Born in Italy and raised Catholic (he even almost became a priest), Freddie Murphy of Italian occult-psychedelic/noise duo Father Murphy has deeply rooted memories of the music he experienced in church. When he and his bandmate, Chiara Lee, were young, "we were going to Mass several times per week, and there were several moments during the year where you have to go for long processions," he says. "Usually, you keep on singing, and there's spare percussion, and at the end, you gather in the church and there's only one organ playing."
Those experiences, Murphy says, "stuck in our minds," even after they left the religion of their childhood. So when they sought the truest musical voice through which to express themselves and their disillusionment with religion, they drew from what Murphy calls "the natural construct." Sacred music is "the first music that we can think of that we can remember as kids, and so somehow that got through," Murphy says. "And it gets out when we try to express something that we feel a lot."
But Father Murphy's music is unlike anything you'd probably hear in an actual church. The duo's dense, mostly instrumental sound echoes elements of religious music, but those threads are woven through nightmarish layers of dissonant noise and droning, chant-like vocals. Created with a wide array of effects and custom-built instruments, their music is "like you have a choir where you have so many voices, but at the end, it hits you as one whole thing," Murphy says.
And at the center is the fictional character of Father Murphy, a priest whose story of suffering, heresy and enlightenment has been revealed one "chapter" at a time with the release of each of the band's albums. The priest Father Murphy's story began with his initiation into religion, as told in the band's self-titled 2003 album, and continues with him exploring the meaning of the symbol of the cross, as depicted in their just-released fifth full-length album, Croce ("cross" in Italian).
The legend of the priest Father Murphy, as the band explains on their website, is a "personal rewriting and abstraction of the Bible as a pretext to say something different." Similar to how Murphy and Lee are influenced by their religious musical experiences as they write their own music, they also draw from the many symbols and images of Christianity as they express the spirituality of the priest and, on a deeper level, their own approach to spirituality.
"We have a lot of issues with religion," Murphy says. "We find ourselves longing for religiousness, but we don't want to have anything to do with religion again. ... In order to express that, we go back to the religious imagery that we know, and we use it as parables in order to express something."
In the early days, Father Murphy started playing shows as something of a "Syd Barrett tribute band or an Os Mutantes tribute band," Murphy says. But a new "cathartic" direction for Father Murphy soon revealed itself. As the duo recorded and toured, "we noticed that we were losing the rock & roll side of it and getting more like a performance or a theatrical way of expressing something," Murphy says, "as if we needed to see ourselves from the outside, almost as actors in trying to act out our feelings."
During live performances, Murphy and Lee wish for the audience to experience those same visceral emotions. Murphy compares gathering with audience members at shows to priests gathering with churchgoers at Mass. "There's one point when there's no difference between the priests and the believers, and there's one thing that everyone is feeling," Murphy says. And at concerts, the goal is for "people to focus on what we do in order to get to the point where they feel what we are feeling."
Similarly, listeners should be able to identify with the many universal themes found on Croce as well. Told from the point of view of the archetypal character Father Murphy, Croce is the story of one priest's search for beatitude—blessedness or happiness—but it also seems to be the story of humankind as a whole. On Side A of the record, titled "Sacrificio," Father Murphy is alone and must find the strength to face pain and eventual crucifixion. But on Side B, "Beatitudine," Father Murphy hears the approach of an angelic army—signaled in the music by horns—and finds higher consciousness.
Although it sounds like an esoteric tale, the story of Croce is one that's been told throughout the ages. Whether you're searching for spiritual enlightenment or just trying to overcome a challenge, walking through the fire is often the first step.
"If you want to go up, you first have to go down," Murphy says. "In this way, we try to have this parable and this journey where you first go down inside yourself, and then you can go up and then be facing what you've got through dedication and through your hard work."