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Chet Faker’s Sweet Surrender, or: How Nick Murphy Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Making Art Again

Nick Murphy catches up with Rolling Stone as he heads home for his first run of Australian shows since 2015

Nick Murphy is the wizard behind the curtain of Chet Faker – one of Australia’s most successful music exports of the past decade. Thoughtful and articulate, Murphy is a proper artist in the age of influencers… an ambivert capable of dual-wielding both confidence and sensitivity. 

The expat musician is back in his hometown of Melbourne for a couple of weeks before embarking on his next Australian tour, which includes an appearance at Yours & Owls (followed by a return to New Zealand); as it’s his first run of shows in his home country since 2015, he’s more excited than ever to play live. Murphy insists he’s finally reached the point where his live shows live up to his records – a riddle he has been trying to solve for most of his career. 

“I’ve been on this journey for the last 10 years, to be honest. Ever since I really started the Chet Faker project… the first time,” he says. “It was never intended to be performed live. I always found it really difficult performing that stuff live because, to me, what I love about the music I make – with this project in particular – is the textures of the actual recordings.

“There’s little things in the recordings that are not going to appear live as you replay parts with a live band. So there was always this dissonance where I felt like I wasn’t actually doing the work justice if I was going fully live, or vice versa.

According to Murphy, though, this isn’t an issue he solely experiences. “I think it’s this whole current generation of artists and musicians who are trying to figure it out. For the first time in the history of recorded music, recorded music is completely different to the way we play music. In the past, it was the same – you went in with the band, you recorded it, and that was the recording. Now you make music mostly in front of a laptop. 

“So you’ve got bands like Tame [Impala] or [King] Gizzard who use traditional instrumentation, and they do it the traditional ways, so it’s set for them. And then you’ve got other people on the other side, like DJs or producers, which is also kind of set, because there’s no real instrumentation in their works, so they’re using a laptop or CDJs. Easy. So that’s why we have seen the rise of DJs. 

“But there are artists like me with a foot in each world. It’s a bit like trying to find this balance of, ‘Ok, this track does require me having some prerecorded stuff, but this one feels weird if I just press play or don’t do anything.'”

Read the rest of Rolling Stone AU/NZ’s conversation with Murphy below. Chet Faker’s tour dates can be found here

Rolling Stone AU/NZ: To what degree could you be like, ‘the live thing is a different animal, it doesn’t matter if the songs are different?’ Is there that consideration?

Chet Faker: I’ve really been doing this my whole career. I actually think to a lot of people on the outside who don’t pay attention to the real details, it looks very erratic what I’ve done in my career. 

I’d say a lot of it has been driven by touring. I got this success and I realised that I was going to be on the road a lot. So this huge portion of my life is now taken up by this touring thing. And I’m like, ‘Ok, this needs to represent the art, otherwise, why am I doing it?’ And I’ve been playing all these roles. 

Even when I was touring under my birth name, the band was a full live experience, and the songs we were performing were almost secondary. I did that for years, and that was great live, but it was a bit like the tail wagging the dog. The art was secondary, and the show was primary. But that’s not my passion. My passion is making the art. 

All that’s to say is that I actually feel I’ve reached a point where I’ve kind of figured it out now. So I’ve been in a really good place recently. This tour – and I just did a European summer tour – are the first tours where I’m like, ‘Ok, this is working.’

Was there a Eureka moment?

Yes, actually. The funny thing is you often have ideas of what you think will work, and then you set it up and it doesn’t. Often things that work best live are very pure and raw and simple. So I think the biggest mistake for a lot of people, including myself, is trying to give yourself too much to do, which is what I did at first. I had all this MIDI stuff going, so I set all that up and was messing around, but you can’t really tell what the musical output of a tech setup will be until you do it. 

I had this complex idea where I had my sequencer sending MIDI to multiple MIDI devices, and I could tweak them live. The approach was sonic – to go for a really nice sonic fidelity. Not as in hi-fi, but as in it feels good to have that sound go over you. Then I added these loopers, just for a bit of fun. It became really apparent that the loopers did more of what was missing from the show, because the problem when you’re working with pre-prepared stuff is that it’s the same every night. 

To me, great artists are the ones where you listen to their live recordings and it’s different every time – but not so different that you don’t feel like you’re hearing the song, either. That was a long journey for me, finding that blend with my music. It was actually a massive journey of – not to be cheesy – self-discovery in what it is about my music that is important, and what isn’t, to me. So there was a process of reduction – ‘I don’t need that, I don’t need that, I don’t need that.’

The big realisation for me was really the rhythm section for most of my songs. I could almost mute everything in my songs except the drums and the bass, and then if I just played the chords it worked really well. So there was also a musical theory approach to it, which is so simple. I don’t know why. Actually learning the changes of the songs. Being like, ‘This one is in E Flat, so if I just do a little loop of a one and a five, and reverse it, that can go the whole song.’ It’s a bit nerdy but I’m quite happy with it. 

Live performance is essentially your bread and butter, so when you’re writing is it ever a variable in your head that ‘this has to be performable live,’ or do you just let it be and figure it out later?

It definitely was, and that’s what bothered me for most of the last decade. No matter how hard I tried, it would still pop up in my head, ‘you’re gonna have to do this live.’ It’s such an exhausting time. It’s like this whole extra job, converting my music into live music, because I’m not playing with a band in the studio. I’ve got a sample from the ’40s of seagulls, reversed and pitched down. How the fuck am I supposed to do that live? 

But people still want something live, so there is this whole extra element. It was getting to the point where I wasn’t finishing songs, because I was spending so much time preparing for live shows. There were even a couple of years there where the songs that came out were just old songs, because I wasn’t making new ones. I was so busy putting the show together. So I knew there had to be a solution. 

It was getting in my head, and that bothered me, because expression should be free. So these little things were like, ‘I won’t do that because that will be impossible to do live.’ 

That’s what I’ve just been chewing on for the last three years. Probably earlier, unconsciously, but consciously since 2019/2020. And I feel like I’ve finally got a grip on it. I’m making music again – not that I wasn’t – but I’m finishing music again, and in a way that I hadn’t in years. 

The album I’m technically still touring is two years old now thanks to COVID; Hotel Surrender. Those songs – even though that was a very free process – they were driven from a performance place. The way I wrote them was very physically driven, not the way I’d done Built on Glass or Thinking in Textures

It’s been interesting for me. Those songs were designed to be played live, and they are great live, but it’s been interesting to finally get a grip on this live problem. As it has moved out of the way, I’m seeing the music I am making again feels like Built on Glass, where I’m writing songs texturally again, because the texture is no longer an issue for me live, whereas it was before. 

Given that revelation, what now changes or opens up in songwriting going forward, knowing that you’ve solved the live problem?

It’s so funny but I feel like I just spent the last 10/12 years getting back to right where I was before everything went absolutely crazy. 

The first five years was getting used to just having millions of people constantly giving you attention. And then the next five years were dealing with the industry side of things, and things not going the way you want them to. And then the last three years was coming back to the Chet Faker project once I had been able to make sense of a lot of that. 

Coming back to it, Hotel Surrender was a joyous return to the project. Very much so. The word ‘surrender’ was a bit about me surrendering to what I needed, artistically, just to get stuff out. It’s just finally making music again and feeling it.

I don’t think I was particularly well built for fame – I mean, who the fuck is, to be honest? – but I am a bit of an introvert, you know? So I think it just took me this long to process all the shit that came with it. To finally come back and be like, ‘I can make art that I wanna make again.’ So it has been good.

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How did you shield yourself from all the attention fame brings? A lot of it can just be absolutely toxic.

I would say most of it is. People think it’s all about about being loved or being hated, but it’s all about intensity. Just think of it like this: if you walked to work every day, imagine everyone stared at you. I think that would change how you felt. It’s quite a simple example. They’re not even saying anything to you, they’re just staring at you. And that’s a small percentage of what fame really is like. It’s completely unfathomable, even after a decade, still. 

It wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed. I like the success but I didn’t like the fame part of it. And I don’t think I ever wanted to be a personality. I wanted to be an artist. 

The artists I love are about the craft. But we sort of live in the age of ‘the cult of personality’, where if someone does something we like, we have to know everything about them. We demand it. I think a lot of decisions I made were to experiment with that, and to understand the power of where it was coming from. 

Even changing my name and leaving ‘Chet’ was a big part of it because it was like, ‘Ok, I’ve got all these people telling me they love me, so let’s see what happens. Is it just a brand obsession? If I change my name does this obsession go away?’ And it did. A lot of it. It was like, ‘Ok, this shit has nothing to do with me, it’s a Pavlovian fever where people are trained through general pop culture.’

That allowed me to go off and be free without the psychic energy, and then I was able to come back to the project in a new way, also having learned lessons in how to approach that stuff. Everyone deals with it differently. I meet some people who love it, but I was never really a particular fan of it. I’m a bit of a sensitive individual. 

A lot of people don’t understand that somebody creating art – putting it out into the world and performing it – doesn’t necessarily make them an extrovert, nor does it mean they want the spotlight on them all the time. 

Yeah. The classic thing I always see people writing on social media is, ‘They signed up for this.’ My response is, ‘Where and what did they sign?’ Because for me, I was born with this yearning to create pretty things that I wanted to share with people. I probably would have gone mad if I wasn’t able to do it, and I’d do it even if I was put in a dark room. 

For some reason if what you love is creating, and you do it for your job, then you signed up for people dragging you and shit like that. I just think people don’t really think about it. 

It’s a bit of a hangover from the ’80s as well. When you had millions and millions of dollars, and this idea that you lived this luxury lifestyle. People used to pay $20 for an album, now you pay $8 a month for every album ever released. So I don’t know where they think that money is coming from, but it’s not from there

Not to get too philosophical, but there is a lot of writing about the role of artists in society. Different writers wrote different things. Kurt Vonnegut called the artist the ‘canary in a coal mine.’ Their purpose was to essentially let people know what’s coming, like, ‘Things aren’t good.’ Joseph Campbell called the artist the ‘myth makers’ – that they are supposed to inspire and create things to believe in, and to lead us. I believe all that. 

I remember something this guy in a taxi in London said to me once about musicians, but you can relate it to all artists. He said, ‘A musician’s job is to feel stuff that people don’t have the time or the inclination to feel for themselves.’ I feel that’s a perfect example, really. They’re not superheroes or anything, they just either have the propensity for feeling, or they have an addiction to feeling, and they’re just helping us all. 

It’s like prepackaged therapy, in a way. This person goes and feels ‘that’, and if that’s what you need to feel then you go and listen to it. I do think of it as a service, so I understand where that attitude comes from, but I think people sometimes forget it’s not McDonald’s. You can shout at them all you want, but that’s just a person following their own truth. Being angry at them isn’t gonna help at all. 

There’s also a degree of projection as well. Someone that covets fame or wants it will expect you to love it the way they imagine they will love it. Because it’s not going to be what you expect it to be. 

The problem is the subjectivity – people’s inability to separate the subjective experience of music. The ‘second album syndrome.’ It’s not that second albums are always shit – that’s what everyone says – but that’s the most arrogant misconception. It’s because everyone’s already heard the first album, so it’s not new to them. Of course it’s gonna sound similar, it’s the same artist! So there’s not this raw thing. 

So guess what happens when you’ve heard someone before? Expectations. Preconceptions. But when you don’t have any, everyone is pretty positive. And you can always tell this when an artist is first coming up. Everyone is so kind and supportive and thankful for everything they’re doing. Then if you follow those fans and that artist, that core group stays, but then you get more people being like, ‘Why won’t they do what they did on their first album? I wish they’d go back.’

I remember seeing this comment on YouTube – which I don’t read that often, but every now and then – and it was actually kind of funny. It was about a song on the new record, “Peace of Mind”, and they were like, ‘Ugh, this sounds like the Nick Murphy stuff instead of going back to his Chet Faker sound. I wish we’d get more songs like “I’m Into You”.’

That was funny for two reasons: one, that particular song, “Peace of Mind”, was a B-side from Built on Glass, so they’re actually objectively wrong, not subjectively, which is rare. But the other thing… ‘give me another song like “I’m Into You”… I was 21 and I was falling in love for the first time, with my big love. Yeah, I wish I could write that again as well. I’m 35 now. I can’t fall in love for the first time ever again. That’s not how life works. 

It’s getting mad at the potency of a song but not understanding that the potency comes from truth. You can not replicate truth. Truth simply is. 

I do sometimes feel a little bit sorry for the general public because the technology has allowed us to give, I think, too much feedback to artists. What that’s going to do is remove or silence more sensitive artists, and we’re going to get what we want, not what we deserve. 

The analogy I make is: ‘if we get what we want… if we eat McDonald’s every day… guess what? We’re gonna get diabetes.’ I think if we’re not careful we might end up with a bit of ‘spiritual diabetes’, where we only get the artists who love the attention. We only get the artists that don’t give a fuck. Then what happens to the artists that do care? Where do they go? They can’t stand the heat. 

I’m pretty sensitive but also I don’t like being put in a corner. But there’s a million artists that are as sensitive as me, if not more, who don’t have that fighting spirit. How are they supposed to share their music with the world if this is the way we consume stuff? I do sometimes feel a bit sad for the potential of some of these artists. 

It absolutely seems like that has already begun. That ‘spiritual diabetes’. 

I totally agree. It’s been happening for the last 10 years, really. Most of the artists who take great risks now are pop artists, because they can afford to. We’ve seen in the last 10 years this culture of pop artists appropriating indie/alternative styles and aesthetics because they have the money to pick the best one… they do writing camps… things like this. 

It didn’t always used to be normal to give your best songs away to any of these big acts. It used to be something where you play your own songs. But there’s been a pretty odd shift now, with influencers and stuff. I was at the airport recently, and a fan came up and asked for a picture, and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Then one of the staff asked me, ‘Are you an influencer?’ I was like, ‘No, I actually make things. I actually do things.’

It’s funny when you think about it. Ten years ago, kids wanted to be a singer or a rapper or a musician. Now, my next door neighbour’s eight-year-old kid wants to be a DJ or an influencer. It’s about being the centre of attention, not the creator of art anymore. 

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