When he plays guitar, he usually sits on a chair with a bottle of beer on the floor by his feet. When he sings, his voice is a boarish, Lucky-Striken rasp that sometimes sounds like Tom Waits delivering a tomcat serenade underneath a window. Behind him, a cymbal crashes like the clanging lid on a garbage can. The bass throbs like a hangover, and the band kicks into a disheveled, slightly-rumpled blend of blues and jazz tunes. They sound a little like Tin Pan Alley songs, but dented and tarnished beyond recognition. This is Royal Fingerbowl, and though the band has been together barely even two years, they’ve got a new record in the works, and people are talking about the trio of vocalist/guitarist Alex McMurray, bassist Andrew Wolf and drummer Kevin O’Day. And some people even feel they’re the best new New Orleans band to come along in years.
Their first demo recording was one of things that just happen so perfectly, it seems as if it were script-written. When it came time to put their first batch of songs on tape, the group — which had only recently come together as a working unit — simply went into the Mermaid Lounge during the day, and taped their repertoire live in the empty club, with the chairs stacked on the bar. The results were astonishingly good — the sound was rich and full like an old jazz record, every note was perfect, every cymbal splash fell in exactly the right place. (Although Alex later confesses, ‘I did a couple of the vocals over again, ’cause I can’t sing very good.”) The demo got immediate attention from several record companies, with New York-based independent label TVT ultimately offering the band a deal. In fact, at press time, that very same initial demo was still getting such raves that there was some talk of releasing parts of the demo as-is, an almost unheard — of occurrence in the music business. Pretty good for a band that probably hadn’t played before a thousand people, even with all the audiences at all their gigs combined, when they made the tape.
So if the band has gotten so far so quickly, what were they doing before? The answer is, actually, playing in lots of different bands, and they’re still doing it. Even now that their main project is taking off, Fingerbowl members still pop up all over town with a host of different bands and musical permutations. Collectively and individually, they’ve backed up Glyn Styler and jammed with various other spin-offs of the Mermaid Lounge scene; they’ve also been known to think up new band names and arrange one-off thematic performances, offering up interpretations of the entire scores from musical movies such as The Jungle Book or Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. At one point, the group even made it to New York with Glyn Styler (Alex, good-naturedly pantomimes the cool aloof star that Styler became on tour, whispering behind sunglasses: “I don’t know how you guys sit in a van all day. I’m going to fly from now on.”). Most importantly, McMurray and drummer Kevin O’Day also still play semi-regularly in brass/funk band All That, where they naturally fit into that band’s revolving-door schedule and free-for-all mindset. “Now, I’m a permanent sub for All That. I’m subbing for myself,” says Kevin.
Through speaking about his other experiences, especially the earlier bands before All That and Royal Fingerbowl, Alex gives clues about the roots behind Royal Fingerbowl’s dark, melancholy lyrics and weather-beaten, jalopy-jazz sound. “I was with this band the Reward. I tried to write a song but the singer just couldn’t do it. He would sing like a soul singer, you know, ‘Baby I love you, baby I love you,” stuff like that. And basically, at the end of being in the Vince Berman Trio, I was tired of trying to get people to dance, trying to be funky all the time, and all. It was time to sit down and write some unobtrusive music. You can listen to it, or you can not listen to it — whatever you want. I wanted to write songs for a quiet band that didn’t get in your face too much. You know, enjoy the bar, enjoy the people you’re with.We were playing gigs and people would try to have conversations and the band was too loud. It drives me crazy when I go to a bar and I can’t hear what’s going on, you know?”
“But we can get loud,” interrupts Andy. “We will get loud,” Kevin corrects.
“We got fired once for being too loud,” admits Alex.
“Well, we didn’t get actually fired. I left halfway through.” Andy says.
Kevin O’Day, the group’s drummer, says, “Andy walked out with a half hour left. We did the rest of the gig as a duo, and went to the bartender and said, ‘this just isn’t working out.'”
“It was time to move on,” reflects Andy, as if to explain his disappearance in mid-song.
Alex deflects the conversation into self-mocking sarcasm. “Now we’re playing at the Passion Cafe. It used to be Shoney’s, up on Decatur street by Jackson Square. We’ve got Monday happy hours there, over where they used to set up the salad bar.”
They’re joking about gigging in a daiquiri stand, but actually, all three are established veterans of the Exalted Grand Lodge Of Odd Gigs: Andy continues his resume, which, as he describes it, seems to gradually decline in quality, until it starts to sound more and more like a career that might befall a character in one of Alex’s songs: “I used to play ‘lonely music’ in the bar at the Fairmont Hotel. I did a lot of really bad casino gigs, hotels, weddings…anything that came along.”
Of the three, Alex probably holds the highest rank in the Where-Am-I-Playing-Tonight Club: “I did a bunch of Bourbon Street…the Old Opera House… ‘A Toast To New Orleans Band.’ Can you say ‘Mustang Sally,’ ten times in a row? Can you say ‘Dock Of The Bay?’ Can you say ‘The Saints?’ Can you say migraine? Can you say eight dollars per set? I was in Ben Hunter’s and Mike Ward’s band at the same time for like two years. I was in [reggae band] Crucial Roots for two years, but now he’s changed it to Ben Hunter ‘The Soul Avenger.’ That was a little after I cut out. And I still do All That.”
Meanwhile, drummer Kevin O’Day was studying jazz at school, but finding himself spending more time doing the journeyman-musician thing as well. “I started off studying jazz,” he relates. “Nobody can really teach you how to play jazz. They kind of trick you… ‘Jazz Studies Program — learn how to play jazz,’ but it’s really not like that. So I was just trying to finish my degree and just got bored by the whole thing.” He scrutinizes the contents of his cup of coffee intently. “Not really one of the highlights of my existence.”
“But I did get to study with Johnny Vidacovich,” he says, looking up. “That was it. That was worth the price of admission right there. And I got to play with those Astral Project guys. It got me into playing music around New Orleans.” Anyone who knows New Orleans music will tell you that not only is Vidacovich a master drummer, he’s the kind of teacher who will teach you practical lessons that don’t take place behind the drum kit. Things like ‘this is your address book. Here’s how to use it to get gigs.’ “I got introduced to a lot of people, definitely,” Kevin recalls. “Definitely. Johnny showed me what I needed to know to work. He’s a bad mutha…”
But where did Royal Fingerbowl’s brand of crackpot-cabaret music come from? Did the ramshackle, gravel-throated singer who sounds like he just fell out of a flophouse window really grow up in suburban New Jersey? “I grew up a few miles from Asbury Park, which is the Boss’ old stomping grounds,” Alex confirms. “Although he was actually from Freehold, originally, which is the county seat of Monmouth County. They have the Courthouse there and everything. There was a lot of Bruce Springsteen around when I was growing up…but I mean, it wasn’t such a wasteland. I also listened to Miles Davis and stuff…” Though blighted in many people’s minds by association with malls and the Boss, New Jersey can actually be a disheartening place, full of forlorn truck stops, rainy diners, and bleak industrial expanses. These are clearly as much an influence behind the downtrodden cast of miscreants and losers who populate the lyrics of Royal Fingerbowl’s songs as any New Orleans backdrop.
One reviewer commented that the lyrics to the songs on their demo were populated with “more neighborhood crazies than A Confederacy Of Dunces.” Many of Royal Fingerbowl’s songs are set in New Orleans, with lyrics that include references to being “stuck behind a semi on Soniat Street,” or a description of the Popeye’s Chicken stand on St. Bernard Avenue. But McMurray is wary of making too much of the influence of his New Orleans environment upon his music. “I’ve been here a while, and I spend my days walking around, so I guess it seeps in. I don’t try and think of specific ‘New Orleansy’ things, really. Not like what you see on The Big Easy, where there’s an Abita or Dixie sign in the background of every shot. It’s just gonna get in there somewhere, though. There’s a lot of characters and weirdos around here. Nobody has jobs, so people tend to just hang around a lot more. It’s not the richest town in the world, so you’re gonna have a lot of desperate people just wandering around. I suppose that’s good. It’s a small town, and it’s falling apart, decaying at quite a pace. So that’s inspiring.” He laughs, or coughs, or something in-between, and leans back.
A few days later, in the last conversation for this article, a beleaguered but genial Alex phones in on Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras, during the seasonal marathon of gigs familiar to every working New Orleans musician. “I went up to Baton Rouge with All That one night, [Royal Fingerbowl had] two gigs on Friday night, then Saturday night, then last night we played with the Iguanas, and now tonight, but I’m off tomorrow. For Mardi Gras, I’m marching with the Lyons marching club.” You can audibly hear him run a hand through his hair, even over the phone.
They’ve already made it to New York twice, Boston at least three times, and almost every show in both cities has drawn a bigger crowd than the time before. They played in front of schmoozing record industry crowds at the Gavin Convention here in New Orleans right after Mardi Gras, and in March they’ll be playing a special showcase at the South By Southwest festival in Austin. They’re hoping to have their debut record out in time for Jazz Fest at the end of April. It’s not all popping flashbulbs and bright beaming klieg lights, but things are definitely happening for the band.
Alex has the last word, leaning back in a diner booth, spoken on the brink of his debut album, looking ahead. Even then, he seems to be thinking about the reactions of all the other musicians he’s gigged around with. “What I’m looking forward to is the antagonism from our friends and peers. Relishing the backlash. Hearing what people say.” He leans back and exhales a line of smoke into the air. “‘You guys sound like a bunch of pompous jerks! You guys are rich now, buy me a car!'”