High & Mighty
Dublin group The Mighty Stef have made hard sacrifices to stay in the music game. But a new album out next year could reward the graft.
'There is only one way a band can function, and that's on the bloody stage," Robert Plant once said.
Upstairs in Whelan's on Dublin's Camden Street, a band of four musical brothers are playing like they know what that really means. The singer's deep baritone voice booms deep and long like a tunnel. The other musicians play like rock'n'roll is a drug working its way through their bodies causing them to spasm and kick out their limbs in time to the rhythm.
The band on stage are The Mighty Stef and they're playing their second of a three-show residency in the revered venue. Stefan Murphy is the owner of that booming voice and he's been playing as The Mighty Stef since 2006. There may be three albums in The Mighty Stef discography, but the title is a bit of a misnomer these days.
The Mighty Stef are more and mightier than just one man. They've been a fully-fledged band with the four members for the last few years: Stef on vocals and guitar, Gary Lonergan on bass, Brian Farrell on drums and Daniel Fitzpatrick on guitar and keyboards.
In person, Stef will tell you what most musicians won't. That being in a rock'n'roll band is a lot of hard graft. "It's a serious slog most of the time," he tells Day & Night when we meet him in a Dublin pub the night before the second gig in the residency.
"I'm probably qualified to do one or two other things," explains Stef. "I don't know what those things are, but I don't enjoy anything as much as I enjoy this. We do it because we love it more than anything else."
Another thing that Stef will tell you that maybe others won't, and something that's not often considered, is that pursuing the rock'n'roll dream can be tough on family life. Stef has an understanding partner in Leyla who he calls his biggest supporter.
She knew what she was getting into when they met as Stef was "at the foothills of trying to make this happen," and while there are ups and downs, Leyla "was understanding that if this took off that there would be some personal sacrifice."
The couple now have a two-year-old daughter called Olive which Stef says "makes it much harder when we go on tour". But the lack of a nine to five lifestyle has its positives.
"Before she went to Montessori school, I got to spend every day with her, more hours than most dads if they were working full-time and I feel very privileged for that," beams Stef.
Despite having spent the last few years touring in the US and Europe supporting Flogging Molly and building fanbases in places like Norway and Germany, the band have made enough to sustain a modest living. Despite that, the band are more excited than they've ever been. That's because things have been getting serious for the last couple of years for The Mighty Stef.
The "big heavy-hitting" Belfast-born booking agent Steve Strange recently took the band on as a manager. They released a stopgap EP last month called the Iveagh Flats and there's an album recorded in LA with producer Alain Johannes (known for his work with Queens Of The Stone Age) waiting to be released in 2014.
These industry machinations have given the band more of a focus.
"When we realised that The Mighty Stef wasn't some yahoo with a guitar always up for a bit of craic who would take out the acoustic and play songs anywhere and everywhere, we became more considerate," Stef says.
It wasn't an easy thing to do for the man who defines himself daily with his association with music.
"I'm so addicted to music that I sometimes forget you have to hold off a little bit," he elaborates. As painful as it is, you've got to step back to get the credibility."
The recording of the album in LA was a game changer for the band, not least because it's where they met Steve Strange for the first time.
After keeping the new songs between themselves and Johannes for so long, Strange came into the studio. He was one of the first to hear the new tracks and he jumped on board straight away.
Johannes turned to the band after Strange left the studio and said: "Isn't it a great feeling to know that you're not insane in thinking something is good?".
Johannes' caring nature during the recording process extended to making sure the band got fed a decent meal. "We were like a bunch of Carlow DIT students trying to scrimp together a bit of grub," laughs Stef. "He took pity on us and brought us to a nice sushi restaurant on his own money. He knew we were broke and that we had invested everything we had to be there."
That investment sounds like it paid off if the new songs aired in Whelan's are anything to go by. One song, Ceremony, is amongst the band's best work and certainly has an air of Queens Of The Stone Age-style atmospherics about it, while Everybody Needs A Grave is anthemic in execution.
"Our heart and soul has really gone into the music for the first time ever," Stef says.
Some of the other songs in the setlist were chosen in advance by fans and the band play the underrated Down At The Radiotron, Liars and Downtown with a renewed vigour. A highlight of the set is the Iveagh Flats EP closer, The Hardship, an eight-minute comedown track which addresses daily struggles and has shades of Spiritualized and Primal Scream. The band belong on a stage.
"The belief I have is if we can keep the team spirit in us that we have at the moment," Stef pauses. "If we can keep that and get some justification by being a bit more comfortable, we will thrive on that and push things forward."
The Mighty Stef play Whelan's on Thursday December 5 and Bourke's Bar in Limerick on December 11.