This article originally appeared in Q407.
Naming their band The Murder Capital gave five friends from Dublin focus and succour in the midst of grief and turmoil. Now, the art-punkers are spreading that medicine out, one pulverised concert hall at a time. Chris Catchpole reports from the frontline.
Running in parallel to Hamburg’s docks, the Reeperbahn has been a destination for those seeking illicit entertainment since as far back as the 17th century. Today, while gangs of marauding sailors have largely been replaced by tourists and surprisingly well-behaved German stag parties, the country’s “most sinful mile” isn’t backward in coming forward. Neon signs and peeling posters adorn places with names like Pink Palace, Eros Centre and Titty Twisters.
Past a metal statue commemorating The Beatles’ time here and opposite the local branch of Hooters sits the Molotov Music Club, its broken windows and battered frontage making the place look like a few of its titular cocktails have been hurled into it over the years. It might not seem the obvious setting for a public display of male sensitivity, but onstage The Murder Capital’s frontman James McGovern is making an emotional tribute to his bandmates.
It’s the Dublin-based quintet’s first ever gig in Germany and he wants the crowd to know how important it is for him to be standing up there with his best friends, adding that he knows they won’t be with him for ever. He’s visibly upset, but the politely head-nodding crowd appear unmoved. “Are you alive!?” McGovern bellows at them before flinging himself into the front row. If you want a moshpit done properly, start it yourself: the place dutifully erupts.
The Murder Capital are a group who exist on the precipice of snarling ferocity and wounded vulnerability. This year’s debut album, When I Have Fears, howls and moans like IDLES roughhousing Joy Division; its brutalist sonic architecture stained with grief, anguish and the scars of a tragedy that lies at the heart of the band’s very existence.
A biting wind blows through Hamburg as the band file into the Astra brewery earlier that day.
They’ve driven here from Belgium’s Sonic City festival and, seven weeks into their current tour, are a little bleary-eyed. McGovern walks in looking like a cross between a member of the Baader-Meinhof gang and EastEnders’ Dot Cotton. Dressed in a long coat and military fatigues, he’s wrapped a scarf over his head and a pair of black sunglasses remain on for the duration of our conversation. He sits down and rests his head on guitarist Cathal Roper’s shoulder and for a while it’s unclear whether he’s awake or not.
McGovern, Roper and amiable, curly-haired guitarist Damien Tuit first started playing together when they were in college in Dublin, their early gigs billed as the singer’s solo project. “I remember we played a club night and walking in and seeing ‘James McGovern’ on the screen. I just thought: ‘Fuck this. I hate this,’” he recalls. “After a while we just realised that we were a band. The name The Murder Capital came slamming into my brain and we all loved it.”
Days later, in February last year, McGovern’s closest friend unexpectedly took his own life. “When my friend passed away it garnered meaning,” he says. “It was four days after his passing that we named ourselves and the end of that month that we played our first show as The Murder Capital.”
When I Have Fears first creaks then thunders into life with For Everything, a pummelling, stark vision of McGovern cut loose and flailing in his own grief. As he puts it “brutally honest”, its lyrics contain The Murder Capital’s mission statement. That there might be: “the possibility of symphony within my tragedy.” Though the LP isn’t all about the suicide of McGovern’s friend, death’s shadow hangs over almost every note. Chipper bassist Gabriel Blake lost his mother to cancer during the recording and each song is an examination – either directly or indirectly – of loss, pain and grief.
Green & Blue is inspired by the lonely, monochrome portraits of US photographer Francesca Woodman who took her own life aged 22, while Don’t Cling To Life, written after Blake’s mother died, takes the finality of death as an opportunity to cherish the present. “It’s the reality that what you have is now, but it will go,” says McGovern. “Maybe for some people that’s depressing, but to me it’s living.” The band insist they wanted to capture “the complete range of human experience”, but it can at times make for heavy listening.
You’d be forgiven, then, for expecting The Murder Capital to be equally dour company. Thoughtful, yes. Serious, frequently. But the five friends are also warm, generous and open. They talk about music in visual terms (Blake told producer Flood he wanted his bass to sound like “a Toyota Corolla on a car ferry at sea with its engine running”) and for a group of men in their early 20s are refreshingly frank about conveying their feelings to one another. Whatever they’ve been through together over the last two years has created a close, supportive unit. If you were going through a rough time, you’d want friends like these.
“We’re at our best when we’re most understanding and compassionate with each other,” nods Tuit. “In the same way that in the ’60s and ’70s there was a sexual revolution, I think we’re in the middle of an emotional revolution, especially in males.”
“If we didn’t do it then some of us wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be able to live if I wasn’t able to have the people around me that I do and the forms of expression that we have. The creation and all that release,” adds McGovern, matter-of-factly. “All I needed was to be shown that there are people out there who want to help. There are friends who want to talk to you. I’ve been lucky with the friends that I’ve had, but it’s a lottery.”
The next morning, McGovern and Tuit leave early ahead of the rest of the band to attend a radio session in Berlin. They all reconvene later at an army surplus store for a spot of shopping. Roper has picked up a canvas satchel, drummer Diarmuid Brennan a balaclava, while their merch guy is now proudly sporting a pair of bright pink combat trousers. They stop off for burgers and chips underneath the U-Bahn before a quick stroll along the Spree. As his bandmates slope off to tonight’s venue, McGovern ducks into an invitingly dingy bar and orders a Johnnie Walker Black Label and ginger ale.
McGovern’s dark hair is cropped close to the skull. He’s tall, broad shouldered and the fingers of both hands are heavy with chunky silver rings. From afar he could be a hired thug in an episode of Peaky Blinders, but there’s a solitary quietness to the singer. He’d make a good Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, brooding over the windy moors.
McGovern, 24, grew up in Cork, visiting his sound engineer father in Dublin at weekends. It was a creative upbringing, he had friends in bands and would sometimes bunk off school to graffiti the town centre, at night playing “emo, shitty acoustic music” in his room. Sometimes he’ll take the 40- minute bus ride back home from Dublin just to stare out at the sea and mull things over.
He’s in a buoyant mood today though, cackling with a throaty rasp, but concedes that dredging up painful memories onstage six nights a week can take its toll. “A lot of the subject matter is quite dark and personal and some days it’s almost unbearable,” he says. “It is sometimes difficult to be pulling those memories off the shelf every night. It can be cathartic, but it can also be a lead weight.”
Due to the frankness of their songs, people frequently come up to the band after gigs and it can feel like they know McGovern on a deep, personal level. “I’m like, ‘Hi, I’m James…’ and they say, ‘I KNOW!’” he laughs, “OK… sorry.”
McGovern and his bandmates take what The Murder Capital do and say very seriously and as such he’s anxious to clarify something he said the previous day about them not being here without the creative outlet of the band. “It’s unfair to family and friends to say something like that. What I mean is, my head would be a very, very dark place if it weren’t allowed to express and create in the way that I’ve been afforded and with the chances of having met the people that I have,” he stresses. “I think I would have always ended up being creative, but who fucking knows, man.”
McGovern believes that his friend might still be with us had he been able to simply afford professional help. He wants The Murder Capital to lead by example to a certain extent, to show people that you can share your pain and let others know how you feel. Though it was never their aim, by writing about their own troubles the band are increasingly finding that they’re helping other people process theirs. Something positive has come out of all that trauma.
“It’s hard to think of it that way but at times you do,” he says. “I would throw all of this away to have those people back, but what we have now is what we have now so I’m certainly not going to take it for granted.”
A long pause follows. “Sorry,” he grins. “I was just trying not to cry.”
That night, McGovern stalks the stage like a lairy doorman looking for trouble. He glowers and bats a tambourine in-between puffs on a cigarette. Three songs in the band hit On Twisted Ground, the singer’s emotionally broken goodbye to his “dearest friend”. Though quiet and muted, it comes like a punch in the gut and in the packed room you can hear a pin drop as the band turn to hug each other after it ends. “I’ll never take my friends for granted again,” he announces and there’s the sound of slow panting into the microphone before the set revs back into gear. McGovern dives into the crowd once more and as closer Feeling Fades comes to a piledriving climax, Brennan boots his drumkit across the stage and they all walk off; a band of brothers with their hearts worn unashamedly on their sleeves. The crowd still stand in place after they’ve gone: stunned, elated and some blinking back tears. It may have been a torturous path, but The Murder Capital have succeeded in finding symphony within tragedy.