Heather Leigh Murray: Interview
“I’d like to think that I’m doing rock music in a new way.”
Even if she's now based in Glasgow, Scotland, Heather Leigh Murray lets some very American wild horses run amongst her free noise. Originally from Texas, where she worked as part of Charalambides (and previously Taurpis Tula and Ash Castles on the Ghost Coast), she's turned pedal steel strings into tight ropes, spinning often claustrophobic and visceral works of beauty. In much of her largely improvised works, strangely solid structures form out of 15-minute free-form explorations into often uncomfortable textures and spaces. Yeah, she can shred alright. But indeed, it's that gritty sense of beauty that underscores most of her work, coarse and seemingly uncontrolled.
Heather co-runs the Volcanic Tongue record store and distro in Glasgow, as well as composing work and performing collaborations and solo works, taking that pedal steel further into rock territory within a small but energetic noise scene. Having recently released a solo LP (Devil If You Can Hear Me) and a collaboration with Christina Carter under the Scorces moniker (I Turn Into You), I spoke to Heather on the phone about this change of locale, masculine and feminine ideas in music and scene, Albert Ayler, and reimagining rock music.
I was actually kind of surprised finding out that you live in Glasgow, just because of how much your music sounds like it's coming from the depths of America.
Well, I grew up in Texas, though I was born in West Virginia. I grew up in Houston, but it's funny; when people think of Texas, they just imagine these wide open plains and deserts, but I grew up in the heart of the city. But yeah, I would say that my music is definitely influenced by America; American music and America in general and what it stands for. I moved over here to Scotland, well, the main reason I moved was that I met David [Keenan]. And I have to say that since I've been here, I totally love it. It's an amazing country, and it reminds me of America in some ways. Especially of Texas, actually; people here are super down to earth but also kind of redneck in a way, like very sort of proud to be Scottish. There's this certain pride here that reminds me of the pride of Texas.
Yeah, in the UK it seems like there's a different sort of patriotism to an American sort. I would think of Texas and patriotism in terms of perhaps quite simple people who are totally down to earth and lovely and will offer you a slice of pie but will also have a bunch of Bush bumper stickers on their truck.
There's definitely that dichotomy there, for sure. But also, I mean, where I grew up in Houston, it's so diverse. Even being white there, I was definitely the minority; the area I grew up in was mostly Asian and black people. And I think a lot of people imagine Texas as just being white farmers, but in fact in Houston now, whites are the minority to Mexicans (I think I'm right in saying that). There's definitely a kind of no-questions-asked thing about illegal status in Texas, in a way. Fortunately or unfortunately, it's a lot of migrant workers that are living in the area.
You mentioned before being influenced by this America, and it certainly comes across in various senses, aesthetically, but another reason I was surprised at you living in Scotland was that there really doesn't seem to be much of a noise or DIY scene there. It's oversimplistic and probably untrue to say it's mostly twee or indie pop (although I do find that is mostly the case here in England's North East). Is there much of a noise of DIY scene going on there in Glasgow?
That is certainly true; there's definitely some great punk and DIY that's come out of Scotland, but it doesn't have a strong noise history, no. There is a scene that's growing here, and especially with Volcanic Tongue, we've put on a lot of local shows. Not so much anymore, but in the first few years of running it, there was a lot going on. There's definitely a big community for it here. There's a small scene of people making stuff here, like Nackt Insecten and Kylie Minoise; Richard Youngs is from here, of course. But I would say that as far as the music that Glasgow is known for -- like when you say twee, I imagine you're thinking of The Pastels etc?
Yeah, jangly post-punky stuff rather than just Belle and Sebastian, like them, Josef K, Orange Juice, and stuff...
Yeah. It's interesting, because even in Houston, there wasn't really a scene there. There were a few musicians doing interesting stuff, and I would say it's the same here. Even though there are a few small scenes going on here, I don't feel really attached to any of them or operate within them. Even the kind of shows we've put on in the past, it's usually with touring groups. So I don't feel particularly drawn to any sort of scene here, but it's nice to see there's a still a lot of activity.
"I definitely like to think of what I'm doing as more celebratory than negative."
Where did you record the Devil, If You Can Hear Me LP? In Glasgow?
Yeah I did! I recorded that last year, and I just recorded it – it was completely improvised – just on this one-night recording session. Volcanic Tongue is in this 16th Century cottage, wedged between these other buildings. It's a really cool old building and there's an extra room in it that we rent out and use for recording, basically. So I did it on 4-track in that room, and yeah, it was one of those sessions where it was all live to tape, and I recorded it and I was just like -- okay, that's the record. I knew I was recording an album for Not Not Fun, and yeah, I was really happy with it.
Wow, I really wouldn't have guessed that it was just a one-take thing. I mean, it has an immediacy that sounds like it was pretty spontaneous, but it seems pretty perfectly played [with] this big clarity to it. Actually, I remember first listening to it, I was working this really lame office job doing data entry and I got to listen to music. I remember having this weird claustrophobic spirally moment, and all I could think about was some dirt road at night in the middle of America.
Ohh wow, that's nice. Yeah, that's funny, there's definitely an American thing with that record, and I think I was tapping into that pretty strongly. Even being over here in Glasgow, I still feel so tied to America. Even though this is my home now, I still miss America and love it so much. It's funny you say that; so many people have used the same sort of description for it, that late-night-road-in-America sort of feeling, yeah. And like you said, it was very spontaneous, but I think even when I'm improvising, there's always a composition or form that comes out of it, so it's not just aimless. That record to me definitely felt like it was fully conceived from start to finish -- consciously or unconsciously, I don't know. But it's nice to hear the word America is attached to it, because I definitely had that strong feeling when I recorded it.
Yeah. And this America I'm talking about, there's that dirt road, midnight road thing, but also this sense of disorientation that suggested to me some more political feelings. That could be more cliché, but some idea of political unrest?
Well, not so much. I mean, for me, I definitely have an American ideal in a way; aspects of America that I've always loved that, even if they're things that are disappearing, I think are still there, like a very DIY culture, not only in music, but just across the board; people starting up their own shops or building their own homes. There's definitely a community feeling there that's really really strong; people just follow the vision of what they want to do, and they do it. And that is a really strong aspect of America that I love.
As far as political unrest, I dunno, it's pretty fucked up politically, but where isn't, you know? Regardless of everything that's happening in America and their support for whatever else is happening in the world, there's still no other country where I'd rather be and live, and there's no other country that I feel more attached to. I think it can be very easy to attack America in an extremely clichéd way, and I hear it a lot here, like anytime I enter into a taxi, of course the question of where you're from comes up, and it's like “oh you're from Texas, yeah, fuck Bush” etc. But yeah, even when I go back and tour over there, there's just something about America that just can't be replicated anywhere else. There's a feeling there that is just unbelievable; the energy there, especially the underground music scene is just burgeoning with just so much great stuff. There's a real DIY aspect to that too. It's very different here because most people have flats so you can't have things like house shows like you do in the states. Even in the states a lot of times when I tour, I stay with people who are having BBQs and cooking up a meal for everyone, this very homegrown feeling. It's hard to find it anywhere else.
The space thing is a big factor making music here in Northern England, too, where most people have flats that are right on top of each other. Hearing you talk about America really reminds me of living in Brisbane, Australia, where there's a really terrific DIY scene and because there's plenty of space, people have house shows all the time.
Yeah, I mean, the reality is, you just can't do that stuff here. There's such a premium on space. There's not really the option, and I don't like to play galleries, either. So it's not like I prefer weird spaces, but touring in the UK, I sometimes get sick of playing pub spaces. It's a different energy and I just go with whatever space I'm playing, of course, and I like touring so it's not a huge complaint or anything, but, you know, atmosphere is nice!
I was reading another interview with you on Digitalis that talked a lot about how male-dominated noise scenes can be. I'm not sure how much you would want to talk about this, but I've been quite interested lately, from talking to female friends of mine who play music, in just how much of a boy's club music feels like?
For me, to be honest, it's just not a huge issue. I feel like where I come across it the most is not actually when I'm dealing with other guys doing music, because I definitely feel like other male musicians I know (even if it's not 100% of the time), but even groups like Wolf Eyes, who I toured with, and people might think “Oh, Wolf Eyes; if you're going to use their audience as a judgment, there's definitely a strong male attitude there.” On that tour, I was thinking “Okay, am I going to find it hard dealing with some of these audiences?” which can definitely be a total boy's club and quite aggressive, perhaps, but I did not feel that on that tour at all. I felt totally treated as an equal and with a lot of mutual respect. I find it most when I'm dealing with promoters or with sound guys, who think maybe I don't know how to use my equipment or set my levels or things like that. You can definitely notice it in audience members -- I mean, there's a higher proportion of guys going out to see music, coming into our shop and buying music, maybe even involved in music more than women, but as far as the “scene” that I'm involved in, I feel like there's a lot of women making really creative music. And whether they're doing music directly or not or are involved with film or photography or putting on shows or whatever.
So yeah, it's not something that I think about a lot, or that bothers me. I've been involved in underground music and listening to music and collecting records for a really long time, so maybe it's something that I got over a really long time ago [laughs]. It could be noticeable in the standards of how women are judged, I mean, if I play a really wild set of something that the normal reaction would be like “wow, that was super heavy, totally killer” but if I do it, it might be more “cleansing” or “ethereal” or some emotional outpour or something. It's judged differently, doing the sort of music that I do.
"I think you could say that in that openness, and in that total confidence to not hold back in any sort of way, it can definitely feel very sexual"
I thought that would've been the case. With Charalambides, or maybe Scorces, those words like ethereal or wispy get used a fair bit, probably because of vocals. I've been thinking about noise lately – and hearing the new Scorces LP really reflects this for me – after reading something that I think Bradford Cox from Deerhunter had said, something like “to me, noise is just sexuality.”
That Scorces record, without a doubt, it's pretty sexual. I mean, even the words on the back, the whole feeling of recording it. Christina and I have a really intuitive way of playing together that I think is very open, and I think you could say that in that openness, and in that total confidence to not hold back in any sort of way, it can definitely feel very sexual. I consider that recording especially to be extremely intimate, and interestingly, that was another recording that was a one-night-live-to-tape, no-overdub session. It was totally spontaneous, and we just laid it down, and I feel like, I dunno, in all of my music -- whether it's my collaborations or my solo stuff -- I really feel like intimacy and just... Well, it's hard using words like purity or honesty -- they sound very cliché -- but it really is just a very personal, honest way of approaching the music. I try to as much as possible to just play it how I'm feeling it.
Cool, well I'm glad about that. I was thinking about the whole genre tag of “noise” and I was wondering.... say if someone asks what sort of music you play, say, back home at Christmastime, do you say “I play noise music”?.
I actually say that I play rock music, because that's really where I feel my strongest connection to the music I'm doing. You can say things like experimental or noise, but usually, if someone asks me, I say rock music, because that's what I feel like I'm doing. I'm using guitar, I'm using voice; I'd like to think that I'm doing rock music in a new way.
Totally, I mean, a track like “Porch Fighter” feels like some stretched-out wailing guitar solo, for sure.
Yeah, I love soloing on the pedal steel. You can definitely hear the difference in my playing on the Scorces record (which was a bit of an older recording) and the newer thing that I'm doing. I feel like it's extending further into rock guitar.
Yeah, that's noticeable for sure. Now, something that Christina Carter had said quite a while ago now, quite off the cuff, mentioning something about recording some ‘spiritual protest songs,' which is a weird idea I've been thinking a bit about. Of course, the linear sort of protest song or fuck Bush or whatever is pretty redundant, but with music like Charalambides, there's still this strange feeling of protest that comes through somehow.
Well, I think for Charlambides and the arc their music now and what they're doing, they're quite literally doing that -- taking older songs, even if its just words, and formulating them into a new thing, changing melodies and things like that. Christina's been doing that with her solo stuff as well; they do describe it as protest music, but not in a clichéd anti-Bush way or anything. That sentiment is just too easy, in a way. For me, musically, I really haven't approached, well, I don't want to say agendas or topics, but yeah, I haven't really gone that way. I wouldn't describe any of the music that I've done as protest music.
Oh, okay. I was thinking that this idea of the revised protest song would be more like a celebration, which is why I thought maybe you looked at things that way, as your music has this strength or almost celebratory feel to it sometimes.
Yeah, I mean I would like to think of my music that way, I mean, certainly a celebratory sense of, say, Albert Ayler or something -- something that feels very alive. I've touched on negative ideas and feelings in the past. I consider that a full circle from positive things as well, but I definitely like to think of what I'm doing as more celebratory than negative.
It's funny you mention Albert Ayler, actually, because I've been thinking about him a lot and how there's this massive link between a lot of free noise music and his jazz, in particular, more so than even more recent free jazz.
He's a huge influence for me. I don't know if you've seen the film that was made about him, but you should check that out -- it's a really great documentary. I mean, talk about someone who was just completely true to his vision. His music is just some of the most tear-jerking, beautiful, heavy, heavy music of all time. Ayler and other jazz musicians like Arthur Doyle, Milford Graves, Sun Ra, Coltrane; it's always been a pretty serious influence on my music.