Authentically Midwestern: Michigan's Major Murphy
Written by Alexandra Graber
Photographed by Hayden Sitomer
After a particularly hectic weekend, my interview with Major Murphy was readily approaching. At this point I was exhausted from prior band interviews, a multitude of shows, and sleeping a total of maybe five hours over the course of two nights. When Major Murphy’s label hit me up to push the interview back, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to keep my eyes open for the additional hour.
I dragged myself to the L train, riding towards Williamsburg. I walked out onto McCarren Park on a particularly beautiful Brooklyn day. The air was warm, the sun was beaming bright in the clear sky, and due to it being a Sunday, the park was bustling with city residents soaking up one of the first nice days of Spring. Upon arriving at the meeting spot I was greeted by Ben, Major Murphy’s label person. A fairly large group of people surrounding Ben were sprawled out on blankets, chatting and enjoying the fantastic weather. I wasn’t exactly sure if the band was even there yet. We made small talk for a few minutes before Jacki Warren and Jacob Bullard of Major Murphy descended on the group with their adorable, blonde toddler in tow. Brian Voortman, aka Bud, Major Murphy’s drummer, had been mingling among the crowd and popped up to join us. It felt like a perfectly normal Sunday afternoon in the park. It was just like any other day hanging out with my very own friends, except, I happened to know none of these people. Immediately, I felt rejuvenated.
That’s the thing about Major Murphy, and maybe this is true of their Midwestern nature, but being with them felt something like home. They were a little awkward, at times nervous, but humble and personable. I genuinely enjoyed being around them. Their presence was no less inviting than their music.
Major Murphy’s debut album, “No. 1,” was released on March 30th, 2018. The record is a culmination of tracks from their early EP days to now. Each song presents its own journey through eras past and present. At times, a clear 60’s influence rears its head with garage pop melodies at the forefront, while at others, I feel like I could be listening to Tennis’ ‘Yours Conditionally.’ Major Murphy exists in a modern era, with the acute presence of the past ever emerging in their utterly nostalgic music. The rich textures on “No. 1” are met with lush bass lines and dreamily crafted lyricism.
We had the opportunity to sit with Major Murphy and discuss their debut album, how family life has affected touring, and how The Beatles play an ever-present role in their music.
POND: First of all, congratulations on the debut record!
Jacob: Thank you!
POND: So "No. 1" was three years in the making. That’s quite a bit of time. Did you guys have a sense of anxiousness leading up to the release date?
Jacki: Yes! The album was released the end of March, but it was recorded in June, so that was a nine month gestation period. Jacob wrote a few of the songs on the record years ago, so yeah there was a lot of, for me at least, anxiety leading up to it.
Jacob: With it being the first one, yeah.
Jacki: The day after the release party felt like such a release and a relief.
POND: The track order is very well thought out, there’s a nice flow. I do get the vibe that some of the tracks were from an earlier time. You can see this progression within you guys musically. This is my assumption, but you get a 60’s garage vibe coming from the earlier stuff, whereas it came into a 70’s yacht rock, power pop vibe in some of the other tracks. Did you find that your style evolved during those couple years?
Jacob: Yeah, absolutely. I actually feel like “Step Out” and “One Day,” some of those more yacht rocky-pop songs, those are actually pretty old.
Jacki: Well, “Lisa, Robbi, and Me” is kind of that 60’s garage. That was written around the same time as the other two.
Jacob: “No. 1” is actually a super old song!
POND: That has The Beatles written all over it.
Bud: There are songs that we’ve been playing for years and there’s songs that we’ve been playing for a few months on the album. That was kind of wild for me, at least.
POND: Yeah, how did that transcend live with having stuff you were super comfortable playing and the newer stuff?
Jacki: It’s always tough to branch out and play a song for the first time, even the first few times, even six months. I feel like it’s still new in the repertoire. I think a lot of that, for me, is overthinking it. It feels good, it feels exciting to play those new songs.
Jacob: There’s levels or plateaus. You play a song for a while and it kind of hits a low point, but if you stick with it, it comes back up and you re-find it again. I love playing “Step Out” now and even “Lisa.” I wonder how I’m not sick of it, but we are rediscovering them constantly now that we have fresher stuff to work in.
Jacki: Yeah, you work it out and experiment with the song. There was a time we really, really gave it our all. We put it on total blast. Not that it’s restrained now, it’s just really comfortable for us.
Jacob: We were talking about the show and you know what you need to do to make it good. It’s less of every time you play you think, how should we do this, and more of we know what to do. Auto-pilot.
POND: The track you’re talking about, “Lisa, Robbi, and Me,” the one that’s out on your EP as well, it’s crazy to see that transition.
Bud: The first recording was pretty scrappy.
POND: It was still cool!
Jacob: That means a lot! We get embarrassed by that recording.
POND: At that time you were recording doing a DIY bedroom thing and now this is your first studio experience. How did that change the experience of recording for you guys?
Bud: It was night and day different. On the EPs Jacob would be like, "Hey, I’ve got this song, want to try to record drums on it?" And then we would record it in my apartment.
Jacki: Which was above our apartment.
Jacob: He would come home from work and I’d already be in Bud’s apartment, just being like, "You want to do this?"
Jacki: Incredibly casual, but also drawn out. The studio puts on a healthy time pressure.
Bud: It was a lot more intentional. We had ten days, you know, as opposed to as much time as we wanted.
Jacki: If we were at home it would’ve taken ten months or longer. You can tinker forever. The studio just puts limits on that.
Bud: It was super expansive, but limiting in those ways.
POND: Sometimes people work better under pressure. It’s not always a bad thing.
Jacki: And having other people there. If we’re recording at home it’s just us, the three of us, the two of you guys, most of the time just Jacob. Having a producer, having our good friends Ben and Aaron from Spissy collaborating and flushing the songs out more and adding parts to it, it expands the song in incredible ways. There’s still that pressure of time.
POND: Is this apartment situation that you had how Major Murphy came into fruition?
Jacki: We were all already playing music before we lived there, but once we all moved in we started jamming. That house was crucial to the formation of Major Murphy.
Jacob: We listened to a lot of music together, too. It was an incubation period. We were all looking at music in the same way and wanting to play music in the same way, similar styles and interested in similar artists.
POND: Who are some of those artists that you’re interested in?
Jacki: During that time specifically, a lot of Paul McCartney solo stuff, Television.
Bud: Gang Of Four.
Jacob: Obviously, The Beatles. We were at that time, I remember, when I was like, I’m going to really get down to The Beatles and I’m going to listen to everything. I’m going to listen to all the records! And then you realize you’ve got the rest of your life. I still haven’t listened to every Paul McCartney record ever made and I’ve tried to for three, four years now.
Bud: Not to sound like the band that’s like, "We fucking love The Beatles." But, we fucking love The Beatles.
POND: Now, you guys have a family. Has that changed a lot?
Jacki: Everything, tour, day to day life, practice. It’s definitely a profound, huge life change. We had just started calling ourselves a band in the Fall of 2015.
Jacob: September 3rd, 2015 was our first show!
Jacki: Yeah, at Founders in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I found out I was pregnant in December. Benji was born September 3rd, 2016, a year after our first show.
POND: Wow, that’s wild!
Jacki: I think that it’s easy to say having Benji and being a family slows us down a lot or that it’s holding us back in some way. I reminiscence on days when we would tour without a baby and romanticize that. I think having Benji, my perspective on life has changed. Now, we just have to do this. It would be so easy to stay home and be a modern American family. Having Benji has made me realize how much I want to do it. I don’t take it for granted. It’s hard, I want to give up a lot of times, especially on this tour it’s been really hard. I think before I was just coasting along through my twenties. It’s just different. It’s like the studio, it puts pressure on it. I wish I had all the time in the world to just practice whenever I want, but it’s like okay we have a babysitter tonight for two hours and we’re going to practice. It’s really intentional time. It’s made me aware that I’m getting older. It changes everything.
POND: Absolutely. I read that you were jamming a lot of "Twentytwo In Blue" on this tour. Anyone else?
Jacki: Faith Healer! Jacob and I stumbled upon their show a couple weeks ago. We played at The Empty Bottle in Chicago a couple weeks ago, forgot our merch there, went back the next night to retrieve our merch and Faith Healer was playing and they were amazing.
Jacob: We’re not used to having merch. [laughs]
POND: How did you guys link up with Winspear to release the album?
Jacob: Ben and I met while I was playing with another band and he had heard some demos that I recorded, two of the songs being “No. 1” and “One Day.” He just said, would you want to work with us? And I said I’d been talking with Bud and Jacki about starting a band, would you be interested with working with a band that doesn’t even exist. I kind of thought that maybe he wouldn’t want to, but he was really excited about it.
Jacki: Major Murphy is a band because Mister Ben believes in us.
Jacob: Yeah, we kind of found each other at a time where we really needed someone to give a shit and he really needed a band to give a shit about. Then we signed a contract over a beer and fish and chips.
Bud: That’s when we refer to him as Mister Ben, otherwise he’s just Ben.
POND: I’m so ashamed to admit this, but I had to work last night so I couldn’t make your set. How was Brooklyn Bazaar?
Jacob: It was so fun!
Bud: Our last show was a little rough and then to have this show, a bunch of people there, it sounded great. It’s New York City, it was just so fun.
POND: How do you find that the album is translating to your live performances now?
Bud: It’s kind of fun because there’s more than just the three of us recorded on that album and when we play live it’s just us, which is limiting in a way but I really actually like that. It strips down the songs in a way that’s raw and authentic, it’s very immediate. There’s a lot of textures on the album but when we play we just bash it out, which is cool.
POND: Now that you guys have the debut release out, what do you have in store after this tour?
Jacki: We’re doing some support dates with Kevin Krauter in June. We’re going to let Mister Ben take this one over, Mister Ben? [laughs]
[Mister Ben mentions a few things under his breath to the band]
Jacob: We recorded some demos recently, some brand new songs to keep the ball rolling. We recorded a cover of “Strangers” by The Kinks and an instrumental jam. We’ll probably put that out and bundle some B Sides and rarities for a little cassette. People love hearing new music.
Bud: I feel like we all love being in the studio a lot, so as soon as we can get back there, the better.
POND: Sounds like you guys been writing new music pretty actively. What does that look like, is that Jacob writing the songs and you guys coming in and filling in the spaces?
Jacob: Yeah, just by the nature of how much time we spend together, it’s just inevitable that in my own process of songwriting while I’m working through lyrics I just share them with Jacki.
Jacki: I’m hearing the keys being worked out, I’m humming a harmony before there’s even words. I wrote a bridge on a new song, pulling from my musical theater background [laughs]. You know, high school musical theater. When you hear the part that sounds like it was from Wicked, that’s when you’ll know.