous 4-track recordings I've made over the years. So Many Roads, which was recorded in late 1993, is the oldest recording. Dinosaurs is the newest track and was done in the fall of 2000. Each track seems to determine how long it needs to be worked on until it feels complete. The major factors typically are the length of the song, the complexity of the arrangement, the difficulty level of the playing involved and how long it takes to write each part and get the right takes on tape. 4th Of July took the least amount of time to record. There are only three performances on that track: vocal with guitar, drums, and organ. It took me a full day to get the right performance down for the main vox/guitar track. The next day I worked up the drum part over about four hours and spent about an hour putting down the organ track.

Science Fiction Double Feature definitely took the longest time. I was asked several years ago to record the two versions that appear on the album by Bob Timm at ska.about.com for a compilation he was doing of ska and reggae versions of songs from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. What took so long was trying to bring this amazing song, which I had grown up loving and did not want to butcher, smoothly into my own musical realm. It took some time for that process to unfold.
There was quite a while that it looked like the Rocky Horror comp would never get released, for various reasons, but I'm glad to say that it is now expected to come out this fall on Vegas Records. It should be a pretty crazy release. I debated whether to include Science Fiction on 4-Trackaganza! It's the first time I've ever done a cover version of someone else's material on one of my own album projects, either solo or with King Apparatus. I like the way those tracks sounded a lot, and I didn't want them never to get released after working so hard on them. It's a really cool tune. The lyrics are incredible.
Steady Beat Convention is my tribute to the awesome trad scene LA has had for the last decade and also to Luis Correa, of Steady Beat Records, who has tirelessly promoted shows and the scene through those years. California Time was recorded in 1995, when I was living in Toronto for a while and missing the west coast. I think I chose not to include that track on the Moon album because I thought too many California references could seem a little forced. Back when that song was written, I was pretty transient. Now that I live in Califonia full time, the final lyrics about coming back are especially resonant for me. So Many Roads and Brave New Brian are older songs that were recorded before I put together the first album for Moon. I always dug those recordings a lot, but chose not to include them on the 4-Track Adventures because I didn't want to overload that album with love songs. They've turned out to be the only love songs on 4-Trackaganza!

The three instumentals were the ones I liked best out the the many I had done but not released. My personal favorite is Back Rooms, the blues jam. Before I knew about ska, I was a reggae fan. And before I knew about reggae, I was a big blues fan, especially Delta blues. Now that I know the history of how ska evolved out of the blues, I understand why I liked ska right away when I heard it the first time. When the harmonica solo kicks in and the picked guitars start to skank, that's what ska really comes from. One Everything was the song that really made me want to release another 4-track album. I'm really proud of that song and the way it uses everyday language to deal with some heavy philosophy. Musically, in the context of what I just said about Back Rooms, as different styles started to assert themselves on the album, One Everything took on additional significance for me with regards to how the Jamaican music I love is truly a fusion of various styles like folk, blues and African influences.
Boyo was originally a King Apparatus song, and had a radically different arrangement. I fooled around with a more Skatalites oriented vibe after seeing them play a bunch of shows on the Skavoovie Tour back in late 1993, when they were on the road with Special Beat, Selecter and Toasters. I never finished the original recording of the new version until recently, but handed a rough copy to Skavoovie & The Epitones, who I toured with in fall 1996 as they were getting ready to record their second album, Ripe. They ended up recording a very cool version which appeared on their third album, The Growler. I think it's really cool when the same song can work well in different styles. It blew me away when I first heard the ska version of One Love and the rock steady version of Stir It Up. Maybe the King Apparatus version of Boyo will get released sometime. We played the song in our set when we did our Canadian reunion tour last spring after Asian Man reissued the band's two albums.
4th of July and Dinosaurs were both done in the fall 2000, at which time I already knew I was putting together another 4-track album. I could already tell that 4-Trackaganza! was moving in some new musical directions from the first album, which I think freed me up to write songs like these, that step outside of the boundaries I'd stayed within on The 4-Track Adventures. I think these are two of the best songs I've ever written.

AJ: You're like the epitome of Asian Man's DIY policy. Chris Murray needs about as much help in the studio as the Pope does in church. Can you talk a little bit about using vocals and vocal percussives to emulate instruments, like the "horns" on "Boyo" and the vocal harmonies on "California Time"?

Chris MurrayCM:As I was rearranging Boyo, the way the repeating horn line worked over changing chords became a major hook for me. Since I'm not much of a horn player, singing those parts was the easiest way to get my ideas into the arrangement. When the Jamaican recording scene was just getting started, there were a lot of tracks that used unusual vocal stylings to create a cool effect. In its original form, toasting wasn't the deejay style that the term has now come to signify, but more of a non-verbal rhythmic texture. The approach appeared again in some Two Tone recordings and evolved into the ubiquitous "pick it up, pick it up" of the 3rd wave. When I use this approach myself, I try to keep it more subtle.
Back when I recorded California Time, I was doing some singing with a barbershop chorus in Toronto, which may not sound all that cool, but definitely made me focus on technique more than I'd ever had to with King Apparatus. The layered vocals on that track were never intended to emulate some other instrument, but were a direct expression of what I was doing at the time with choral singing. In the context of the song's California theme, I found the harmonies resonated with a Beach Boys vibe. Vocal harmony has always been a major component of ska and reggae. When they started off, the original Wailers were just kids singing American R&B and doo-wop songs on the street corner for spare change.

AJ: There was a lot of your low voice on this album, and a little bit of falsetto in the harmonies and in the "Science Fiction" reprise. I miss your mid voice, like in "Rock Steady" and "Dinosaurs". Incidentally, I'm glad someone did a song about dinosaurs, and it seems to be right in the Ska vein; but I also think that the way the song's set up it could have been a searing love ballad.

CM: I think this album is more vocals-oriented than The 4-Track Adventures and has a wider palate of vocal sounds overall. The only songs on 4-Trackaganza! that feature a notably lower voice than I feel I typically use are Science Fiction and Steady Beat Convention (in the chanting parts). When I write songs for me to sing, I usually end up placing them in the key which feels most comfortable for my range. Science Fiction was a bit more of a challenge as I had to discover what keys allowed me the most freedom to sing comfortably. The melody in that song moves through a wider range of notes than I typically work, and bringing the top notes into my comfort zone resulted in the main body of singing living in a deeper space than I usually inhabit. Since I wrote Dinosaurs, I've been amazed how many times I've seen dinosaur references and images around me. I love how Dinosaurs operates on different levels. At first it seems like an innocent children's song, but by the end it has become a dark prophecy of destruction. These days, with so much awareness of issues like global warming and our own changing environment, I think Dinosaurs carries a particulary potent message.

AJ: Go Jimmy Go is indeed a great band, it was a good bill with you, them, Monkey, and the Stiff Richards. Tell me about your plans to get them to come back in the fall, and would you ever consider using them as backing on a track or two, like you did with "F-train" on Six Songs?

CM: When Go Jimmy Go did their first California tour, I was on the road with last summer's Plea For Peace tour. When I got back to LA, people kept telling me how cool GJG was and that I really needed to check them out. I went to Hawaii this January to do some gigs with GJG and we found out right away that we were on the same page musically. We ended up doing a lot of vocalising, a little recording and even some songwriting together. I'm sure we'll do some more things together in the future. I'm planning to go back to Hawaii to play with them again when they release their second album, whenever that happens, possibly this fall.
Now that Hepcat has broken up, I would have to say that Go Jimmy Go has the strongest and sweetest vocal harmonies on the scene today. As well, they have the purest "island sound" that I've heard in a long time, which is probably because they are island folk. Their sound is very true to the roots of Jamaican music and has a ton of soul and they write excellent songs.
I'm really impressed by bands like Go Jimmy Go who decide they're going to go somewhere new, like California, even though they know from the outset that they'll lose money at first. That kind of desire is key for any serious band. It reminds me of what it was like for King Apparatus when we started to tour in the US. For GJG to come to California, they have to spend at least $2000 in flights plus rent transportation to get around on the mainland.
When a band has that level of commitment to pursuing their art, and their art is so strong, it motivates me to see what I can do to help them. Go Jimmy Go blew a lot of minds on this tour, mine included. Right now the California scene seems very disjointed and a little stale to me. I think the Cali scene needs some new blood to rally around and be excited about. If GJG started coming through California more regularly, I think they'd ascend to the top of the scene here pretty rapidly.
It can be very hard for a band from out of state to put together a solid and successful California tour. There are a lot of good places to play, but when you're from Hawaii and have only started to build your profile over here, it's difficult to put together a really cohesive tour.
I've offered to take care of booking them another California tour for this fall. This recent tour was patched together by various people who said they could get the band good gigs. In the end, a number of shows got cancelled at the last minute or didn't happen the way they should have. The exception to this was the swing through northern California, which was put together by Curtis from Monkey, who did a great job.
They just got back home a few days ago, so I'm letting them recover a bit before I really start pushing them to come back. If they do agree to come back, my goal would be to set up a tour that would allow them to come over and break even instead of losing money again. With the expenses involved, it wouldn't be an easy thing to accomplish, but I think it would be possible. If there are any independently wealthy people reading this who want to hire GJG for a lucrative private engagement, please get in touch. I think they have some good momentum over here and have really started to develop a California following. My gut feeling is that they would be wise to come back soon and keep the momentum building while the iron is hot. If they keep coming to California, I'm sure the initial investment they're making right now will end up paying off.

 

 
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