‘A lot of people drink themselves to death in their 40s – that could easily have been me’
Musician Stefan Murphy embraces sobriety and a DIY approach: it means touring the US from dive bar to motel, making fans one gig at a time
Stefan Murphy aka Count Vaseline: the lifelong Elvis fan is halfway through a 40-date US tour with guitarist Jairo Estrada: “Once you remove alcohol and drugs from the equation, the anecdotes get a little tamer.” Photograph: Victoria Renard
Atlanta in mid-July. In heat this intense, most normal people sit indoors, board up their windows and listen to the sidewalks crack. Not Stefan Murphy. He’s decamped to a dilapidated house in the suburbs, with no air conditioning, to record an entire album in two days, called Tales from the Megaplex. It’s his third Count Vaseline album in just over a year. He plays every instrument: bass, guitars, vocals, backing vocals, tambourine. One take. No do-overs.
In a past life, the Dublin musician worked with big-name producers and a full band called The Mighty Stef. Over tacos, in the nearby hipster enclave of Little Five Points, he acknowledges a change of approach. “In The Mighty Stef, we put an enormous emphasis on production. As Count Vaseline, I’m doing the exact opposite. This is definitely the most low-fi, DIY set of songs I’ve ever officially released.”
Murphy is now permanently settled in Atlanta with his wife and six-year-old child. He turned 40 recently and is a year and a half sober. “That was largely to do with my mental health. I was struggling with depression. A lot of people drink themselves to death in their 40s and that could easily have been me.”
These changes are reflected in his music. One of the songs he’s just recorded while I sat in is called What Is Your Name, Where Are You From, What Are You On? (a mantra from his hard partying days in Dublin). Alongside his usual touchstones The Velvet Underground, The Fall and post-punk band Television Personalities, I ask him if I detect the influence of American country and pop singer Lee Hazlewood?
“Yeah,” he admits. “I’ve been listening to him a lot.”
Murphy is a heavy set man with thick sideburns. He’s a lifelong Elvis fan. 'I think I love the Vegas cabaret years even more than the early stuff,' he says
He outlines the three phases he envisages for his career: The Mighty Stef was the vehicle for his reckless youth. Count Vaseline is for sober middle age. In his final incarnation, he figures he’ll be sitting in bars playing acoustic guitar for five or six people. “I call that my ‘Greatest Hits’ phase.”
“In the next 8-10 years, I’m going be an auld lad. And Lee Hazlewood is iconically good auld lad music. His records are timeless. And he’s got that outlaw, gunslinger element I love.”
Going to Graceland
At 6am, Murphy and his Californian touring guitarist/driver Jairo Estrada set out on a 650km car journey west to perform at the legendary Hi Tone venue in Memphis. I’m sharing the back seat with Stef’s guitar case and cowboy hat. They’re halfway through a 40-date tour of the US. It’s not a glamorous life. They have no idea if anyone will turn up to see them play. But road fatigue is not an issue today. Today, we’re going to Graceland.
Murphy is a heavy set man with thick sideburns. He’s a lifelong Elvis fan. “I think I love the Vegas cabaret years even more than the early stuff,” he says. Estrada is a younger man. He’s wearing a cowboy necktie, black slip-on shoes and pink socks. I’m guessing he prefers the rockabilly years. “Most people don’t know this,” Estrada tells us. “But Elvis never recorded albums, only singles.” Murphy and I are impressed; we did not know that.
Near the Talladega Superspeedway Nascar track in Alabama, Murphy eventually returns to that subject. “What about 50 Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong?” he asks. What about the Elvis Presley album The Clash parodied on the sleeve design for London Calling, I ask? “What about From Elvis in Memphis?” asks Murphy.
In Tupelo, Mississippi, we stop at a Hardee’s restaurant for pork chops and gravy biscuits. The staff are taken with Murphy’s accent. “Where y’all from?”, they ask. Ireland, he tells them. They marvel at how far he’s travelled to be here. After he takes a seat, one staff member inquires as to what all the commotion was about. “Those boys is from Arkansas,” she is told.
Our lunchtime arrival in Memphis is like something out of a movie. On the car stereo, Elvis is singing Patch it up, Baby. At precisely the moment the horns kick in, a plane taking off from Memphis International Airport roars into the air just a few metres above our heads. Then we turn left on to Elvis Presley Boulevard and things come crashing back to earth. It’s all bail bondsmen, sleazy motels, liquor stores and gun shops. I’m genuinely puzzled.
Is it being preserved to look as it did when Elvis was alive, I ask? “Nope,” says Murphy. “It’s just poor as hell.”
Good Friday drinking
At Graceland, I’m required to show ID when buying our admission tickets. I wonder if alcohol is served on the tour. Estrada doubts it. I got a drink once in Disneyland, I tell them. Why not Graceland? “That’s nothing,” says Murphy. “I once got a drink in the Vatican on Good Friday.” That can’t be true. “No word of a lie,” he insists. “There were breakfast cafes selling beer at eight o’clock in the morning.”
A shuttle bus deposits us outside Elvis’s mansion. It’s smaller and less tacky than I had expected. One stop on the tour is called the Trophy Room. Estrada wonders what trophies Elvis might have won. Most improved hurler, I suggest? “Clubman of the year?” Murphy quips. Not for the last time, Estrada has no idea what we’re laughing about.
When he stands up to do his thing on stage, suddenly you remember he’s a rock star. Not a rock star many people have heard of. But a rock star nevertheless
In the Trophy Room, which contains Elvis’s jump suits and gold records, Murphy receives a text message. A German student, who booked a stay in his apartment in Dublin through Airbnb, has accidentally locked herself into the bathroom. Murphy winces. The bathroom lock is obviously an issue he’s aware of. He tries his father and his brother. Neither is contactable.
He zooms in to examine the student’s profile picture. “She looks like a sturdy girl,” he mutters, approvingly. Then he calls her. “Right Hilda,” he says. “I’m going to need you to take a run at that door. . . ”
In the souvenir shop, Estrada buys a “TCB – Taking Case of Business” jacket patch. He asks me if I’m going to buy anything. Souvenirs are a waste of money, I tell him. In the Vatican, I bought a T-shirt depicting Raphael’s The School of Athens painting. I mean, when did I think I was ever going to wear that?
“I’d buy a pair of those little red slippers,” says Estrada. What red slippers? “The Pope always has to wear red slippers.” I have no idea what he’s talking about. “Ask Stef.” Murphy shrugs. “I know nothing about the pope,” he says.
Their performance at the Hi Tone that night is sensational. When you schlep around a bunch of truck stops and gas stations with Murphy, naturally, you start to think of him as a regular guy. But when he stands up to do his thing on stage, suddenly you remember he’s a rock star. Not a rock star many people have heard of. But a rock star nevertheless.
It’s harder to kill the monotony of certain days. But my state of mind is much more balanced
The show opens to a small but appreciative audience. As the set continues, the attendance swells. By the time Murphy and Estrada leave the stage, a crowd of late arrivals are calling for more. Murphy isn’t having it. I ask if he’d consider playing an old favourite of mine, The Mighty Stef’s Downtown, as an encore? He demures. “We’ll save that for the Greatest Hits tour,” he says, laughing.
The pair reminisce about some of the cities they’ve played on this tour. Rochester, New York. Olympia, Washington. San Antonio, Texas. For Estrada, the American, this is brand new stuff. But Murphy has seen it all before with The Mighty Stef. “A lot of flag-waving, patriotic American types will never see all the parts of their country I’ve seen,” he says. “It’s a massive, beautiful country. And I feel privileged to be here.”
I press him for road stories. “Here’s the thing,” he explains. “Once you remove alcohol and drugs from the equation, the anecdotes get a little tamer.”
Estrada and I elect to hang around and sample some more of the Memphis nightlife. But Murphy decides to take a taxi back to the hotel for an early night. He’s got another long haul tomorrow. “There are pros and cons,” he says of sobriety. “It’s harder to kill the monotony of certain days. But my state of mind is much more balanced. I don’t feel depressed. It’s all very new. So we’ll see where it goes.”
You wouldn’t envy the Crumlin man’s trek tomorrow. But like The Dude, it’s somehow reassuring to know he’s out there. Working hard for the rest of us sinners.
- Tales from the Megaplex is out on November 24th on OCDC Records/Saustex Records