Falling in love with Alex McMurray is easy. He possesses a certain unintentional charm, both onstage and off. It is the kind of charm specific to the perpetually heartbroken singer-songwriter who may or may not be on the brink of greatness. It is a cliché, this charm, but it is undeniable even as he bounces up and down, singing sea shanties, flanked by a washboard player and a sousaphone player, on Monday nights at El Matador.
It’s not just me. Musicians throughout New Orleans name him as both a talented songwriter and an influence. Sure, McMurray has a reputation for being difficult at times, but his audiences, whether he’s playing with his band the Tin Men or playing solo gigs, invariably include at least a couple of smitten young women, and their equally smitten musician boyfriends.
Curious Midwestern tourists wander into El Matador when the Tin Men are playing on Monday nights, and often they find a seat at the bar and stay. They make requests, put a couple of dollars in the tip jar, and the McMurray charm catches them off guard. The Tin Men have been known to play Pink Floyd covers, Rizzo’s song from Grease (“There Are Worse Things I Could Do)” and ragtime classics.
More often than not, the real people-pleasers are McMurray originals like “Drunk and in Love” or its follow-up, “Still Drunk,” odes to a lifestyle which includes drunken nights out followed by regrets and broken promises.
The “Drunk Cycle” is typical of McMurray’s self-deprecating sense of humor. It’s a uniquely New Orleans sense of humor, one which typically masks a sense that we might, in fact, be living a pathetic existence, but if we can laugh about it, surely it’s not as wretched as it might be if we took it seriously. The Tin Men embrace this discord, with their style (fun, accessible, undeniably good) and their swagger (broken only when the subject of the tip jar comes up).
People in New Orleans have a unique type of memory, in which McMurray is still the goateed front man of Royal Fingerbowl, the band with which McMurray played for several years, and which was signed to TVT records before all was said and done. Getting a record deal, to many bands in New Orleans, means success. For McMurray, however, it was a double-edged sword.
“On the one hand, they pay you to make records. On the other hand, they pay you to make records,” he quips.
He liked having money to tour. He did not respond as well to pressure from the label regarding creative choices. In the end, McMurray explains, “There was no joy in it for me anymore.”
Off-stage, McMurray throws out contradictions left and right. He would like to be considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history, he says with confidence, but also admits that it’s an unlikely outcome given that he’s “the laziest person you’ll ever meet.”
He may be lazy, but McMurray does not deny that he aspires to greatness, is capable of greatness. His face turns toward the floor, and if it stayed there, I would think he is embarrassed. McMurray’s eyes shift upward. When he makes eye contact he is saying something important.
“I know I have a skill,” he admits, “I can write songs.”
He expresses admiration for Leonard Bernstein, and his sense of discipline, going to work from nine to five everyday, writing songs. McMurray immediately follows up the Bernstein remark with a disclaimer: that discipline is something he himself does not possess.
BIG IN JAPAN?
In May of last year, a while after the breakup of Royal Fingerbowl, McMurray decided to take a job that most musicians would call unorthodox. He flew to Tokyo, and picked up the alter ego of Captain Sandy, a sea shanty singing “atmosphere guy” at Tokyo Disney Sea. “It’s right next to Tokyo Disneyland. It’s more entertainment than rides…a lot of shows.”
McMurray spent six months in Tokyo. It was his equivalent of backpacking in Europe…without the human interaction. He was alone at his hotel. He was alone on the train. It was during his time in Japan that McMurray realized how necessary contact with other human beings is. He implies that this is a lesson he needed to learn.
“I just started going nuts,” McMurray says. So he ordered 180 Valium from a South African company who would ship it to him. For a month-and-a-half McMurray ate Valium and worked as Captain Sandy. “I was just…numbing myself.”
McMurray has told this story so many times that there are grooves worn into some of the words. He knows just which ones to stress for full effect. Hotel. Incredible. He backs off of words like loneliness.
For months McMurray walked around the amusement park performing in front of tourists who had no idea what he was singing.
“It was as close to madness as I ever want to be,” McMurray says. “The loneliness was incredible.”
He talks about other performers at the park, and how they ate their lunch together while, because of his schedule, McMurray ate alone. It’s heartbreaking, like hearing the story of a twelve-year-old boy who sits all alone in the school cafeteria because his mother picks out his clothes and cuts his hair. I want to give him a hug. I don’t.
It is, at times, difficult to tell if McMurray is just a fan of using cliché in everyday speech, or if he actually thinks in cliché. Some of this he brings upon himself. The idea of Alex McMurray: young, tortured, and difficult songwriter, is underscored by his reputation with local bartenders.
It is with this particular demographic that Alex McMurray, the man, not the musician, has had its greatest impact. His charm seems to have affected the female bartenders, who admit that he can be difficult, but wink and say he’s not as bad as his reputation would suggest. Of course not, I think. I’ve seen the way he looks at girls at three in the morning; the McMurray charm is almost as effective following shows as it is during.
But its effect on men disappears with the last reverberation off El Matador’s tin ceiling. McMurray is smart, engaging, and, occasionally, smug. As if that weren’t enough to solidify his standing as an asshole among local hipsters, the guitar case (slung over his shoulder on after-show outings) raises their feelings of inadequacy significantly.
A bottle of Bud sometimes seems like a prop, an extension of McMurray’s arm, when he’s not holding a guitar. The previously mentioned “Drunk Cycle” as well as numerous other McMurray songs do add to his reputation as local lush and bad-boy, and McMurray makes no apologies for this. He does appear to be confused by the bad-boy bit. He seems entirely unaware of the effect he has on women. It not exactly the Tommy Lee syndrome. McMurray’s allure is much less overt. The charm is there even when he’s calling me names after I beat him at pool (Final Score: McMurray- 2, Hardy- 1).
There are moments when McMurray’s reputation grows more solid roots. When he is on guard, testing his audience (especially offstage). When he uses big words and makes obscure references. He will detail the history of the sousaphone (John Philip Sousa, director of a Marine marching band needed a tuba with an upright bell that could be easily carried) in the midst of an interview, and then call Matt Perrine of the Tin Men to verify the weight of a sousaphone (about 20 pounds).
McMurray is showing off with the unsolicited history of the tuba’s close relative, but the charm kicks back in with the phone call. He is humbling himself. It’s not hard to imagine an over-worked, under-appreciated bartender losing his patience with this sort of thing.
When asked why he people think he’s an asshole, McMurray doesn’t miss a beat.
“I brook no skullduggery,” he replies.
Ok, I’ll bite. I ask for a translation.
“I don’t suffer fools. When people are idiotic, I don’t really look the other way,” he says. “Or maybe I’m just a little bit thoughtless.”
AN IRISH FUCKUP
McMurray says that Banjaxed, the title of his first solo album, is Irish slang for being “frustrated or stymied via a fuckup, usually involving booze.”
McMurray admits that Banjaxed is a “little bit dreary,” and, at times, it is. “Effortless Binge” is standard Alex McMurray fare, but like most of his solo album, it is a bit more vulnerable, both lyrically and musically, than his previous efforts. I typically shy away from songs that include holidays/neighborhoods/themes that are exclusive to New Orleans, but McMurray’s “The Day After Mardi Gras Day” is the most accurate description of the empty feeling that creeps in immediately following Fat Tuesday I’ve ever heard.
“Your pocket’s a little lighter/ You’re reelin’ in the dawn/ You make your way down Esplanade/ After everybody’s gone”
It’s the kind of description that I didn’t even know I needed until I heard it.
McMurray establishes this emotional connection by making his songs intensely personal, by using details that could not possibly apply to everyone, yet somehow do.
On the possibility of getting a new record deal as a result of shopping Banjaxed, McMurray is diplomatic. He would like to get one, he says, but says that he won’t be heartbroken if it doesn’t happen.
Banjaxed is the result of McMurray’s return to New Orleans. It was started before the trip to Tokyo, and Carlo Nuccio tracked the drums while McMurray was in Japan.
While recording Banjaxed, McMurray consciously strayed from the road he’d taken with Royal Fingerbowl. He admits that Banjaxed is basically what a Royal Fingerbowl record would be at this point (many of the same players, same songwriter). The pressure McMurray felt in the last days with Royal Fingerbowl has dissipated some.
“This time I just recorded it where I live,” he says. Does he mean that the recording is stripped-down and authentic? Or does he mean that it was recorded in his house? McMurray continues, “We recorded it in the back room of the house where I live.”
He stresses the point that his solo album is the product of making a record just for the sake of getting the songs out there. As a result, the final product, a collection of 15 songs, will doubtlessly be called lazy by some people. McMurray admits that there are “definitely time problems.” This is to be expected from a session that focused on the songs rather than a click track. Other than the time issue, and the occasional buzz (on the bowed bass track), Banjaxed is a stellar example of McMurray’s talent. His songs are simple narratives of sincere characters over melodies that embody a confident maturity.
Although McMurray says of the album, “I just went in and I sang with a guitar…then I just walked away,” it is clearly a focused endeavor. McMurray compiled a band of locals that includes James Singleton on bass, Bob Andrews playing organ and piano, and Glenn Hartman playing the accordion.
“I like the tunes,” McMurray says, “and I think people should hear them.”
The second to last song on Banjaxed, “Barry’s Fashion Lighters,” is a bit of amusing lounge music tucked into an otherwise solemn collection of songs. McMurray’s decision to include such a light number isn’t surprising; McMurray does this regularly in his live sets, as well as in conversation. He will talk openly for a few minutes about his first trip to Europe, playing with a gospel band, and the pride he felt, getting paid to go to Europe.
“That was a huge victory,” he says.
That was when he realized he could play music for a living. “Not just be a rock star…. I gave up on that shit years ago,” he says.
Our conversation has been fairly serious for about three minutes. Too long. “Come on! Look at me! I’m never going to be on the cover of fuckin’ Rolling Stone magazine!”
He’s no Britney, but he’s far better looking than, say, Thom Yorke.
McMurray is uniquely self-aware, and he possesses an astute sense of performance. He knows that every person he encounters is an audience, in one way or another, and he performs. Relentlessly. The amazing contradiction in this is that, off stage, McMurray performs with little regard to his audience. It is an ever-present, but anonymous audience. This disconnect is what gets people. McMurray’s demeanor infuriates bartenders. It piques the interests of women. It is the “walk” which is often missing when musicians talk about creating for the sake of creating.
McMurray is rarely in between extremes. He is either actively trying to sell himself or apologizing for thinking that he should. On stage, he moves quickly between grace (there are moments) and refined chaos. In conversation, he is either sincere or patronizing, and he moves back and forth between the two with ease.
There is one time when I see McMurray let his guard down. I ask him if he thinks people in New Orleans have counted him out. He looks disappointed by the suggestion, says that he’s never even thought about it.
He pauses, and then says, “I don’t think anybody ever counted me in.”
McMurray is quiet for a few seconds. “I don’t know,” he says, “There’s not much attention paid to what I do.”
It occurs to me that McMurray may be thinking about John Travolta on Inside the Actors Studio. He mentioned seeing this interview earlier, said he “nearly wept” upon hearing Travolta say that as soon as you count yourself out, you’re finished.
Is McMurray thinking about Travolta as he lists his gigs with the Tin Men and the importance of his weekly solo gigs at the Circle Bar? It is there that he workshops new songs, he says. He emphasizes the importance of playing new material in front of people, in terms of understanding his own limitations.
McMurray stops, looks up, makes eye contact. He repeats my earlier question.
“Count me out?” he asks. “No…. I’ve got this weird belief that what I’m doing is good.”
Japanese Girls: “I don’t really have the ‘yellow fever,’ plus I had an American girlfriend who got there a few months after I got there.”
Sushi & Sashimi:“It’s what you eat every day. I ate sushi every day. They had a supermarket next to where we lived and on my way home, I would stop. They had this section that’s pretty much all sushi. It comes in a bento box. I was more into sashimi—slabs of raw fish. A couple of gyozas—little dumplings, some asparagus, an apple and you’re all set.”
Alex’s Favorite Karaoke Songs: “I Fall To Pieces” by Patsy Cline and “Wheel In The Sky” by Journey. “You pay by the hour for a private karaoke room. It’s around 40 bucks—4,000 yen–an hour. The Japanese are sort of an inhibited people. But you can be on a train and there’s little 12-, 13-year-old girls reading these manga comics that are as thick as phone books illustrated with these huge phalluses and this over-sexual stuff. There’s a lot of flashing and flashers on trains—a lot of groping on trains.”
The Japanese Passion for Costuming: “In Yoyogi Park every Sunday, there’s this whole goth girl parade. The Japanese look great in costumes. Plus, they’re all wearing uniforms. Everybody’s in uniforms every day—the ‘Salary Man’ wears a uniform, the ‘Office Lady’ wears a uniform, the school kids wear uniforms and their grandmothers wear uniforms. Costumes are an escape.”
The Most Beautiful Sights in Japan: “We had a typhoon a few times—that was really neat. It’s a hurricane, except going the other way. I missed the Cherry Blossom Season. Tokyo’s a concrete fantasy. Ueno Park was beautiful. I didn’t really go into any temples or anything.”
Japanese Fetishism:“The Japanese are fetishists. There’s a pocket of fandom for everything. You see boom-box Elvises in the parks—these guys in greaser outfits: black t-shirts, black jeans, motorcycle boots and these pompadours sticking out this far. For eight hours, they would twist in a circle. One guy would go in the middle and shake it, then he would go back to the perimeter and another guy would go in the center and dance. For eight hours.”