An Interview With Chris Murray

1. Can you introduce yourself and what you do?

Hi, my name is Chris Murray and I've been performing a solo acoustic act based in reggae and ska for the past five years. My current album, 4-Trackaganza!, was released by Asian Man Records this spring. I have one prior solo album that came out on Moon a few years back. That album is currently unavailable since the label closed, but I'll reissue it sometime in the future.

2. How did you get into ska music? Did you learn guitar before or after discovering ska?

I have a very clear memory of the first time I heard ska. I was 12 years old and they played the Madness version of One Step Beyond at a school dance. It started off with the long "Hey you!" preamble, so I remember thinking to myself, "What's this all about." Then the track kicked in and, for me, the rest is history. I started playing guitar later.

3. When did King Apperatus first start?

King Apparatus started in the fall of 1987.

4. How long were you with them and why did you end up leaving?

The band continued playing into 1995 and then ceased entirely until last year when Asian Man reissued our two albums. We did a reunion tour in Canada last spring, which was excellent. At the end, we all sat around and talked about doing other things. Everyone in the group wanted to do more stuff, so since the reunion tour I've gone to Toronto a few times for a handful of gigs, but mostly to record some new material in the studio. We felt that it was important for King Apparatus to have something new released before we went too heavily into playing more shows. Our reunion tour was great, but we didn't want to keep playing without something fresh happening, both for our audience and ourselves. Right now, we have six new tracks finished and may release them as an EP and then play some more. I never left King Apparatus. What happened was that other member started to leave, for different reasons, until the folks that remained decided that it didn't feel right to keep on going with so much having changed. The line up that we have now is probably our best ever musically. Everyone in the group had been on tour with King Apparatus before and we were able to cherry pick the best people from all the line ups we'd had over the years. At this point, everyone is down to do more King Apparatus, but also we all have different things going on in our lives. I think what I'd personally like to see happen is for King Apparatus to keep doing things at a pace where everyone in the group feels comfortable about the amount of time and energy required. I think that's the best way for us to go right now. I'm not really sure what the next thing we'll do will be.

5. Why did you decide to move to California after leaving King Apparatus?

I started coming to California on tour with King Apparatus and kept on coming back when I had time off from touring. The weather, the old school scene that was developing in LA in the early '90s, and friends I'd made were big factors in me continuing to come back and eventually settling down here.

6. You're probably the first person to ever do ska in a acoustic one man style. What gave you the idea to do that rather than forming a new band? Where you nervous at all when you first started doing that?

At the time I was just learning how to play guitar I was in high school and in the summers I worked as a camp counsellor. Even though I knew only a few chords, that was enough to learn plenty of songs. My first solo performances were standing up in front of a bunch of kids and saying, "Alright everybody, clap your hands and sing along." Doing the solo act is very much a return to my own roots as a performer. I think every performer feels some kind of nervousness before any gig, but I don't think I felt scared particularly. I'd been on stage so much with King Apparatus, that getting up there and playing feels very natural to me.

7. Did you take the acoustic set live right at the start or did you start recording and working on that first? How was the audiences initial reactions?

I started 4-tracking as a writing tool and a way to introduce new songs to King Apparatus. By the time King Apparatus stopped playing, I had a lot of tunes recorded on the 4-track. Songs like Rock Steady, Brave New Brian and Boyo were all originally King Apparatus songs that we played in our live set. When the group stopped, that gave me a lot more time and I really got into 4-track recording in a big way. Initially, a lot of audiences were confused by what I was doing live because there was no real precedent for it. My first US tour as a solo act was with Let's Go Bowling back in 1996. Due to typical delays my album, which was supposed to be released before the tour started, didn't come out until the final week of the seven weeks I was on the road with LGB. On top of that, due to poor communication between the band's manager and their agent, I was not billed in advance for many of the shows I did on that tour. That meant that I would end up getting on stage in front of audiences that had not only never heard of me, except perhaps as part of King Apparatus, were not expecting me to be there, and had no idea of what my new material and direction were all about. Since then I've talked to a lot of people who saw me for the first time on that tour and heard how mystified they were when they saw me walk on stage alone with an acoustic guitar. They all seem to get it now.

8. In the song "Cooper Station Blues", you talk about how Moon was hesitant to put out your "4 Track Adventures" album, what changed their mind?

That's another story about communication. When I first thought about doing a solo release I talked to Bucket, who I knew well from King Apparatus and Toasters having done a lot of shows together. I explained that I had these old school sounding 4-track recordings and wanted to perform solo acoustic. He thought it sounded like an interesting thing and asked me to send him some music to listen to. At the time, all I could do was dub a copy from a cassette that I had collected rough mixes on and listen to numerous times. The initial version that I sent him to check out was a lot rougher sounding than what was eventually released. After I sent him the recordings I tried to get in touch with him to discuss what to do, but he was on the road all the time with Toasters, so I ended up talking to a bunch of people who were involved with Moon, but who I didn't really know directly. At one point I got a call from Noah Wildman ("the man on the phone") who told me he'd talked to Buck who was concerned about how rough the tracks sounded and didn't know "if the rude boys would get into it". After that I spoke with Steve Shafer, who had become a fan of what I'd sent to Moon, and he became my primary contact person at Moon. By that time, I'd already started to mix the tracks properly in a small studio and had some better sounding versions to send along. Eventually, Steve got the mixes to Bucket, who heard the difference from the early versions and gave the go ahead for doing the release. The song Cooper Station Blues was done during that in between time when I thought Moon had rejected the album. I'd already sent in all the finished mixes to be mastered when I was in LA and played Cooper Station Blues to Brian Dixon, who said," You've got to put that on the album dude!" Again there was a delay at the mastering stage which allowed me to send the extra track directly to the mastering house. I told Moon that I was including another track, but I didn't explain what the song was about, so they heard it for the first time when the finished product came in from the manufacturing plant. Fortunately, everyone there knew the story behind the song and had a good laugh about it.

9. Why did you take the name Venice Shoreline Chris rather than just using your real name like you do now?

When I first started living in Venice, one of my house mates was working at a group home for kids in the area. One day we were walking around and I asked her what all the tagging meant. When she pointed out the VSLC tags by the Venice Shoreline Crips the pun was born. Having grown up in Canada, where there are very few guns and even fewer gangs, I think I was a bit naive when I used that name in the title for the first album. Although I've never had any problems, enough people started asking whether I had to make me reconsider the wisdom in using that name. More than concern about my own safety, it was concern that some fan of mine, equally innocent of the real situation, might come to LA and think it would be a good idea to wear a Venice Shoreline Chris T-shirt down the wrong block and end up in big trouble. If something like that had happened, it would have been a very difficult thing for me to live with.

10. You've worked at Version City, haven't you, with a group called Da Whole Thing? How did you hook up with that and what is that group all about?

Da Whole Thing is an interesting project put together by Patrick Carayannis, a jazz guitarist who lives in Dublin. I met Patrick in New York back in 1996 while he was living there for a few years and we got together to jam and did a little writing together. Patrick brought a bunch of excellent musicians from both the NYC ska and jazz scenes together and they recorded a full album at Version City which included an early version of F-Train. I wasn't directly involved in recording that album except for singing on F-Train. That song came out of a jam that Patrick and I had. He got the rhythm section to record an instrumental arrangement and sent me a DAT. I wrote the lyrics to that, went into the studio, recorded the vocal and sent him back a DAT with the new version. After that he added all the horns. Later, DWT recorded a second album at Coyote Studios in Brooklyn, which I produced, and we re-recorded F-Train in several versions. Neither album has been released because labels have been reluctant to put their resources into releasing an album for a group that isn't really there to go out and tour. For now, the two DWT albums are the coolest ska-related albums that no one has ever heard.

11. You also wrote "I Can't Wait" on Hepcat's "Right on Time" album and you sang and co-wrote "Saturday Night" on Stubborn All-Stars "Nex Music" album. How did you get hooked up with that?

I co-wrote I Can't Wait with Greg Lee when I was crashing on his floor for a couple of weeks in early 1997. Hepcat was just signing to Hellcat and working on material. Greg said, "Hey I've got this tune I'm working on, do you want to help me write it?" As a trade off, he helped me finish another song that I was working on called We Do The Ska, which is a rocking tune yet to be released. The night after the second DWT album was mastered I had a free evening in NYC and got together with Django and Vic Rice at Version City. Django had a bunch of instrumental tracks already recorded and we sat down and wrote the lyrics to Saturday Night to one of them (it was in fact a Saturday night). It probably took a couple of hours to put the lyrics together and then another hour to record the vocals and the organ part, which Vic Rice played. I flew back to LA the next day and the track ended up being included on Nex Music.

12. Your newest album is on Asian Man records, which is mostly known for ska punk and that style of music rather than traditional ska and rock steady like you play. Why did you decide to sign with Asian Man and how did that all come about?

I've known Mike Park for a long time. King Apparatus brought Skankin' Pickle up to Canada for ten days of shows back in 1992 and the whole band crashed in my apartment for a week and a half, so we all got to know each other very well very quickly. Asian Man reissued the two King Apparatus albums last spring, so Mike and I had started working together on those releases. When he was organising the first Plea For Peace tour, he invited me to come along and play, as well as tour manage. It was during that tour that Mike and I started talking about releasing another Chris Murray album. I enjoy the fact that Asian Man isn't entirely a ska label, but releases different kinds of music.

13. I have songs like "Heartache" that I love but they don't seem to be on any of your albums, will those songs ever be released officially on a Chris Murray CD?

I've done a lot of different tracks with different groups and artists over the years. Some of them have come out on compilations or on other bands' albums, while a lot have never been released. Right now my main focus is to play shows and let people know about 4-Trackaganza!, but I've been toying with the idea of doing a Chris Murray And Friends style release which compiles all the best material I've done in collaboration with other folks. I played everything on Heartache, so I'm not sure whether I would include that song if the theme of the album was collaborations, but I'm sure an opportunity will come along to put that song out again. At this point, it's only available on the the "Six Songs" promotional release that Mike did for me when I went out with Plea For Peace. I have only about 20 copies left, that I've been selling at shows. Pretty soon there won't be any way to get that track, so I'll need to figure out the best way to put it out there again.

14. You also recorded with Steady Ups in Sacramento. How did that come about?

Steady Ups approached me about doing a couple of shows and some studio work together. I ended up going to Sacramento for a weekend and we played one show and worked on two tracks in the studio. I think one track is slated to be included on a Black Pearl compilation. I'm not sure when that's scheduled to be released. Compilations always seem to take a really long time to be put together.

15. Will the songs you did with them ever be released?

I would definitely include one of those tracks if I end up compiling the collaborations album I mentioned.

16. Recently, you also got back together with King Apparatus, how was that, playing with your old band again?

It was great playing with King Apparatus again. As I mentioned before, we were able to bring back the best players in every spot, the band sounded better than ever, and we had a lot of fun doing the reunion tour. I'm looking forward to doing more King Apparatus activity when the time is right for everyone.

17. Recently, you toured with Hawaii's Go Jimmy Go, how did that go? Any plans on collaborating with them?

I went to Hawaii this January and played a bunch of shows with GJG, as well as doing a little studio work and co-writing with them. I toured with them recently when they came over for their second ever mainland tour. They're one of the best bands around these days and I'd be happy to work with them any time. The next thing that will probably happen is that I'll go back to Hawaii and play with them again when their new album gets released.

18. Who makes up the members of the Chris Murray Combo?

The Chris Murray Combo is something that typically gets put together for a specific show. I've played with a lot of great musicians and have had many different line ups for the combo. Every time is different. Even when I go to a show to play on my own, it's not unusual to end up with a handful of guests on stage by the end of my set, which is always fun.

19. Any plans on recording as Chris Murray Combo rather than just Chris Murray?

At this point there is no solid plan to record as Chris Murray Combo. I've delayed putting together a band in any serious way for lots of reasons. Having been in a full time band for a long time with King Apparatus, initially doing the solo thing was a big relief from all the organising and consensus-seeking involved in any band situation. As well, finding the right people and being able to offer them some security to play with me are very important in my mind. I expect some day I'll put together a new band to back me for my solo material.

20. This next question is kind of a two parter, first, if there was any band around the world who you would want to collaborate with, who would it be and why?

I've been really fortunate to be able to collaborate with some amazing people in the ska/reggae world and I'm thankful for that. If I had to pick someone I've never worked with that I'd like to, it would be Leonard Dillon, the main man of the Ethiopians. I am a huge fan of his singing and his writing. He played at the Sierra Nevada festival this summer while I was touring out of state, so I had to miss his show. That was the first time I've seen him billed on a show ever. As a fan, it's really exciting to think I may have a chance to see him play sometime.

21. How do you think the ska scene has changed since you first became involved in it?

When King Apparatus started in 1987, there really was not much of a ska scene at all. It wasn't for a couple of years that we started to hear about bands like Bim Skala Bim and the Toasters and doing shows with them. What scene there was consisted primarily of people who had been turned on by Two Tone, and this was reflected in the music that bands were making, the clothes people were wearing and the vibes at gigs. Things were a lot different. During the '90s, a lot of bands formed because they had been turned on by the new bands in North America, and their primary influences were one step further removed from the original ska wave in Jamaica. That meant that the original influence for the new groups was already a fusion approach to ska. As the third wave developed, more and more outside influences became incorporated into what was being called ska, creating a sound for ska that was even farther removed from the roots. However, at the same time, the new traditional movement started up in LA(primarily) where bands went back to the Jamican sound and took that as their primary influence. In the mid-90's there were more bands playing more different approaches to ska than ever, plus Skatalites were touring and some of the Two Tone bands got back together and were on the road as well. It was truly a golden age for ska. If you were just getting into the music, you had the opportunity to see pretty much anybody who had ever played ska doing their thing. Right now, after the wave has crashed, it seems like most of the bands that are still around are the ones who were there before there was any hint that ska would become a popular music or that a ska-related act could make a lot of money and get played on top 40 radio, etc. There are a few heartbreaking casualties like Hepcat, but it's amazing how many bands have managed to survive. I think things are starting to build again. New bands seem to be starting up in different cities and the older bands are still there working it, getting into the van day after day and playing tours. The backlash that followed the hype era seems to have dissipated and people don't feel shy about saying they're into ska once again. It's going to be interesting to see where things go from here.

22. What else do you listen to besides Jamaican style music?

Reggae, ska and rock steady are what I listen to most of the time, but I have an open mind about music. Overall I would say my listening patterns are generally geared to roots music these days, whether it's blues, calypso, folk or punk.

23. What do you think are some of the best albums to have come out in the past couple of years?

Honestly, I'm finding it really hard to think of any album that's come out in the past couple of years in the ska realm that has truly hooked me.

24. Who do you think are some of the best ska/reggae bands coming out these days that deserve more attention?

The band that I've seen recently that turned me on most has been Go Jimmy Go. I think the fact that they are island people gives them a much truer "island sound" than I've heard anyone pull off in a long time. They write great songs, have excellent vocals and a solid groove. I hope they keep coming back to California for tours. I think the next generation of ska fans needs great bands like that to see.

25. What's coming up for you? Any more tours or are you gonna be taking a break?

My big priority right now is to get out there and play as much as I can to support the new release. This summer I've had a lot of dates around California. In August I'm going to Anchorage, AK for two shows. Alaska is the only state I've never been to, so I'm really excited about going there. I don't foresee much of a planned break coming up. I'm talking to different labels in Europe about releasing 4-Trackaganza!, so I imagine I'll be going back to tour in Europe sometime over the next year. While I'm still in the solo format and the overhead involved in gigging is the lowest it's ever going to be for me, one of my goals is to arrange for releases in foreign territories and go new places to play. There are ska scenes all over the world, and people in places I've never played already have heard of me and what I'm doing. Being a solo performer means it's possible for me to go places that might be too cost prohibitive for a full band to go.

26. I guess that's about it. Any closing comments?

I'd be into playing more with different kinds of acts than only ska bands. With King Apparatus, when we were playing a lot in Canada, there weren't very many ska bands at all so we ended up playing with all sorts of groups. That kept our minds open to different styles of music that we could experiment with and bring into the scope of what we were doing, and helped us create our own distinct sound. It also put us in front of lots of people who were not already ska fans, but became King Apparatus fans. When there were hundreds of ska bands playing around the US, it seemed like there were always six or seven ska bands on every bill and every show was some kind of skafest. For the diehard fans, that was great, but I think it was not exactly healthy for ska in the long run. When young bands only play with other ska bands, they end up seeing a very narrow scope of what can be done musically and can end up getting into a creative rut and not creating anything that's truly original. Ska has always been a fusion of various styles, even back in Jamaica when blues, jazz and Caribbean styles were combined to create ska initially. I love playing with other acts that play ska well, but I think spreading the music to new people that may never have even heard of ska is very important, not only for me as an artist, but for ska as a genre overall. As well, I think that what I do is much less ska-specific than what most ska-based acts do. I hope I can help turn some new people on to the music that I love and continue to produce music that is both true to the roots but not purist in its mentality. It's been said many times that there are only two kinds of music - good music and bad music. I think there is a lot of truth in that statement. I also think that what makes some music good, beyond having talented musicians playing, is that there is the freedom to experiment and try new things out. When artists get too concerned about "the rules" of whatever they're doing, things can get stagnant. Music has been evolving for longer than recorded history. It is essential that the evolution continues.

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