Sunday, February 14, 2010


In any other realm, any other area of expertise, Ben Murray might be considered a prodigy.

As a snowboarder or skier, he might be a winter Olympian by now, slathered with the logos of his sponsors and speeding down a whitewashed hill. In the realm of writing, Murray could have published his second novel by now—a post-9/11 Paolini or Hinton—and comfortable at his position as a college professor. As a basketball player, he may have been one of those high school students courted by the NBA before his senior year, signing endorsement deals and dating superstars.

But he’s a musician, and not a pianist or principal violinist in some snooty city orchestra. “I grew up on punk and, when I was in ten years old, started playing guitar to punk songs,” he explains. “It’s been my favorite kind of music since I’ve been into music.” For that reason, his band Heartsounds plays fast, focused punk-rock. Murray, with his friend Laura Nichol, performed all the instruments on the band’s debut Until We Surrender, a record that gallops with youthful energy.

Murray and Nichol started playing music together in a death metal band called Light This City when he was only fourteen years old. “We got more heavily into metal when we were teenagers,” Murray explains, “and decided we wanted to start a band like that. Light This City signed to Prosthetic Records when I was sixteen and toured in the summer every chance we got when we were all in high school. Once we got out in 2006, we toured full time for about two years.”

Light This City released four total albums and toured the US fifteen times, but life on the road made Murray reconsider his path as a drummer in a death metal band, a musical style that he found frustrating and, ultimately, limiting. “It just got to the point where it wasn’t as fun as it used to be,” he continues, “It was becoming a routine and we were losing some of the passion. So we said, ‘Fuck it, we put out four good records. Let’s do something else.’” In 2008, he and Nichol decided to disband Light This City.

Though Murray planned to pursue a degree at UC Berkeley, it didn’t take long for him to miss music. “Being home from tour that first month or so was incredibly depressing,” he remembers. “Even though I was confident that Laura and I made the right decision, it was hard getting used to being alone most of the week and not being surrounded by friends.” Instead of sulking, though, Murray picked up his guitar and wrote music.

Being bred on punk-rock, he started strumming faster songs that were more melodic than the metal he was writing with Light This City. But, in the midst of this songwriting process, Murray was suddenly struck with a startling reality. “Shortly after I got home from the last tour we did with Light This City,” he shares, “my dad was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer. That sort flipped my life upside down.”

While facing this situation, Murray wrote the song “10,000”. The way the guitars stack eerily on each other during the chorus while Murray wails with a gloomy legato (instead of spitting out his lyrics) forces the listener feel the sadness within this thick, midtempo track. Lyrically, Murray confronts the struggle of “what’s next” alongside the thought of losing someone who has supported him for so long. During a post-bridge breakdown, he seems to come to some sort of conclusion when he sings, “I don’t know what exists after this / but I refuse to accept that this is it”, after which the song feels fuller, less dizzying and disorienting.

“That song is directly about my dad’s struggle with cancer,” Murray admits. “It’s kind of a letter to him, about the fear never seeing him again after he dies. I’m not religious at all and I don’t believe in an afterlife, so ’10,000’ is also about the struggle of having to admit this might be it.”

But this isn’t the only struggle that affected Murray while he wrote songs for Heartsounds. “The last couple years with Light This City,” he explains, “I suffered from intense anxiety. The title track, ‘Until We Surrender’, is about the feeling of hopelessness and being beaten down repeatedly.”

“Until We Surrender” seems like a typical Heartsounds track. A second listen, though, reveals that the bouncy beat and fizzy, rhythm-focused guitars are driven by a nervous energy. And, though many songs on Heartsounds’ debut feature dual vocals, there’s an actual duality on this title track that’s emphasized when Murray and Nichol share vocal duties. Murray’s singing, for example, feels like it’s responding to Nichol’s; they seem to talk each other into (or out of) staying in bed and hiding from the hopelessness presented by society.

“It’s a pretty personal, important song me about how I got addicted to sleep and felt like I didn’t want to wake up,” Murray explains, “That’s what the clock and the planets on the cover of the record signifies—wanting to be in this dreamland away from actual reality, being asleep and numb to it instead of awake in the real world.”

“But,” he concludes, “the hardest times, the most emotional points in one’s life, always breeds the best music.”

Thus, this project’s moniker—Heartsounds—seems pretty appropriate. And, considering where these songs came from, it’s clear that Until We Surrender is a record constructed by necessity. These were songs that Murray needed to write. Since this desperate creation, though, Heartsounds has evolved into something larger than these twelve cathartic songs. Though Murray is convinced that, at least in the studio, Heartsounds will continue as a two-piece, the band has been performing as a full, four-piece band; drum and bass duties are fulfilled by members of Commadre.

Still, this twenty-one year old veteran has learned from his experience as a musician. “I’ve learned from my mistakes, and so has Laura,” Murray states. “We’re never going to do Heartsounds like we did Light This City; we’re not going to be in a van ten months a year burning ourselves out. We want to keep Heartsounds truly about the music—not about the politics, the image, or selling records. If opportunities come out way, we’ll take them on, but, in the meantime, all we want to do is put out good records.”

Murray and Nichol recorded these songs twice for The Switchboard Sessions. The first time was in late January and the quality of the recording was subpar, possibly because it was recorded using an iPhone. The quality of second session, which was recorded with a landline phone on a Saturday afternoon in February, was significantly better.

"Until We Surrender" is the title track on Heartsounds' 2009 debut. "The Sound of Silence" is a Simon and Garfunkel cover; the song originally appeared on the 1964 record
Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.

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Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.