“I tend to dream in very claustrophobic confined spaces, and I reckon that might be linked to how I like to fill up all the space in my tunes most of the time. Its something in my psyche I suppose.” – Siobhan Kane talks with Duncan Murphy of Sunken Foal.
Duncan “Dunk” Murphy has been one of the most consistently inventive musicians to have emerged out of Ireland in the last fifteen years, as part of Ambulance and Da Paramedics with Trevor O’Reilly, The Natural History Museum with Carol Keogh, and his solo work as Sunken Foal – his creative reach is deep and richly textured, evocative and intricate. From the Ambulance/Da Paramedics 2002 EP Whindie (Front End Synthetics) to their debut The Curse of Vale Do Lobo on Mike Paradinas’ Planet-Mu, and his solo work Fermented Condiments (2008) and Fallen Arches (2009) – there is a commonality, not necessarily in terms of sound, but intelligence.
There is such a subtle playfulness at work with all of Murphy’s compositions, yet this playfulness is melded with serious conceits, the kind that pays homage to Autechre on ‘Retract‘ on Fermented Condiments, and that takes in sloping guitar and mismatched beats on ‘A Bear in the Hermitage‘ from Fallen Arches, a fragmentary quality equally felt on the shattered pianos of ‘Foathing‘ – perhaps this quality can be felt in much of Murphy’s work – the tension between harmony and discord, the more complex meaning behind the melody, the contrast – “an instant’s width of warmth disclosed” as Emily Dickinson wrote.
Along with this warm tension, there is the sense of the organic, and natural emergence – not only in terms of Murphy folding live instrumentation into a more electronic landscape, but in the way things have come to pass. Back in 1998, he and O’Neill met Mike Paradinas of Planet-Mu, at Phunk City at the much-missed Funnel in Dublin, and gave him some of their work; a few years later, their EP and album were released on his label, and later still, much of Murphy’s solo work. It’s as if the blossoming of those seeds planted years ago continue to flourish, and as if in the spirit of that sense of renewal, and shifting of the seasons, Murphy has set up his own imprint Countersunk (http://www.countersunk.org), which last year released ‘Richter Versions‘ (Sunken Foal’s remixing of some of the Richter Collective’s most interesting work), and ‘The Small Hours‘ (a beautiful Natural History composition to commemorate the passing of Donal Dineen’s brilliant Small Hours radio show); but one of his most ambitious projects to date is his latest release Friday Syndrome Vol. 1 that he describes as “more synth and sample based” than previous work, while still retaining “his unique sense of melody”.
I want to ask about the present before going back to the past – your new project Friday Syndrome Vol. 1 has been some time in the making. Can you describe the inspiration and evolution of the project, and has the musical aspect taken on a different hue from how you first imagined it?
I mentioned to some friends how I always tended to work best on Friday evenings after the working week had passed, when I should be thinking about relaxing – for some reason I focussed better at this time, so with some encouragement I decided to write a tune from scratch each Friday evening and send it out to a bunch of about five mates. It was a really good discipline because I couldn’t take on any grand concepts or any deep nerdy programming due to the self-imposed time restraint. After collecting about 50 or 60 tracks over the space of a year, I went back to them in the spring and did a little finessing. It’s been a long time coming I suppose, but there hasn’t been as much work put into the tracks as previous releases.
You are trying something really interesting, by making the music free – but encouraging people to buy the artwork you have designed – what has gone into the artwork? It seems that it is a comment in one sense about the value of things – that things do have an inherent value, no matter how mainstream society at present is somehow indicating that things don’t – with visual art in many ways as a more obvious document of that fact.
Just like a lot of music I make, the visual artwork was inspired by experimenting with the capabilities of software and machinery. I figured out how I could print 250 completely unique works at the same cost of a run of 250 copies. So from then it was a matter of balancing out a generative system that would give me a consistent aesthetic across the editions but with enough individuality of each print to make the project worthwhile. The free music / paid artwork is really just an experiment also. The music “business” is quite confusing at the moment so I wanted to see where people consider the value to be. Some people may think I’m viewing this release as more disposable by having it for free. I don’t think I am, but I’ll have a word with myself later on and find out.
I have always felt with you that writing and producing are somehow kept quite distinct – it adds into the overall sound of your work – what are your thoughts, and do you think that your process has changed very differently over the last decade?
It’s funny how many times I come up with a new approach and then realise that it ties in to a train of thought I’ve been on for some years. I love the idea of timbre that is constantly shifting in a very small way. It keeps the music alive as you are listening to it. I hear a lot of music these days with lots of stagnant samples on repeat, and it sticks in my head in a kind of ugly way. So I always try and ensure that whatever sounds I’m using are shifting about. If you listen to a live drummer, they never hit the drum in exactly the same way twice, so I try and take a dynamic idea like that and apply it to something mechanical sounding. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that producing timbre to me is intrinsically linked to composing. I kinda feel that the authorship of your sounds on a record are as important as the authorship of your structures.
Something I love about your work is your coalescing of live instrumentation, and electronic. When did you fall down the rabbit hole of making music exactly? Was it always something around you as a child? What are your favourite instruments to play? –and favourite instruments you have yet to play?
I started recording any instruments lying around the house when I was seven or eight. I bullied all my mates into playing specific parts. The songs were hilarious. My brother was listening to lots of 80’s indie stuff and there was always a healthy mix of instrumentation and mechanical stuff in it. Siouxsie & The Banshees were a huge deal to me when I was a kid, and I reckon they must have had quite an influence.
I love playing the bass. I don’t do it very regularly but its the most chilled out thing to do. My girlfriend Ann bought me a glockenspiel one Christmas, and I wrote a little ditty on it that day. I recorded it, slowed it down and made the tune ‘Dialogue’ from the album. The most enjoyable part was figuring out the bass line on my Harley Benton-piece-of-crap acoustic bass. It’s kinda one of my favourite bits on the album. My Dad just bought a cornet for me in a car boot sale for €50 – I haven’t tried it out yet, but expect some rancid howling parps in the future.
When did the more technological world reveal itself to you, and which tools do you find most interesting? You always manage to retain a certain warmth to your compositions, but I suppose it goes back to that Björk thing – where some people complained at one point she was relying too much on the technological world, complaining that it lacked “soul”, but she remarked “I find it so amazing when people tell me that electronic music has no soul. You can’t blame the computer. If there’s no soul in the music, it’s because nobody put it there” – then of course she later went on to use the “human beatbox” Rahzel, which perhaps proved a different kind of point.
When I was playing around with Casio keyboards when I was a kid, I started learning how to program beats in a very rudimentary way. It wasn’t until I met Trev [O’Neill] from Ambulance that I was introduced to proper sequencing software in computers. I really couldn’t say what tools interest me the most – it changes from day to day. I can get lost for hours with an old synth, an echo and a mixing desk.
The evolution of soul very much includes the techno that came from Detroit in the late 80’s/early 90’s for me. I don’t particularly find all that stuff cold and dark – its very warm to me. I find some of Whitney Houston’s early singles very dark. I can’t penetrate exactly what the people making it were feeling, or getting excited about, and it seems scary.
How much do you think your work is marked by an obsession with the passing of time? Perhaps it is because I am ever more aware of it – I procrastinate a lot, but then somehow manage to do things in energetic bursts, almost like that house flying over the landscape in the Wizard of Oz – ultimately I end up in Oz, where there is more colour – but sometimes I feel like that can only be achieved from the previous grey procrastination – how about you?
That’s the Friday Syndrome – you just described it! I’d work all week on some convoluted compositional idea or making the perfect hi-hat from a tissue box and then I’d realise I’d nothing to show for it – so I’d go nuts on a Friday evening trying to get the feeling back that I was actually making something. In terms of the perception of time passing, I’m really into that. I love how we perceive something to be a rhythm if it occurs 120 per minute but if that same thing occurs 120 times per second we perceive it as a tone or a note. There’s a grey area in there that’s fascinating to play around with. The nutty Mr. Stockhausen messed about with this idea in his ‘Kontakte’ piece I think.