Interview with Joe Murphy (of Sergeant Buzfuz)

Joe MurphyA while ago FolkWords reviewed the album ‘Go To The Devil And Shake Yourself’ from Sergeant Buzfuz, we used words like: “... it connects, grows on you ... and then completely engages”. Having said that, it was also called a “musical Marmite moment” – and you know what, both statements are true. It’s necessary to dig deeper. So FolkWords decided to talk to Joe Murphy, the force behind the band and the album.

FW: This album not only engages it’s also incredibly addictive. What was the genesis (no biblical pun intended) of the album?

JM: I’ve always been interested in history and more than a little intrigued by 2,000 years of the Papacy. I found a book about popes and thought their history would make an interesting song. The trouble was the more I tried to condense that history into one song the more I realised it was never going to happen – there was simply too much to tell.

When I started writing the first song ‘Here Come The Popes Part 1’, I found that I’d only got to the end of the first century after about 7 minutes - so I thought I’d stop there. There was so much that I didn’t want to leave out but I didn’t want an unwieldy song. Rather than write a 20-minute song I decided to explore the idea of working up a series of songs covering the subject in depth.

FW: Were all the songs written in sequence, around the same time, in one big pope-writing fest or over a period of time?

JM: Don’t forget, this wasn’t originally a concept album. ‘Here Come The Popes Part 1’ was actually on the third Buzfuz album. It was the last track on the album. Then the fourth Buzfuz album included Parts 2, 3 and 4. I was in effect putting them on albums as I wrote them but the concept idea was always hovering around.

FW: So with too many songs to scatter across different albums you made a conscious decision to bring them all together?

JM: I decided they would be best on an album of their own, hence this new album. Currently, it goes up to the early 1400’s so there may be some more songs when I get round to writing them – look out for some more pope-narratives. After all, I’ve got the chance to bring it right up to date although the current Pope may not be around by the time I write it. That’s how it came to be - there was never an intention to write a concept album it just came about.

FW: Is this an ‘album-only’ piece or is it possible to perform it live?

JM: We first performed it live in February 2012. The last five tracks on the album are taken from improvisations worked out in the studio.Sergeant Buzfuz I added the lyrics and vocals at a later date. So to play them live we had to work hard to learn them – not incredibly easy as they started out as an organic improvisation. We now play them live as a medley.

FW: Can we talk about the step-change between the two halves of the album?

JM: To my mind the first song is the only true ‘dirge’. As I said, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have too many 7-minute songs on one album! There is a ‘change’ towards the second half or ‘Side Two’. The tunes are perhaps more melodic and there are no long dirges, although on ‘Side One’ the second song ‘Here Come The Popes Part 2’ has a strong hook and  ‘Part 4’ has a more synthesised sound.

FW: Was there a conscious decision to move ‘Side Two’ towards a more ‘rocky’ and ‘electric’ feel?

JM: I don’t play electric guitar on the album but I do play acoustic guitar through a distortion and delay pedals but I hear what you’re saying about the change. When we go into the studio to improvise we go a little wild and whacky, which is how the last five tracks came about, so there is bound to be a different ‘feel’ and ‘flavour’. In fact ‘Sur Le Pontiff D’Avignon’ – the last track on ‘Side One’ kind of leads into that, also 'Side Two' concentrates on a different subject - The Schism. This was 'The Schism' within the Western Christian church when for a long period of time there were two, and then even three popes with different nations recognising different popes - for example, at one time England and Scotland had different popes..

There wasn’t really any ‘plan’ to this album as such. I certainly didn’t plan to write a 7-minute dirge as the first track ... potentially it’s not that enticing really is it? The next album in the ‘Popes Sequence’ may be more planned. Who knows?

FW: You use a ‘talking-singing’ delivery is that deliberate or did it just happen?

JM: When you have loads of lyrics, that are at times complicated, and you’re telling a story you tend to fall into a ‘talking’ style, otherwise the story can get lost in the rush to get the lyrics out.

FW: Is that why the lyrics are printed in the booklet?

JM: The first three Buzfuz albums didn’t have lyrics printed in the booklet – after all it’s not poetry it should be heard. However, with this album the collective narrative is more detailed and it seemed more important to include the lyrics.

FW: Why the title?

JM: The phrase comes from an old Irish tune. I just thought it worked really well given the content. The origin of the tune isn’t universally agreed – it’s sometimes considered an Irish dance tune, the original inspiration behind Australia’s Waltzing Matilda or in Scotland it’s known as a 19th century tune When Sick is it Tea You Want?

FW: The way you talk about this unpleasant bunch of popes – was it your intention to deliver a humorous angle or a more acidic swipe at their behaviour?

JM: It was both. When I get to the present day it will be more of a swipe I think. When things happened hundreds of years ago it’s easier to take a more humorous angle. I think it will be harder to tell humorous stories when any excesses or indiscretions are closer to living memory. Some of the more modern scandals are pretty well documented and some are not in the least amusing. There will probably be some difficulty in making it humorous but when I find the right angle I’ll know.

FW: One thing that makes the album successful is its humour.

JM: That’s true it was easier to treat the pope’s excesses in a humorous vein.

FW: Have you run into any negatives around the album’s theme?

JM: I’ve had a journalist suggest that I should send the album to the Vatican – not sure about that. The next Buzfuz album will be pope-free and then I expect to write the next chapter in the history of the popes. Let’s see if writing about more modern times raises any eyebrows.

FW: How about any negative reaction to the ‘concept album’ theme.

JM: I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing essentially wrong with the notion of a concept album. Of course there will be those that think it’s pompous and too weighty but I can live with that. It’s quite simple really, the more I dug into the Papal history the more it had to be a concept album.

FW: As a matter of interest, if you’re asked, would you put a label on the band?

JM: Ah the labels – that’s always there isn’t it. I grew up with rock and pop but with a background of Irish folk. I suppose the answer is I write the music I write, and it is what it is. I’m often asked what type of music we do. I have been reviewed as a folk artist - we’ve also been called a folk band. I would say that all our albums have an acoustic element. Then again, we always have interesting instruments in the line up such as violin, dulcimer, cello and diverse treatments - to catch that different, interesting edge. Labels - I don’t know. My view is we’re Sergeant Buzfuz and we play the music we like and add what sounds good into that music.

FW: The title track ‘Go To The Devil And Shake Yourself’ doesn’t appear in the lyrics. It looks as though it’s tagged on at the end of the album – even the typography is different.

JM: We decided to add it to the album pretty late on. I feel it sums up what’s gone before in some way. It’s like the music that accompanies the closing credits of a film. It’s a kind of coda if you will.

FW: So what’s next – apart from another album of popes?

JM: Well I’m playing ‘Go To The Devil And Shake Yourself’ solo at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at Ryan’s Cellar Bar over 16 nights from 4th August 2012 – that should be fun!

   © FolkWords - 2012