Peter Murphy
Burning from the Inside
by Stephen Slaybaugh

With a legacy that precedes him, Peter Murphy needs very little introduction. As a member of Bauhaus, who in the late ’70s and early ’80s meshed vamped-up glam rock with punk vitriol and an overarching amount of eeriness, he is one of goth’s founding fathers. Decades after the British legends initially splintered in 1983 (with the other members—Daniel Ash, David J and Kevin Haskins—eventually forming Love and Rockets), they’ve continued to influence countless bands to dabble in the macabre, while also spawning new generations of ghoulish legions of their own. Even the current crop of Twilight tweens can be seen as gothic spawn, a fact not lost of Murphy, who made a cameo in the third installment (as a vampire, of course) of the movie series.

Murphy, however, has never been one to rest on his laurels. After initially teaming with Japan’s Mick Karn in Dali’s Car after Bauhaus’ disillusion, he began a solo career that’s expanded upon his phantasmal vernacular exponentially. Albums like Love Hysteria (1988) and Deep (1990) glimmered with pop-ish sparkle, while Cascade (1995) and Dust (2002) brought in electronic and Eastern textures, respectively. Bauhaus was resurrected in 1998 and again in 2005, but Murphy still had time to release the admittedly sub-par Unshattered in 2004. With the legendary band permanently put to rest after releasing Go Away White in 2008, though, he’s created his finest solo work in decades, Ninth. The record brims with renewed vigor, while songs like “Velocity Bird” and “Memory Go” also convey the wisdom of his years.

Coinciding with Ninth’s release, Murphy recently made it Stateside from his home in Istanbul, where he’s lived since the early ’90s, for a short tour, and I was able to get him on the phone shortly after his arrival for a conversation about things past and present.

Obviously, Ninth is your ninth solo record, but was there a particular reason for being so pragmatic about titling it?

Peter Murphy: Yes, it was in the spirit of “untitled.” Initially when I finished the album, I did name it “The Opulent Mysterious Secret Silk Society,” but I felt that was giving away the soul of the album and I wanted to keep that as a song and the heart of the album. Rather than over-describing the record, I wanted to keep it understated in the spirit of when an artist will name a work “untitled” so that the work will speak for itself and not be over-dictated. I also just wanted there to be an air of continuity, because this is only my ninth album and there’s going to be many more.

To me, the album has a much fiercer sound than Unshattered...

PM: Oh definitely! Unshattered was my bad Elvis movie, but I really did consciously go in to make a very accessible, middle-of-the-road album to appeal to moms and dads with the same message, as it were. In context of the fact that I came out of the very esoteric Dust album into Unshattered, I was showing the array of approaches that I can take. But I think Unshattered was doomed from the start since I was with a start-up label, and the day they released it, they went into bankruptcy. There was a chance I could get the masters back, but they had just distributed it enough to legally qualify for keeping the rights. It was terrible: I promoted it with no label, no marketing—no nothing. It was apt in a sense, though.

Then, of course, I did the Go Away White album. I like that as a work. And so now here we are with Ninth. It was kind of a result of the trail of energy, the residue, of the incompleteness of the whole affair of Go Away White, the swan song and final death rattle of that band. The band was again kind of left incomplete, and so with that energy, I went straight in and wrote this stuff and made an album that was organic. It was written in spots over a year. I found myself up in the Catskill Mountains, living there three months of the year, and that’s where David Baron, the producer, lives. We became very good friends, and I really liked his work and felt he was the person I wanted to work with. With the record industry being in such disarray, we had to raise the money to make the record and wait until the integration of time and opportunity came around. Even though the songs had been written and had all been arranged, I wanted to have them really be played and have everyone—the engineer, the producer, me and the band—in one place at one time. To that end, I created a virtual residential recording space. We rented Dreamland studios, which is a huge church in the Catskills, in Woodstock, and is a great room with a basic recording facility. I used John Siket, who has worked a lot with Flood and is trained in the old art of recording people playing in a room. We recorded it in a week. Working on ProTools and making an album by proxy and by email as a digitialized construct is a poor substitute to the real thing of playing it and making it really count.

So these were live takes all together then?

PM: Yeah, that’s the classic way. That’s my school. Bauhaus and I would forge songs by jamming them and playing them live and then basically recording them like that. Then we’d add to it by playing to what we recorded, but it wasn’t a digitized sculpture, you know what I mean?

Yeah. I read in other interviews that you were writing some of these songs while you were making Go Away White. Were any of them intended for Bauhaus?

PM: No, none of the Ninth songs were. I started off a lot of the songs for Go Away White in the studio. I’d get in early and start ideas with the band in mind. “Black Stone Heart” was one I’d written already and was fairly complete that I played for the band and we made it into a Bauhaus version. Because Bauhaus is a collective, even though I wrote it, we split it four ways. That’s how we work. There’s no pecking order—that’s what we instigated when we first started. There has to be that equable leveling of roles so we can work as a band unit rather than being egocentric. Bauhaus means “workshop.”

You were saying that the residue of Go Away White influenced...

PM: It was the energy that I was feeling for whatever reasons, for whatever old unresolved personal issues between brother-like people. There is a high emotional complex of the interrelationships when you love each other but can’t stand each other. “Just shut the fuck up and plug in!” That’s my statement. Once we plug in, we are Bauhaus. Once we play together and shut the fuck up, we sound how we sound, and it’s extraordinary! It’s so special! But the others... not the others “me and them,” but there is an “us and him.” It is difficult when you have a powerful lead singer because I would get all the attention. That was a very early problem, but that wasn’t so much of a problem this time because we are older. So there was an element of “us and him,” but the others guys have also been together for 30 years straight. They haven’t had a break, so there’s a whole agenda going on there that I don’t know about. I had to let that go—we all had to. As much as I tried, I have so much energy. In a way, the others guys couldn’t keep up with me. That’s not an egocentric statement or a criticism of the other guys. I’m just still there and literally going for it. It was just right that it was wrong. But you can still hear the spark on the album. It’s still sparking. So I spun out of that thinking, “Fuck this! I’m doing it! I’m going to reclaim my legacy.” And that’s really Ninth, in a way.

All I was going to say as far as the residue you mentioned was that the singing on “Velocity Bird” reminded me of your singing with Bauhaus.

PM: Yeah, that’s me. I came out of that very avant garde fractured end, and that’s where my stomping ground was as a developing vocalist. But then with my solo work, I wanted to discover my range as a vocalist, as well as musically, so my albums have gone all over the place. I have a very rich palette. But this one is focused. It was very instinctive and not strategized. This album crackles and is full of swagger, like “I’m coming and you better watch it mate!”

Obviously, goth has been attributed to you and Bauhaus, and I was wondering if there was something specific that you think instigated that aesthetic, say in the way Black Sabbath talked about the gloominess of Birmingham influencing them or the way the Stooges talked about Detroit.

PM: You’ve hit it already. The Brits tend to absorb everything. We are an island race and we live in miserable bleak conditions. Northampton was like Birmingham with Black Sabbath—there’s a great parallel there. It just came out of us because we worked in a vacuum. There was nothing around—nothing! There was no influence. There was no cool, no hip. We were hip. That whole band and what all of us did was very much dark and esoteric. It was perfect. We were the Velvets gone rotten. We were also the Velvets gone holy. The moment I started, I knew I was an icon. No one had to tell me. We had total certainty and total abandon. We were more punk than punk. I remember going down to the Big Smoke, London, just after starting Bauhaus. I had suddenly c0me out as this person, who I was. I dressed with thriftstore marvelocity and looked like “who the fuck is he?” That was my whole energy. So we went to the Smoke and we ended up in this night club, which was very rare for us because we didn’t hang in night clubs, and there next to me was Johnny Rotten, just out of the Pistols. I remember looking to my side and he looked at me like, “Who the fuck is he?” I thought, “Yeah, who the fuck am I?” It was like, “Who are you?” But I must say, Rotten was very cool. He was really very angry. But the poor bass player, Sid Vicious, he was really off it. But that was the punk thing, and we were post-punk. We more like PiL, more expressive and more avant garde and artistic.