CHRIS MURRAY
interview and image by vinnie baggadonuts

FOR ME, IT ALL BEGAN WITH "LET THERE BE PEACE". IT WAS A LIVE RECORDING-- A BOOTLEG-- AND I DOWNLOADED IT FROM THE INTERNET. BUT BEFORE YOU GO CURSING INTERNET PIRACY TO HIGH HEAVEN, UNDERSTAND THAT THAT SINGLE SONG COMPELLED ME TO SEEK OUT AND PURCHASE EVERY PIECE OF MUSIC THAT MAN'S HAD HIS HANDS IN. HE'S THAT GOOD.

Vinnie: Can you remember a time when music wasn't your passion?

Chris: Not really. Both my parents played instruments and sang, so I was immersed in music from as far back as I can remember.

V: When did Jamaican music enter your life?

C: I have very early memories of my mother at the piano singing “Yellow Bird”. Back in the early '70s I remember hearing songs like “I Can See Clearly Now” and the Clapton version of “I Shot The Sheriff” on the radio, as well as hearing songs like “Obladi, Oblada”. The bands that actually really hooked me on ska and reggae were primarily UK groups like UB40 and two tone acts. I can't really remember when I started hearing Bob Marley, but it was also a long time ago.

V: So, when you were listening to all those albums by legends like Derrick Morgan, and the Skatalites, did you ever imagine you would one day be playing music with them?

C: Absolutely not. In fact, when King Apparatus (Murray’s old band) started up, I wasn't even aware of US bands like The Toasters or Bim Skala Bim, or even that there were other bands playing ska. When I did start getting into the '60s era Jamaican music, listening to records, the sound and vibe of the music sounded so exotic and from some distant past. I really didn't ever think I'd become involved directly with those kind of artists. The first time I ever saw The Skatalites, I was pretty amazed at what they were actually like. It was the first time I ever saw a band playing ska that wasn't jumping around like crazy and pushing for a maximum energy vibe.

V: What was that like?

C: My first serious exposure to The Skatalites was the Skavoovee tour of 1993 which featured them, Special Beat, Selecter, and The Toasters as a package. I saw a bunch of those shows and ended up as road manager for a Skatalites tour through California in 1994. That was the time when I really started to understand the jazz influence on ska, and came to see the players as real people and musicians with their own individual sound. Before that, I mostly took in the whole sound of a recording, and didn't think too much about what each player was doing. Getting to hang out with The Skatalites, and later The Specials, really demystified ska music for me. I came to see ska in a different way; more as people playing music than doing something under a genre banner. It's difficult to explain exactly how it changed my perception in words, but I came to feel differently about ska than I had before. Really tapping the roots of the music, and seeing the players I had listened to for a long time doing their thing was one of the best experiences I've ever had. I guess it shifted my focus from being part of some North American ska scene, to being part of a real tradition in ska music-- something that is truly passed on from generation to generation.

V: Honestly, reading about all the projects you work on, you make James Brown look like the laziest man in show biz. Where does your work ethic come from?

C: King Apparatus had a really positive work ethic as a group. We were always down to do whatever we needed to in order to support our goals. I think every artist has some kind of fire burning inside. When King Apparatus stopped playing, I never felt a lack of motivation to keep making music; it just took some figuring out how to keep going. In the couple of years between playing with the band and releasing my first solo album, I had to work some pretty lousy jobs to scrape though. Those experiences helped me understand what I really wanted to do with my life. Other than that, I've been really fortunate to make relationships with a lot of really talented people. I often find my biggest fans are other musicians. One thing leads to the next, and staying active has been the thing that has really allowed me to ultimately stay active over a longer term. I try to take opportunities when they come, and that has lead to more opportunities.

V: Can you foresee a day when you walk offstage and that's it; you're done? Or will it be like Rolando and those guys, playing 'til the very end?

C: It's hard to see into the future. You never know what's coming next or how that will affect you. I hope I'll be playing until the end. I was at Roland's last show when he had his final stroke, and visited him in the hospital. I brought in my guitar and sang him some songs. Roland was an amazing guy with a great attitude. I definitely miss him.

V: How heartbreaking was it when you found out Joe Strummer died?

C: I didn't really know Joe Strummer, although I had met him. I don't think heartbreaking is the way I'd describe how I felt when I heard the news. I've got a firm grasp that we're here, and then we're gone. Death is part of life. I'm really glad that Joe Strummer lived the life he did. He was truly an inspiration. I've started up Bluebeat Lounge, a regular Tuesday night ska / rocksteady / reggae club at the Alterknit Lounge inside the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. Next week's event is a Joe Strummer tribute which will feature a bunch of artists. It's a special life that touches the hearts of so many and gives inspiration and strength through its example.

V: With the world being in the current dark spot it seems to be in, has singing songs like "Let There Be Peace" or "One Everything" taken on a whole new light for you or your audiences?

C: I think so. It definitely has for me. As I've grown into an adult (it's hard to believe it), my attitudes have changed a lot from being an angry young man of sorts to a more reflective, world-oriented outlook. These days I'm more interested in writing songs that delve into the greater truths and mysteries of being a human being on this planet. Art is essentially expression, and the things I'm interested in expressing these days really keep me going. I get off on the philosophy of life a lot more than I used to.

V: So, how has reception of your new album been?

C: Overall, I'm really happy with how people have received Raw. A lot of people have really given me positive feedback on this album. I think there's a connection to what I was saying before about how ska became demystified for me when I worked with The Skatalites and The Specials. As a kid, I looked at those artists as somehow larger than life. But now I see them as life-size. I think Raw is a life-sized album, and that appeals to me because it's not trying to be something unreal. I've seen a couple of reviews where someone had a problem with the idea of releasing Walkman recordings as an album. That stuff doesn't bother me too much. There were people who couldn't understand it when I released 4-track recordings. Poor sound quality never stopped me from enjoying an old Skatalites track or a Lightning Hopkins record. In fact, that probably prompted me to listen beyond the sonic element to the essential artistry of the expression. I rarely know if I’ll be releasing something when I've done a recording as a solo artist. Usually, I just do a recording because I feel inspired to do it at that moment, and later decide to put it out.

V: Did you really record it through a Walkman? I'm not so savvy when it comes to technical know-how. How exactly do you do that?

C: Some Walkman-type players have a small internal microphone and a record function. Basically, you just push play/record and the unit records whatever sounds the microphone picks up. It was very easy.

V: What are you working on now?

C: Bluebeat Lounge is the newest of my endeavors, and has been a lot of fun so far. We've had two shows: the grand opening with SeeSot, and last night with Vic Ruggiero playing solo. I play each week. The LA traditional scene used to be pretty huge, but like ska scenes everywhere, has dwindled a bit (although it's still pretty cool). Over the past few years there has tended to be a great show every two or three months, with large periods of time where there's not really much going on. My goal for Bluebeat Lounge is to provide a regular series of smaller events that will provide a situation where people can come out frequently and feel part of a scene again, as well as providing opportunities for good acts to play in front of cool audiences. The Alterknit is pretty small, about 60-100 capacity depending on how many tables are out. Last night we had about 100 people in the room and you could barely move around. We had to turn some people away. I'll be reissuing The 4-Track Adventures on Asian Man this spring, which has been out of print since Moon Records closed shop. I'm part way through recording an album with The Slackers backing me on my songs. It's tough to schedule things with The Slackers because they tour so much. We were planning to finish up the recordings in February, but the studio is currently changing locations, so we'll pick it up as soon as we can. As always, I'm writing songs. Last year I started to do some co-writing with Neville Staple of The Specials. We have now written eleven songs together, plan to keep writing together, and ultimately record a collaborative album when we feel we have the right material. That's been a lot of fun. Neville's a very spontaneous writer, and I'm much more of an editing/songcrafting type writer. So I feel like the combination of our styles has been very complementary.

V: What do you do when you're not out living the life of a musical gypsy?

C: These days, I wouldn't say I'm living the life of a musical gypsy, although I've definitely had plenty of that. There were a few years when I didn't really have an address and was mostly touring, staying with friends wherever I happened to be, or sleeping in the old King Apparatus van. My life at present is actually pretty stable. I keep as busy as I can with all the different projects I have on the go, and there are so many of them at any given time that it's not so hard to keep busy. Overall, I don't do much that isn't somehow involved with my career in music.

V: You wouldn't happen to study dogs, would you? Because we have this running debate here, as to whether or not dogs have lips. We ask everyone. What's your take on the subject?

C: I don't really study dogs, but I do have a couple and I just checked them out. It seems like mine have lower lips, but not upper lips. Perhaps it's not correct to say that dogs have lips, but that a dog has a lip.

V: Now do me one last favor and tell the world what Chris Murray's gonna do in 2003. I'll tell them where to go to get your new record.

C: My plans for 2003 are mostly to keep moving forward with the projects that are already in process: Bluebeat Lounge, the album with The Slackers, writing with Neville, and playing shows. I have no doubt that other projects will arise as some of these come to completion. Other than that, I'd love to do more co-writing with various artists for their recording projects. For a long time while I was in King Apparatus, I never co-wrote with anyone. Since then co-writing has been something I've enjoyed a lot and has resulted in songs I know I never would have written on my own.

VISIT CHRIS AT CHRISMURRAY.NET

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