Murphy, Ronan Chris (December 2001)

An Interview With Producer Ronan Chris Murphy

King Crimson - Deja VroomThe name Ronan Chris Murphy probably doesn't ring a bell for most people, but if you're a King Crimson fan, you've heard his work. For example, take a look at the liner notes for KC's wonderful Deja VROOOM DVD, and there you'll find Chris Murphy credited with sound engineering, as well as for mixing the 5.1 surround audio. The truth is that Murphy has worked with a whole slew of folks that many prog people would list as heroes, including Robert Fripp, Tony Levin, Terry Bozzio, Alan White, Steve Morse, The California Guitar Trio, and Pat Mastelotto. Murphy's work isn't limited to progressive rock, however. He's also worked in such disparate genres such as punk, metal, pop, jazz, R&B, and even Latin. was lucky enough to get a chance to ask Murphy a few questions. The answers reveal a man who is not only skilled at music production, but one who also holds a passionate love for music of all kinds.

Clayton Walnum: So, how did you get your start in the music industry?

Ronan Chris Murphy: I started as a musician. It was in the early 80s Washington DC hardcore punk scene. I played in a yappy little band called Freak Baby. We were terrible but bold and ambitious, so I am really proud of it. It's funny that this awful little band I started when I was 15 has ended up in the music history books, because when I quit the band, Dave Grohl joined Freak Baby as his first band. He, of course, went on to be in Nirvana and such.

CW: What was your first big break?

RCM: You know, I never really had big breaks, just lots of little ones. For me, one of the most monumental turning points in my career was getting to produce a project with Joan LaBarbara. She may not be as big a name as some other artists I have worked with, but she sang on Philip Glass' Music In Twelve Parts and that to me was like a rock kid getting to work with Robert Plant or something. My career has not been a situation of me producing an overnight smash hit and being flavor of the moment, but slowly gaining a good reputation. Hopefully, I will be able to hold on to that.

I have been really blessed because I have worked with so many stellar artists. Not the likes of Britney Spears, but amazing musicians with a lot of integrity and longevity. I have been lucky to gain a reputation as someone who knows how to support and encourage really creative musicians. Ten years ago I would have never imagined I would be getting asked to do records with artists like Terry Bozzio or Steve Morse.

CW: Would you work with the likes of Britney Spears?

RCM: Oh Yeah. In a second. I think there is a lot of really exciting work going on in "pop" music. Maybe not so much with Britney yet, but Nelly Furtado, Madonna, R. Kelly. I love getting to do that kind of stuff, and actually right now is a really good time for a lot of creativity in pop and R&B. Check out Outkast or Missy Elliot's Get Ur Freak On. I guess ProgressiveWorld probably does not do too many interviews about Britney Spears, eh?

CW: No, not too many, although I'm sure some prog lovers are closet Britney fans! And that's okay. I'm not a music snob. Why did you decide to stop performing and switch to the music-production side of things?

RCM: This may sound a bit esoteric, but it chose me. I was playing and touring quite a bit in a band called Pumphouse. This was back in the last of the 80's, so we were playing with bands like the Flaming Lips, Dinosaur Jr., Henry Rollins. We were supposed to do part of a tour with Jane's Addiction until the tour got cancelled. Story I heard is that one of the guys was going to get cleaned up in rehab. Anyway, the bass player of Pumphouse, Bobby Donne, quit and later went on to be in the really beautiful band LaBradford. But when he quit, we could never really replace him, and in the downtime, I dove into recording and arranging, composing and all that sort of stuff and absolutely fell in love with it. I never looked back. A lot of people seem to think I am an OK musician, but I think I have a lot more to offer helping develop other artists. I perform and write on lots of the albums I produce, so I have certainly have not given up being a musician.

It's an interesting thing. If you get into recording, it will eat you up. I try and warn a lot of musicians that are starting to get into recording. It's a great thing, but in almost every case I know, it tends to take people away from being performing artists. It takes so much time and money to do it right. I have no regrets about the course of my life, but I have seen a lot of great up-and-coming artists end their careers by getting into recording and not spending enough time being performers.

I have recently started working on a couple albums of my own material that will be released under the name "Lives of the Saints," and I will do some touring to promote it. For the first album I will probably play all the instruments and the second will feature an insane number of guests. Ya know, lots of my friends and people I have worked with. It should be pretty interesting for fans of some prog musicians. I am going to try and get some great players to play a bit outside the box they are known for.

CW: You've worked with a lot of music celebrities. Got any juicy stories to tell us?

RCM: Not if I want to keep working with a lot of music celebrities!!

CW: What has been your favorite production job so far, both from the point of view of the music and the personal relationships with the musicians involved?

RCM: I was just listening to an album I produced for an Italian band called Hypnoise, that I did for MP records over in Italy. It was such an amazing time. The food, the people, the country, and now that I have had a chance to step away from the album, I realize it's a really beautiful record, as well. I had Trey Gunn from King Crimson come in and play Warr Guitar on the album for me.

Bozzio Levin Stevens - Situation Dangerous (2000)I am really proud of the Bozzio Levin Stevens record I did (Situation Dangerous). What we were trying to pull off was pretty ambitious, and I think we succeeded. They are such great musicians and all so unique. A lot of records I am most proud of are not really the most famous. I did a record for a band called Yellow Fever from Stockholm recently that is really wonderful. The new single hit number 2 on MTV's top 5 over in Europe, which is really cool because it's a far cry from a generic pop or rock record. I just produced a record for a Seattle band called Satovan that is awesome. Really heavy and totally fun and beautiful.

Working a lot on the King Crimson stuff was really special just because it was such an intense period of work. I think I ended up working on a dozen different Crim albums in one way or another, plus a DVD and some compilation stuff. It was wonderful getting to live at Fripp's place in a tiny English village.

CW: A producer has to wear a number of different hats when working on an album with an artist. What do you think is your most important role as a producer in getting the music from the musicians and onto tape?

RCM: I would say that my job is to find out what the project needs and bring that to the project. I have a really strong background as both a musician and an engineer, so I tend to be very involved in almost every step of the process, but it's different for every album. Some artists come to me with a really clear vision of the album they want to make and have the material in great shape. In that case, I will handle a lot of the logistics, make sure that the vibe is right in the studio and make sure that everyone is performing at the level I know they can.

On the other end of the spectrum are artists that are not as developed, and I will help them write the material, develop a vision for the album, and maybe even play all the instruments myself. Some new artists need a lot of development work to get ready for their first album. I love that I get to do both ends of the spectrum.

I really think that the most important work that I do with an artist is before we even go into the studio. The time we spend in pre-production working on the material and defining the vision for the album. I don't really accept production jobs anymore that do not allow for pre-production.

CW: Where do you stand in the ongoing debate on analog and digital recording?

RCM: We could easily do a whole series of interviews on this topic, but let me see if I can sum it up quick. I don't believe that there has been a significant improvement in recording technology in several decades. Hard-disk recording offers more flexibility for editing, but aside from that, digital is inferior to analog in almost every way, at least for rock and pop. About half of my work is mixing records that other producers have recorded, and in almost every case, if the material was originally recorded on analog, my job will be a lot easier.

The recording mediums and converter technology has improved to the point where [digital recording] does not mess up your sound as much, but it still cannot do a lot of the beautiful euphonic things that analog tape can do. Digital mixers, on the other hand, are so inferior to analog that they should be shipped with consumer warning labels. I need to put all this into perspective, though. I started using Pro Tools [digital audio editing software] almost 10 years ago with version 1.0, and most of the records I do these days are hybrids of analog and digital technology. I will use whatever is available or makes the most sense for a particular project, but I am happy to shoot my mouth off about it as a small voice against the wave of advertising lies out there that people are eating up.

It's really a sad situation with so much of the new technology. Really bad sounding products are going out onto the market and people are being convinced that the old ways of recording are no longer valid (as if the way that Houses of the Holy was recorded is no longer valid). They get duped into buying gear like digital mixers that sound awful and will have no resale value in a couple years. It seems like the big selling point on all of this is convenience, but how pitiful is that? I have dedicated almost my entire adult life to trying to make amazing records. It's an obsession that cost me almost everything else in my life and someone wants to sell me on a product that makes worse records but is more convenient? I won't mention which company, but a guitar amp simulator company approached me about an endorsement deal, and I just laid into the poor guy. I told him that his company represented everything I thought was wrong about the direction recording was going. They were selling the emperor's new guitar sound. They were selling a product that claimed to sound like a vintage Marshall that sounded nothing like one, and tried to tell me that it was good enough because it was so easy. Good enough? Now that's a great legacy to leave, a collection of albums that did not strive for greatness but were good enough because they required less work. And in truth, it is not less work. Any time I get a record to mix where the guitars were recorded with amp simulators, most of my time is spent trying to overcome the deficiencies of the guitar track. They just don't work as well in a mix.

But again, to put all this into perspective, you can make great records with whatever you have; I just think it is artistically dangerous and pitiful not to strive for the best. Music is such a special gift; I hate to see people approach it half-heartedly.

CW: You work with all different kinds of artists from metal to Latin. What do you like to listen to when you're off the job?

RCM: My personal collection is as varied as my work. Right now I am listening to Steve Reich's "violin phase," before that I was listening to an amazing Italian punk band called Prozac+, and before that it was the great Portuguese folk singer Amalia Rodregues. I dig a lot of new stuff, too. I really love a lot of the new things from Tool and Madonna and Incubus. On the prog front, I really love Ozric Tentacles, Under The Sun, and I have to admit that I think the most interesting prog coming out today is in the Black Metal scene. Cradle of Filth's Dusk and Her Embrace is one of the most amazing progressive albums of the 90s.

CW: I guess of most interest to the people who read is your work with King Crimson and Robert Fripp. I read that you started working with Fripp on the G3 tour. I happened to see that show when it came to the Meadows in Hartford, CT. We walked in, and there was Fripp on the stage, doing his thing. Unfortunately, no one was paying attention or even knew who he was. It was like he was some unknown guy providing background sounds, and when he was finished he just walked off the stage with no acknowledgement from the audience, most of whom didn't even know that there had been a musician performing. It was very weird. Was that a typical show for Fripp on that tour? Is that how he wanted it?

RCM: One of the things I love about working with Fripp is that he is always trying to throw people off guard and toy with their expectations. Yes, that was a typical show. What we would do is get Robert out on stage playing before the doors opened. His official time slot was only 20 minutes, but we would get an hour and half by playing right when the doors opened. When I was out with Robert on all the Soundscapes tours, he was really trying to see if he could get people to experience the music differently, for it to have a different role. I think the parameters of the experiment were that anything you wanted to do was fine as long as you did not take photos. He always felt it would be appropriate if someone booed him when he was sucking. I was tempted to test the theory on a few off nights.

CW: What's it like working with Fripp? Is he as curmudgeonly as he's reputed to be?

RCM: Well, for most of two years Robert and I were almost inseparable. When he was on tour, I was on tour with him; when he was off the road, we were in the studio working on records together; so obviously I like the guy. Professionally, for me the fact that I worked on a dozen Crim records, does not really mean more than if I had done only two, so I easily could have left if it sucked. The truth is that when I think of Robert, the first thing that comes to mind is his wicked sense of humor, and he has been very generous to me. The one thing about Robert is that there is something very specific that he is trying to do as an artist and a way that he is trying to approach the work of performing. It's a really serious thing for him, and he gets into a headspace to perform that does not really allow for extraneous stuff. The best I ever heard him explain it was that being a musician is like being the priest at a mass. You have a serious job to do, and you wouldn't run up to the priest and ask for his autograph while he was walking down the aisle. Anyone that got to see the Soundscapes tours got to hear Robert do Q&A, and they gave a pretty good insight into what he is like. I think Fripp's sister has compiled a lot of those Q&As into a collection called Fripp Unplugged, or something like that.

CW: It's a well-known fact that Fripp isn't fond of the term "progressive rock," especially when it's applied to King Crimson, which is ironic considering that a lot of people consider In the Court of the Crimson King to be the first truly progressive-rock album. Did you ever make the mistake of using the term progressive-rock with Fripp? Why do you think he considers the term to be such a black label?

RCM: I don't remember using the term in front of him, but it would not surprise me if I did, just to try and get a rise out him. I certainly cannot speak on Robert's behalf, but based on our other conversations about music, I would guess that it has a lot to do with the fact that the term "progressive rock" comes with so much baggage about what is, or is not, acceptable. Look at some of the prog newsgroups, and you will see guys arguing for days about what is or is not prog. Robert is always more interested in making music that is not bound by preconception.

CW: What can you tell us about your work with bass legend Tony Levin? Is working with Levin as a solo act similar to working with Crimson or Fripp?

California Guitar Trio - Live At The Key ClubRCM: To be completely accurate, I have not worked on a Tony Levin solo album, but I did produce the second album he did with Terry Bozzio and Steve Stevens, and recorded the live album he did with the California Guitar Trio and Pat Mastelotto. Tony has also played on a few other albums I have produced. I am actually working on a record with him right now. But back to your question: Tony is amazing, probably my all time favorite person to work with in the studio. The thing about Tony is that he always seems to know exactly the right part to play. It does not matter if it's a whacked odd time signature instrumental or a ballad for a pop singer, he always seems to play the right part. One of the most remarkable things, as well, is that he is totally ego-less in the studio. It's just about making the song great and trusting the other players. He seems to treat every project with the same respect. I think I was still in diapers when Tony was already recording platinum albums, but when we work together, he is really open and honest and trusting. If he thinks I am calling a shot that is kind of stupid, he will let me know, but it will never be about himself. It's always about the music.

CW: Tell me about the record you are doing with Tony right now.

RCM: The guitarist Willie Oteri and I just finished 10 days of writing together for the next Willie Oteri's Jazz Gunn album, and next month we are meeting up with Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto in Texas to cut the basics. Then we are going to head back to my studio in LA (Silent Way) to edit and overdub. It's going to be a really cool record, mostly because the players are great, but the concept is cool, as well. We are trying to give the album an old school Bitches Brew vibe and sound but with a fresh approach to the grooves and harmony. Mike Keneally just agreed to play some keyboards on it, which I am so excited about. Mike is such an awesome musician. I met him on the G3 tour when he was playing with Steve Vai, but this will be my first chance to work with him in the studio.

CW: What's your best King Crimson story?

RCM: I was out with King Crimson-ProjeKct Two, which was Fripp, Trey Gunn on Warr guitar, and Adrian Belew playing electronic. We were mostly playing big clubs and small theatres. For some reason, a tiny club way out in Long Island booked the band and the promoter apparently paid the same amount as the small theatres. There seemed to be almost no promotion, and ticket prices were through the roof. There were a few reserved tables in the front that cost a ridiculous amount of money. When the show started, the big table right in front was empty. About two songs into the set, a man walks in with a large entourage of young, attractive women. I don't want to pass judgment on any one from the way they look, but it was probably a safe guess that these women were not big fans of loud, dissonant, esoteric guitar rock by guys in their 40s and 50s. This is pure speculation, but I got the impression that the mystery man had probably paid their way in, which would have amounted to hundreds of dollars.

I watched this all from the tiny stage, and all the women sat down, and immediately disgruntled frowns came across their faces. In the 35-minute first set, which they had already missed 10 minutes of, I think every one of them got up to go the restroom at least twice. After the first set, they all took off, never to be seen again. The nice part of the story is that there was a young man and woman back in the cheap area totally into the music, and they sneaked up to the good table and got to see the second set sitting literally three feet in front of Fripp.

CW: People now can produce amazing recordings in their own homes using today's mostly inexpensive digital recording equipment. Do you have any production advice for artists who take this route to getting their music recorded and heard?

RCM: Be creative and make records that could have never been made in traditional studios. When the first home digital systems hit the market, I had mixed feelings. I knew that this would probably make it harder for me to be financially successful in my field, but I also realized that in my heart, I am more of a music lover than a businessman and [the digital home recording equipment] got me excited. I kept thinking about an album by the Butthole Surfers called Locust Abortion Technician. It's an amazing album, and the story I heard is that they bought their own reel-to-reel recorder, took insane amounts of drugs, and recorded this album. Whether you like the album or not, it is hard to deny that it's amazing and that there had never been anything like it before. There is no way they could have made that album in a traditional studio watching the clock. I think it's a landmark of recorded music. I was so excited because I thought the world of music was going to now get tons of Locust Abortion Technicians. I don't mean records that sound like that one or involve lots of drugs, but records that would be new and creative and could have never been made in the old way of working. I have been sorely disappointed.

It has been really sad to see all these artists getting their hands on gear and just trying to make records that sound like traditional records. The world is not getting great new works of art, but a lot of mediocre traditional records. So much of what makes big studio records great is that they have great sounding rooms and great gear, run by engineers with years or decades of experience and a producer with years of experience putting it all together. A guy with ADATS or Pro Tools in his basement cannot really compete head to head with those people, but he can do something no one else has ever thought of.

And for the last part of your question, about getting it heard, that is a really tough one and getting tougher by the minute. If you are trying to get signed, do not send a label your demo just because you have done one. Send them something when it is amazing and will make their head spin. As for getting new fans, you need to go out and promote just like you always have. If you have something that people should hear, get out on the road and tour and promote yourself on the Web and in magazines. New recording technology and the Internet has not made touring and promotion less important; it is probably tenfold the opposite. It is a nice convenience to be able to post MP3s on the Web, but that is really not an avenue for success. You still need to get out and work the band on the road.

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Added: December 21st 2001
Interviewer: Clayton Walnum

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