Getting over Mary
Brendan Murphy of The 4 of Us discusses shitty ice cubes, herbal tea and, oh yeah, the band's new album.
Brendan Murphy, lead singer with Newry band, The 4 of Us, is sitting in the corner of a small room off the library bar in the Central Hotel, Dublin. There is one thing he'd like you all to know. That is, one quarter of an ice-cube is made up of faeces. The validity of this fact, which he discovered while glancing through one of today's tabloids, is unquestionable in his mind and there is no doubt he will turn down a scotch on the rocks should it be offered. On this occasion, he opts for a grapefruit herbal tea.
The Four of Us have just finished recording their latest album, "Heaven and Earth", and, if it's pop you're after, you won't find it here. "What I didn't want to make was an album that was catchy pop. I don't even think I could make that kind of album anymore. I could have made it ten years ago, but I couldn't make it now. If we had given this record to a major record company they probably would have said make it faster or make it more poppier."
Of course, Brendan and his bandmates don't have to contend to the demands of a record company. "Heaven and Earth" will be their third album produced on their own label. The 4 of Us licence their records to EMI, which means that they write the songs and make all the creative decisions. All EMI has to do is market the album. This allows for creative freedom and ensures that the records produced by the band belong to them and not the record company. "What happens when you're with a major record company is they own the album. You make it and they own it and then when you pay them back, they still own it. They own it for life and that's a bit unfair. We wanted to own what we do."
The band took a brave step in the early nineties when they decided to leave Sony. "They thought that we were taking too long to make records and they thought that we were getting too awkward to deal with. They said, 'unless you change your ways we are not gonna make another record with you' and we said, 'well, we're not gonna change our ways, in fact, we are likely to get worse'." The band decided to set up a recording studio and do things on their own terms. "We decided that, if we could make enough, then we would keep doing it for a living, but what we weren't gonna do was make an album that a record company wanted us to make."
Doing things their own way was never going to be easy. The band virtually disappeared between '93 and '99 due to what Brendan can only describe as "teething problems". The lead singer admits to completely losing the plot spending three years recording an album. "It was like a bad movie. Our friends would come and visit us and it was like the Twilight Zone or Spinal Tap. We'd be working during the night. I was so sick of it and, at that stage, I couldn't even tell if it was crap. The thoughts of coming out and doing interviews and touring it, I couldn't face it."
The band scrapped the album, moved down to Dublin and started again, forgetting all previous plans to make an edgy rock album. "This time, I didn't want to hear another distorted guitar anywhere", he laughs. Their hard work and determination proved that every cloud does indeed have a silver lining with the release of "Classified Personal".
Being out of the public eye for such a long period of time can have a detrimental effect on a band, but Brendan is content with the decisions the band made and trusts that it's always best to go with your instincts. "It would have damaged our career more if we had put the album out. I don't think we've put out a bad record yet, one that is complete shite. But who knows," he laughs.
At this point in the interview, a friend comes over to congratulate him on the completion of the album. Brendan accepts the compliment and arranges to meet his friend for tea some time. He is swirling his herbal tea and concludes that the whole thing is really just a shame. "I think it's just a bit of Ribena and hot water".
The conversation moves on to the issue of CD burning and Brendan makes it clear that he has little sympathy for major record companies who moan about the effect home CD burning has on the music industry. "When they say home CD burning is killing music and they have Elton John up there. I mean, do they honestly think that people are gonna turn around and go, 'gee Elton's short of a few bob, I'm not gonna burn his CD'? Not that you'd necessarily want to burn it anyway. Big corporations are out of touch."
Here in Ireland, the band's early hit 'Mary' has become their trademark song. Brendan wrote the song about an older girl in his secondary school who he had a major crush on. "I mean two years of an age difference, forget it. I mean, I couldn't get any kind of a facial hair growth at that stage." It turned out that this girl, Mary, had a 25-year-old DJ boyfriend. Knowing that he didn't stand a chance, he decided to get his own back by writing this song pretending that Mary's boyfriend was abusive.
"Sometimes I wonder, does she know? She probably sings that song and has no idea it's about her." He first realised the song's hit potential when his younger sister stole it and started playing it to her friends. Despite the personal inspiration behind the song, he no longer feels that it belongs to him. When he heard a crowd of drunken louts going by his window one night, singing 'Mary' at the top of their voices, he realised it had now become public property.
"I don't recognise myself in it. It's like looking at an old photo of yourself. The rhymes and the words are just ridiculously easy to remember. Look at where I rhymed 'bank' with 'Frank'; I wouldn't do that anymore. Now I try not to be so obvious, but sometimes obvious is good. As you get older, you have to be careful not to over-think things."
Brendan describes the band's latest album as having an ambient quality to it. He was bored with electric guitar, but, at the same time, didn't want to make a heart on the sleeve singer-songwriter kind of record. He rates Beck and Radiohead, whose abstract and indirect nature appeals to him. The singer's aim was to produce, what he describes as, a "wide-screen acoustic" album. "What we wanted to do was create a vibe over the whole album. For me, this album was something that you sit down and listen to and it takes you to another sort of world."
The singer lowers his voice as other people begin to enter the room and he admits that he would love international recognition, but not at the cost of his own personal artistic vision. "I'd love to be played off the air and to be selling millions of records, but we have to do it on our own terms. If I can't do it on my own terms, then I don't want to do it. We knew we were going to become less commercial, but you either have to do your own thing or not." He feels it's the band's job to stand out from other bands and to "avoid the same shit that's everywhere you go". He believes that The 4 of Us appeal to people's need and want for something different.
However, staying true to yourself and your ideals is not an easy task. "The more competitive you get as you go through the industry, it's like a wee devil on your shoulder saying 'radio will like you better if you can put a harmony in there' or 'why can't you make it sound a bit like something else'. You have to be vigilant all the time and say no, that doesn't really sound like us. It might seem like something that's obvious, but anyone who's making music will find that it's quite tough to stick to your own guns.
"I don't know why people think it's about money. I suppose it's because of the U2s of the world. People think if you're in a band that must be your aspirations." The 4 of Us may never reach international stardom, but, after a long career in the business, the singer has discovered the secret to job satisfaction and personal happiness. "The secret is to find out what it is that you do and where are you headed and to then decide that's where you are going and don't even attempt to be going in a direction that you just aren't suited to."
by Laura Brown