words & interview by jordan gorsuch
This line, found on the penultimate track of Conor Murphy’s first side project, Smidley, is a stunning portrait of honesty. The compelling tension that coils through the Foxing Frontman’s latest collection of songs is his sobering scrupulousness – the willingness to let the listener in on some of his darker moments, and the humility to mine for the comedy in the tragedy.
A lone saxophone cries out before the albums starts proper with the lead track, “Hell.” Infectious drums and bright guitars sparkle as Murphy’s voice sweetly accompanies the stunning stop-and-start song structure. Murphy drops acid in the summertime with an accomplice who confides in him: “Said who you were was falling apart / Said it was hell being stuck in this life.” These are words that are universally identifiable, but Murphy twists the revealing statement back on itself, uncovering the thrilling dichotomy that gives the album momentum. “If that was hell let me sink into it,” he croons as the song transitions to an unnervingly pleasant chorus.
“Dead Retrievers” kicks off with bright guitar leads and a patient walking bass line as warm acoustic strumming sits nicely in the mix. It’s a straight forward power-pop ballad with plenty of bite. The song soars on the back of Murphy’s passionate vocals as he details a night terror of a deceased old friend haunting him, Murphy’s first family dog by his side. Enthusiastic and erratic screams hang in the background of a thrilling guitar solo that carries us into one more choral wave.
The album then makes its first turn into the warm and breezy balladry that is very much at the heart of tracks like “Nothing’ll,” “It Doesn’t Tear Me Up,” and “Milkshake.” Murphy’s drug imagery begins to clash and overlap with words of spiritual agency: “Pray to be sour paper on your tongue / Pray to be swallowed / Pray that something will keep us on.” Yet, Conor’s vocal performance betrays the desperation of his words; an uneasy paradox bubbles to the surface as Murphy admits “But nothing will / Keep us together.” Can anything be at once something and nothing?
Luckily, the album offers the listener a respite from all this existential wallowing as Murphy allows himself and his anxieties to be the butt of the joke. “No One Likes You” deliberately attempts to poke fun at Foxing’s ultra-serious (on-record, at least) reputation. Murphy is not deserving of the arrogant “high horse” persona he hangs himself with on this track…this is ever apparent on the effortlessly infectious “Fuck This.” Murphy delightfully parrots the title as a hypnotic hook; it is a playful moment of self-sabotage that shines brightly out from the darker underbelly of anxiousness and despondency that could have swallowed the album entirely.
This self-acceptance finds its way into the gorgeous acoustic cut, “It Doesn’t Tear Me Up,” a song about putting the poison of resentment aside instead of drinking it heartily. Moments like these highlight Murphy’s growing maturity as a songwriter. Murphy shakily lays his soul bare on the powerfully stripped back “Milkshake.” His soft fingerpicked guitar sets the stage for some uncomfortable truths about recreational drug-use and the universal desire to cut loose and get drunk on the weekends. The song builds slowly to an eventual boiling point, complete with subtle instrumental accompaniment and a show-stopping vocal performance from Murphy. “I love every moment when I’m fucked up / I listen so closely when I’m fucked up / I’m so happy when I’m fucked up,” he concludes, his emotional intention held at armlength.
Acid, Xanax, cocaine, gin, red wine, and MDMA are all referenced on Smidley, all in different contexts with connotations that seem to cover a wide-spectrum of acceptance, self-loathing, fun, pain, and even personal versions of heaven or hell. “At least I’m under the table with you,” he sings calmly on the album’s closer. It reads like a subtle cry for help – or is it hardline stance that he accepts his dependence on drugs and alcohol? We’ll never know for sure…and it sure feels like we’ve already lost the forest for the trees at this point.
But damn, that final anthemic swell sure is fun to listen to.
What did you want to accomplish with your first side project? Did you picture that you’d be going on tour?
The running thought of this whole Smidley project was to boil everything down to having a good time and being carefree about the whole thing. So, in the spirit of that, I just asked friends of mine to go on tour with me, and don’t get me wrong, they are amazing musicians, but they had never been on tour before. It is really hard to explain what is exactly so hard about touring in the first place…I mean you can say, “oh you’ll get really homesick and you’ll feel tired all the time and you don’t know why,” but until you actually experience it for yourself – the twelve-hour drives and the desire to drink in order to suppress your homesickness – you can never really prepare for that.
So the touring life doesn’t appeal to you?
You don’t start a band to go on tour. That’s crazy. At least to me, I never set out to live a life on the road. The reason why you tour is because you love making music, you love releasing music. The art, the expression behind the music, that’s the drive for me. With the current musical landscape, you cannot just release records. Everyone is listening to Spotify. Touring is the only way to make a career out of this. You must perform. You must be on tour. You’re not nearly as much as an artist as you are an entertainer.
This sounds weird and capitalistic, but it is on the artist to come up with a product to sell to people. We are doing this full-time and we are touring constantly for six years. None of us are on health insurance, we constantly struggle to pay the bill. There’s that voice in your head telling you to get a real job and just do this as a hobby.
However, people want to support artists because music means a lot to all of us. I want to support Mitski, or Frankie Cosmos, and all the bands I love because their music is helping me so much. I just don’t think we have come up with a product to supplement music that people can acquire easily for free. When someone buys a t-shirt from us I wonder if they really want it or if they can recognise that we need to sell them in order to have enough gas to get to the next venue.
Foxing’s tour van was involved in an automobile accident last year. How is the band doing now?
We are still recovering from the van accident. We were really put in a tough spot because it cost a small fortune to replace the van and Eric injured his hand and still goes to physical therapy every week. The plan was to release the Dido cover as a benefit for us to fully dig out of the financial hole we found ourselves in…but then Donald Trump won. We decided to donate the proceeds to ACLU and Planned Parenthood instead. This wasn’t about us anymore.
Was it liberating to be able to write an album without the groupthink process that comes with the Foxing territory?
It’s funny, we have gotten way more comfortable when writing a Foxing record to be direct about someone else’s contribution. For example, when I write a lyric from personal experience, someone might flat-out tell me that it’s not a universal experience, that’s more just me being fucked up. That sounds harsh, but I love that we can keep each other in-check in those ways.
“Rory” is one of Foxing’s most popular and controversial songs because of the subject matter of unrequited love. Do you ever worry that people might take the song as gospel and use it as justification to resent someone over not reciprocating their feelings?
When you write a song amid a bitter breakup and you feel justified in your perspective of the situation and you write it and put it on record, that feels great in the moment. Then, you have public reaction to the lyrics that dissect it in ways you never intended, and then you have people taking the opposite impression from your words than what you intended. That sucks. We’re really trying to get away from that.
Christian and the rest of The Hotelier crashed at my place while they were on tour once and we stayed up half the night just talking about our songs and he was most curious about Rory. He said, “what the fuck is up with that song?” and when you actually get to talk to someone about a song you eventually get to be on the same page.
It was never supposed to be this bitter, “fuck you” kind of song, but when you have a teenager that just went through a rough breakup and they hear this song, their emotions feel justified and it most likely will take a negative tone. We don’t want to justify or reinforce these destructive thoughts or negative feelings to justify hate for a person just because of unrequited love.
Did those reservations consciously make their way into the Smidley material?
The Smidley stuff was taking that democratic writing process and channeling it into more carefree subject matter. There’s a song on the album, called “It Doesn’t Tear Me Up” and that song is an answer to any of the bitterness I’ve injected into any of the Foxing songs…a reminder that I don’t hold any ill-will toward people in my past. That it’s okay.
One day we will both be dead. If you die first, I will still love and respect you in a way that humans can love without physical attachment. I will love you and the memories we shared. I have dealt with the deaths of several friends over the past years and after you get past all those stages of grief I think that is what you will settle on…just treasuring the time you had with a specific person.
There are a lot of references to drugs and religion on the album. I’m curious about how these religious themes tie to your drug use and if you view yourself as having a spiritual relationship with drugs.
Religion has always been my favorite theme to write about. I went to Catholic school all of my life and one day when I was in fifth or sixth grade my sister explained to me why she was an atheist. Ever since then I have viewed myself as being agnostic. I don’t hold any bitterness toward anyone that believes in God, far from it. Yet, for me, drugs and love are the closest things on this earth that have felt almost like a spiritual experience.
When I was younger I found myself in the presence of homophobic people or racists because I came from a conservative area…funnily enough these were the people I would do acid with as well. It would be terrifying to discuss matters of an afterlife and God because these people truly believed that queer people deserve to go to hell. When I am left to my own devices that is what I want to write about most of the time.
Acid, mushrooms, and Catholicism have played such huge roles in my life that not writing about them would be ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room.
It seems like albums of a more personal-context have been on the rise lately, how did you approach making an album that was personal but not too serious in nature?
I wanted there to be a more conversational feel to this record, I didn’t want to mask it in a bunch of metaphors or something. There is a comedy to a song like “Milkshake,” where yeah, it is sad but it is also funny just picturing this person taking pills while drinking a milkshake outside a McDonald’s or something. It is sad that there are so many people that only feel happy when they are inebriated but I also think it is funny when I picture myself saying things like “oh I’m so excited to just take a bunch of drugs or drink a lot this weekend…then I’ll be happy. It’s a dark kind of funny.
Is it that approach that gave birth to a song like “No One Likes You”?
For sure. When someone says: “God no one likes me, I’m a joke and I have no friends…” it is easy to tell them that they’re just being crazy and that they are wrong, but when you are having those thoughts it is so much harder to break through that illusion. I don’t want my songs to give that negative energy power, I want to perform them and remind myself of how wrong that part of me is.
The album seems to be a solid mixture of multiple genres…there’s some bubble-garage, psych-pop, and even some folk thrown in. How did you settle on a specific sound for the record?
A lot of the CD’s I would steal from my brother and my sister when I was younger like were from bands like Pixies, Weezer, Belle & Sebastian, or Modest Mouse and I tried to incorporate that into the instrumental portion of the record. I didn’t sit down and listen to those records to try and copy their sound or anything, I just channeled what I remembered feeling when I heard them.
Like I remember sitting in my sister’s old, shitty Dodge Intrepid and just listen to her music. She would light incense all the time and now looking back I think it was an attempt to mask the weed smell that clung to her car. “Hell” was just crystallising that feeling of driving aimlessly while listening to these great bands with my sister.
Instrumentally the album was based in nostalgia; lyrically it was based in personal experiences.
Can you share a specific memory or catalyst for one of the songs on the album?
“I had a party at my place and someone gave me a small dose of acid and it led to some mild anxiety, so I decided to head back to my room and work on some music. I got my demo kit and banged out the entirety of “Fuck This” in an hour or two. I just wanted to let the songs unfold to me instead of constantly drafting the lyrics over and over again, which is completely different from how we handle the lyrics in Foxing.
Just one more question before we wrap up…were any of the songs on the album inspired by The Antlers? I got such a strong sense of Peter Silberman’s earlier work in some of Smidley’s slower moments.
That wasn’t intentional but I listen to The Antlers all the time and Hospice is one of my favorites. Burst Apart in particular has a song called “I Don’t Want Love” which I just adore – actually, now that you mention it, I guess that song maybe did worm itself onto some of the tracks on the album.
“It Doesn’t Tear Me Up” really hits similar notes of this feeling that we are all looking for our other half…that whole Greek notion of soul mates. Yet, it’s only when you fully accept yourself as being complete that you find someone else.
Smidley is out now, you can buy it here