There are many pieces of wisdom artists acquire from their inception, to their big break and beyond. Navigating the beginnings of a fruitful period in their career, Major Murphy is surely learning that artistry and success requires balance. Major Murphy is the Grand Rapids indie-rock band that’s been turning heads with their recently released LP, Access, which highlights the many lessons humans encounter in the face of dealing with everyday life – specifically, the power of decisions and balancing the weight of their consequences. What’s special about the four member band is the way they explore the range of these existential concepts through their playful and cohesive sound. The album develops in a way that challenges linear thinking, embodying much of the counterculture they are inspired by. This creates for an intriguing project that piqued our attention. SPIN caught up with Major Murphy member Jacob Bullard, who let us in on the introspective band’s origin story, the making of Access, the power of perception, and much more. Be sure to show them some love and check out their album here.
Who all is Major Murphy and how did your band come to life?
Major Murphy is Jacob Bullard, Jacki Warren, Brian Voortman, and Chad Houseman. We formed during a fertile period in the Grand Rapids music scene about six years ago. There was a lot of overlap happening between musicians and bands. Brian and Jacob had previously been in a band that played Jacob’s songs and around 2013-2014 that project was put on pause and we started playing in Chad’s band as well as in a couple other groups around town. Jacki was in another band at the time (that Chad had also played in) that we had opened for and were big fans of. We all ended up living in the same house and jamming regularly. Towards the end of 2015, I was ready to start another project that would be an outlet for my songs and Jacki and Brian obliged to start that with me. We had been playing together, fairly casually and under various names, but when Winspear asked about releasing music together, it gave us the push to decide on a name and make it more official. We recorded our first couple EPs in that house and that is how we started.
Tell us about your sound – where does your style originate from and what have been your biggest visual, social, and sonic influences?
When we got together Jacki, Brian, and I were all discovering and loving early 70’s solo Beatles records, especially Paul McCartney and Wings. We were listening to plenty of Beatles records too. I think the diversity of sounds and moods and song styles in all that music was appealing to us and we wanted to start a project that could be dark and psychedelic as much as it could be more light and pop oriented. I think socially too, generally the counterculture or “hippy” movement of the 1960’s is inspiring to us, and with Paul and Linda and even John and Yoko, including their families in the process was inspiring. If you go further back, one thing that we all have in common is playing in church bands and an appreciation of vocal music and harmony.
What does your typical songwriting/production process look like? Is there a set formula or does it consistently evolve and shape-shift along with your ideas?
Our process is pretty simple, I write all the songs and the band comes up with their parts during practice. Personally, I usually write on a guitar but have been using a keyboard a little more these days. Most of the time a song begins with a chord or progression of chords, and then a melody will surface, and then I intuit the words and place them in. Sometimes I demo things and share those demos with the band as a jumping off point. We have recorded some stuff at home but we generally prefer to go to a studio which helps create a more efficient and focused experience.
Was there a definitive turning point in your career? When did you realize the magnitude of your impact within the industry/community?
That is a little hard to say exactly. I think every time you do something you realize more clearly where you want to go and what it is you want to create. Making ACCESS was a big step for us. It feels almost like a hump we needed to get over and like there was an element of having to prove ourselves inherent in the process of making the album and that phase of our journey.
In the midst of all the pandemic chaos, you’ve managed to birth a new project – Talk to us about your recently released album, Access. Where did this concept begin? How did the pandemic shift this process for you?
I’m really proud of the record. I think the concept started with personally kind of being at a low point but saying to myself that I was committed to what I had started in both my relationship with my family but also with the band and my pursuits of being a songwriter and performing artist. From there it kind of snowballed into a more existential dimension. It is kind of heavy, and I don’t really mean musically… there is a weight to what the songs are exploring and that was hard at times to carry for about three years. But I think it had to be done and yeah, I feel very proud of and grateful for what everyone involved did. I am very grateful too that we did all the tracking for the album in late 2019 and early 2020 before the pandemic hit the states so we had it all down and could work on the post production stuff throughout 2020. The mixing, mastering, and artwork tends to be a more distanced and isolated process anyways. Although, I don’t want to ever mix a record remotely again if I can help it. At least not a project this detail oriented. That was really tedious and time consuming but Mike did an amazing job and was really great to work with throughout the whole process.
You’ve gotten all sorts of praise on this work, highlighting the vibrancy, explorative, child-like yet reflective nature of this project. What do you consider this album’s standout qualities to be?
I think we all pushed ourselves a little beyond our comfort zone and focused on making something cohesive. Everyone’s performances are really sensitive and dynamic and I love listening to them. I think there is an urgency and emotional current that runs through the whole album.
What themes were you exploring through this project that have impacted your overall artistic view in music making?
One of the main themes in the album is all about agency and feeling the weight of your actions and decisions and then trying to figure out how to accept that and leverage that responsibility in a way so you don’t get crushed. It’s just as easy to be overwhelmed by what you can’t control as what you can. I think the path of the poet or artist or musician is traditionally understood to be kind of non-linear and we get a lot of credit for being like vagabonds and free spirits and everything, and that is true in my experience. Like a farmer prays for rain, being an artist, there is a lot of unknowing and being at the mercy of other people or opportunities. But especially in light of the covid-19 pandemic and all of the upheaval of our time, I think almost everyone has felt the loss of control over their lives in one way or another and how terrifying that can be. Having made ACCESS and gone through the process of the creation, in a way I take my music making both more and less seriously. More seriously in the sense that I know it is important, I’m not insecure about that as much anymore, but less seriously in the sense that I don’t need to try so hard and that if I am true to myself and trust everyone around me to be true to themselves, everything will work out.
Which track challenged you the most to record but gave you the most creative growth/accomplishment?
Probably either Access or Unfazed. The biggest challenges didn’t really come during tracking at the studio. There were not many, if any, like “whoa this isn’t working”-after-like-20-takes kind of moments. The biggest challenge was getting the vibe right and consistent throughout the whole album during mixing. I think the scope of that process was underestimated. We tracked two different drum sounds and a couple different bass sounds and all these different overdubbed guitars and synths and getting it to all gel and flow was a lot of work… especially since we ended up doing it remotely over email, and the phone.
Reflection time. Where were you before making the album and where are you now, after completing the album?
It has been a long journey so a lot of life has happened. We demo’d some of the songs for this album in February of 2018 even before our first album came out. Back then I was in a lot more of a hustle mode. I was working in food service to supplement our income with music and Jacki did a lot of freelance photography and we were honestly scraping by paycheck to paycheck while starting our family together and trying to provide for our son and still dreaming and loving music. We had some unfortunate situations too in regards to our housing that really rocked us. Everyone, but especially children need a secure and safe place to live. I think adding all those pieces up, plus the fact that the music industry is just a very hard business to break into, amounted to me pretty much being a nervous wreck more often than not. Now, having received the stimulus checks and receiving some unemployment money, the weight of our financial burden has been lessened and we can breathe a little. It’s crazy to see the positive impact that has on our mental state. I also turned 30 in 2018 and generally got a little better about taking care of myself. Also Jacki and I got married in 2019 which felt important and good for us. And of course, writing, recording, and finishing ACCESS felt like a big accomplishment. Jacki also joined Waxahatchee’s live band in late 2019 and that has been inspiring. We’re definitely not completely out of the woods, but in general I feel more secure and inspired now.
In what ways do you wish to inspire up and coming artists/producers that are aiming to get their chance in the spotlight?
You really never stop learning about yourself and the craft and I hope I can demonstrate that process of discovery and evolution.
What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give aspiring creatives that you either got from a mentor or that you wish you would’ve gotten?
In terms of songwriting: You have to be really attentive to what each song is saying and demands of you. It’s kind of like an archeologist uncovering an ancient vase. It is very precious and requires a lot of care and sensitivity. At the same time, unlike the archeology analogy, the creative process is like farming where it’s about practice and diligence and understanding that some seeds you plant will simply not make it to be plants that bear fruit, so you have to sow your seeds liberally. That balance between being careful but not too precious is really important and hard to strike. And I think if you are hoping to make a career of this work, there is an element of strategy required. In the end, there are so many different ways to do it and you have to find what works for you. The important thing is to let the work guide you. Actualizing the piece and practicing the craft is its own reward.
As we’re looking ahead, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, how are you planning to propel your career forward in 2021?
We don’t really have any huge plans other than to keep being available to write songs and playing together as a band when opportunities come up. I have written a lot throughout 2020 and continue to write and am feeling really excited about the material. Jacki is going to tour with Waxahatchee this fall and we are also trying to buy a house. Also, hopefully we can get a manager soon which would help move things along.
Is there anything on the horizon that you can share with us?
Nothing concrete enough to share, but there are a couple irons in the fire.
Take a chance now and manifest something: ______________.
Would love to have one of our songs used in a movie… like maybe a Marvel movie while I’m at it 🙂
Any last words for the SPIN-verse?
Check out Major Murphy’s electrifying performance below. For more SPIN Sessions, head over to SPIN TV.