THE 4 OF US love the independence they have carved out amid widespread changes in the music industry. Not bad for a couple of brothers from Newry celebrating 30 years in the business, writes Lauren Murphy
Many times over the last thirty years Brendan Murphy has thought about changing the name of his band. “But then I think it’d be disingenuous,” says The 4 Of Us frontman after picking me up at Dundalk train station. “It never made sense on any number of levels. We play with other people sometimes but, really, The 4 Of Us have always been me and Declan. But luckily for us,” he says, fiddling with the sat nav and raising his impressive eyebrows, “music is full of band names that don’t make any sense. Sure, it’s all part of the charm.”
Declan, Murphy’s younger brother, has been up late working in the studio, _ head to a nearby hotel without him. We’re not far from Brendan’s home in Carlingford or from Newry, where the brothers grew up and which heavily informed their most recent album, Sugar Island. The stripped back, largely acoustic 2016 collection won some of the best reviews of their career. The album touched on growing up in the Troubles, but was not defined by it.
“The great thing about making that record was that it allowed me and Declan to revisit our past and tell a story I hadn’t really heard: of people trying to live normal lives. And writing through the eyes of a kid lets you off the hook – which suited me,” he laughs. “I remember listening to a lot of songs written about the north while I was growing up and being really defensive, saying, ‘That’s not my experience of it,’ because we had a happy childhood.”
Music was an escape for Murphy, who was careful not to sidestep reality when writing the album. Several tracks, such as Going South, detail the family’s annual escape from Newry during the week of, the Twelfth of July, while Hometown on the Border mentions “soldiers walking the fields, tapping their heels right up to your door.”
“You’re walking a bit of a knife edge, because there was so much tragedy you don’t want to brush over,” he says. “It’s a bit of a minefield, that whole period. But the more specific you are, the more chance of actually saying something that might resonate with someone. It was a bit of a wake-up call for me, because I thought the more personally I’m writing, the more rewarding the experience is.”
Speaking on the phone layer, Declan reveals that making the record served another purpose. “I got closer to Brendan through that album,” he says. “I knew it was powerful because it was bringing up strong emotions for both of us. When you work closely with your brother, it’s strange after 30 years to get such a connection that feels completely fresh – but that’s what it’s done. It’s sort of filled the tank, in a funny way.”
It’s exactly 30 years since the brothers formed The 4 Of Us, winning praise for their 1989 debut, Songs for the Tempted and its 1992 follow-up, Man Alive. With hits such as Mary and She Hits Me, it seemed the band were on the brink of something big, until their momentum sputtered and they parted ways with their label, CBS Records. Their third album, Amplifier, remained unreleased until 2011.
Declan claims it was the right time for them to become independent artists. Every album since 1999’s Classified Personal has been released on their own Future Inc label. “In retrospect it’s the best thing that ever happened to us. Even at the time I thought it was great, because we’re sort of control freaks,” he says. “If we veered into the ditch along the way, that was to be expected – but ultimately we held the wheel. We couldn’t get where we wanted to get without being in control.”
The duo still play songs from that era live, of course, including Mary. Brendan smiles when I ask how his feelings towards their trademark song have changed over the years. “Is it the best melody we’ve ever written? Yeah probably,” he muses. “Do I think it’s the catchiest lyric I’ve ever written? Yeah probably. Do I think it’s the best lyric I’ve ever written? No. But I’m proud of the fact it’s a story song, talks about domestic violence and has grit, even if it doesn’t sound like it.
I still like the video – the hairstyle and outfit weren’t too bad – so when I see it coming on, I don’t go, ‘Oh Jesus'” he says, laughing. “So I don’t have a problem with the song. Would I like another (hit)? Absolutely. But I know I’m not 25, and my audience aren’t in their teens, so it’s harder. I’m not making music for those people any more. And, you know what? I don’t have to, because I have enough of an audience that we can do what we want.
“I’m not flying on a private jet to each show, but the freedom to follow your own muse and do it your own way can’t be underestimated. Everything that’s happened with technology empowers people like me.”
It is surprising to hear a stalwart extol the technological overhaul that the industry has experienced. Murphy insists the changes have played to The 4 Of Us’s strengths, from being able to shoot music videos to getting their music directly to their audience. “For us it has removed the gatekeepers. I remember what it was like trying to get physical albums into shops as an independent band. It was tough, because you were competing against the leverage of a major record company. But now? Do something remarkable. Write a song, shoot a video and make it bloody good enough that people will pay attention. And if they don’t? Well maybe it isn’t good enough.
“The price of everything has dropped. I think the power is back in the hands of the creator, so for us it’s great. It gives someone like us a shot.”
With work on the follow-up to Sugar Island tentatively under way, it sounds as though another 30 years in the game would be a breeze. “Oh yeah,” he agrees with a chuckle. “I mean, failing some sort of tragic accident – in which case our sales will skyrocket, as long as it’s an exciting enough tragedy.”
For a moment he becomes more serious. “We don’t expect plain sailing and that’s part of what we love about it. To some people it’s an uncertain lifestyle, but my attitude is, ‘Well what’s the problem with that?’ When it all boils down to it, all I want to do is sit in a room, write songs, record songs and then get up and perform them in front of people. To me that is just a gift. Part of me still can’t believe that Declan and I have been able to pull off not having to do anything else. It hasn’t been easy all the time, but I think we’ve made maybe our best record, and I think we’re getting better.
“And to me, the music business is still really simple. It’s three things. How good is the song? How good is the show? And how good are you at getting the word out?It’s costing less and less money to get your stuff out there – and yes, there’s more competition, but that’s just tough. So just get better, or get out of the game.”