Matthew Murphy talks The Wombats, Love Fame Tragedy and life in lock-downed LA
Jade Poulters | 13/12/2020
Lead singer of The Wombats, Matthew Murphy, joined us from his home in LA where we discussed all things The Wombats, Love Fame Tragedy, industry hardships and his own experience of mental illness. The UK is currently in its second lockdown of the year, but we spoke to Matt from LA where he lives with his wife and daughter, and where they’ve had a much different experience with the pandemic. “It’s pretty much been locked down since March/April in California. There’s been no indoor dining, no indoor bars or anything. Shops are at like 25% capacity; it’s pretty much been locked down the whole time. Different cities and counties in California have a rough tier system similar to the ones in England, and LA has just been like tier 3 for months now.”
We couldn’t not discuss the burning topic of the US election as we spoke to Murph only days after Joe Biden was officially announced at President-Elect of the United States. While over here we were only able to experience what we saw through the news or social media posts Murph had a front-row seat to the celebrations in the streets of California. “There were parties in the Democratic cities, in New York and LA. I think the majority of people are really happy to see the back of Donald Trump, regardless of whether you agreed with his policies or not. I think he was probably a divisive figure and just exhausting, and not good for the general mindset of the United States. But I’m quite lucky in that I have a lot of friends on both sides of the aisle. And it seems to me that the biggest issue is trying to facilitate a decent conversation between them, because it’s not true that all Democrats are communists nor is it true that all Trump supporters are racist and idiots. There is definitely a lot of work to be done.”
In 2018, Murph announced that he had written 20 tracks for a new EP called “I Don’t Want to Play the Victim, But I’m Really Good at It”. Later, in June 2019, he revealed it would be released as part of a solo project going by the name Love Fame Tragedy. “There were two songs that could have arguably been on the 4th Wombat’s album, then I just wanted to put them up online and I just started writing a lot and all these great songs came out. I thought, well, I could do something different. Working with other artist was not something we did in The Wombats and I figured I’ve made all these friends now in cool bands, let’s get some people in the studio together and see what happens. I guess I toyed with the idea of doing something on my own and it felt like after the fourth album was probably the right time to launch it. I’m really happy with how it’s gone, even though it was a pretty scary process. I think it made coming back into The Wombats world more exciting as well I think it’s good to spin a few plates sometimes.” Some of these amazing people he got to work with being Dan Smith from Bastille an up-and-coming artist Maddie Gene Waterhouse. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but it just never happened. So, starting my own thing to do that was definitely the right move”
These new collaborative ventures have overlapped into The Wombats newest material as they recently featured on Peking Duk’s new single ‘Nothing to Love About Love’. “I have written songs with other artists before and then one day I just looked in my diary and saw that I was writing with Peking Duk. I never thought it was going to be me singing the song, or that it was going to be a Wombats feature or anything. I just kind of wrote the song with them then before I knew it, it was featuring The Wombats, and they wanted me to sing on it, so I don’t know how that came about. I think I was kind of slightly entrapped by Peking Duk in some funny way.”
Going out on his own also allowed Murph to be a lot more open and grittier about his experiences with mental health. The song ‘5150’ on his debut album was inspired by The California law code for the temporary, involuntary psychiatric commitment of individuals into mental institutions. “I guess I learned about this code 5150. It’s when someone’s a danger to themselves or others and possibly needs to be sectioned in one way or another, and I kind of related to it. Then I made up this crazy story about a guy driving to Phoenix to go on a bender. So, it is that code that inspired the song and I definitely see aspects of myself in the character I made up for it” When I asked him about how he felt he related to this character he describes to me his decades long battle with mental illness. “I’ve had Depression and Anxiety since I was about 16. I’ve had three sizable episodes that have required treatment. Yeah, it’s f*****g mad isn’t it? But I’ve got a lot better and I’ve learned how to deal with it. I do therapy and I take fluoxetine, although not as much as my dog. My dog is on three times more fluoxetine than I am. She’s on loads of the stuff, her breakfast looks crazy.”
“I’ve just learnt different ways of dealing with it and learnt to accept it. I’m almost at a point where it’s not disruptive, and when it’s not disruptive I can use it to my advantage in some ways. In terms of things that have really helped me, aside from getting a great therapist, it’s exercise and really being a witness to my thoughts, and not being completely attached to every single thought I have and knowing when something is worthwhile listening to and when it just needs to be let go of. I think it took me a long time to exercise the free will over my thoughts. I was deeply connected to them and thought that they represented some kind of truth, but the older and wiser you get, you learn to think of the brain and the mind as a muscle something that kind of spasms when it is telling you you need something else”
Mental illness wasn’t something The Wombats completely ignored, their song ‘Anti-D’ from their second album ‘…This Modern Glitch’ very openly tackled the topic, retelling a time when he attempted to come off his medication. “I was in Spain with my girlfriend at the time, I was on citalopram and I decided to stop taking it, and I just felt awful. I tapered down everything, but I just felt really weird, and that’s where the song came from, it was a love song to that drug really.” But it’s the progress society has made in the years since around the issues of mental illness and wellness that made Murph feel more comfortable to delve more deeply into the matter in his solo project, as well as his desire to contribute to the creation of a world more accepting and loving for his daughters to grow up in.
“I do think the stigma is changing, due to the work of people like yourself, and it is so much easier to talk about. I can see how over l the last 10 years people have become more vulnerable, and more open to talking about things like this. I think that’s amazing. Simple things like kids’ TV shows are already teaching them about how to breathe properly and when you get stressed out, breathe in for 10 seconds and blow out for 20, which is something that never even entered the mind in Liverpool. It was like ‘oh you feel sad, have a pint of bitter and pipe down’”.
“Something that’s really good I’d say is to meditate. Not everyone has to do Kundalini Yoga at school, but just having an awareness of being in your body and knowing how to breathe, that is really helpful. I’d like my daughter to be involved in that. I don’t want religion to be taught in school either, I think that’s something I’d like her to find by herself. I wish I had that opportunity. I think that may have been the start of where the cheese slid off the cracker for me a little bit. As I started to realise that maybe everything I was being told, not just about religion, wasn’t true and it took me a while to learn to question things. Where if I was taught to question everything from the word go then I would have been better at it and stronger.”
Having lived in both the UK and America Murph has been able to see some key differences between the countries and its residents approaches and attitudes towards mental health and perhaps somethings that we can learn from our friends across the pond. “People definitely go to the doctors a lot more often here it’s more preventative, when in the UK it’s only when actually when s**t goes down then you go and see the doctor. Maybe there’s more of an aspect of preventative medicine and preventative approaches to things that we don’t have. But there is also a dramatic difference between the outlook of an average American and the outlook of an average Brit. I have found that people are more open, and maybe more willing to tackle the problems head-on here, and that’s a huge generalisation, but let’s put it this way. If we grab 10 of my friends from LA and I talked about mental health to them in 8 out of 10 It would be an easy conversation and we would both feel better for at the end. If I took 10 of my friends in the UK, at least half of them would shut down the conversation, it wouldn’t go any further than that. And I think that’s how we’ve been raised in the UK.”
Growing up just outside of Liverpool my first dive into the local music scene was through The Wombats, and with them recently sharing some old videos from their first HMV store performance online I couldn’t miss the opportunity to reminisce about those early days. “My first thought was what the hell is going on with my hair, I look like some skinny Krusty the Clown. But it’s great looking back at them and just seeing how we were all really young, and just fizzing with energy and determination. Sometimes it’s nice, looking back at those things, but I definitely did not post it. That was someone on the social media team.”
The story of The Wombats rise from the streets of Woolton to the main stage at Reading and Leeds is well told but having been gigging for nearly 20 years I wanted to hear the tale straight from the horse’s mouth and maybe get some pearls of wisdom that only being in the industry that long can present to you. “I did a music degree at LIPA (Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts) and they had studios there, so that’s where we booked out for the recording. The only time slots we could get were between midnight and 6:00 AM sometimes, so we would just go in and try to hammer out as much as we could. We used the tour around in Dan’s grandma’s tiny little van, and just squeeze so much gear into it and travel like bastards up and down the country all for free it was really crazy. We once played Dublin Castle to about 20 people. The only reason we did the gig was because someone at Sony BMG had sent our manager an email saying he was going to be there, he was probably like a 19-year-old A&R scout, but we were endlessly hopeful and just thought ‘this could be it’. We went down and played a horrendous gig to him, and then got hammered afterwards. I think we drove to Newcastle or Glasgow the following morning for another gig, it was like a 7-hour drive. But we just had so much energy and so much drive that was how we got through it."
“I think the first proper big studio we recorded in was down in London in Rak studios, we did our second album in LA, and then the third in both LA and London. The guy who produced the last three albums is Mark Crew who is based in London. But we will go anywhere, I think that we would record on the top of Kilimanjaro if there was a studio there.” For a band who’s been in the game for so long maintaining a significant level of success, they are a huge inspiration for countless other indie outfits around the North West looking for that big break. So, I asked Murph where he felt The Wombats got theirs “I don’t think we had a quantifying defining moment, it was just a constant hustle throughout our career. To end up playing big slots at Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds, and Coachella it’s hard to quantify that really. It doesn’t feel like we ever got the big break or whatever. It’s just been a constant slow grind where things just kept getting better for us really. There’s never been one moment that defined our career, or one person who came in and did something that made it huge, it’s just been writing songs, touring, writing songs, touring and just keeping on that path really”
“I think 2019, Glastonbury and Reading were big for us, and it was one of those moments where all three of us were like, wow, the hard work is beginning to pay off.” And like most bands, the grind wasn’t all glamour and success “With the fourth album, and a lot of stuff that happened after the third album behind the scenes with labels, there was a sense of abandonment at one point and we had to regroup, refocus, and get it done. I feel like we did that, so that was one of my proudest moments. On the back of the success of that, I felt comfortable doing the solo project, doing Love Fame Tragedy. Whenever the hardest things happen, when life feels the hardest, the most difficult, that’s usually an indication that great things are going to be around the corner. Even though I don’t necessarily think like that, but when I look back in the past, it’s all the best moments of my life that have happened from things rubbing together.”
The promise of a more fruitful 2021 is still looming in the air and Murph briefly detailed some of his plans for the new year. “We’ve got lots of great songs ready to go, it’s just a question of pulling the trigger on that. I’m definitely going to be in The Wombats world for quite a while and then dealing with having two daughters, that’s what I’m going to focus on. I’m going to focus on those two things for the moment.”