Conor Murphy doesn’t want to leave Milk, his gorgeous fluffball of a chow chow puppy. When I call him one afternoon in late August, he’s lounging around before a lengthy North American tour with his main gig, Foxing, in support of Manchester Orchestra. “When I come back he’s going to be so much bigger and it’s going to make me cry a lot,” he says. “Because right now, he’s like the size of a one-year-old child. When I get back, he’ll be the size of a three-year-old child.”
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, Murphy’s a dog person, and believes that humans possess a unique connection to their pets that’s often more powerful than the bond between people. It sure sounds like he’s already forming one with Milk, and he had this sort of intense attachment to his old dog, Smidley. “He was a black lab mutt and Conor loved him more than anyone he’d ever met,” reads a line in his latest project’s press release. “Now he’s dead and this band is called Smidley.”
This sort of unsentimental resolution might sound jarring to anyone who’s not familiar with the draining post-emo of his other act. (Their Bandcamp bio simply says “Foxing is a band. Someday Foxing won’t be a band.”) But there’s none of this wry removal on a Foxing record, which traverses the heaviest subjects—lost love, religious guilt, and PTSD, to name a few—through layered, overcast tapestries. Right before their current tour, they were working on their third album from a home studio in St. Louis with Chris Walla, the former guitarist of Death Cab for Cutie. It isn’t due out until 2018, but Murphy tells me it’s shaping up to be the band’s favorite, and aims to soundtrack “what it feels like to be a part of a society that’s kind of seeming to crumble in front of us.” Although they have a sense of humor about the notion of being a band, little of that comes through on record.
Smidley thrillingly lets some of those sensibilities in. Their self-titled debut, which came out in June, is a ramshackle, upbeat collection of songs, bristling with saxophone squiggles (played by Sorority Noise’s Cameron Boucher), guitar solos where they fit, and the hookiest choruses we’ve heard Murphy sing on thus far. Smidley is one of the year’s overlooked indie rock gems.
With the project, Murphy wanted to pay tribute to the last few years of Smidley the dog’s life—which also coincides with a period in Catholic school when all he wanted to do was chase a high. Smidley makes a persuasive case for inebriation as the optimal state of living, until it suddenly isn’t. The thesis comes on “Milkshake,” a comparatively dour late-album acoustic ballad that assumes a similar, but less psychopathic, point-of-view than The Weeknd. “I love every moment when I’m fucked up / I listen so closely when I’m fucked up / I’m so happy when I’m fucked up,” Murphy sings. You can’t really believe the narrator, who’s chasing down Xanax with a dairy product, and it’s reassuring that they probably don’t believe themselves, either.
Although the situations described on Smidley aren’t straight autobiography and don’t reflect his current situation, Murphy found it therapeutic to lighten up and revisit an important era of his life. “There have been these times in my life where I feel where I’m chasing a dream and then I’ll like give up on it, and then never think about it again,” he says. “And now when I think back on it, it’s just like ‘what the fuck was I possibly thinking about?’ But in the moment, you’re like, that’s what I’m going to be, that’s everything to me.”
I saw that you recently were part of a wedding. Was that for a friend?
Almost a year ago, I just threw out something on Twitter that was kind of a joke at first—it just said “I want to book a wedding tour.” And then I just started taking it seriously because people started contacting me about it and then I realized right away it’d be impossible to do an actual tour out of [weddings]—the logistics on that are insane. But one of the couples that contacted me took it very seriously, and they were like “yeah, you should do this” and I was like “yeah, I’ll do anything for it, I’ll officiate it if you want or whatever.” And they’re just fans of Foxing, but it was really cool, and they made a playlist for me to learn and they had a band for me to play with. It was in Jacksonville. And then I officiated their marriage, it was really awesome. And they’re like friends of mine now.
Were there any wild requests?
My favorite on there was “You Make My Dreams” by Hall and Oates, and I didn’t know that song very well, so after learning it I realized this is one of the greatest songs of all time. But then they had me play “Hey Soul Sister,” which I understand is definitely like a classic wedding song, but one of my least favorite songs of all time. There were a few of those, and by all means, it’s like, this is not my place to say I’m not playing that song, so I learned all of them.
Almost all of these Smidley songs seem to have a character who’s in a place of inebriation, whether it’s fueled by pink gallo, Xanax, or acid. Was that a condition you turned to when you were writing some of these songs?
I think they’re all definitely characters, and it’s something we’ve used with Foxing songs as well. It’s writing from a personal place, but also kind of taking an emotion or feeling that you had and blowing it up into being its own person—kind of its own shallow character for a song. So that’s kind of what I was doing with this one, because I think drugs [were] a big part of my life [in high school], and I’ve never really written about them. And it was just weird to me that there was this chunk of my life, like a good five years where I felt like I was always trying to be on drugs and I’d never written about it, and it feels like I never think about it either. And I think it was important for me to write about it.
A lot of these titles ripped without context—”Fuck This,” “Hell,” “No One Likes You”—kind of at face value sum up what it feels like to be living right now, even if the subject matter is not directly related to that. Do you think of some of the vices as a means of escape or distraction from this moment we’re in?
Yeah definitely. I think I’ve always felt, and this is kind of the same thing with Foxing’s new record, I don’t think we ever want to be in a place of like preaching our own agenda on things directly. I think it’s important for us to explain how we feel and what we believe through other means but through our actual music, I don’t think we’d make a song where we’re directly saying like Donald Trump’s name or anything like that. But on the other side of it, the records that Creedence Clearwater Revival put out during the Vietnam War—what makes those records great to me and what’s inspiring about them is that they are more about like the personal feelings during that time than they are about the time itself. It’s about like anger and frustration in that time.
For me, I wanted the Smidley record [to be] a few parts satirical and funny and a lot more parts frustrated with what was going on. None of it is specifically about that, but it’s also inspired by what was all going on while I was writing those songs. It’s still going on while we’re writing this Foxing record, so it’s a hard thing to write an upbeat happy song when you feel scared all the time. You feel, not just scared for yourself, but for people that have it a lot worse than you. It’s a scary time to be alive, and the hardest for me is trying to think about writing about like ex-girlfriends or lost love. At this point now, I’ve been trying to write something like that, something about love, and I’m struggling so hard ‘cause I just don’t feel any of that right now. I feel paranoid and frustrated and afraid, so those are the things we’re writing about.
I saw you guys have had some important guests in the studio: Chris Walla (and your dog Milk). Has Walla done anything kind of outside the box with you to help get the juices flowing?
Anytime we get to a place with some sort of block, he’s right there to have like 15 different suggestions ready to go to get us out of it. He brought in Oblique Strategies cards. It’s really really good for writing, whether it’s music or creating art or prose or anything. Basically each card says something very oblique, like a very vague statement. It’ll say something like “use unqualified members” or “twist the spine,” something like that where it’s not giving you a direction like “bass solo”—it’s saying something where you then interpret it.
So do you think naming the band after Smidley was a way of trying to capture your high school years on a record?
Yeah, I think so. Those were the last years with Smidley, and I think there is something to that that’s like supposed to be honoring him in some way, because I feel like after your dog dies you kind of just have their memory and nobody names like a library after their dog or anything like that. You don’t get a statue made of your dog, unless you’re a crazy person. But I’m just looking right now at the hat that has my dog’s face on it that we got for merch. And just seeing the name, and when people talk to me about Smidley, even now after having it been released for this long, there’s never a point where I’m not reminded. It’s just every time somebody says Smidley I’m reminded of him. And I’ll kind of like tear up a little bit, when somebody will say something like “how’s your band going, how’s Smidley?” And it’s just like oh my god, I miss that so much. It feels so good, it just warms me every single time for somebody to ask how my dog is doing.