MANY of us associate The 4 of Us with the late ’80s and early ’90s but the Northern rockers have never gone away and are about to release a new album, which explores growing up in the Newry of the Troubles.
They perform in Glór on December 7 and speaking to The Champion, vocalist and songwriter Brendan Murphy said they will be playing material from the new record along with some of their older songs.
“We’ve an album coming out next spring and it’s also our 25th anniversary next year, so we’re gearing up for that. We decided to do a number of shows before Christmas; we’re in Vicar Street in March and we wanted to test out the new record. It’s nearly done and we’re doing maybe half the new album. It’s a longer show because we still play the songs people would expect us to play. Bruce Springsteen is never out of the country now, so you have to do two and a half-hour shows! If you do an hour and a half it looks like you’ve only been on for 15 minutes!”
It will be the group’s first album in eight years. He says they have always been picky about what makes the cut, something that means their output has never been prolific.
“The problem is that we’re making records and then we go and play our favourite records of all time and we decide we’re nowhere near as good. Until you’ve got something that you think people will get excited about, I don’t really see the point. I don’t think I could go out and tell people how great our album is unless I believe it was great, that’s why it takes as long as it takes.”
When they released Mary, still surely their best-known song, their hometown would have been known for the Troubles and little else.
Yet, as their star rose, they never became a political group. Only now, with peace having taken a firm hold, are they looking back on their experiences growing up with conflict under their noses.
“We have a song called Home Town on the Border and there are a few others there about what it was like to grow up in a border town when the Troubles were going on in the ’70s, when we were teenagers.”
The introduction of that theme is what is most distinctive about their new material, he feels.
“The whole record isn’t about it but if you asked me what’s different about it compared to other records we made, I’d say that’s the biggest difference.”
He feels, as children, they may have protected themselves from fear of the instability by looking at it as something that almost wasn’t real.
“There’s a song called Bird’s Eye View. We lived on the top of a hill and when we were kids, we’d look down on the town at night in darkness. Every now and again you’d hear something going off in the town and even though we were close to what was going on, as a kid you’d feel completely removed from it, like you were watching it on TV. Your mum and dad would be telling you to get away from the window and you’d be thinking ‘what’s the big deal?’ It’s crazy how a child protects themselves from the reality of the situation.”
One of the reasons he didn’t write political songs was because he didn’t initially understand how dysfunctional things were, while he wasn’t too enamoured with some musicians who tackled it without having a real understanding. “What we thought was normal wasn’t normal but it was our experience of it. It wasn’t until we started the band and seeing the rest of the world that we realised that. When you grow up with checkpoints in your town it seems perfectly normal, or if you see soldiers crawling around. When we started touring in the UK people used to start talking to us like we were third world citizens and it used to really infuriate me. I sort of wondered why they were making such a big deal about it, there’s nothing tragic about our situation but the fact of it was they had a point.
“It took a while for me to get over my own defensiveness about it. Also, there were a lot of songs written about the North by people who never spent any time there. For years that put me off writing about it, I’d heard too many unqualified people writing about it, who’d flown in to do a video shoot and then buggered off again.”
Music is a different ballgame to when The 4 of Us started to make their mark. Brendan says the satisfaction he takes from it is greater than ever now. The business of music has also changed and while many in the industry aren’t enamoured with the arrival of free music, he’s quite happy about it.
“I’m not one of the people that miss the old days, I like the way things have changed and I thought CDs were too expensive. The world changes and you have to change with it. There are a lot of up sides, people go on about the fact that people aren’t making this or that, but there were a lot of costs that don’t exist now.
“If you want to put a record out your distribution costs have evaporated and you could make a record now in your bedroom, you could do the artwork for yourself too. In terms of the creative process, I think the actual artist can get a lot further down to road now compared to the old days when you had to go through a lot of different channels.”