Peter Murphy On Love, Darkness, and Making It Out of The Flat Field
Peter Murphy, the frontman of the seminal dark, post-punk group Bauhaus, does not want you to refer to him as the “Godfather of Goth.” This is understandable: The term has become a reductive, catch-all phrase for black clothing, fishnets, and year-round bat decorations, leaving little room for a nuanced conversation surrounding a person’s artistic career. (As Peter says, it’s like calling David Bowie “The Godfather of Glam” and leaving it at that.)
But before malls and movies based on Anne Rice novels took hold of our cultural definition of the word, “gothic” was a term that meant things both daunting and deeply emotional. Gothic architecture refers to an era in which cathedrals were built – by hand – as high as possible, because it was believed that one could get closer to God if the building’s spires touched the sky. A special arch enabled an entire movement to make churches taller, and the insides were dark, cavernous places of solemn worship where the echoes of Gregorian chants still haunt the chambers to this day. Gothic novels like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein dealt with a lot of staring into the sea, reflecting on unrequited love, and the enormous, extraordinary pain of being mortal. To truly be “goth” is to understand the sheer darkness and power of one’s own feelings.
Bauhaus’ first record, In The Flat Field, encompassed all of these things: Ostensibly, and especially in 1980 when it was first released, it was a weird, dark, punk record. But it was written about the hopelessness they felt being working-class guys in the grey, Eduardian town of Northampton, England, and dreaming of escaping the “flat field” of one’s boring existence by any means necessary. And yes, though the band broke up in 1983, they pioneered the all-black clothing, slicked-back hair, dudes-with-eyeliner look long before anyone decided to call it “goth,” and frontman Peter Murphy’s deep, romantic-yet-chilling vocals, high cheekbones and angular good looks (he perhaps not-so-jokingly refers to himself as “gorge”) influenced an entire generation of singers including but certainly not limited to Type O Negative, Christian Death, Danzig, She Wants Revenge, and Marilyn Manson.
It’s been 40 years since Bauhaus became a band, and much has changed: Peter lives in Turkey with his wife Beyhan and his two children, and has consistently toured the world with his solo project, save for a small bit of time when Bauhaus reunited to play a handful of shows. But this year, in commemoration of the “ruby year,” Peter teamed up with Bauhaus bassist David J, as well as drummer Mark Slutsky and guitarist Mark Gemini Thwaite, to celebrate the legacy of the band. The tour consists of two sets each night: First, they are performing In The Flat Field in its entirety for the first time ever; second, they’re playing a set of eclectic favorites. Fittingly, the show came to New York City on Valentine’s Day, filling Manhattan’s Terminal 5 with dark, black-clad romantics.
The day before, on Peter’s day off, we sat down with him to talk about the relationship between love and darkness, making it out of that grey, flat field, and 40 years of Bauhaus.
Kerrang!: Throughout your whole career, you’ve written so much music that intertwines darkness with love and vulnerability.
Peter Murphy: Definitely, yeah. I think a lot of that comes from the voice. A vocalist’s instrument is the body. And you hear the nature of the person. I think I’m very, very passionate often. And romantic. So that probably comes over. Even if the words are not necessarily obviously romantic in that sense.
There are a lot of lyrics about love and open vulnerability and heartbreak along with, as you say, the vocal styling being very stern and straightforward and deep—it’s authoritative, but you’re also saying, ‘This is how I feel.’
Well, it’s really great that that resonates and comes across. Because I’m not just hanging out here, I’m not going to be a singer – some guy singing and making new albums – I’m gonna [really make it passionate]. I’m half Irish, too – there’s that bard in me. I like to tell stories. And I like to tell you what’s happening. That’s a singer! That’s a singer.
Was it always planned for darkness and vulnerability to go hand in hand in your work?
The word darkness came about, I think, as a result of us!
There’s something magnificent about Metallica, for instance. They’re not metal to me. They’re an orchestra. It’s classical. It has an intensity to it, which comes through the so-called ‘metal’ cultural thing, and that’s great! I mean, if you listen to Dark Entries, or Stigmata Martyr, or one of my songs The Line Between The Devil’s Teeth, they’re kind of metal! It’s not that full-on classic stuff, but it has that strain to it that’s also known as ‘dark.’ It’s not meant to be meaningfully or intentionally dark.
You weren’t like, ‘I think I’m going to write a dark record.’
No, it just comes out of you. You’re living in bloody Northampton! You’ve got no hope. Nothing. Do you know how hard that is?
How did you deal with the hopelessness?
I wrote the song In The Flat Field. Those were some of the first lyrics I ever wrote. And Dark Entries. In The Flat Field is like, I can’t stand this. This mundane, ignorant walking dead. No hope. I am not going to live as a working-class casualty. I am not going to be consigned to a factory! I am not! I’d worked as a book-binder apprentice for five years, but [other people who worked there] had been there for 40 years. It terrified me. No hope. How am I going to make money?
You’re not poor, you’re just working class. You’re in this British society. But I’m artistic – I can paint, I was an English literature major at school, I was a sports champion, I’m kind of this high-active renaissance thing. So that was there anyway, but how do you get out? How do you do that? I didn’t know. So that’s the backdrop. That’s the flat field. In the flat field, I get bored, I do get bored. You replace it with anything: Piccadilly whores. Anything in my search for some cerebral fix. Transfer me to that solid plane. Hammer me into blazen pain. Anything! Make me alive! I have to do something!
Dark Entries was like that, too. I suppose it is dark, but it’s, well—it’s not punk, either. It’s a very unusual writing style. It’s almost like 16th century type of language. Not on purpose! I’m well-read, but I’m not a geek. I’m kind of, very retiring actually. Shy almost. I’m the youngest of seven children. Very emotional and very artistic — and very beautiful. When I was 17 I saw my beauty, and I thought, that’s my way out. I swear to you. Something was calling to me. So that’s where that comes from.
And also, the band worked as a workhouse. An arthouse. Four individuals contributing to a whole. No one was the leader saying, “This is my idea” or anything – it was all forged. And it just happened! The minute I walked in with Daniel [Ash], he said, “Can you sing and write songs?” And I said, “Yep!” But I had never in my life. So we walked in with just him and I and we wrote In The Flat Field in two days. But that’s not bragging! It just happened. The door just opened. And in my head I was already famous. Not famous, but I was living.
You found your way out of the flat field.
Yes! I was happy to eat muesli. Happy! I was like, “I’m rehearsing on Wednesdays!” We all lived together. I left my job, moved in, and ate muesli for a year or something. I don’t know. Who cares, it was fantastic. And I looked brilliant! [laughs] I went to second-hand shops to buy clothes and suddenly I designed myself! Nothing—with a long black coat. People would follow me around Northampton, apparently. Nobody looked like me at all. I started a whole generation. Somebody’s going to punish me one day.
You influenced an entire wave of fashion and culture, all because you were buying black clothes at a second-hand shop.
Totally. I just did it! I just put it on and it looked good. And I’m gorge anyway. If you’re gorge, it doesn’t matter. You just go out like that and they go, [gasp] ‘Look at her! Look at him!’ But then you change it and they go, [puts on a mock American accent] ‘Oh no! He was wearing black before. What’s he doing?!’
Your first single, Bela Lugosi’s Dead, is obviously about the actor who played the classic Dracula character. He was also a dark, stern, strangely romantic figure in black clothing.
It’s very kitsch and tongue-in-cheek, but very serious, too. Bela Lugosi’s dead! It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Bela Lugosi’s dead! The most unlikely character – he had a round face, he wasn’t very attractive.
And he took a pay cut to play Dracula because he wanted the part so badly.
Right, exactly! All of that. And later, we learned that he was buried in his Dracula costume! Isn’t that brilliant? And his whole family came to LA to thank me. His whole family! His son, and his granddaughters, everyone. And I thought, my god, it wasn’t a tribute! But it’s an honor. But it wasn’t taking the piss out of Bela Legosi at all.
Do you feel like you have an affinity with characters like Dracula that also have that stern, dark, romantic personality?
No, I play that in that song. I terrified people onstage. You have to do that. We talked about the sensuality, the beauty, and the attractiveness of eternal life. Dracula is very seductive. So that character had to be that. So live, I just went for it. And hammed it up! I’m a bit of a ham, really. [laughs]
You definitely are.
But, you know, I’d scare people. I’d be it. I’d want to see something like that. Don’t spend a million dollars making a Dracula movie and editing it so it looks scary. Do it. Gary Oldman, who played Dracula, said he played [Bela Legosi’s Dead] every day before he went to get into the mood. And that’s just a four-pound demo! The first song Bauhaus ever recorded in a studio in my hometown for 12 pounds. We were going to record four songs. One of them was Bela Legosi’s Dead, that’s the first one we recorded, and it was the first time I was in a booth with a microphone hearing myself. And it was one take! A one-take vocal. That comes through—it’s magical. Just to be in this art group. This arthouse.
With so much romance and sensuality tied up in your songs, is there a strong relationship in your life between being in love and feeling creative?
It’s the end point. It’s home. Love is the return to the source. It’s not the sentimental interpretation of love. Love is like in that moment when you’re doing Dark Entries, where it’s pure, and feels correct. I still want to know what that is. I fell in love with my wife, but I’ve fallen in love with a friend. It’s not necessarily carnally, or sexually translated. Because it doesn’t have to be at all. It’s not even a factor sometimes.
[Love is] searching for home. It has to be. And there’s a yearning, isn’t there? In that moment, you feel that yearning, don’t you? We’ve all got it. And it’s not miserable. It’s nice, really. It’s a good drug, actually, I wish I could bottle it. There’s a loneliness in people. We’re all alone. And if you don’t trust that that which you can’t see is there, it’s very lonely. It’s abhorrent.
We spend our lives trying to avoid that feeling.
The yearning is there but there’s no hope. Nothing. There’s no belief.
Tell me more about your wife.
Oh, she’s me. And we’re just us. But really. She’s this little Turk. She’s amazing! She says, ‘You go and be Peter Murphy!’ and I say, ‘But I’m—I’m washing up! I’m ironing! I’m making the bed!’ She says, ‘Get out! You’re Peter Murphy!’ And I say, ‘No I’m not!’ And then she’ll make me laugh. She’ll say, [puts on a teasing voice] ‘You’re Peter Murphy, aren’t you?’ And I’ll go, ‘Shut up! I don’t like it! I don’t want to!’ She’ll go, ‘You’ve got more talent in your little finger than all the artists of the world and you’re wasting it! Get out!’
Without her, do you think you’d be as successful as you are?
No. Well, I wouldn’t have got this far. She hasn’t made me do anything, but she has encouraged me to be myself and not feel guilty about it. Because a [British] working-class person feels constantly guilty for somehow bluffing his way and winking his way through life and escaping and making money. There’s a guilt. Like, you’re getting away with murder, mate. The police are coming soon. You’re going to be taken back to the job. The working-class hypnotism is in the British society. Nothing like America. You laud each other, encourage each other positively. It’s wonderful! When you first come here you’re like, ‘These Americans are all in your fucking face!’ [Puts on an American accent] ‘I’m an aural designer.’ What do you mean, an aural designer? You mean a [sound] bloke? AN AURAL DESIGNER! But honestly, it’s encouraged. In England, it’s like, ‘Ooh, you’re sticking your nose up where you don’t belong, mate.’ It’s a subtle put-down.
On the other side of that token, how has heartbreak affected creativity in your life?
When you’re expressing it, it’s quite beautiful. It’s nice. That’s heartbreak. But it’s only the destruction of an illusion of something. Not to analyze it, to intellectualize it, or write a fucking book about it. I think most artists can have heartbreak often.
Using Metallica again, as an example – [James Hetfield] has been heartbroken so many times. You can tell it, and it comes out. What a singer. Look at him. He’s a singer, I tell you. I write him more than most people. My son plays Metallica brilliantly. I produced their demo and thought, fuck! This stuff’s amazing. The timing changes and stuff, honestly. But then you need a singer to really kick it off. And he’s one of them. They’re rare, aren’t they?
What do you think is the most daunting part of falling in love?
The fear of abandonment. You shape it with your own immediate need, and you can project onto that with some idea that doesn’t have anything to do with it and it loses that thing. I don’t know, actually. Mine has nothing to do with questions. I can’t not be with my partner. I know that. But if it were to happen, and if it does one day, I can’t. If she dies first…I want do die first. But if it happens – I get afraid, like, I can’t experience that. It’s fear. Of abandonment. Of aloneness. For me, anyway. And I think most people. It’s hard, isn’t it?
Yeah, it definitely is. What’s the toughest part of being in a relationship, especially when you’re across the world from your wife so often?
She’s an artist, she’s always working on projects. She’s a director of a national company that she formed, a contemporary company. She’s a performing artist. I’m part of her paradigm in terms of her work. She sees me and knows me as a performer. So from the point of view, she really appreciates it. It’s great. It’s very much an artistic relationship. I don’t let her in too much because she’ll be on me. Because she’s a director! I’ll say, ‘Go direct somebody! No, I’m not showing you this lyric. I’m not playing you this song. Fuck off!’ Honestly. Otherwise it becomes hers! She’s that good.
No it’s not, it’s a pain in the ass! [laughs] Go direct somebody! If she’s off for more than three days she’s, like, directing the fucking house. All of us are like, ‘Okay, yes, yes, yes!’
Here’s a genre-spanning collection of horror punk’s greatest hits, stabs, and slashes.
When Kurt Cobain passed away and Nirvana ceased to be, Dave Grohl was left with a choice: let his pain consume him and lead him away from music forever, or find a way of working through the darkness…