The onetime New Yorker and current Londoner's Classic Album Sundays, her self-described "communal and audiophile listening experience," makes its Gotham debut Sunday 11on Sunday, March 11 (we're doing full dates for online-only stuff now.). The affair's inaugural LP is Bob Dylan's 1975 opus, Blood on the Tracks.
You started Classic Album Sundays a little over a year ago. What was the original impetus behind the sessions?
David Mancuso [from New York's pioneering Loft parties] has taught me, over the past 20 years, about sound, and about how important sound is in being able to really appreciate music. Especially after starting Lucky Cloud Sound System here in London with David's direction, I really started getting into the whole hi-fi world. Adam [Dewhurst, Murphy's husband] and I progressively started building up our own hi-fi as well. What we noticed—which is what people also notice at the Loft—is that you hear the music in a way that you never have before.
That can even be true of music that you think you are intimately familiar with.
Absolutely. I'd be playing a record at the Loft, and someone would come up to me and ask what the record is, and I'dtell them, and they'd say, "Oh, I have that!" They don't even recognize it as the same record. [Laughs] Anyway, sometimes we'd have people over for dinner, and after we'd eat, we'd play a whole album from beginning to end. We'd kind of jokingly call it Classic Album Sundays. Greg Wilson, the DJ, heard about them and said, "What a great idea!" He started this great blog called Living to Music (gregwilson.co.uk), which has people listen to the same album in their home, but all at the same time. There are all these guidelines—turn off your phone, go to the bathroom ahead of time, don't talk—to get you to focus on the album. So I took part in the second time he did it, and the album was Dark Side of the Moon. We had the great hi-fi, and I have this great pressing of the album...and it was great! I said to Adam, "This would be such an amazing event. We should do something like this, but in public."
And you actually followed through with it.
Yeah! The first time, I contacted some friends of mine who have a pub, and they thought it was a brilliant idea, too. They gave me their function room, and somewhat crazily, we moved our whole hi-fi over there! I'm talking valve-tube amplifiers, Klipschorn speakers...so much stuff.
And expensive stuff, too. Most audiophiles wouldn't dream of doing such a thing.
True, though I guess I was kind of used to it from doing the Loft. Other than lugging the equipment around, one thing I quickly found was that this whole thing kind of combined my journalistic background, my radio background and my DJ background.
On the DJ side, I only use one turntable at Classic Album Sundays, because I want the set to be more like a living-room-style, intimate thing—not like somebody deejaying, if you know what I mean. For the first two hours, I play music that's related to the artist or the album. It could be musical contemporaries, it could be inspirations...like, for Bob Dylan, I might play Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Robert Johnson—people who inspired him. And I might play contemporaries like Joni Mitchell, the Band, Neil Young and people like that. And so people are already getting a feeling about the album. Then I'll have a presentation—around ten minutes or so—about the album, hopefully done in an interesting way. I do that because I've found that a lot of people who show up haven't heard the whole album, and sometimes have never heard any whole album from the artist. Even the very first one I did, which was Abbey Road—you'd figure that everyone would have heard that whole album at some point, but at least half the people never had! And the half that had have probably never heard it on the kind of sound system that we use, or just hadn't heard it in a very long time.
So in a way, it's a new experience for everyone.
And also, the whole communal-listening thing is so rare nowadays. So much of our musical listening experience is in isolation—which is great as well, but it's such a different experience when you're sharing it with people. When you have a room full of 50 or 60 people, intently listening, it can be pretty amazing.
I'm amazed that people nowadays have enough of an attention span to do this.
Yeah! I think the experience can kind of transform people. I had this one journalist—this young but very square journalist, not a music-head at all—come over, and he had never heard an album. Any album! So I put on Dark Side of the Moon. I got the incense, I got the candles—the works—and we played it over this great system. He couldn't even walk or speak afterwards. He e-mailed me the next day to tell me that it took him an hour to get back to normal. That's how much it can affect you. Yes, it is challenging people's attention spans...but then again, people are happy to sit in front of a television or computer screen for hours on end, which I think shows that people do have an attention span. It's just that we're not using it for music so much.
Do you have anything visual going on?
Nope, nothing, no videos or anything. Well, I might put an oil lamp on if I have one. Most people just close their eyes, mainly because I don't really think they know what else to do! But really, I think you can hear better with your eyes closed, anyway. It can be a pretty meditative experience. Well, maybe not with the Sex Pistols.
Have you done the Sex Pistols yet?
I was thinking about doing them for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, actually. [Laughs]
Besides Dark Side of the Moon, what records has Classic Album Sundays covered so far?
We've done the KLF's Chill Out, the debut Stone Roses record, Kate Bush's Hounds of Love, John Coltrane's Blue Train, Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Love's Forever Changes, Grace Jones's Nightlclubbing....
So you aren't kidding when you say classics.
Yeah, although I think most people would consider some of them to be cult classics. For instance, I just did Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left, and we've done Syd Barrett and Scott Walker. One thing I do to help me select the albums is I put up a poster board at each session I do where people can make suggestions. It's great for me because I might learn something new, and at the very least it helps me gauge what people want. Sometimes certain artists that you wouldn't expect, like Scott Walker, keep cropping up. I'm like, oh my gosh, is Scott Walker trendy right now? I'm guessing I won't get many requests for Scott Walkerhim in the States, though. It'll be interesting to see what does get requested.
You're kicking off Classic Album Sundays over here with Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. What made you decide to go with Dylan?
Dylan has always been requested quite a bit, but I also thought it might be a good idea to start with a great American artist. Dylan really changed the fabric of pop and rock music through his songwriting, and obviously when he went electric at the Newport Jazz Festival, it was a huge event. I also really felt that he was an artist who appeals to so many different types of people. I mean, anyone who's into music has some kind of knowledge of Dylan, whether or not they're huge fans. They'll have at least some understanding his valued place in the American music canon.
Why specifically Blood on the Tracks?
It was kind of a toss-up between that on Blonde on Blonde, which I really love—but it's a double album! For Classic Album Sunday's New York debut, it might have been a bit too much.
Blood on the Tracks is one of his more accessible albums. I'm old enough to remember "Tangled Up in Blue" being played on AM radio.
Yes, but it's also one of his more personal albums. On most of his albums, he's more of a topical songwriter.
It's supposedly about his divorce, isn't it?
Well, he's also said it has more to do with Chekhov, so who knows? But that's kind of the thing about these albums; there's always a lot to talk about and think about. There are always lots of questions and ambiguities. And Dylan's so shrouded in mystery; he never really explains his music. I've started reading his autobiographies—which are excellent, by the way, and so well written—but he never says anything like, "This song means this and this other song means that." His music, and really most music, isn't black and white. It's mainly gray, isn't it?
is at Bellwether Sunday, March 11. Murphy also plays Deep Space Monday, March 12.