Two pints plonked down either side of a small tape recorder. A formalised interview process, odd and incongruous, feels like a fiction when we've met here before just to chat. But Joe Murphy - Sergeant Buzfuz - warms to his task. As songwriter he weaves fine English psychedelia. As promoter, he's arguably done more than anyone to bring New York's antifolk movement to the UK and was booking key players for his Blang night at London's 12 Bar Club long before the rest of us caught on.
Drowned in Sound: How do you think you've developed between first album 'Obsessive Compulsion Pour Homme' and new record 'Fire Horse'?
Joe Murphy: 'Obsessive' was very eclectic. For years I'd wanted to make an electronic album, an acoustic album, a psychedelic album, an instrumental album... and I tried to relieve the urge to do all those things at once. That meant it was all over the place and very varied. Also people were buying it at gigs but it wasn't representative of the live sound which then was just me and acoustic guitar. So 'Fire Horse' was an attempt to make an album that was more cohesive and more stripped and acoustic. Also 'Obsessive' is almost entirely solo whereas 'Fire Horse' has more guest musicians. The next main album'll feature the new 5 piece band. So it'll be strings, drums, dulcimer, whistle, etc. And there'll be more of Kate singing. Most of the band make minor appearances on 'Fire Horse'. In fact, I've so many new songs I might run off a quick solo-ish cdr album of spare songs to sell at gigs so that might actually be the next one.
What are your favourite songs on the album and why?
I'd say my favourite two are 'Fire Horse' and 'See-Through'. 'Fire Horse' is a special song to me and I love Tim Victor's guitar parts and the piano line. On 'See-Through' I just love the whole vibe and arrangement. And the middle-eight bit which I made up in the studio and then sang it rolling around on the studio floor with my hand down my crotch. 'Shimmers Like Gold' is one of my favourite songs of mine, I like the string version but I prefer singing it with my ling-along friends to listening to the album version.
They're friends I occasionally meet up with to eat, drink and sing. It gets requested at 4 am. When half my friends are asleep. Also I like 'Don't Drink Yourself To Sleep' for my vocal, not many people mention that song but it's one of my favourites.
Which comes first with you, the psychedelia or the erudite popsong?
Do you mean which is more important? I don't think about making something sound psychedelic or erudite or pop. They just come out the way they do.
Has the expanded Sergeant Buzfuz live lineup affected your songwriting?
One thing is I've started to write duets. We play a duet called 'Blanket TV' and I've got three more in the pipeline. Me and Kate have contrasting voices so I think it works well and they're fun and dramatic to perform. Eilish sings too so there's lots of scope. So lyrically that's something to explore. Musically it hasn't affected the writing I don't think.
Will you still play solo?
I'm playing solo in Oxford next month. I'll play solo when the band can't make it and from time to time I'll carry on doing midnight solo slots at the 12 Bar Club where I try out new songs.
You don't consider yourself to be antifolk, yet you've done more than most to push that movement in the UK. What do you make of the 'antifolk' tag?
I love the antifolk performers, it's amazing how all these people know each other and they're all so talented and so varied. To me antifolk is the New Yorkers. I love them and share a lot of the same attitudes to music but I wouldn't call myself antifolk. I called my Blang! nights antifolk nights for two months. Lach the antifolk guru was keen for me to use the term and I liked the fact it sounded provocative. But then I felt a bit of a fraud like saying I was part of something I'm not. And also it confuses people. It really means anti-establishment if you delve into the etymology, not anti-folk music (or anti-people as some people have thought). Most of the antifolkers are uncomfortable with the term. Diane Cluck tells people "no, you misheard, it's antelope"! But by calling my nights Blang (after the title of an album by Lach) I'm acknowledging them. When I discovered them all, one by one, it was an amazing thing and they helped me get through a difficult time in my life. They really did. We're cousins across the sea. It's cool you recognise me as a champion of their music though. I'll continue to help them and will not cease until Seth of Dufus is on the cover of Just 17... oh, well Bliss then.
And how would you label yourself?
I wouldn't. I write press releases for Blangs and I'm fine writing a line or two to describe the other acts but I can't describe myself. I just put in a few quotes/insults from the press.
How would you react if the 'real' folk community discovered and embraced your work?
Great, what's the problem? I wouldn't want to be embraced by people with beards though!
Do you have plans for the Blang! club, now it's recognised as one of the UK homes for the acoustic movement?
Joe laughs. Is it? I keep having loads of ideas for Blang, but I keep also having loads of ideas for songs and Buzfuz is the main thing for me and I just don't have time to follow all these bloody ideas through. There are currently too many people I want to put on though, the next slots are in August which is five months away so I may have to see about doing more either at the 12 Bar or elsewhere.
Well, you ran the successful Blang! Canvas at Tate Britain...
Yeah, part of my masterplan to control all avenues of the media and turn Britain into Buzfuzia.
Was that a deliberate intention to link yourself to the art world? What's your own taste in visual art?
I like Marc Chagall and Munch and Monet, van Gogh, and Blake, especially his watercolours. But I'm not too well up on contemporary art. I like old churches, cathedrals, cloisters, miles of stone passages. And graveyards. In the summertime of course.
What would be your dream Blang lineup?
Syd Barrett's comeback gig. With support from Dufus and Misty's Big Adventure. And late sets from Leonard Cohen and Diane Cluck. Can it be a whole day festival? I've missed out Jeff Lewis and The Rebel. God, there are so many great people who've played at Blang! Can I have 3 stages?
I first encountered you playing for a goth band, plus you're from the north originally. So are you a secret goth?
More laughter. Yes well Bedlam Opera were quite gothic but we weren't Goths and there's a big difference. I think of French cathedrals, Joy Division and Iain Banks as being Gothic in their own way. And Mervyn Peake. But none of them make me wanna get the Kohl out. Leeds is Goth Central, or it was, but we never had too many in Sheffield. Actually Kate and Eilish both used to play in a Goth band and still drink down the Devonshire (Camden Goth pub). And Eilish sometimes plays with a Gothy band called Sorrow, she played at the big Goth fest in Whitby. So there's a definite gothic thing in the band. We're going to make an album of gothic pagan folk music. But no no, i'm not a goth. Although I'm skinny and pale enough. I'd make a good Richard O'Brien.
Oh, I saw Richard O'Brien on my road the other week, in Brighton. Your day-job is in education. Is that a money thing or part of your calling?
That's so I can pay the rent and pay for Buzfuz recording, etc. Although it's more a calling then any other job I ever had. I love teaching people with learning disabilities, I love my students, but I hate the pricks who run my college and the useless paperwork the politicians make us churn out when they should be trying to save the rain forests. I work four days a week. But my main calling is music. Does that sound portentous? I don't wanna sound like Saint Paul on the way to Damascus. Especially as he was the wanker who got the whole Christianity thing going and put women's rights down for 2,000 years and made us Westerners neurotic about sex... Sorry, I'm going off on one.
Obviously you're one of those artists who deserves a far wider audience than you get. Yet you don't tour much, don't compromise the music itself and seem to be happy in small spaces. Would you like a broader fanbase? Are you ever tempted to try to write a 'hit'?
I don't tour much due to logistics and I've been waiting three years to get my second album out. Now that's out and now I've got a band together expect more Buzactivity across the nation's stages. I love playing in cellars but I'd rather be playing upstairs in the ballrooms. And selling more records and having a label putting our stuff out. Like I said before, my job is okay but I've got so many songs and half-songs I'd love to do music full time and spend my time writing, recording and gigging. I think most of my songs could be hit records if the world was less corporate, i.e., record labels, radio and people's abilities to embrace the new and not be content with packaged stuff. My songs are really melodic and the band's arrangements are brilliant. Okay, I'm not Pavarotti, but so what? It's pop music. And loads of Blang acts could be in the charts too. Going back to that Tate scheme, if I controlled the media in this country - magazines, radio, television and education the charts would eventually change and the top 10 would be heaving with great melodic stylish singles by Um, Misty's, Broken Family Band, Chris T-T and Ricky Spontane. Plus the antifolk: I'd have "Weird" by Prewar Yardsale on every playlist in Buzfuzia and Lach would guest present 'Top Of The Pops'.
Sounds good to me. Finally, what should we expect from Sergeant Buzfuz next?
You'll just have to wait and be surprised. 'Fire Horse' is just the start!