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The Low-End Theory: An Interview John ‘Spud’ Murphy

Stevie Lennox chats with Spud Murphy about his crucial role in sculpting the soundworlds of Lankum, Black MIDI, ØXN and more

Photos by Loreana Rushe

In an inauspicious arch underneath the Dart line in North Dublin you’ll find John ‘Spud’ Murphy, working away in his longtime hub of Guerrilla Studios. “So it still is like a cave, which has pros and cons,” he says. “You’re in a cave. And there’s no external light, but you don’t know what time of the day it is. So you just keep working and you’re not looking outside going, oh, it’s beautiful outside. You just keep working. It’s pretty versatile for what it is, considering.”

Seldom one for bombast, his work includes the production of Mercury Prize-nominated False Lankum, the latest collaboration with Lankum, who have been subverting the trad idiom over the last decade, transcending expectations of how a folk group should sound. Like any top producer, Murphy captures the best out of his acts, and in their case, draws out the music’s inherent primordial power, fit more for the hushed silence of concert halls than the small pubs from which the form germinated.

Growing up in the spheres of rock and electronic on the heavy, experimental end of the spectrum, his experience with folk initially didn’t go far “beyond the obligatory tin whistle lessons in primary school”. Attending a classical school of music, however, he says, “opened my brain up to acoustic instruments and the orchestra. Then, later on, you want to chill out in the evening and go for a few pints, and there’s a trad session on.” One of the cornerstones of Murphy’s work, and what makes his work in folk such a radical departure from tradition, is his work in the low end of frequency spectrum – the one element that folk typically lacks. “There’s absolutely no bass in it”, he explains. “The pipes have a drone, but it’s not bass.”

Citing David Byrne’s How Music Works, he discusses music’s evolution “from churches to concert halls to jazz clubs in the US, where acoustic guitars weren’t loud enough to cut through with everyone being drunk as fuck during prohibition, so they played banjo, which would cut through the room, leading to the evolution of the electric guitar. Everything kept evolving with drums, bass and so on, while folk was kept as a purist thing. There was never any thought from a production or technological standpoint, because it was this wholesome, natural thing.”

Intentionally or not, Murphy has made evident hidden genre truths. One consistency across his body of work is a knack for exploiting the inherently emotional resonance of drone in unsuspecting places, like folk and pop. His production values shared more with sonically and atmospherically heavy music like Sunn O))) or Ben Frost. He goes on: “It started off with a process that I kind of developed by accident in the school of music, messing around with sample rates. I had been manipulating acoustic instruments, and the lower octaves, starting to put a bit of drone underneath”.

Necessity and random mutation both breed invention and when that twain meets, it can yield alchemical results. “Right place at the right time” is what he calls the engineering role that saw him and Lankum first cross paths. “The first time I saw Lankum, they really blew my mind, and I think that was the first time they were happy with the sound that someone else had achieved for them. So, you know, that led on to more work and now I’m with them eight years now.”

The sonic development across their four albums is remarkable. The first, a Spud-free album – while decidedly a traditional record – hinted at something beyond in its standout moments. Their second, Between The Earth And Sky, involved Murphy re-amping and re-recording elements in a church, and by then, they had “gained enough trust in me – they let me do whatever I wanted to, I suppose,” inviting Murphy to join them on live sound. With each album, both Lankum and Murphy’s understanding of the other’s needs has now grown to the point where he says “even when they were demoing False Lankum, they knew what was possible and where we could go. I had less work to do in certain aspects, and it freed me up to do more creative things within that album as well, making it diminished and horrible in certain sections and making it really beautiful in others.” Spud recalls the early days of Lankum, when the bulk of what they were listening to was folk music. “Any time I was able to control the hi-fi, it would have been like, Krautrock or drone, and even though they mightn’t have known some of the stuff, they were into it. Fast forward five years, it’s not nearly as folk-centric. Horizons have opened up.”

That hunger for progress is a strand that runs through any manner of Irish artists, from My Bloody Valentine, to Gilla Band, to Lankum, where artistry comes before commerce. The decibel level might shift, but the DIY spirit remains. “We’re back at this place where folk is a hot topic, with the crew of heads in Dublin, or Richard Dawson in Newcastle, reclaiming and putting their own spin on it. Maybe in the nineties or noughties, some of the wrong people were involved in that scene, but this time it came around, it’s been put into the right people’s hands, and they happened to be the underground people.”

But what exactly is it that guides Murphy, I wonder? Total immersion is something that permeates his work, and while many have waxed philosophical about it, it’s evident that Spud’s innovation is born of pragmatism, as he explains. “I like to squash as much musical information as possible into the record without getting it cluttered. Not that you’re trying to reinvent the wheel, but in the production of an album you’re looking for holes in the spectrum all the time. Developing harmonic walls, that’s my skill set. I have a consistent thing going on. Basically, number one, I want the band to be happy with what’s captured. I want to get like what’s in their brain onto the computer and through the speakers. And once I have achieved that, I look at the overall arc of the track and I say, OK, cool, you’re happy. So now let’s see how we can enhance it. Whether it’s adding in lower octave stuff or building up clusters up on top, or bigger swells in the chorus for dynamic impact.”

As well as his formative experiences producing in the Irish underground – noise rock, free jazz, and math-rock – it was these principles that were presented when Murphy found himself in the first series of job interviews of his life, convincing management that it’s “not just fiddles and concertinas that this guy is working on”. Entrusted with the UK’s most-hyped young guitar band Black MIDI’s second album Cavalcade, he says, “It was probably the most nervous I’ve been in a recording studio, because I was a massive fan of theirs before I went in with them, but it was really good for me to go through that.” The process itself remained steadfast: “We captured the core takes for the entire album in Dublin’s Hellfire Studios in two days, so we just started to layer in extra stuff over the entire album. I had just gotten a load of weird instruments for them to have a mess off. They were only about 20 at the time of recording, but they had a really well-formed idea of what they were at that point. Then they went back and I didn’t really know what was going to happen.” Murphy was contacted the next day by their manager, saying ‘The guys really loved working with you. Can you come over to London and finish off the record?’. It was pretty intense – 13 or 14 days straight, huge hours every day.”

One of his own musical projects, drone-folk quartet ØXN, have just released their debut album CYRM. On bass, synth, and production duties, he joins Lankum’s Radie Peat, experimental pop artist Katie Kim, and his Percolator bandmate, drummer Elly Myler. The project was conceived from an initial one-off collaboration between Katie and Radie that developed into a live stream due to the pandemic. Then, Murphy says, “because we were tight and rehearsed and well-oiled, and realising how busy everyone’s schedule was, we thought ‘let’s make hay while the sun is shining’. So we went into Hellfire tracked the bones of it, and just developed it over the next year and a half.” An offer from Claddagh Records was all they needed to will the record into existence.

Across six sprawling tracks, it’s a confluence of the four performers’ voices that feels so effortless it’s almost inevitable, yet full of surprises. While CYRM plays to their individual strengths, each member provides the perfect foil for the other, at odds with the usual shoehorned ‘supergroup’ archetype. I ask Spud about the balancing of four distinct voices. “Even though there are four different egos in the band,” he says, “we’re all well able to communicate with each other. Myself, Katie and Elly wouldn’t know as much about folk music as Radie, who wouldn’t know as much about electronic music as we would, so it’s a tightrope that you’re walking down, and once everyone’s taste is in that same area, you don’t fall off.”

Perpetually at odds with stasis, the coming months see Spud produce Goat Girl, Junior Brother, The Bonk, Poor Creature, and Anna B Savage, and there are promises of his kosmische trio Percolator’s long-awaited second album. He’s currently refurbishing an Otari tape machine to push further into the realm of analogue recording and has almost set up Guerrilla’s second studio – isolated rooms at Hellfire Studios. He has no plans to abandon the original Guerrilla Studio project, however: “I understand its value, especially when space is at such a premium at the moment. When I first moved in and first heard the trains, I nearly had a panic attack, but fast forward 10 years and it’s like fucking hell. I can’t I can’t believe how much shit I’m after getting away with in here.” Stevie Lennox

is Gig Guide Editor & guitarist/vocalist with Junk Drawer, PigsAsPeople & Sister Ghost. Appreciator of Neil Young, vinyl, black coffee, Richard Linklater, light & shade.