The Murlocs’ Ambrose Kenny-Smith on new album, Rapscallion: “I was having a lot of fun reminiscing about growing up skateboarding”

Original photo: Izzie Austin. Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

The Murlocs’ upcoming new album Rapscallion sees them forging into new territory with a playful mix of drama and effervescence as they give us a loosely conceptual coming-of-age story of searching, love, loss, independence and belonging. There’s effortlessly catchy garage-rock groovers that we’ve come to love from The Murlocs, along with detours into chaotic heavy moments and unabashedly cool drifts into fruitful synth work that will pleasantly surprise listeners. Rapscallion has shown the band humbly continue to hone their songwriting craft, the writing even more precise and confident than previous outings. It’s an exciting and inspiring album. Gimmie chatted with The Murlocs’ Ambrose Kenny-Smith about the record. 

What’s life been like lately for you?

AMBROSE: I’m good . I’ve been home for two weeks. We had that tour in Europe cancelled. I went to Budapest and hung out with friends for a week and then came home back to the winter. Budapest is pretty fun, I found a couple of cool dive bars, went to some baths and went skateboarding. It was good to decompress after the shattering news of tour being cancelled. It was nice to avoid the Melbourne winter for longer. It’s been really cold, I guess I’ve just been acclimatised to the Europe summer for so long now [laughs].

Last we chatted, was for your album Bittersweet Demons and at the time I thought that was my favourite Murlocs record, but now I’ve heard your new record, Rapscallion, and it’s become my favourite Murlocs album. Congratulations! It’s an incredible album! I feel it’s stretched you guys into new territory; what do you think?

A: Sick, thank you. For sure it’s stretched us, it’s probably the heaviest thing we’ve done so far. I’m so proud of it. It’s been the easiest to talk about in interviews too, cos I actually have enough to talk about for once, rather than cringing thinking about my anxieties and shit. It’s nice to have something more conceptual that has a storyline. The music side of things has all come from our guitarist, Callum Shortal. It’s been the most seamless record we’ve had. 

Do you find it easier when someone else does the music and you just have to worry about arranging, adding things and the lyrics?

A: Yeah, but I’ve never had to do too much, over the years it’s gotten less and less. For the first time, I didn’t have to arrange or do anything, he’s just nailed it. He knows how our songs work. He knows when I’m supposed to sing and all of this, that and the other. For a while there, he would send me one-minute demos and had not really finished them off, but waited ’til we got together in a room and we’d piece it together. Because we were in the first lockdown here in Melbourne, he took it all on, did it himself and would send me tunes frequently. 

We finished Bittersweet Demons and that was 70% my songs written on piano. Cook [Craig] gave songs. Tim [Karmouche] contributed two songs and[Matt]  Blachy contributed. At the end, it was more half and half with the other guys song-wise. I wanted to try and step back and contribute more to King Gizzard, so I encouraged the guys to write. I told them I wanted to go back to focusing on lyrics. Callum had one song on that album, it was cut from Manic Candid Episode the album before. All of a sudden he got into a rhythm and was on a roll and would send me songs once a week or so. Before we knew it we had the whole record. We only cut one.

He’d quickly send stuff to me while I was working on Gizzard stuff, and I could sequence the album musically and write the storyline. I got the flow of the music and then it was like, cool, now I can conceptualise what this is going to be. I wrote lyrics as I went. The songs came in pretty much in order they ended up. It was a good flow. 

I read that the concept was inspired by Corman McCarthy’s book Blood Meridian. Where you reading that at the time?

A: Yeah. It was one of the first books that I had actually finished in the last couple of years. I connected with it, started riffing off it and channelling past experiences from my youth. It’s a lot more of a light-hearted version. 

In that book the main character is a teenager called “The Kid” and the story is of his adventures, He’s kind of an anti-hero.

A: Yeah, totally. Ours is a similar concept, but not as gruesome as the book. It’s that coming-of-age, outcast, ugly duckling-figure that runs away from home story. He has an attitude of, fuck trying to find his feet. As the album goes along, each song is a step by step progression into him going through all of these life changing experiences.

I enjoyed listening to it unfold. The book you were inspired by is a Western novel and I noticed easter egg references throughout the album, lyrically and musically. In the first song ‘Subsidiary’ there’s the lyrics: I’m leaving this one horse town.

A: There’s a bit of an urban cowboy vibe! [laughs]. 

The second song ‘Bellarine Ballerina’ sees the character hitchhiking and crossing paths with truckers and transient folk. I love fiction narratives (in my day job I work as a book editor), I really got into the story you were telling. There’s so many cool lines on the album. There was one in song ‘Bobbing And Weaving’: Last train departing on the platform for the unloved. 

A: [Laughs]. Yeah. I’m glad you like that one. There’s a lot of sombre people getting the train sometimes. That song is about him dodging ticket inspectors and trying to find the ropes of living independently. 

I got a sense as well, that the character has always been a fighter.

A: Yeah, it’s totally about that, and about trying to find a second family, a group he can connect with. While I was writing it, I was having a lot of fun reminiscing about growing up skateboarding. I thought about all the friendships that I’ve gained from those experiences, travelling interstate or just being around the city and sleeping on whoever’s couch that I made friends with that day. It was derivative of that stuff, real experiences, but taken to a more extreme level. There were definitely people that I grew up with who had similar upbringings, and skateboarding was acceptance for us, any shape or form was welcomed. 

Photo: Izzie Austin.

As the story unfolds I found that there’s elements and a sense of danger, transience and free-wheeling, which is all stuff that ties in with being young and skateboarding; being nomadic, being spontaneous. I think all of that translated well and can be felt on the album.

A: Great!  It was a good coping mechanism to escape when I was locked down and couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t write diary entires or personal experience at the time because there wasn’t really much going on. It was nice to reminisce. 

Another line I loved was from ‘Compos Mentis’: Chubby rain soaking heavy like cinder blocks. That’s such strong imagery. 

A: Sweet. It’s self-explanatory, especially when you’ve got some real soggy socks [laughs]. 

[Laughter]. Each song is like a scene in a novel or film.

A: That was the name of the game.

In ‘Compos Mentis’ the character seems to be reflecting on his life.

A: Reflecting and trying to navigate what route he’s going to take next. He’s taking things day-by-day. That was my thought process for a lot of my life until all of a sudden, now I’m thirty. It’s all about taking things as it comes. 

Compos mentis means taking control of your mind, right?

A: Yeah, that part of the album has him by himself for a while and he starts to question if he has a sound mind and is cable of continuing on his journey [laughs].

In the beginning of his journey his parents don’t really understand him or even really just believe in him. Taking it back to the song ‘Living Under A Rock’ it’s like his life started a little sheltered but then the character realises that there’s this big world out there.

A: Totally! It’s that small town syndrome and not really been aware of stuff beyond his street and the shops down the road. He’s trying to escape and make it to the big smoke to see what’s happening [laughs]. 

That’s what you do when you’re a skateboarder living out in the suburbs, you head into the city to meet your friends and skate spots.

A: You hang around the streets and you meet different kinds of people, some your own age, but a lot of the time, people older. I was always surrounded by older people and was corrupted. My character was built quickly, early on. I was streetwise from a young age. All those elements were thrown in there. 

Then in song ‘Farewell to Clemency’ he gets into a fight and there’s the great line: Toxic masculinity is dead. That was a powerful lyric.

A: That’s just him trying to crush that whole scenario. I feel it’s a good way to stamp that song at the end [laughs]. 

As the story continues there’s song ‘Royal Vagabond’. I feel like that song is about survival.

A: Totally. When I was listening to it when I would skate back and forth to the studio, I felt like in that song, he felt like he was on the up and he’s found a family that he can call home with a leader that’s larger than life; someone who can direct him and give him some words of wisdom. He can help steer him in a direction where he finally starts to feel confident within himself. It’s about him finding a gang under a bridge, they’re hanging around fires and shooting the shit. He finally feels like he’s become a part of something. 

‘Virgin Criminal’ is next and it reflects that he’s new to crime, but then  in the following song his life takes a little turn in ‘Bowlegged Beautiful’ and he falls in love with Peg.

A: Yeah! [laughs]. Peg is a member of the gang but doing her own thing as well. When I heard that bass line, I thought of someone strutting down the street in the city towards him and he’s fixated on this person that’s coming into his life. He’s overwhelmed and all he wants is this one person. 

It totally captures that feeling.

A: She’s the love of his life.

Yeah. ’Wickr Man’ sees them both go dumpster diving and they have a violent itch in common, like when they kick the rats. Then they’re waiting around for the guy up stairs so they can get drugs. 

A: It’s a ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ Velvet Underground rip. Each song is a new experience. He’s met this girl that’s in to dabbling in drugs. She teaches him a lot of things quickly and he grows up fast. By the end of that, it falls into tragedy with ‘The Ballad of Peggy Mae’.

You broke my heart with that song! I was so sad listening to it. I wanted them to win.

A: She didn’t last for long [laughs]. 

Like three songs! When she ODs you get a sense from both the music and lyrics that the protagonist feels guilty and grief-stricken. 

A: I’ve had friends OD before on the street, so it’s channelling that vibe. It’s a very broad daylight and in your face that song. That’s why I put the city sounds at the start of it. I wanted it to sound chaotic. I couldn’t imagine the song without it having a sad narrative. I even tear up a bit when I listen to that one too [laughs].

Awww. Well, that is the reality of that life, these things totally happen. You mentioned that you’ve experienced friends OD-ing. It’s a hard thing to see. Do you find it’s easier to write about these kinds of things in a fictional narrative?

A: Yeah, you can let your guard down and dive into it being something else and put a different light on it.

Last song is ‘Growing Pains’ which has another line I really dig: Highlander with a harrowing track record. Growing up in the 80s and 90s I grew up watching the original Highlander movies. I used to watch them with my mum.

A: [Laughs]. He’s already thinks he’s seen it all by this point now. He’s experienced a lot. He’s had a fast-paced life, and now he’s just trying to keep his chin up. He rides off into the sunset and the horizon is an open book! [laughs]. 

Do you think there could have been another song after the last one? Where might he have gone?

A: Nah, I think ‘Growing Pains’ was a pretty good way to wrap it up. You can picture him walking off down the highway to go hitchhike and start again. There wasn’t anywhere to go from there. It’s a perfect closer song. 

Agreed. It’s pretty cool how you initially just started listening to the musical tracks Callum sent and then you just started imagining everything.

A: I’m lucky because Cal can write such great, gritty, garage-y songs that work will with my tone of voice and the themes I go for. In the past he’s written more poppy song, but it still has a bit of grunt to it, which I really like, and that’s because quite a theme to our music. It was great to have it set out. It had a great flow and I could just tell what would happen. The last three or four songs he goes very extreme. Then there’s a nice little trot along to the finish. 

The garage-y elements of Murlocs that we love are still present on Rapscallion but then it goes into a more post-punk kind of territory. There’s lots of cool noise and synths on this record. 

A: We got synth heavy at times, that was to add textures throughout for once instead of being straight. I’m still wondering how we’re going to pull off some of those noises live, because there’s overlapping things going on. We’ll find a way to work it out and make some things squeal [laughs]. There’s definitely a lot of layers, but then some parts there’s not much at all. There’s a couple of moments in songs where there’s lots going on. It was so fun! We were messing around with a Behringer Poly D synthesiser. Tim bought one as well, so we can play with that live. It made it go down more of a post-punk prog way. 

It was recorded at your houses, sending songs back and forth?

A: In hindsight, it’s a record that I wish we would have recorded the beds together in the same room. As it went along, Blachy got better at recording his drums. Ultimately, when we gave it to Mikey Young to start mixing, he nailed it. Each track took him one or maybe two goes.

Cal was listening to a lot of Eddy Current [Suppression ring] as he always does. He was listening to Country Teasers. There’s even elements of Pixies on there. I even hear Neil Young. He listens to a lot of Doom metal as well; he was in metal bands before we started the Murlocs, so he’s always had a darker shade of things going on than the rest of us. It was great because I got to take myself out of my usual shoes and write from another perspective.

On song ‘Wickr Man’ there’s a spoken verse.

A: Yeah. In ‘Bowlegged Beautiful’ and ‘Wickr Man’ I do my tryhard breath-y Tom Waits voice [laughs]. The first time I started realising it could be something was when I did the King Gizzard ‘Straws In The Wind’ song, I sing it differently live. But with those songs it just felt like those parts needed to be more spoken word and less sing-y. They didn’t need any melody because they already had this badass feeling to it. I wanted to riff on some things rather than always just sing a tune. 

It took me a few listens to realise it was you doing that part, I was like, ‘Is that someone else?’ 

A: [Laughs} These bits do kind of sound like some husky dude that’s been sitting at the end of the bar for too long. The voice suited those tracks.

How did you come up with the title, Rapscallion?

A: [Laughs]. Well, we always name our album titles after songs. It’s hard to go out on a limb and name an album something completely random that just sounds cool or makes sense for the whole thing. This time, because it was more conceptual, it didn’t make sense just to name it after a track. 

I was visiting my dad, we were talking about the storyline of the album and that I wanted some kind of word for this feral kid protagonist, that didn’t have a name throughout the album. He said, “What about rapscallion?” There was another one like “curmudgeon” and a few other words that came up. He said “rapscallion” first. I thought it sounded a bit Pirates Of The Caribbean [laughs]. I think it fits perfect though. I think some of the guys were a bit [talks in a comedic voice]  “Rapscallion!” kind of in a Monty Python-type voice! It makes sense now, so I’m glad we stuck with it. 

It’s a memorable, fun word to say. 

A: Yeah. It has been used a whole bunch, Cal sent me a scene from The Simpsons the other day where someone says it [laughs]. 

The album art is by Travis MacDonald; was it made specifically for the album or was it an existing piece?

A: It was an existing piece, someone in Sydney owns the original painting. We’d been friends for a bit, and I was looking at a bunch of Travis’ paintings and I thought they would suit the vibe of a classic rock, 70s-sounding record that we were going for. I wanted to have a n album cover that could work without titles for once. I just wanted to make a statement that was timeless. I had a bunch of references of paintings I grew up with and a few other things, I set him some drawings and he started to sketch up what it was going to be and was going to commission me for that. But, I just kept going back to that painting we ended up using. I was already too hung up on it. It was perfect, that’s just Rapscallion, right there. 

Album art: Travis MacDonald.

The figure in the painting does look like a street tough. 

A: Yeah, someone said the other day that it looks like the cover of a novel that is a coming-of-age story, which I agree with. The original painting was called, Graceland. He said it was of a random weirdo-lurker out the front of Graceland. The way it’s come out with the street light lamppost and all of the colours and textures, it fits it perfectly. I didn’t want it looking all dark and gloomy, I think the painting is a good happy medium. 

After having listened to the album a lot and been immersed in the Rapscallion  world, I can imagine that when you came across that painting you would have thought, ‘That’s it!’ I know the feeling because sometimes with Gimmie we’ll come across something we love when making it, but then we’ll try other things and more often than not we end up coming back to what we first were drawn to.

A: Yeah, when you do art and creative things, even like writing songs, when you make demos, often you end up just going back to the original of what it was before it got too out of hand. I didn’t want to go down that road where I was just going to do a 180 and go back to the beginning anyway, so we stuck with it [laughs]. 

Is there a specific moment on the album that you really, really love and think is super cool?

A: There’s lots of different sections, they all have their moments really. I listen to softer music generally rather than heavier stuff, so I’ve probably listen to ‘The Ballad Of Peggy Mae’ the most more recently than the other songs. In ‘Growing Pains’ there’s some parts in there too. I like how the album starts and finishes with synth intros to album opener ‘Subsidiary’ and closer ‘Growing Pains’. 

We’ve finally learned to play ‘Bellarine Ballerina’ live and ‘Living Under A Rock’. I definitely have a lot of fun playing those two songs. ‘Bellarine Ballerina’ is a good one, it’s nice to have some more uptempo songs. We did ‘Subsidiary’ once at a gig, but I feel like it’s not quite there yet.

What have you been listening to lately in general?

A: Not a whole bunch really, that’s probably way I’m so understimulated. 

Is that because you’ve been so busy?

A: Yeah, I feel like I’m always too over my own head in shit that’s going on whether it’s with Gizzard or Murlocs. I feel like I’m always trying to keep up with things. I listened to the new Chats record [Get Fucked] this morning. R.M.F.C. is great, so is that new The Frowning Clouds [Gospel Sounds & More from the Church of Scientology] record on Anti Fade. Listening to that takes me back to being a teenager and hanging out with this guys and going to those gigs.

That was a great record. We’ve heard some of the new R.M.F.C. full-length that’s in the works, it’s sounding incredible. 

A: Sick! They’re great. 

There’s also a new Gee Tee album in the works that rules too!

A: Cool! I haven’t seen them play live yet but I’ve heard stuff and I’ve seen video snippets online and they’re sick!

Totally! What’s the rest of the year look like for you?

A: I’ve got four or five weeks rehearsing with The Murlocs, we’re going to start to learn this album on Wednesday. We’re going to do a test run of those songs at a show here in Melbourne, so we can get more confident with that. We’re going to rehearse a couple of nights a week forth month, but then I go to the States with King Gizzard for all of October, then the three Murlocs will come over and meet us towards the end of the tour and we’ll do three shows supporting Gizzard. At that point we wanted have played together for a month. I’m getting a bit nervous about that, rocking up to Levitation and Red Rocks hoping that our muscle memory will be enough to go off. Then Murlocs do the US in November. Then I’ll come home for December and we might do a Gizzard Melbourne show. That’s about it!

That’s all! Phew, that seems like a lot to me. 

A: [Laughs]. It is a lot, I’m just trying to play it down in my head, so I don’t stress too hard.

[Laughter]. Do you enjoy rehearsals? Is that fun for you?

A: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it and how we’re going to be doing these new Murlocs songs. It’ll all come together. I haven’t played much guitar in a while. I’m going to have to play guitar pin a few of the newer ones, that’ll be a bit wonky [laughs]. I’m looking forward to just hanging out with the guys, we don’t get to hang out as much as we’d like. 

Do you have anything else other than music stuff happening?

A: I’ve been skateboarding a little. I had that week in Budapest skating with friends. I skated a few times since I’ve been home. It’s the classic I’m-starting-to-get-my-groove-back thing and I fell over on my wrist a few times and hurt it, so I have to stop again. I was getting too excited! [laughs]. I can’t risk hurting my hands or arms. When you don’t do it for a while, you forget how to fall. 

Do you still get the same feeling now that you had when you were younger skateboarding?

A: Yeah, totally. It’s really good for my mental health or for anyones. You get a nice release, a feeling of freedom. You’re out and about and you catch up with old friends. You get back on your feet and it’s a nice feeling—that feeling you get when you land something after trying for a while. It’s a nice rush of adrenalin. 

There is plenty in the pipeline. With Gizzard there’s always stuff, and we have another Murlocs record that’s done as well. I’m just trying to figure out the art for it now and trying to talk everyone into doing video clips, but everyone tells me to “chill out!” [laughs]. That’s all well and good, but I’m never home enough and I like to do things well in advance so I’m not scrambling to do things at the last minute. 

Totally! As this album is loosely a concept album with a narrative, is the next album different to that?

A: Yeah, the next one is less strings attached. It’s still a while off ’til it will be released, but I’m really pumped on this next release! Somehow we’ve maybe topped Rapscallion! It’s more poppy. I’m starting to think of the plan of attack for that one. Things seem to only be getting better and better. As we all get older we’re getting better and better at writing songs. It’s all good. 

Rapscallion is out September 16 –  pre-order HERE. Follow @themurlocs + The Murlocs on Facebook. Murlocs’ Bandcamp.

**Another in-depth chat with Ambrose can be found in the our print zine – Gimmie issue 3.**

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