Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a multi-part series this week previewing the Audiotree Music Festival and profiling artists from the lineup.
The Grand Rapids nostalgic rock trio will conquer the crowd Sunday with a 12:50 p.m. set on the main stage at the two-day festival in Arcadia Creek Festival Place. Major Murphy will join nearly 30 other acts, including Father John Misty, Local Natives, Real Estate, Diet Cig and Blitzen Trapper.
They’re one of five West Michigan-based artists featured in the Audiotree Music Festival lineup along with Michigander, Lushh, Jake Simmons & The Little Ghosts and Moss Jaw.
Founded in 2013, the Chicago-based, Michigan-born Audiotree Music Festival celebrates new and emerging artists and is curated by the popular web music series Audiotree Live.
Major Murphy’s Jacob Bullard (vocals, guitar), Jacki Warren (vocals, bass) and Brian “Bud” Voortman (drums) will share their 1970s-inspired radio rock with Audiotree festivalgoers during a much-anticipated set.
They’ll be performing laid-back, catchy songs from their full-length debut album, “No. 1,” which dropped in March on Winspear. Those new to Major Murphy will hear jangly guitars, shimmering riffs, synth-sheened grooves and dreamy, commanding vocals.
“When we perform as a trio, there is a more immediate sound and energy that I think we all enjoy. It boils down and reveals the really important parts of the songs,” Bullard said. “When you’re in a festival setting, there’s generally a big stage with a big PA so you can push the crowd a little bit, and it’s super fun. Live music is powerful, and it’s important to let loose sometimes.”
Recording ‘No. 1’
Major Murphy let loose while recording the 10 nostalgic rock tracks for “No. 1” at Russian Recording in Bloomington, Ind., in 2017. Inspired by The Beatles, Paul McCartney and Wings, Patti Smith, John Lennon and T. Rex, the songs bristle with sensitivity for the present era and feature sudden velocity and mechanical repetitions mixed with contemplative, vintage soft rock.
“I think it’s just a sound that we felt was free, fun and natural,” said Bullard, who grew up in Traverse City. “The sounds that came out of the ‘70s are just really interesting and some of the best sounds ever made in recorded music.”
As the Major Murphy’s primary songwriter, Bullard admits the band has some favorite tracks from the album, including “Mary,” “My C.C. Blues” and “No. 1.” The band released “Mary,” also a fan favorite, as their first single last November.
“From a lyrical perspective, ‘No. 1’ and ‘My C.C. Blues” are kind of two sides of the same coin,” he said. “‘Mary’ is special because it rose up really naturally. We weren’t going to record it and decided to last minute, so it was kind of a surprise.”
Forming and Naming the Band
Major Murphy wasn’t a surprise for Bullard and Voortman when they formed the band in 2015 with Warren. Bullard and Voortman decided to create their own project focused on Bullard’s songwriting after playing as a rhythm section in other Grand Rapids-area bands for several years.
They opted for a retro sound with harmonic structures, melodic progressions and emotional shifts and a musical approach that focused heavily on concert-like, energetic recordings.
“We didn’t know what direction we wanted to take, and we had befriended Jacki, and at that point, the three of us along with other friends would listen to music a lot together, and we were getting more into vinyl,” Bullard said. “That’s a lot retro music to explore so we wanted to do something that touched on more retro stylings.”
Before playing their first show together in September 2015, Major Murphy opted for a band name that complemented their vintage sound. Bullard sought inspiration for the moniker from a 1979 book called “Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults” by French astrophysicist Jacques Vallee.
“It’s about UFOs, and it’s a little kind of conspiratorial, but also campy. There was a character in the book who was referred to as Major Murphy,” Bullard said. “Major Murphy was an alias for this person, and it had a ring to it. It was kind of whimsical, but also kind of mysterious, so we went with it.”
As a next step, Major Murphy recorded two EPs, “Future Release” and “On & Off Again,” at home before opting for more of a live sound in the studio with this year’s “No. 1.”
Covering The Kinks and Supporting the Fianza Fund
After releasing “No. 1” earlier this year, Major Murphy recorded a cover of The Kinks’ 1970 deep album cut, “Strangers,” in July and decided to donate proceeds from the sale of the song on Bandcamp to the Fianza Fund, an organization that supports migrants who are being detained at the southern U.S. border.
To date, the band has raised $100 for the Fianza Fund and will continue donating proceeds through the end of the year. For Major Murphy, the song’s lyrics can be taken as a call toward unity and solidarity with those labeled as others.
“We really didn’t know what we would be able to generate. We just wanted to be able to do something, and so I think part of that, too, is getting it into people’s consciousness, and giving people an outlet to learn and give,” Bullard said.
Evolving Their Sound
During their Audiotree set on Sunday, Major Murphy will play some new songs and introduce festivalgoers to the next phase in their musical evolution – alternative rock. Since forming the band three years ago, Bullard, Warren and Voortman started with an experimental approach and morphed into a nostalgic, almost yacht-rock sound. The move to alternative rock is a natural segue for the band’s new material in 2019.
“We have an EP that is scheduled to be released in January. It’s technically new music, but it’s also actually really old music, like demos and home recordings from the early days of songs that ended up on ‘No. 1.’ There are a couple of B-sides or songs that people haven’t really heard,” Bullard said.
“In terms of actual new stuff, we’re going to be doing some more recordings back at Russian Recordings in November. We hope to get a couple of new songs down, and I would guess those would come out as a single in early 2019.”