Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
There are few things more humiliating than being a 43 year old man talking on the phone with a pair of prepubescents -- one a 6 year old girl named Aaralyn, the other an 8 year-old boy named Izzy -- and practically begging them to recognize the names of hardcore punk bands from the '80s.
"You've never heard of Black Flag?" I ask.
"Nope," Aaralyn says.
"With Henry Rollins? Back when he was cool and not doing spoken word?''
I can almost hear them shrugging in unison.
"Bad what?" Izzy says.
Aaralyn giggles. Izzy says nothing. I can't tell if they're mocking me. Not that it matters, except it absolutely does. I am not mature enough to let my punk credibility be dismissed by people who have yet to master cursive.
"So what are your musical influences?" I ask, trying not to sound confrontational.
"Well, I like listening to iCarley and Victorious," Aaralyn says. (I won't know until later that Victorious is a TV show on Nickelodeon, about a teenage singer at a performing arts school, and not, as I'd hoped, an Ari Up side project.)
Now he's talking my language. I share his Rob Zombie enthusiasm, and I tell him as much. We geek out over our favorite Zombie songs, and I briefly forget that Izzy isn't technically an adult. I come dangerously close to telling him, "Oh my god, I'd love 'Pussy Liquor' even if it wasn't in House of 1000 Corpses. Have you seen that movie lately? Best torture horror porn ever." But I don't say that, for many reasons but mostly because I don't want to go to prison.
Watch Murp perform "Zombie Skin":
None of this is as creepy or pervy as it sounds on paper. There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for why I'm talking to children I've never met, without any parental supervision, about their musical tastes. These particular children are musicians themselves; the founding members of kindercore duo Murp. I discovered them the way I discover anything anymore, by trolling the Internet to avoid any actual productivity. YouTube is filled with talentless mongoloids willing to make fools of themselves for our amusement, but Murp is something different. Recording in the basement of their family home, just north of Boston, with Aaralyn on vocals and Izzy on drums (and their dad Jason on guitar), Murp has already amassed a staggering collection of videos, with awesome titles like "My Brother Makes Me Angry," "Step on Red Ants" and "Unicorn In My Tummy." And they're getting better with every new song. Their latest, "Zombie Skin," is so good that it begs comparisons to hardcore titans like Fucked Up. Okay, maybe it doesn't BEG for comparisons, but I'm comparing anyway. Murp is working on an independently-produced EP (seriously) and despite not having heard any of it, I'll go on record and predict that it'll be this year's David Comes to Life, except performed by kids, and with a lead singer who is way, way less hairy and overweight than Damian Abraham.
As much as I love Murp -- and I love them unironically -- I have twinges of self-doubt. Are they fundamentally any different from the galaxy of children acting like adults on the Internet? When I see a child railing against Obama or dressed up like a street hooker, my first thought is usually "Well they clearly have shitty parents. They don't actually believe or understand anything they're saying. They're just puppets, repeating the scripts written for them by their terrible, emotionally abusive guardians." But Murp makes me second-guess myself. It's easy to hate Toddlers & Tiaras, because I hate beauty pageants anyway, and children doing beauty pageants, well, obviously somebody's being coerced. But Murp is doing hardcore music, which is better and more genuine than beauty pageants because.... well it just is.
I need Murp to be the real deal. If they're not, I'm a fucking hypocrite.
Jason -- or "Murp Senior" as I've taken to calling him -- does a good job assuring me that he isn't Murp's not-so-secret architect. He tells me about the band's origins, as a hare-brained scheme by Aaralyn and Izzy to get a video on something called iCarly, a Nickelodeon TV show. "I told them, 'Well go down in the basement and make a song.' They disappeared for literally 30 seconds, and then they came back up and were like, 'Okay, we're ready.'" Their first song as Murp, "Don't Brush My Hair in Knots," was mostly improvised, and set the template for Murp's creative direction. "It's a driving four-four time," Jason says. "Everything is always four-four, because that's the beat Izzy knows. He'll mix it up with a couple cymbals here or there, but that's his main beat." As for Aaralyn's singing, "I was playing (the guitar) horribly (on "Don't Brush My Hair...") because I'm trying not to fall down laughing at my daughter stomping around, screaming and growling and head-banging. I couldn't believe it."
Watch Murp perform "Don't Brush My Hair in Knots":
Their as-yet-untitled EP, which they're still recording, is practically dripping with punk rock authenticity. They expect the entire thing to clock in at roughly nine minutes—or 20 minutes less than the Ramones' self-titled debut. And as Jay is discovering, trying to capture Aaralyn's vocal theatrics in the "studio" has proven to be an exercise in futility. "When we did most of those songs the first time, Izzy and I had to readjust our timing based on what Aaralyn was doing," Jay says. "It would change sometimes mid-song. If you watch any of those videos, none of them are in time. Playing with her, you have to adapt on the fly." Recreating that chaos may prove to be Murp's biggest challenge. Too much glossy production and they could become one of those bands that even devoted fans dismiss as "making crappy albums, but their live shows are amazing."
Talking to Aaralyn, I never get the sense that she's been coached, or is looking at a parental figure lurking nearby, giving her visual cues on how to respond. She's proud of her rock caterwauling and makes no excuses for it. "I scream because I just like to scream," she tells me, "But I also like hearing my voice natural, so sometimes I'll just scream normal." (Her definitive statement on her voice and exactly what she thinks of her critics can be found in the Murp video "Saturn," where she declares "THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH MY VOICE! STOP TALKING ABOUT IT AHH! I JUST LOVE SCREAMING!") Also, when I ask if she ever gets annoyed when strangers call her cute—and everything written about Murp uses the adjective "cute" at least once to describe Aaralyn—she gives what is likely the greatest answer by any music artist ever, hardcore or otherwise, to any question in the history of music journalism.
"I don't really mind when people call me cute," she says. "But I don't like it when they call Murp cute. Maybe I'm cute, but the music is NOT cute."
A whole punk rock philosophy could be built around that last sentence.
After talking to the Murp collective for almost a half hour, I'm no closer to an answer. Aaralyn and Izzy seem sincere, but there are moments when the shadow of adult influence is unmistakable. Isaac tells me about their uncle, who's provided bass guitar for a few Murp songs, and just so happens to be a member of a local death metal band called Dark Passenger. According to their Facebook page, Dark Messenger plays "sun shaking, face melting Black Doom Supremacy." The band's interests are described as "Beer, whiskey, women and satan." There's no mention of whether anybody in the band moonlights as a session player on songs like "My Brother Knows Karate," but that's probably for the best, for both Murp and Dark Passenger.
Murp's dad makes the most convincing case that his kids aren't the punk hardcore equivalent of Marla Olmstead. For one thing, he's already bracing for the band to fall apart in about five years. "They're not teenagers yet," he reminds me. "I don't know about you, but that's when everything changed for me. I grew up on my parents' music, listening to stuff like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and Emerson Lake and Palmer. But then when I turned 13 or 14, it was all about finding something different, like the Sex Pistols." His best hope to have any musical influence on his kids, he says, is to support them and their band while they still share a musical common ground. It's only a matter of time, he says, before one or both of them drifts towards the pop aesthetics of their mother, who stays out of the family's basement hardcore jam sessions and prefers more mainstream artists "like Lady Goo-Goo or whatever."
Towards the end of my interview with Murp, with both Aaralyn and Izzy growing restless, I present them with a hypothetical quandary: They've signed a record deal with a major label. Steve Albini comes on as producer, and during Murp's first day at the studio, he makes a strongly-worded suggestion. Their dad, though an integral part of the band's early "garage" period, just doesn't have the chops to play in the big leagues. Albini wants to lose him and bring in somebody with name recognition and killer riffs, like Tom Morello.
"Do you let Steve Albini fire your dad and hire Morello as the third member of Murp?" I ask them.
"No!" Aaralyn shouts.
"Sorry," Izzy responds, clearly bemused.
"Just wait a minute and think about this. How cool would 'Zombie Skin' sound with Morello on lead guitar? It'd be an instant classic! You'd both become overnight millionaires and rock legends. You're seriously going to turn down that opportunity?"
"Dad comes with the band," Izzy says.
As a pre-K rock historian (a vocation I just invented), Murp's stubborn refusal to take constructive advice from Steve Albini is perplexing and maddening. But as a dad with his own father-son rock fantasies, it makes me want to laugh until I cry.