Like A Cobra In The Dark: A Conversation With Alex McMurray

Offbeat Magazine

Offbeat Magazine by Michael Dominici

Alex McMurray is rightfully recognized as a great guitarist and singer-songwriter, but beyond that he is also a tremendous navigator of the New Orleans music scene. Besides being a founding member of Royal Fingerbowl and The Tin Men, McMurray also formed the beastly Valparaiso Men’s Chorus, with a focus on ribald sea shanties. He partnered with guitarist Jonathan Freilich for the Tom Paines, to unearth obscure folk songs, blues, and murder ballads, and figured prominently with The Write Brothers, featuring Jim McCormick, Paul Sanchez, and Spencer Bohren. McMurray has also accompanied the massive Naked Orchestra, collaborated with The Little Big Horns, and even joined the rock steady band 007. Alex McMurray has had a long-standing series of duet performances with everyone from Sarah Quintana and Susan Cowsill, to Luke Spurr Allen, who plays with Alex in The Happy Talk Band. We recently had the opportunity to pick Alex’s brain, and just generally catch up with this hardworking musician.

I know you’re out there quite a bit with your bands and as a sideman for a variety of prominent musicians. Let’s begin with The Tin Men. What is it about The Tin Men that you love most?

There’s that thing that dogs do, when they are staring at an object and are very much silent and focused on that object, and if the object moves just a hair, the dog will quickly rotate its head about 30 degrees yet still remain focused. The Tin Men will do that to people sometimes, which I like. Plus I’ve always liked trios. My family is a trio.

There is such a vast expanse and range in your repertoire; besides the dozens of originals, you delight in unearthing obscure blues and jazz compositions, doing eclectic covers, and of course exploring a deep catalogue of sea shanties with Valparaiso Men’s Chorus. When do you know you’ve uncovered a gem that suits you?

You don’t really know until you play it in front of an audience, and even then it will probably take a few times before your backside loosens up. The Tin Men play so many gigs in so many situations that we are always starving for material—we burn through songs pretty fast. We’ll work up a tune and try it a few times and if it doesn’t work we’ll abandon it pretty quick without much ceremony. We play every week, so we’re always tinkering. I suppose the criteria of suitability for a song is like this tidiness madness we are hearing about—if a song doesn’t add to the overall joy or energy, then off it goes. From the songs that actually make it to the bandstand, probably about 60-percent stay in the repertoire. The world is full of songs. The shanty band is in a weird area in that it is, by necessity, a party band. There’s a pretty big audience that are there for a visceral experience, and we are there with all this firepower of the drums, tuba and trombone, etc. If we played that music in the traditional way, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. I’m quite sure we’re the only band playing sea shanties in this way on the planet, but it’s how it sounded in my head when the first germ of the idea to have a New Orleans sea shanty outfit first took root while I was still in Japan. Strange we don’t get invited to any of the big sea shanty festivals.

I have personally seen you write a song in five minutes, and that blew my mind. How do you create your material? Do the lyrics typically come first, or does the music come first?

The best songs always come in a flash pretty much complete. Pretty much all songwriters will tell you that. I have a few that took less time to write than it takes to perform them. But by and large, many more songs are, to varying degrees, hard-fought. I have heard many creative people liken the creative act to fishing—the fish are out there, you just need to put out your line, in the right place, at the right time, be willing to wait a while, and accept the possibility that you will throw a few back and that you may return home empty-handed. Plus, you need lots of gasoline, a trailer, and a license. There are some songs I’ve worked on for 15 years or more. Not without a break, of course, but there are some that won’t leave you alone. A melody nags at you and you sit like a cobra in the dark for hours waiting for the right words to stroll by … and you strike! There’s blood and feathers everywhere, terrible screaming, and the final death struggle, finally the heart stops and you have a song.

I’d like you to give us a few anecdotes and insight into some your collaborators.

Susan Cowsill. My sister from another mister. Our 2009 trip to the Middle East presaged the Arab Spring. You can look it up. Susan is a machine built by God to sing harmonies with people, as is evidenced daily if you are tracking her movements. She zigs and zags, is light on her feet and has one helluva arm. She could quarterback the Buffalo Bills to the playoffs, and was scouted early on by the Twins organization, but opted instead for a career in showbiz. Has played Ed Sullivan—who among us can say that?

Paul Sanchez. Fastest gun in the West. There is no faster songwriter. He prides himself on this. By the time he’s halfway done with the bridge he’s thinking about the next song. And Paul Sanchez should be mayor of something—there is no finer extemporaneous speaker anywhere. He’s a card-carrying true believer. He’s going to stay out there until they put him in the ground, or put the net over him.

Debbie Davis. It has been my good fortune to be in Ms. Davis’s employ for a few years now. Fortunate for many reasons—not least of which is that I am thrust into situations for which I am woefully unqualified. Somehow I always emerge on the other side scraped and bloody but nevertheless intact.  They say this is good for you. I like the gig because I’m a big fan of cabaret music—Bobby Short, Mabel Mercer, Mae Barnes, etc. I think her center of gravity is somewhere amongst the icons of that style. She has a great book: Carmichael, Newman, Berlin, Winehouse, Wonder, Bowie. She’s a wonderful interpreter of my songs and she’s even recorded a few. The reprobate with a heart of gold, tough as nails but will go completely to pieces at the drop of a hat—that’s our Debbie.

Jonathan Freilich. Has a voracious appetite for music—loves the stuff. More than that, it’s his oxygen. Take it away and he starts turning blue and the pond gets scummy real quick. He’s shown me more music over the years than anyone by far. I’m certain there are many musicians in town who would say the same. His car is a rolling salon.  Always has the latest Bob Dylan going, or Japanese court music, endless opera.

Spencer Bohren. Spencer wasn’t taken in by the glitz and the glamour of the top-tier gas stations. He took the time to find the mom and pop gas. Hated the interstate. When the van did stop—which was not often—it was at the rest area near the state line. Carried his own food and water. The road was his milieu.

Luke Spurr Allen. By night is lifeguard at the adult pool, his nerves frayed by the constant monitoring of trouble on the horizon. In and out of the water all day. Goes through a lot of sunblock. By day he retires to his strange garden, where he cultivates the bittersweet, misshapen fruit which bring home blue ribbons from fairs in counties you can only imagine.

Joe Cabral. Knows how to make the gig. He learned that on his dad’s bandstand playing top 40, and Mexican tunes starting when he was 14. At 15 he could drive the car to the gig. At 16 his dad sent him by himself. Not a lot of folks can sing and play bass, but Joe makes it look effortless. I think it’s like learning Mandarin Chinese—you have to start when you’re young. Knows the words to a kajillion two or three chord songs—which is huge. Because of this, he is unflappable on the bandstand. Seeks out the corner room at the hotel. Won’t wear a shirt with a breast pocket. Cherishes his collection of Frisbees. Loathes any sort of insignia on a car.