Interview by Barry Egan
‘When the word ‘nostalgia’ was coined in the 18th Century,” wrote author Nicole Krauss, “it was used to describe not so much a sense of lost time, but a severe homesickness.”
With Norn Ireland legends The Four of Us, it is possibly a homesickness for a place that stopped existing as they imagined it long ago.
I remember the toy shop being blown up when I was about nine
Sitting in the Ringsend studios, having just recorded the Windmill Lane Sessions for Independent.ie, Brendan and Declan Murphy — the brothers at the heart of The Four of Us — are recalling their past.
“It’s only when you get older, when you start leaving Newry, start leaving Northern Ireland, that you realise it wasn’t normal,” says Brendan. “That sounds naive, but we grew up with the Troubles as a backdrop to our lives. It was just annoying. That was the weird thing about it. I remember the toy shop being blown up when I was about nine.”
“There were checkpoints, which were really annoying. That was the mundane day-to-day of living through the Troubles,” adds Declan, Brendan’s younger sibling.
I ask them about the psychological effect of all this.
Brendan says he can remember going to New York in the late 80s — “now this was dodgy New York, with dodgy characters doing drug deals” — with people who weren’t from Northern Ireland. “People were afraid in New York, but it didn’t take a fidge out of us because as kids we were used to seeing the army with guns,” he says.
“I remember I went out in a girl from the South,” he continues. “We were driving along a main road in Belfast and a soldier in pointed a rifle at our car. She was freaking out. It didn’t bother me. I told her: ‘Don’t worry about it’. We were used to it.
“But then, when we left Northern Ireland and came back, it did seem a bit weird — and it has seemed a bit weird ever since.”
Their band The Four of Us — who formed in 1987 and released their debut album Songs for the Tempted two years later — have just released a new autobiographical album, Sugar Island. Looking back to when it all started, Brendan says, “We thought we were Talking Heads.
“Music was an escape for us. I liked stuff that wasn’t talking about anything like that,” he says meaning the so-called Troubles. “I preferred The Police to Stiff Little Fingers. I liked the glam to it. It wasn’t my experience and the songs were better — and the singer was better. I liked Roxy Music. I liked going to clubs.”
How autobiographical is the timeless Mary — their most enduring song from 1989?
“Very. We lived halfway up a hill,” explains Brendan. “The boys’ school was just below us and the girls’ school was lower again. I used to watch the girls’ school and I would wait for this girl to walk up the hill. I was just crazy about her. She was a year older than me.
“My way to get her to notice me was to basically ignore her — and yes, I’ve changed my technique since — I was stalking her. But she was going out with a DJ with a beard, so I invented this abusive relationship in the song.”
To console yourself?
“Exactly!” laughs Brendan. “I never talked to her. At this point, I’ve told this story so many times that she probably knows, that that is the guy. But it’s not a big regret because I got a hell of a song out of it.”
Does Brendan find a song like Simple Minds’ Belfast Child offensive in its oversimplification of a complex thing?
“I loved early Simple Minds. New Gold Dream sounded great. The more specific Jim Kerr got, then it was... you know? Belfast Child, I sort of get it. Maybe he had friends from Northern Ireland. But if you lived there, you’d get annoyed at anyone who was trying it to tie it up, because everyone was trying to tie it up — and no one could.”
Windmill Lane Sessions: The creative wisdom of the Young Folk