Chris Murray: The Full Interview

Posted December 6, 2008 in
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Here’s the complete text of my interview with Chris Murray, Head over to chrismurray.net for more info on the prolific one-man ska band and check out unstrictlyroots.com to learn more about Murray’s record label. Be sure to check out the feature on Murray in the December 2008 issue of SLUG and catch his performance with the English Beat at The Depot on December 9th.



SLUG: Growing up, I always thought of LA as kind of a ska mecca. As someone involved with the current LA ska scene, how would you describe it?
Chris Murray: Right now I'd say there are multiple ska scenes in LA. I'm most involved in what I'd call the rock steady scene that started with bands like Hepcat and Jump With Joey. There has been a strong following for this kind of music in LA for almost 20 years now.
Perhaps the most thriving LA ska scene is known as the mexiska scene, which is basically hispanic bands. Some of these bands cross over into other scenes, but many of them play only mexiska events. There's a strong backyard party scene for mexiska bands. This is by far the most grass roots and active scene locally at the moment.
Beyond these, there's also a loose scene that involves, for lack of better descriptive term, post-Reel Big Fish acts. This used to be a much bigger scene, but I believe it's still doing pretty well in nearby Orange County. I'm somewhat out of the loop with this scene.
All these scenes tend to cross over somewhat, or at least certain acts will, but there is definitely a bit of self-imposed segregation as well that comes from people in each scene knowing other people in those scenes and being into the same music.

SLUG: How did you first become interested in ska? What drew you to the music?
CM: The first ska I remember hearing was the Madness version of One Step Beyond. I became a huge Two Tone fan back in the day, and this was actually a great way to learn about ska as all the Two Tone acts covered original era Jamaican songs as well as writing their own material, this opening the door to a huge body of music that young people of my time were not familiar with at all. Two Tone was a very special moment for ska in my opinion. The music was fresh but also firmly rooted, and many of the songs had very strong political or social messages.

SLUG: You're known largely for your stripped-down solo recordings. How did you come to perform ska and reggae music acoustically?
CM: Well, even in the King Apparatus days I was writing material for the band on acoustic guitar and making 4-track demos to introduce new songs to the band. When King Apparatus ended I continued to write, more and more in an authentic ska style, and to make 4-track recordings of the tunes I was composing.
Once I'd arranged the release of The 4-Track Adventures through Moon, I started performing solo acoustic.

SLUG: How did the Bluebeat Lounge come about? What made you want to start a weekly ska and reggae showcase in a time when ska is so far off the mainstream radar?
CM: John Pantle, a huge ska fan who used to be the main agent at Knitting Factory, offered me a weekly residency in the small room at KF back at the end of 2002. My approach is to say yes first when opportunity knocks then ask questions, so I started Bluebeat Lounge at the beginning of 2003.
There has always been a strong ska scene in LA, so things started off well for Bluebeat Lounge and we're now approaching the six year mark!
That ska is off the mainstream radar has never been much of a factor in my decision making process. In some ways, ska being off the beaten path makes it more suited to being a "scene" stye of music. The people who are into ska tend to be very into it, and tend to like that shows have similar minded people in the crowd. This has been both a good and bad thing for ska music over the years.

SLUG: Kind of related, what made you want to start a record label at a time when the music industry is struggling?
CM: I'd done a few releases through Asian Man, and had a great experience with that. I'd thought of starting my own label many times over the years, then one day Mike Park said to me, almost apologetically, that I was selling most of the CDs of mine that were being sold through Asian Man. I envision Unstrictly Roots as a boutique label, more driven by music than by business. There is a lot of great music being made and very few outlets for most of it. Mostly my goal is to support great music I love when I think I can offer some assistance.

SLUG: Currently, Unstrictly Roots has released three albums, two of which feature you. Are there any plans to bring other artists onto the Unstrictly Roots label?
CM: I think this will happen in time. Feeling like I have something to offer an artist is a big factor in why Unstrictly Roots has mostly put out my own releases so far. I knew I'd be able to look after my own releases in a way that satisfied me. Using myself as the guinea pig seemed like a good way to start. Most of the people I work with musically are good friends, so I'm hesitant to sign every band I know up to release on Unstrictly Roots while the label is at such a preliminary stage of operation.

SLUG: How did your collaboration with The Slackers come about? Do you have any plans for future collaborations with any other notable musicians?
CM: Years ago I did a couple of tracks with Steady Ups from Sacramento and we started talking about doing more towards making an album together. Around that time, I gigged in Sacramento with The Slackers, who I'd known for years, and one of the Steady Ups members told Marcus, Slackers bassie, that we were planning to do an album together.
Marcus came to me and said, "if you're going to do an album with a backing band it had better be The Slackers", or something like that. Of course I said yes, then asked questions, like when can we do this? It took a long time to answer that question, but eventually we found the time and I'm really glad we did.

SLUG: Is your upcoming tour with The English Beat a solo tour, or will the Chris Murray Combo be accompanying you?
CM: I'll be doing those dates solo.

SLUG: Speaking of the Chris Murray Combo, how long has that project existed? What made you want to jump from the solo project to performing with a band again?
CM: CMC has been playing for over five years now. It happened very organically. I'd jammed with the drummer, Ben, a number of times over the years, and we'd started to do some shows as a duo. Then, here comes a familiar name again, John Pantle asked if I'd like to find a bass player for a show he was presenting.
So, I asked Jeff Roffredo, who now plays with The Aggrolites, we did the gig, and Jeff stayed with the combo for a year, until he left to play with Tiger Army for a few years. When Jeff left, we asked Chiquis to come to Japan with us for a tour that was already booked, and he has stayed in the combo ever since.
Ben is an amazing drummer, and I really love playing with him. It wasn't so much a conscious decision to start up a band. It just kind of happened as we were doing something we both loved. Right now I love being able to play either solo or with the combo. It keeps things fresh for me and also leaves me very flexible.

SLUG: One of my favorite tracks on Why so Rude? is the cover of "Michael & Anne." What made you want to go back and cover a song that you wrote so long ago?
CM: Again, covering Michael & Anne happened very organically. It had been getting a lot of requests at CMC shows, so we learned it and started putting it in the set.
At the time that Victor Rice was in LA and asked us if we wanted to do some recording, which ended up becoming Why So Rude, the song was very fresh for us and we were having a good time playing it, a primary criterion when we decided on tracks to record for the album.

SLUG: We're about ten years past the "ska explosion" of the late 1990s. How do you think the genre as a whole is doing these days? What do you think it will take for ska to be taken seriously and gain a wider audience?
CM: There are a few questions lumped together here. I'll try to address them all.
I think the ska scene right now is doing okay. The audience is much bigger than it was 15 years ago when I still had to explain what ska music was to every second person I ran into. Today's scene seems dominated by more veteran acts/artists who have been in the scene through good times and bad times - the stalwarts. Some fresh blood with a fresh approach, great songs, recordings and live show would really do the scene well overall right about now.
In the US, the scene seems very regional to me with fewer bands touring nationally than used to when gas cost less than a buck a gallon. The internet has made it possible to build a fanbase without having to show up in person, although live shows will always be the name of the game with ska music.
As far as ska music being taken more seriously and gaining a wider audience, I don't think there's a simple answer. If these things do happen it will likely be a result of more than one thing happening.
As far as ska music getting taken more seriously, I think that will depend on some new bands coming into the scene that really take the music seriously. I've seen many young ska bands that don't really take themselves or ska music very seriously, and they tend not to last very long.
Once in a while a new band like The Slackers or The Aggrolites (neither a new band anymore) comes along and rally takes the music, and their own music, very seriously and delivers top quality Jamaican influenced music with an original touch.
Bands like these do increase the audience for ska music, in part by actively looking to play with bands from other genres, but for ska music to gain a large audience quickly will probably involve some new act coming along with a great sound, a great song, a great look and the whole package together that a larger record company will se the potential in and put some considerable marketing resources behind - a next Sublime, a next No Doubt.
To return to ska music being taken more seriously, my personal hope is that it will gan a greater awareness as a roots style of music and find a home at folk festivals and wherever non-pop music flourishes. This will take some time.