Chris Murray: Unstrictly Rude

Check out the full interview with Chris Murray here!

For the past twenty years, Chris Murray has been a unique, driving force in the worldwide ska scene. His career started normally enough, fronting Canadian third-wavers King Apparatus, but it was when Murray embarked upon a solo career that he truly made a name for himself. Murray recorded his first solo album, the fittingly titled The 4-Track Adventures of Venice Shoreline Chris, on a 4-track recorder for Moon Ska Records, following it up with 4-Trackaganza! on Asian Man Records before going even lower-fi for Raw, which was recorded on a portable Panasonic tape-player. Murray’s recordings stood out not only because of their stripped-down nature, but also because Murray was creating rich and powerful roots-influenced music better than most ska bands that boasted sevenman memberships. In recent years, Murray has become a figurehead in the ska scene, hosting Bluebeat Lounge, a weekly ska and reggae showcase at L.A.’s Knitting Factory and starting his own record label, Unstrictly Roots, among other efforts to keep traditional Jamaican-influenced ska alive and kicking. I recently had the chance to ask Murray about his various projects in the ska world as well as the state of ska music in general.

Though Murray’s career started in Canada, he quickly adapted to the Los Angeles ska scene upon moving there to pursue his solo career. “I’m most involved in what I’d call the rock steady scene that started with bands like Hepcat and Jump With Joey,” Murray said. “There has been a strong following for this kind of music in L.A. for almost 20 years now.” Though the foundation for Murray’s sound was already laid by the time he made it to California, he managed to set himself apart from the pack by playing largely acoustic Jamaican-influenced music. “Even in the King Apparatus days I was writing material for the band on an acoustic guitar and making 4-track demos to introduce new songs to the band,” Murray said. “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.” After convincing Moon Ska owner and Toasters frontman Rob “Bucket” Hingley to take a chance on his debut album, Murray began to play his brand of sparse singer/songwriter ska live and quickly grabbed the attention of the ska world. After performing as a solo artist for six years, Murray jumped back into making music with a band in the form of the Chris Murray Combo in 2002. Murray began jamming with drummer Ben Farrar and the duo began playing scattered shows in and around L.A. “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,” said Murray. Eventually, the duo became a trio with the addition of bassist Jeff Roffredo (who went on to join Tiger Army and is currently with The Aggrolites), who was later replaced with current bassist Eddie “Chiquis” Lozoya. The Combo manages to flesh out Murray’s solo style while retaining the steady, easy, laid-back feel that he has established on his own. Murray said, “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.”

Since 2003, Murray’s Bluebeat Lounge, has played host to such notable acts as The Skatalites, Westbound Train, Desmond Dekker, and Utah locals Two and a Half White Guys. Murray said, “There has always been a strong ska scene in L.A., so things started off well for Bluebeat Lounge and we’re now approaching the six year mark.” The success of Bluebeat Lounge is even more impressive when considering how little attention ska receives from the mainstream masses. “That ska is off the mainstream radar has never been much of a factor in my decision making process,” Murray said. “ 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 that have similar minded people in the crowd.”

Last year, Murray started his own record label, Unstrictly Roots. On starting a record label when the music industry is in shambles, Murray said, “I envision Unstrictly Roots as a boutique label, more driven by music than by business.” He continued, “Mostly my goal is to support great music I love when I think I can offer some assistance.” So far, Unstrictly Roots has released three albums: American Guitar by one-man-roots-blues-band Rizorkestra, Chris Murray’s collaboration with The Slackers, Slackness, and the debut recording by the Chris Murray Combo, Why So Rude. On using his label to release his own albums, Murray said, “Using myself as the guinea pig seemed like a good way to start,” though he does plan to extend the label’s roster in the future.

Murray’s longevity in the ska scene is remarkable, and being someone who has seen the music at both very high and very low points, he had a lot to say about the current state of the scene. “I think the ska scene right now is doing okay,” Murray said, “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.” However, Murray is quick to note that there is a serious lack of fresh blood in modern ska. “Today’s scene seems dominated by more veteran acts/artists who have been in the scene through good times and bad times—the stalwarts,” Murray said. “Once in a while, a new band like The Slackers or The Aggrolites [neither a new band anymore] comes along and really takes the music, and their own music, very seriously and delivers top quality Jamaican-influenced music with an original touch.” Though ska may currently be off most people’s radar, Murray hopes that it will once again become a respected genre that has more than just a small, die-hard audience.”To return to ska music being taken more seriously, my personal hope is that it will gain greater awareness as a roots style of music and find a home at folk festivals and wherever nonpop music flourishes.”

Chris Murray will be performing at The Depot on December 9th with Outlaw Nation and ska legends The English Beat.