Through the pre-gig nerves, the natural self-deprecation and the meticulously constructed barriers against outsider opinion, Matthew ‘Murph’ Murphy can’t help but light up a little at the mention of the biggest gig of his life.
“I’m excited,” he admits, despite himself. “It feels like the positive occasional BS that people peddle sometimes actually makes sense: you just put your blinkers on and keep going for it, and eventually things pay off. I don’t know many harder-working bands than us, so I feel like it’s overdue. The songs are good and always have been.”
There’s a quiet gleam in his eye as he pictures the culmination of 15 years of bounce-rock struggle, his ascendance to the musical A-list: The Wombats’ slot as co-headliners of All Points East festival 2020.
“Is there a satisfaction in sticking it to the doubters?” he considers. “If I was 24-year-old me I’d say yes, and maybe there is some kind of satisfaction [now]… We’ve always been more comfortable being the underdog: when we’re the underdog we perform better, play better, we’re better at what we do. When there have been these early headline slots, we just fucking choke. I try to think of it as a career, not a steep mountain.”
It’s March 9 and we’re sitting backstage at London’s Heaven shortly before Murph takes the stage for the biggest show yet by his collaborative solo project, Love Fame Tragedy. It’s been an exciting tour with an “astounding” reaction: “It feels like building a new thing. I don’t feel like there’s been that much crossover really, which is what’s really weird and really cool about it. It feels like something new and different.”
Murph speaks of the liberating experience of making a “dreadfully long” solo album — “a little bit psychedelic” and “turbo-personal” — without the “political stuff” of The Wombats, but stresses that his bandmates remain supportive and the band are already a third of the way into writing album five. He envisions Gorillaz-style gala nights for LFT, and doesn’t baulk at the idea of a Wombats headline set at Reading & Leeds: “There’s talk of all kinds of crazy things.”
We don’t, however, linger long on the microscopic elephant in the room. Coronavirus has hit the UK and locking down now looks like the actions of a responsible government, but we’re still a fortnight from gigs being banned and the idea of All Points East, let alone the entire festival season, being cancelled is a remote possibility neither of us wants to acknowledge. As far as we’re concerned, The Wombats will still be marching onstage at Victoria Park alongside co-headliners The Kooks in two months’ time like the triumphant survivors of the late-‘00s indie rock Hunger Games.
Two months later – during the week that Murph would have been taking APE by synthpop storm – instead he’s back on the phone with NME from his Los Angeles lockdown. “I’ve got a beard now and the wine consumption is through the roof,” he says, outlining a “steady, solid” domesticated routine of dog-walking, playing with his young daughter Dylan and drinking through The Sopranos.
Is he frustrated that All Points East has been snatched away? “Not really, I haven’t thought about it. I was definitely a bit gutted that it’s not happening, but there’s almost a sense of relief that I don’t have to do any more travelling, to be honest. I still feel like everything’s in a good place and ready to go…
“I’m more worried about the impact of all this on touring the Love Fame Tragedy stuff. It might be a case of write the next album and tour it even harder next time.”
Which, judging by LFT’s debut album ‘Wherever I Go, I Want To Leave’, is quite the undertaking. Compiled from the series of EPs that culminated in ‘Five Songs To Briefly Fill The Void’ in March, the finished album runs to seventeen tracks (“a lot more songs than I was anticipating”) and features guest appearances from Pixies’ Joey Santiago, Alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton and Maddi Waterhouse amongst others. It straddles such wide sonic ground as electro-rock, rave epics, future disco, indie psych and ambient electronica.
“I think they’re some of the best songs and lyrics I’ve ever written, so it’s a big deal for me,” Murph says of the tracklist. “At this point in life, with this pandemic going round, the more the merrier, really.”
He wasn’t joking about the record being “turbo-personal” either. Between the sex and drug benders, hedonistic scenes and psychological issues laid bare, there are primal scream therapy sessions more inhibited than this.
“It seems like it’s this triangle of impulsive behaviour: being the lead singer of a relatively successful rock band, having a family and trying to be a normal person in life, and battling with all those things,” Murph argues. “Because it was a brand new project and it was the first album, I could do whatever the hell I wanted to do, I could go in even harder and be more brutal with the lyrical content than I maybe could on a Wombats album, so I didn’t pull any punches.
“I also feel like you can get away with a lot more. Songs like ‘Riding The Wave’: I’d never dream of singing about a porn site on a Wombats song, but I might do on our fifth album thanks to that one. ‘She likes XVideos with her best friend’…” How does he feel about the pornification of society? “I’m all for it!” he jokes, then straightens his face. “I don’t know, I’ve never really had much of a sensory nature for that stuff.”
Opening as it means to go on, recent R&B noir single ‘5150’ – named after the California State code for being sectioned for dangerous mental illness – is “about impulsive behaviour and trying to deal with that”, certainly suggesting Murph’s been hitting the gas rather than the brakes. “I drove all night to Phoenix just to blow 15 months’ rent / She said I was the best,” he sings, before getting “annihilated” and sliding inadvisably into DMs. Um, 15 months’ rent, Murph?
“That’s a big night!” he laughs. “I’ve never done it, but I think I’m talking about going and having some kind of extra-marital intercourse at the start of that.”
Not the sort of lyric that’s likely to help his notoriously turbulent marriage, previously documented in songs such as ‘Lemon To A Knife Fight’ and addressed again here in the soulful, self-explanatory ‘Please Don’t Murder Me (Part 2)’. Has lockdown exacerbated any marital issues? “No. They’re still alive and kicking — I knew what I was getting into. But it’s not as dramatic or theatrical as I make it out to be. Sometimes it definitely is, but maybe I’m fairly good at finding the negatives in life and relationships. We’ve been really good and happy, and enjoying this forced down-time. I’ve been jumping on and off tour for the last 15 years, so it’s nice to spend three or four months at home.”
Elsewhere, the glitch-pop ‘Multiply’ tells of gambling and cavorting around Paris on impulsive day trips with his wife or in Peter Doherty’s orbit back in the early days of The Wombats’ success. “We got mixed up into this whole Pete Doherty world over there of all these new French bands that sounded like The Strokes and wearing leather jackets. Everyone was getting shitfaced in this one particular pub run by this very interesting South African guy called Earl. I have a lot of fond memories of that place. He had an open mic set-up all the time, and everyone who was in Paris that night he’d somehow get to come to the bar and it’d stay open until really late. There was always something ridiculous happening.”
Typical of the album’s use of colourful hedonistic confession to highlight the holes in Murph’s dented psyche and the helplessness he feels in trying to control it is ‘Honeypie’, a space-pop monster in which he yearns for the return of ‘honeypie’: “this state of calm that maybe has eluded me for a long time, but I remember fondly.” Elsewhere, indie house anthem ‘You Took The Fun Out Of Everything’ laments the music industry’s obsession with streams, projections and fellating the algorithm.
“That song is a little middle finger to the music industry in the shape of a love song,” Murph says. “They inevitably get in the way a lot and overthink everything. There’s these huge, grandiose thoughts which just get in the way of the creative process, and I’ve been a part of that as well.”
Is that what caused fatigue with The Wombats? “I wouldn’t say ‘fatigue’. I definitely don’t feel like we’re fatigued at the moment, we’re probably stronger than ever. There is the inevitable politics of being in a band for that long, and Love Fame Tragedy was a way to escape those for me… The longer you go, the more intricate the behind-the-scenes become. I felt like I needed to do something fresh again.
“Maybe there was an element of spending too much time with each other,” he continues. “I’m excited to go in and make another Wombats album and I’m excited to be onstage playing it, but all the shit in between I’m not massively excited about — like sitting on a tourbus talking about the same story from 10 years ago and going to bed and not really sleeping well, all of that shit.
“I wanted to get away from the mundane aspects of being in The Wombats… maybe I just needed to shake up my life a little bit more. It was like Groundhog Day all the time, and Love Fame Tragedy was a way to escape that. Getting a band together and hanging out with new people, making new friends and collaborating was a really good way for me to reset and re-energise myself.”
If he’d gone straight into making another Wombats album, would it have been the last one? “I don’t think it would’ve been the last one, but I would’ve run myself into the ground at some point,” he admits. “It’s important to take time off to reflect or try to do something new. I reckon we would’ve probably just kept cranking on until something catastrophic happened. A full panic attack in an airport, or something.”
The melodies of Love Fame Tragedy are undoubtedly Wombats, and guitars are much in evidence throughout ‘Wherever I Go, I Want To Leave’. But given all the pop beats and mainstream flavours on display, you couldn’t call it a rock record. Having drifted towards radio-friendly synthpop sounds over recent Wombats albums, is this Murph — one of the ‘00s prime surviving indie heroes — giving in to pop music altogether?
“But I can’t really get into arguments with people who want the music that I make to sound like 2005 Maximo Park. It’s just not exciting for me. Blending the elements of modern pop with other guitar-y things — I didn’t overthink it, I just made songs and music that resonated with me in the hope that it resonates with other people. I’m really excited about the shape of guitar music to come.”
Star-shaped, it seems, with a black hole centre.
Love Fame Tragedy’s debut album ‘Wherever I Go, I Want To Leave’ is out on July 10.