Peter Murphy on his former Bauhaus bandmates and how he's a pain in the ass sometimes
Thomas Tadeus Bak
Peter Murphy co-founded the influential post-punk band Bauhaus in 1978 with Daniel Ash, David J and Kevin Haskins. Over the course of four full-length albums, Murphy and company creating an experience of heightened reality with its music that broke from convention, not just sonically but with lyrics informed by the avant-garde, romantic literature and '70s glam rock. It was a richly imaginative counterpoint to the world of expectation in industrial England of the decade when punk rock helped to pierce the veil of post-war British mundanity and economic and cultural stagnation.
When Bauhaus broke up in 1983, Murphy embarked on a successful solo career that proved influential in its own right with albums like the haunting yet melodious 1988 offering Love Hysteria, which was followed by the even more experimental but somehow more accessible 1989 album Deep. Murphy has always pushed his own envelope, though, and his 2011 album, the appropriately titled Ninth, proved a step forward in his development as a songwriter.
This year, Murphy is touring for the 35th anniversary of the founding of Bauhaus, and he's playing material from that band's catalog with musicians not from the original lineup but fully capable of delivering the iconic sounds, nonetheless.
We recently spoke with the charming, thoughtful and self-effacingly humorous Murphy about touring without his ex-bandmates, his love of and missed connections with his unofficial music teacher David Bowie and how ancient esoteric thought has informed his work as an artist and human being generally.
Westword: For this tour, you're doing Bauhaus material. Is there a particular album on which you're focusing?
Peter Murphy: I've been touring for years, and the long and the short of it is if you look chronologically, I got Bauhaus together three times. This time it wasn't going to work. That's due to internal reasons, and this is not a tour in spite of anybody.
In 2006, once it was decided by the other members that didn't want to carry on as Bauhaus and all of that stuff, I was free to focus wholly on my own work, which I always do but I would take sabbaticals.
Prior to that I never played Bauhaus music because I felt like it needed to have its own life to keep it integral. If it were ever to be played, we would play it as a band, and if that were to never happen, I wouldn't play it.
As it turns out, after that end, I felt like the flag was in my hand, and I didn't know what to do with it except to integrate a couple of Bauhaus pieces into my own work. And then I started to see that, of course, what's right under your nose is the obvious, and is sometimes missed, is that it's my work, you know?
Not that there was no contention in terms of loyalty to certain individuals, and after all, I'm the voice. I felt like that that was valid. Then I realized that not only is my fanbase loyal and very strong, but my audience is also the Bauhaus audience, but it isn't all of it. So I bring a lot of people into Bauhaus as much as Bauhaus brings people into my work, as it were.
So that all seemed to work, but the other part would be to play it. Because not only is the idea okay in theory, but the practice has to be executed in a way that is very integral, and not like a cover band, or not like me trying to recreate something, but isn't of the kind of integrity and genuine article, as it were.
So I put on one surprise pilot show with one week's notice at a venue in, I think, San Diego. I had two nights where I was going to play Deep in its entirety, and then the next night, I would play Bauhaus only. The first two nights sold out, but the Bauhaus night sold out in about a minute.
Then we had to move it up to a larger venue, which was great, but the acid test was playing the damned thing and it being good. It more than good, and that spawned this tour. I was at the end of my Ninth album touring cycle, and I was ready to go into an album, and expected to take, as anyone would, three or four months in doing it here and there.
So I thought that while I'm doing that, I'll do that tour. I did a few shows in America, and it expanded into a world tour, and it's still going. It's been going absolutely amazingly. I know exactly what it should sound like, and I've directed the band. The band that I've been working with for a long time -- Nick Lucero on drums, Mark [Gemini] Thwaite on guitars and Emilio Zef on the bass and electric violin. I know that they can hack it.
Any musician can play a certain note, but that note has to sound right. I was like, "Oh yeah, stamp of approval. Let's go. This is kickass, this is really something. This is the shit." Excuse my French, but this is the shit.
It was a watershed moment, really, because Bauhaus is alive in me, really. People aren't coming to see Peter Murphy solo, though some are coming for me, but some people are coming with a lot of trepidation like, "Oh, god, I hope he doesn't spoil the myth." But they're coming away after the first two songs with their eyes and faces going, "Oh my god!"
For me, it's a bit of a psychological mind bend, to go back to the album, Lion, far from taking three months I met with Youth, who is, from my moment in time, when we started with Killing Joke and Bauhaus. We headlined shows together in the very early days, and we're mates. Siouxsie was really punk, but me and him, from that same time, became really good friends.
He's done the Verve, of course, and he worked with Paul McCartney, and he's basically responsible for generating the Orb and that electronic generation. But there we were together, and it took four and a half days.
The English have a penchant for not tooting their own horn, basically. But the Americans don't, so I can do it with you. But this album is fucking amazing. We've still got some tuning to do. I've actually put together a montage of film material with a medley of five of the parts of the songs off the album and playing it before the show to give word on it. We'll probably have it out by autumn at the latest, early next year.
I think Bauhaus is something I can revive because there is an audience that specifically wants to see that. That myth of the early '80s and what we did -- it was truly nostalgic, and it still is. I don't know what I'm going to do with that, but I think I could expand it more in some way at some point in time. I think Lion is going to take me where I should be, really, and should have been for years.
Obviously, for this tour, you're not going to play any of your solo stuff?
Actually, as sort of a converse idea, I put in one or two songs of my own. That went very well, and therein lies the rub. This will probably be mostly Bauhaus, but it's involving into my event anyway. I'm claiming my own legacy, but it's not necessarily associated with Daniel [Ash], David [J] and Kevin [Haskins]. It's very kind of heartwarming that audiences are kind of like, "It's good."
For the Bauhaus stuff, did you kind of have the blessing from the other guys?
No, they're keeping as quiet as mouses. I think that they've had so many chances and their heads are down. But we're all still very good friends. We're English. We're very polite and respectful of each other, in actual fact. There's no terrible, girly, adolescent language. They're good people. They're good people even if they're bastards. We're brothers, you know? And you know what that's like.
Yeah, you fight, but you don't hate each other, necessarily.
No. It's okay, they made a definite thing, and it was good. Being together, it was good, but we've all got our own thing going, and mine is very strong. But it brings a lot of personality and a lot of baggage and you realize why it wasn't working. There's a lot of negative stuff going down.
With lyrics, Daniel and I had contentions with that, this, that and the other -- the egos, too. Why am I taking a quarter of my wage to handle your rubbish? I don't need to do that. I love to do it, and I will do it, I did want to do it. But it's all that stuff, and I think it's good to keep a sense of grace and respect and courtesy with each other. If they were to say something, they would say it to me. But they haven't.
I'll give them a tip at the end of it. I'll give them a record or something. A CD. That's me, I'm a bit satirical. I'm a vocalist. I am a handful, you know. A marvelous handful. A treasure trove. But a bloody pain the ass sometimes.
One of your most fascinating songs from the solo catalog is "Socrates The Python" from Love Hysteria.
Oh yeah. That would work with this Bauhaus set, wouldn't it?
It would totally fit.
That's a good idea. Actually, that's a great idea. But in Bauhaus, I have "Hollow Hills," which is a long track. But that would work, actually. If it doesn't make it into this tour, it will make it into the Lion tour.
Great! There's a lyric in there about "Bennett, Gurdjieff, Jesus" and not to mischaracterize the meaning, but those were all mystics of various religious traditions, though Bennett and Jesus were mystics of different eras of Christianity.
Absolutely. They're like archetypes of the spiritual, of the source. There's only one religion. It doesn't mean that it's our religion and that one's not. There's only one. There can only be one source.
Obviously you've embraced Sufism and its expansive spiritual tradition. Had you become interested in that before writing that song, or is that something mostly came along later?
Definitely, definitely [before]. If you look at the first [Bauhaus album with] "Dark Entries" and "In the Flat Field," those are psychological, sort of esoteric expressions for breaking out of the mundane and the form. That came from coming from a light industrial in England that was very working class where you're expected to be a certain way. In the '70s, of course, it was just something that really spawned punk anger or an outward expression. Post-punk they called it when I came along. It was also Ian Curtis and Killing Joke and all that.
If you think about it, there was a psychodramatic, poetic leaning toward looking for the self, looking for meaning. Of course I was brought up terribly religious and musically religious, in the sense that my parents and uncles were Catholic, but they had a very wonderful, sophisticated orientation toward the spiritual aspect, rather than just the formal, dogmatic thing.
When people say, "You're born Catholic; you're prone to that," it wasn't like that. At the age of eight or nine, I loved to listen to these stories and watch the sacred ritual of the mass and the incense and the hymns and the orientation toward the sacred. Even though as a child when you're first introduced to a man who's been slaughtered on a cross -- "Well he's god; he'll help you."
But the stuff was pretty horrific. Even though you don't consciously know, I already knew that couldn't be the case. There couldn't be sacred mysteries in the dogma. If you don't understand something, put it down to some sacred mystery; there's always something to be discovered internally.
Children aren't stupid. When you see people praying to a statue at a spiritual station and project a polytheistic notion to it, that contradicts monotheism. Monotheism means one god. One means one; there's no other. So how could be there be an other. Even to the essence of it you say, how can you exist other than. So it's very interesting and that drew me to that.
They say the master finds you; you don't find the master. So I would say I couldn't choose this. You call it Sufism, or we call it that in the West, but it's the source. It is informed by definitely knowledge and that knowledge is written. But they say you can be in front of it and hear it all but unless you are adept or apt to being open to it, then it may as well be a stone in front of you. It's very subtle.
Bennett, Gurdjieff and Jesus, those people went to the Middle East to find the sacred brotherhood, as it were, so that was the motif for the source -- those who know. Most people are very much in life and have a school, but it's a school that isn't in some mountain. So this found me, basically. My wife found me -- that was unconscious. The intention is met with an answer as it were.
What I found is that while part of me wanted to run away and find a master, get a load of beads and a hat and be sent to some remote place, once I met that master, I was sent back to be who I am. There's no change. There's just a refinement. That's informed my work unconsciously prior to and consciously afterwards. But that was 1980, and "Socrates" was just at the point where after I really came into contact with the samoon, as it were. That was around 1986.
One day that's going to come out somehow, but it comes out in who you are and not what you say, always, if you hold it. You can tell it all with one look, if you like. You can tell it all with one word or one look. You leave tinders in their hearts and leave it to burn them up, in the best possible way.
It's like seeds.
Yeah. But when people say, "Well you're a Muslim." I say, "I'm a Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, I'm a cowboy, I'm a rock star. Yes, everything. Thank you very much. Good night." People want to label you or say, "Are you going to bomb us?" "No I'm not going to bomb you. I'll bomb you with a love pill, and you'll be freaked out. I'll destroy your ego, but that's all."
I wonder if that's a hint as to why the others in Bauhaus couldn't keep up with me. I tell you I'm a handful. I'm wonderful. I think I'm one of the last marvelous eccentrics of the world. I think I'm Frank Sinatra, Elvis all rolled into one and more. It's just exhausting. Good question, though. They say some people have to learn it but some people are born with that taste [for that mystical path].