Invercargill is a small-ass conservative and somewhat dreary town at the very bottom end of New Zealand, which Keith Richards famously dubbed the ‘arsehole of the world’. This, plus the crazy antics of its long-serving major, and having been the home of motorcycle legend Burt Munro, were Invercargill’s only claims to fame – that is, until it gave birth, kicking and screaming, to Murgatroyd in 2015.
Vocalist Matt Hoffman states that he and guitarist Jordan Cossill became the ‘two-headed maelstrom’ that is Murgatroyd ‘on a lark’ after the two had already been in a band called Carcosa together. Since then, they have played dozens of shows all over New Zealand and a handful in Australia, released two EPs and won an award for best local band – no small feat, especially considering their unusual and occasionally jarring music and live shows. Murgatroyd’s sound is hard to describe – even describing Hoffman as a ‘vocalist’ feels like an understatement; he’s more of a vocal manipulator, using an effects unit to alter and pervert the sound of his voice. Cossill’s guitar tone ranges from shimmeringly delicate and aqueous to doom-worshipping fuzz badassery. Their songs go from ambient and creepy to almost Dillinger Escape Plan-esque chaotic noise, where Cossill’s guitar shrieks in agony almost as literally as Hoffman into the microphone. A unique sound, not least because the backbone of everything is a drum machine. Murgatroyd explain:
‘Our relatively minimal setup has become the key to how Murgatroyd works – our only sounds are guitar, vocals, and drum machine. There’s only two of us, and there will never be a third member. If you don’t have a wide palette to choose from, you have to make actual decisions, you can’t fuck around. And you have to try to work around the restrictions you’ve set for yourself.’
Their most recent release, an EP titled SHARPS!, was recorded over the course of 2018. From beginning to end, it’s unnerving and twisted. Even its cover is strange – a photo of a barren wasteland, the colours manipulated into pseudo sci-fi tones of orange and purple – and it only gets weirder from here. The EP kicks off with two new songs, both a radio-friendly length of under four minutes, but certainly not radio friendly in their content.
The opening to SHARPS! comes in the shape of “Dead Bigot”, a nightmarish quasi-waltz which begins, in a very no-nonsense fashion, with Hoffman yelling ‘another dead bigot!’. The rest of the track is similarly straight-to-the-point – some sludgy riffs, fuzzy guitar tones, the simplistic, but well-used drum machine, and the lyrics surprisingly easy to make out despite being screamed (‘another dead bigot/you won’t be missed’). The whole song seems to stagger forward like something undead, the emphasis on the first beat of each bar driving it yet simultaneously dragging. It’s kind of like having to walk home after a hefty night of drinking, inebriated and barely awake, and having to put conscious energy into putting one foot in front of the other without falling. After just under three minutes, the song ends somewhat abruptly with a brief chant that reminds me, strangely, of “Uprising” by Muse. Not a comparison I thought I’d ever draw.
The title track is much more upbeat in some ways, almost hardcore punk in attitude. Hoffman’s distorted vocals over Cossill’s delightfully fuzzy riffs and pulsating drum machine sound almost like something out of a dark video game, and make me want to run around the town like a crazed animal and wreak havoc. Relief from this maniacal feeling comes in the form of Hoffman singing a melodic line, layering a subtle harmony on top. The backing vocals become ever more disjointed from the melody throughout the course of the first few minutes, the song disintegrating to crepitating guitars, interjected with stabs of snare, aggressive chords, and Hoffman’s words: ‘all good boys go to heaven’. The guitar layers fall apart, one heaving out of time, detuning as though it’s suffocating, one simply scurrying around in the background. All sound cuts out, leaving room only for a gentle guitar hum and my own heartbeat in my ears, before a scream and an uncomfortable guitar bend lead back into a verse. The song ends with a sort of breakdown, with Hoffman layering a chant-like vocal melody over pulses of snare and guitar.
The performance of the music is integral to Murgatroyd’s sound – having seen them live before I heard them recorded, I was initially skeptical as to whether their energy would translate in the studio. I can assure you, it does, but not in the same way. The minimal sound certainly still remains, and Murgatroyd explain: ‘We really had to restrain ourselves from going mad with all the gear [the studio] have on offer and keep to our code of dirtbag minimalism’. Hoffman states that he was ‘hog-tied and gagged for the recording of the background vocals. Just to see what it would do to the performance’. SHARPS! also features two tracks initially released on their self-titled debut EP, recorded again for SHARPS! in a living room in Invercargill to capture some of Murgatroyd’s live energy.
The first time I saw Murgatroyd live, I had just left the safety of my parents’ home and moved to Invercargill for study. I was recently 18, and while I’d been to my fair share of reasonably brvtal metal shows, I was still not at all prepared for what I witnessed on that night. Murgatroyd’s sound is hard enough to describe – a twisted combination of industrial, sludge and noise (sludgedustrinoise? I’m not even going to pretend that I’m proud of that) – but their live shows are damn near impossible. Let me attempt to put you in the picture.
It’s a Saturday night, you’re at a small local club, a rowdy establishment with sticky floors and overpriced shots. Half the people in the room seem to know the band playing tonight, the other half are already far too drunk and just trying to get laid. Two guys are busy moving stuff around the stage at the front of the room, and it seems like they might take a while.
You decide to grab a drink, and all of a sudden there’s a blast of fuzz guitar through the PA, startling you to attention. You look at Cossill and see him pacing the stage, forcefully, almost mechanically, then you notice Hoffman seemingly attempting to eat the microphone, and suddenly Cossill has left the stage and is charging right at you, holding his guitar in front of him like a lance, you step out of the way just in time and see Hoffman grab a drink out of an unsuspecting audience member’s hand and pour it all over his own head, and then he’s convulsing on the ground, wrapping his microphone cable around his throat, and Cossill is back on the stage, kneeling in front of his pedal board turning every possible knob up to full to sonically reflect the chaos you see unfolding in front of your very eyes. The rest of the audience seems divided – some are obviously enjoying the insanity, some seem dumbfounded and confused, but the majority are just…standing there. Hoffman elaborates on the lack of human interaction:
‘Most human interaction nowadays is heavily bureaucratised and transactional. I mean, interacting with people on social media, where 90% of human interaction occurs nowadays, is basically just filling out forms. When we play, we like to create a space where we can break through that distance a little bit and maybe shake people into having a real experience. Whether it’s just watching us lose it onstage or whether it’s me screaming in someone’s face, we try to make something human happen.’
And something very human does happen. I witnessed a Murgatroyd gig once where Hoffman, wide-eyed and feral, was screaming in an audience member’s face in this way, and the guy was screaming back. The two of them ended up grabbing each other by the backs of their heads and locking foreheads, momentarily becoming one big hairy, sweaty, screaming creature. There’s something so visceral about the act of screaming, and at a Murgatroyd gig, you can just do that. Feeling is encouraged, participating is encouraged, going crazy just for a few moments is allowed. Murgatroyd agree: ‘we definitely like to bring a lot of intensity to our live show. Part of it is just because it’s fun to cut completely loose, but you’ve definitely got to strike the right tone – we don’t want to come off as some cheap Marilyn Manson shock rock bullshit’.
So what about the future of Murgatroyd? Hoffman recently moved to New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, for work, leaving the band in a slightly difficult situation. He says they are ‘figuring out the whole long-distance thing’ and that they are ‘in this for the long haul. We’re under no illusions about the state of the music industry for bands of our stripe. It’s a grind. We want to build our audience through hard work, on our terms.’
Matt Hoffman – vocals, drum machine
Jordan Cossill – guitars
Being in a not always immediately palatable band in a town that’s conservative and doesn’t actively encourage alternative original music most of the time is tough. Bands like Murgatroyd, who keep at it, even though half the audience doesn’t get it, deserve our support. To do this, you can find them on Facebook, Bandcamp and Instagram.