Music News

Murphy's Law

The pull of Denver's music scene must be very strong for Andrew Murphy. I mean, why else would the guy continue to run a Mile High-centric label from more than 1,200 miles away? Murphy, the proprietor of Smooch Records, says the motivation behind this labor of love hasn't changed since the late '90s, when he helped launch Radio 1190's Local Shakedown program: It's all about helping his friends gain greater notoriety.

Murphy's love affair with homegrown music began in the mid '90s, when his family came to Boulder from Texas. Embittered by the move, Murphy discovered a few local punk bands that helped ease the transition; he was drawn by the primal magnetism of such now-defunct acts as Priest, Monsters and Saints (an outfit that my buddy and former bandmate Oscar drummed for once upon a time) and Juhl (whose members went on to play in Maraca Five-0, Blussom and Blue Blooded Girls). "It was the only thing I liked about Colorado," he remembers.

He also found that he liked Albums on the Hill in Boulder. There the high-schooler was befriended by a curmudgeonly clerk named Jayson Munly Thompson (or just plain Munly, as he's known these days). The enigmatic songwriter took a shine to Murphy and later helped him land a job at Albums. Given Munly's forbidding on-stage persona, it's hard to imagine him befriending a fawning, precocious teenager; even Murphy has absolutely no idea what prompted the guy to reach out to him. He may never know: Munly's not a man of many words.

"He doesn't really talk that much," Murphy explains. "And I don't really ask him very many questions. We're very close friends, but we still don't even talk that much. I mean, I stayed at his house when I was in Denver [over New Year's Eve], but we didn't really chat that much."

While still in high school, Murphy started volunteering at KVCU/1190. He was soon lobbying the station for a program that focused on local music -- particularly music by Munly and his other friends. Although the idea initially met with a less-than-enthusiastic response from the station's managers, eventually they relented and let Murphy and Sharon Gatliffe, a friend from high school, get behind the mike for two hours every Friday afternoon with Local Shakedown.

Murphy kept doing the show after he enrolled full-time at the University of Colorado, and started looking for ways to expand the concept. In November 1999, the DJ put together the first of a series of two-night bills at the Bluebird, diverse lineups that included everyone from the Kalamath Brothers, the Down-N-Outs and O'er the Ramparts, to the Blast-Off Heads, Letches and Space Team Electra, to Munly (natch), Hoochie and the Pin Downs. And when he approached noted knob-turner Bob Ferbrache, already a fan of Shakedown, about the possibility of recording the shows, Ferbrache gladly signed on.

At first Murphy intended to release the live recordings as a way of commemorating the concerts. But that plan soon gave way to the idea of assembling an expansive Local Shakedown compilation, complete with contributions from Jello Biafra (conscripted by Murphy, who cold-called the Dead Kennedys founder when he was at his parents' house in Boulder), 16 Horsepower and the Apples in Stereo. Their participation ultimately convinced the powers-that-be at KVCU that the project was viable, and after a lot of back and forth with the station's ten managers -- one non-student and nine student GMs -- the funding came through. The resulting 45-track disc, released in May 2000, earned positive notices in this fish-wrap and convinced Murphy to pursue the label in earnest. His next release, a platter from Maraca Five-0, arrived later that year.

Over the next six years, as Murphy went on to work with Fanatic Promotion and Wax Trax, then relocated to San Francisco in the spring of 2004, he released a spate of discs from the likes of 16 Horsepower and Lilium, one of its offshoots, as well as Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Munly and Tarantella -- bands with a kindred sound unique to Denver. Although Smooch recently issued Andrew Rothbard's (VSS, Pleasure Forever) new solo disc, Abandoned Meander, many of the label's fifteen releases have been reissues. It's not that Murphy isn't interested in procuring fresh material, because he is. But he's also become something of a curator/historian of the scene, and he's determined to help preserve Colorado's recorded and often unheralded legacy. To that end, Smooch's next releases will include a Denver Gentlemen reissue, followed by a never-before-released full-length from the Soul Merchants, Ferbrache's '80s-era goth band.

I have to hand it to the guy for displaying such unwavering devotion to a city that he no longer lives in. Nearly three years after taking up residence in the Bay Area, Murphy still tirelessly advocates all things Denver more fervently than some of those who live here -- even though it's clearly not a lucrative mission (Smooch's biggest seller has moved just over a thousand units). Murphy stays solvent by working full-time at Revolver Distribution, the company that exclusively distributes Smooch, and he has plenty of other projects keeping him busy these days. He's been running interference between Munly and Alternative Tentacles -- which co-released Munly's last disc -- and hatching plans to write a book documenting the scene and produce a movie focusing on the "Denver Sound," which will feature Denver Gentlemen, 16 Horsepower, Lilium, Woven Hand, Slim Cessna, Munly, DeVotchKa, Tarantella and the Kalamath Brothers, among others.

"Seeing Slim live wins over fans who were not impressed/didn't get the album," he notes. "The hope is that the movie will do the same, and on a larger scale than a single concert."

It's ironic that Murphy singles out Slim as someone he'd like to prop up as an exemplar of the Denver Sound. Like Murphy, the tall, slender fella is no longer a tax-paying resident of Denver -- even if he still performs in the area with enough regularity that some folks are none the wiser. And while Murphy admits he can sometimes feel slightly disconnected from the Denver scene, it helps that more and more people from the Mile High City are moving to the City by the Bay.

"There's a ton of Colorado people here," Murphy points out. "There's four people at Revolver out of thirty who used to work at Wax Trax. San Francisco -- I don't know how familiar you are with the city, but it's sort of like every five blocks or so is a different neighborhood. I live in North Beach, which is the old Italian neighborhood. The Mission is the Mexican neighborhood, and there's Russian Hill. Sometimes I joke that there will be a Little Denver since there's so many of us here."

In San Francisco, maybe, but they left their hearts in Denver.

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Dave Herrera
Contact: Dave Herrera