David Roy speaks to 4 of Us leader Brendan Murphy about the success of the Newry duo’s weekly Facebook Live concerts and their current lockdown-inspired single Waiting Game…
IT’S been a long pandemic for working musicians: with the live music scene still shut down, bands and solo artists have resorted to staging streamed concerts and events on social media platforms as a way of staying in touch with fans during lockdown and beyond, as well as keeping their hand in with actually performing.
Veteran Newry duo The 4 of Us, are a case in point: by the time you read this, the band – brothers Brendan and Declan Murphy – will have just completed their 35th consecutive Ask Us Anything session on Facebook Live, their weekly hour-long Thursday evening live stream which finds them setting up in Declan’s living room to delve into their back catalogue.
Thousands of fans have enjoyed logging on to see them perform tunes from 2016’s pop-folk career highlight, Sugar Island, right back to their 1989 debut Songs for The Tempted – which first put them on the pop map with the hit Mary – as well as their latest single Waiting Game, plus plenty of between-song chat and stories.
“At the moment we’re picking an album [every week] and then playing songs from it,” explains frontman Brendan, who formed the band with his younger brothers Declan (guitar) and Paul (keyboards) back in the late 80s.
“It’s funny, when we were touring we got used to playing the same four or five songs from each record, which we’d play all the time – which means we basically forgot how to play the rest of them.”
“We’ve been taking requests before each show and of course everyone wants to hear the songs we haven’t done in years, or in some cases, ever. So it’s been harder work than you would think. But the upside of it is that when we go back on the road, people can be shouting up old album tracks and we’ll actually be able to play them, because we’ve gone through about six albums now.”
With their return to real live music still a good while off – currently, the only confirmed date in the 4 of Us diary is a show at Waterford’s Theatre Royal on February 11 next year, a venue they last played while supporting Robert Plant’s Saving Grace back in 2019 – the regular rehearsing required for each live streamed show has helped keep the brothers match fit, as Brendan explains.
“Considering that we’ve been off the road for a year and a half now, I actually think that we’ve got better,” he tells me.
“We actually watch them back afterwards and critique ourselves – maybe a certain part isn’t quite right, or we need to use an effect somewhere else – but having said that it’s been quite relaxed too.
“Although obviously we’re not hearing what [the fans] are saying, the comments are flying in. I usually have a glass of wine in my hand when I’m chatting away between songs, so we’re not pretending it’s an actual gig or anything. But you still want to do the songs justice and now that we’ve done a lot of these shows we can sort of tell what works and what doesn’t.”
Impressively, Brendan and Declan’s lively weekly sessions in the e-company of their fanbase have also borne fresh 4 of Us fruit: current single Waiting Game, a lockdown inspired ode to quality time with family with a video edited together by Declan from their Facebook Live footage, has become a mainstay on local radio since its release last month – and 4 of Us fans got to hear it first in an embryonic state during one of their Facebook Live shows.
“We’re actually literally making stuff up in front of the audience,” reveals Brendan of one way in which these streaming shows are very different from the average normal 4 of Us live gig.
“We’ll say ‘what do you think of this?’ and then play them something new. That’s how Waiting Game came about – that single would never have happened if it hadn’t been for Facebook Live.
“Declan made up a riff in front of the audience and they responded well to it, so then I tried to write something over that. Normally what I do is sing rubbish and then try and make sense of it, and this time I kept singing ‘we’re just playing the waiting game’.
“I don’t know where that came from, but I knew I could keep it and work backwards. That made it obvious what the song should be about, but then the trick was to try and write it without using words that I never really wanted to hear again, like ‘mask’ and ‘social distancing’ – all the stuff we’ve heard ad nauseum for the past months and months and which would put myself off it, never mind other people.
“Luckily enough, I had a good angle: my family. Although there has been so much heartbreak and tragedy related to the pandemic, one of the few upsides for me has been that I’ve been able to see more of my wife and my kids.”
Brendan adds: “In a way, I think I was writing it as a reminder to myself – that, when this all ends, let’s not go back to how things used to be. I knew if I wrote that I would have to be true to it.
“I got a chance to really assess what was important to me and what wasn’t – I think I’m going to do less running around, let’s put it like that. When you’re touring, travel takes up so much of your time: you could be doing 100 shows a year, but you might be away for 200 days.
“But now we’ve found a way to connect with our audience on a global level through the internet, I think that will be a way to help create a better work/life balance coming out of this.
“The Facebook Live thing has been really amazing – to have fans from all over the world watching and saying hello has been incredible.”
It’s now five years since the release of what Brendan rightly considers to be the best 4 of Us album, the highly personal Sugar Island. Penned with guidance from famed Nashville songwriter Sharon Vaughn and fuelled by vivid childhood memories of growing up as brothers in Newry during the Troubles of the 1970s, its catchy, memorable and heartfelt collection of songs re-framed the band’s sound in a pleasing folk/pop manner and won them swathes of new fans.
With thoughts currently turning to new material, the Newry man knows that the pressure is on to top themselves next time around.
“There’s so much of us in that album both in the stories and the playing – it’s really me and Declan and very little else,” explains Brendan.
“The whole idea was to embrace the idea that The 4 of Us is now two guys with two guitars, and can we pull that off in the studio and on the stage. The trick now is to come up with an album that matches it.
“Luckily, we have at least one good new song – now it’s just a question of what the other 10 are going to sound like.”
Best tune in every Thursday night to find out.
:: Waiting Game is out now via Spotify and other streaming services. Catch The 4 of Us live every Thursday evening at 8pm on FB.com/The4OfUsOfficial.