Location: Cafe Sessions @ Chapter 1 - Main St. Cavan
The Mighty Stef - From an article in the Sunday Times Culture Magazine.
He is still a little young to be called a “stalwart” with any real conviction, yet he similarly dismisses the “cult hero” label. Truthfully, Stefan Murphy looks every inch the “thirtysomething rock star on a Monday morning” when we meet bright and, relatively, early outside Whelan’s in Dublin. Having played a gig in Dundalk the night before, he’s slightly bedraggled but in good form.
“Cult hero? It’s kind of the opposite; I’d like to earn that status,” he says, removing thick white-framed sunglasses and shrugging off his leather jacket as we take a seat in an alcove inside. Light pours in through the gaps between faded posters in the window as he speaks. “If I make four more albums and they’re good — keeping me afloat and ticking over — maybe then I’ll put my name forward to be hailed as a cult hero.
Now, I feel like I’m still learning.”
The Mighty Stef, as Murphy is known in music circles, has learnt a great deal over the past decade. Now 38, the biggest lesson is that age is irrelevant — even when you’re on tour with Cavan rock’n’roll wunderkinds the Strypes, as he currently is. “Their oldest member is closer in age to my four-year-old daughter than he is to me,” he chuckles. “But I’m not ageist and I don’t feel old, so it’s irrelevant what age I am. I’m just glad to be out there still doing it.”
Murphy is what you might call a “late bloomer”. Although he discovered a passion for music in his teens and dabbled in numerous bands during his school years, it remained more a hobby than a way to make a living. Growing up in a “classic working-class family” in Crumlin, college was followed by a succession of menial jobs, none of them music-related. “Petrol stations, bars, the usual,” he says, nodding. “The longest job I ever had was in a glue factory in Tallaght. That was actually pretty good because all I did all day was listen to music.”
In his early to mid-twenties — after his band the Subtonics split — Murphy decided to start taking his musical career more seriously. Initially subsumed into the “leather jacket” rock scene that bands such as Humanzi and the Things were propagating in the early Noughties, the Mighty Stef was sufficiently encouraged to begin playing his own material.
“It felt like something was happening in Dublin at that time,” he explains. “Humanzi are a classic example — they were one of the last groups in the door before the record industry started battening down the hatches and stopped offering big-money deals to bands that they weren’t 100% sure were gonna sell a load of records. All of us felt like Dublin was the centre of the universe at that time and, when you’re seeing your friends succeed, you think, if one person can start a band and do OK, then we all could.”
Murphy decamped to Montreal to record his debut, The Sins of Sainte Catherine, released in 2006. These days his sound incorporates a gruffer, darker, scuffled rock’n’roll bite as well as the backing of a full band. Albums two and three were recorded in Dublin and Berlin respectively, while his forthcoming fourth, Year of the Horse, was made in Los Angeles. It all sounds glamorous, but the reality of being a touring musician is “15% glamorous and 85% extremely hard work”.
“It puts a terrible strain on your family,” he says, nodding sombrely. “My family are supportive, but it’s tough on your mental health, and I find that particularly hard. So does everybody else in the group — but I’m the only person who can’t turn around and say, ‘Right lads, I’m leaving.’
“I’ve had some pretty solid line-ups in the last few years, but not everybody can put up with the level of suffering I can. I don’t mean suffering in an Angela’s Ashes-type [sense], but there’s a hell of a lot of work, and the rewards are minimal, to say the least. I remember we were opening for the Fall in the Button Factory, and because Mark E Smith was famous for having hundreds of former band members, I counted up all of mine just for the craic. I think I was at 27, whereas he was at 60. But he’d been doing it for 35 years, and I’d only been doing it for seven. So God knows what way it’s going to end up.”
He once spent Christmas in Sweden with bronchitis, a story he recounts with a grimace, but the band’s relative stability of late means that the Year of the Horse album signifies something of a new era for the Mighty Stef. The writing process was more collaborative than before, with the band learning to use their free time productively while touring. They are also under new management and have launched a label, Burning Sands, which was picked up for distribution by Rough Trade.
Murphy and his cohorts decamped to Hollywood for almost three months to record Year of the Horse, “begging, borrowing and stealing” the funds that allowed them to work with producer Alain Johannes (Mark Lanegan, Queens of the Stone Age). Playing bar gigs to fund the trip, they had some bizarre experiences in LA, including bumping into Jedward on the street (the resultant picture is worth seeking on Google) and celebrating Ed Sheeran’s birthday with him. The Mighty Stef may have hit upon a certain sound that they have been struggling to nail for the last few albums: a combination of rock that nods to their influences — Nick Cave, Lanegan, Primal Scream — as well as branding it with a distinctly Irish bent.
Gathering up his belongings as he prepares to head back out into the cold sunshine, you wonder whether it’s easy to become bitter or disenchanted by seeing youngsters such as the Strypes winning plaudits and touring places such as Japan while he continues the hard slog. “Not from me,” he says resolutely. “I never harbour those type of feelings, just happiness. Especially since I’ve become a father; I’ve become more philosophical. When the Strypes were signed, my daughter was a baby and I remember thinking, ‘If they succeed, when she’s 10 they’re going to be her idols.’ It’s great there’s a young band playing rock’n’roll music, and they’re absolute gentlemen, to boot.”
He accepts that the Mighty Stef aren’t the easiest band to market — they met a number of record-label representatives who loved Year of the Horse but scratched their heads wondering how to sell it.
“One of those phrases people tend to use is, ‘Oh, I don’t get this.’ What’s not to get? It’s just music,” he says, frowning. “I’d rather people said to me, ‘I just don’t like it.’ But, then again, I probably wouldn’t know how to market us. I’d know how to market a band such as the Strypes, or a singer-songwriter. I really don’t know how to describe what it is that I do. I know it’s a cliché, but the music should speak for itself.”
He is still hungry for success, still waiting for that big break. And if it doesn’t come with this album, he says, he’ll keep plugging away, regardless. “I know if it came down to it, I could make an album on one of these things,” he says, smiling as he picks up my rickety old cassette dictaphone, “and if it ever does come down to it, that’s what I’ll do. I hope this doesn’t sound needy, but I hope people will take this album seriously.
“If you read between the lines and the lyrics of every song, there’s a lot of my own personality and the experiences I’ve had in this band. I just hope that people will give it a fair go. Listen to it and like it. That’s all.”
Special Guest: Singer/songwriter Gillian Tuite