“They dumped a bunch of art supplies on the table and said, ‘Go for it.’”
Over a decade after teachers at a local alternative high school opened a door for Albert Murrian with that simple gesture, he has in many ways dedicated his life to art and music. Most recently he recorded and released a new EP called “Artrock,” the first in a trilogy of EPs that will celebrate over a dozen of his favorite visual and sonic artists of the last century.
“Artrock” is a bouncy, ebullient and frenetic batch of psych-rock tunes, easily reminiscent of late Beatles or early Lennon solo work, although more contemporary touchstones could include bands like Phoenix, Spoon or some of Scott McMicken’s contributions in Dr. Dog. Murrian seems to have fun with the subject matter, interacting with the artists and their work as if they are acquaintances, colleagues or friends, throwing out a good-natured barb here, a compliment there. It’s conversational, empathetic and – strangely – ultimately personal music.
For the June 23 album release show at Modern Studio, Murrian assembled a band called the Common Creatures, featuring his former 1220 bandmate Alex Trammel on bass and local musicians Andrew Tinsley and Emily Force on drums and harmony vocals, respectively. Surveying the dynamic and makeup of the crowd, it very much looked and felt like a family affair. There was a lot of warmth and openness in the room, and the crowd was receptive and welcoming to what was the first live show for Murrian in a few years. It must have felt like a small triumph; after all, in some ways, Murrian describes quite the soul journey from that alternative high school art classroom to that stage.
Regular public high school hadn’t worked out so well for Murrian. Extremely bright, artistic and musical, as he describes it, he would become easily bored, agitated and emotionally sensitive to daily interactions with both peers and teachers. To compensate, he either would act out or self-medicate with substances. The only other option he had would be to branch out into a more adult world with his teenage rock band, 1220.
Finally, it was decided that Murrian would finish his education at a local alternative high school. The instructors there gave him the space and – as previously mentioned – the outlet, through art, for healing, expression and development that he needed.
Murrian’s trend towards seeking his own mentors and modes continued into his college years. Around college application season, 1220 was blowing up around Knoxville, playing all the college bars while the guys were still required to be at school in the mornings. They played rowdy garage rock and classic rock covers with lots of innuendo and almost choreographed movement, wearing their hair long and their denim tight. Murrian, the bassist, and his best friend from middle school, guitarist Trammel, didn’t like the direction the band was headed, even if, as he says, AC Entertainment and other large promoters were interested in taking them to the next level.
“I didn’t want to make it with those guys,” Murrian says. “We were really popular, but we just didn’t like that band.”
“Ultimately, Al and I decided to leave that project because we wanted to pursue more of our own material, but we really cut our teeth with that group,” Trammel further explains in a follow-up email.
Instead, Murrian and Trammel decided to go somewhere else for school to start over and to avoid any comparisons or expectations from their old band. They headed for the Southern indie-rock hub of Athens, Georgia. Trammel enrolled at the University of Georgia, while Murrian chose to study at the University of North Georgia.
“We didn’t want to go to Nashville because of the country thing, but we just had to get out of Knoxville because everyone associated us with 1220, which we didn’t want,” Murrian says.
Murrian laments that he was somewhat ambivalent about his offered courses, so he began a whirlwind of self-directed education on the side, voraciously reading novels, consuming music and getting extremely plugged into online forums related to different artistic and musical heroes of his like Yoko Ono and Lou Reed. He realized that artists are people, that he was an artist and that, through the internet, he could perhaps access the people he most admired, even if they were famous or across the world on tour. He began to ask Ono and Reed questions and to send them messages and even samples of his work, and he did so often. After a while, they began to respond. He says that he received advice that he’s treasured to this day.
“I learned more about art from watching [Ono] interact with me and others in that forum … than what I was learning in school,” Murrian says. “I don’t see much difference in asking Yoko Ono a question in a forum to asking someone else. I’m not shy. You have to be enough of an extrovert to get up there and spill your guts [on stage], even if you collapse afterwards … I’m not trying to just make connections; it’s about building relationships. I’ve been able to interact with not just famous people, but people from parts of the world I’ve never been.”
In Athens, Murrian and Trammel initially continued a band, The Transformers, which they had started with local everyman Matt Honkonen back in Knoxville. (“Artrock” trivia: Honkonen drummed on and engineered the EP, so the three say it was “produced by The Transformers”.) Eventually, to start fresh, the two re-branded as The Border Lions.
“It was a fun project in which we played many shows in and around the Athens, Georgia, area, but I never felt like the project really solidified into a unique vision,” Trammel says. “It was more of a pastiche of classic rock-influenced guitar, singer-songwriter leanings and pop vocal harmonies. We eventually disbanded as school, work and life pushed music into the background.”
As Murrian describes it, while Athens was a sort of live-music mecca, in some ways it was a dark and unlucky time for them musically and personally. He recounts a momentous week of major shows planned, when Trammel was hit by a car and couldn’t make music for months. “So that took some steam out,” he says.
Also around this time, Murrian describes a “nervous breakdown” he had, an extended manic episode related to his bi-polar disorder that culminated in some bizarre behavior around town and some unhealthy thoughts and feelings. This effectively ended that band and his tenure in Athens, making it necessary to move back home to Knoxville to get proper help and to reestablish a routine of stability and mental health before resuming work and music.
During this healing period, Murrian continued to interact with his heroes. He formed a relationship with Lou Reed’s longtime guitar tech after his hero’s death and says that he connected him with Ashley Capps, paving the way for the “Lou Reed’s Drones” installment to take place during last year’s edition of Big Ears. Murrian says he was able to go backstage and actually hold one of Reed’s guitars before the show. It was a seminal moment when he’d been feeling low and a reminder that he had done something special, still had special things to offer and shouldn’t give up on music.
Around this time, too, he’d been drawing a lot, diving back into visual art and reading a lot of work by art critic/essayist/novelist Siri Hustvedt, one of his favorites being “Mysteries of the Rectangle.” He was thinking about Lou Reed, who’d recently died, and Ono, his mentor and inspiration, and bands like the Talking Heads.
“Basically, all I listen to is ‘art rock,’” he says. So why not take it more literally, make some actual rock about art, write about artists he loves and make that the title of the EP?
Murrian says he didn’t want to make the first EP about fanfare, image, making money or anything other than just getting back together with Trammel and Honkonen, making a great record, forming a tight band and then seeing what would happen next.
Tinsley and Force, a couple who play in other local bands (disclaimer: Tinsley drums in this author’s band, Southern Cities) and who recently moved to the area, signed on after the EP was recorded, but they instantly responded to its style and message.
“Both of us have an appreciation for original music,” Tinsley says. ”And it’s really fun to see Albert’s music blend visual art/musical art together to create something so fun.”
“It’s very exciting to get back on stage,” Force adds.
Trammel glows about the addition of the two to the band. “Emily is a truly gifted singer, and I love the harmony we have developed,” he says. “It adds a whole new dimension to the sounds. Meanwhile, Andrew is a rock-solid drummer – one of the best I’ve played with. We are so lucky to have them both in one package. I look forward to seeing what they bring to the project as we develop new material with more of their input.”
“I wanted to make a record and make it available to as many people as I could,” Murrian says. The message? “You can get over these horrible things and still make art about it.”
The first EP covers artists like Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and of course Ono, and Murrian has plans to take on Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollack and even Frieda Kahlo. He frequently posts his own visual artwork on his Instagram account, and he interacts with his favorite artists and musicians’ profiles each day on Twitter. For Murrian, it seems that life, art and people are inextricably linked and that it’s just a matter of opening one’s self to it and getting to work on realizing the fruits of those connections.
“We’re just getting started,” he says.