You wouldn’t know it from his lyrics, but Bryan Murphy was an angry kid. As frontman for Boston-based rock band The Shills, he writes appealing songs around inventive, guitar-based hooks. It’s a far cry from his middle school hardcore band or the experimental performances of his college days at Eastman School of Music in upstate New York, where he was apt to scream at audiences or play his trumpet through heavy distortion.
“I wanted to make anti-music,” the Foxborough native explains. “I wanted to make music that pissed people off. I really wanted to have people pull their hair out and run at us and shake us and tell us to stop.”
Ten years later, Murphy’s weirdness is muted, though not completely erased. There is a certain eccentricity to The Shills, who are not afraid to take songs in unexpected directions. But at their heart they are a pop band. Murphy is a fervent admirer of Queen and cites Freddie Mercury as a primary influence on his singing. The Shills’ four members—Murphy on guitar and lead vocals, James Zaner on drums, Dave Sicilian on bass, and Ryan Jackson on guitar—play with clean, expert precision, and Murphy possesses an elastic falsetto that at times climbs into virtuosic realms.
Yet for the most part The Shills, who perform at The Sinclair in Cambridge on Aug. 16, eschew blatant shows of virtuosity. They have a hard enough time shaking the “progressive rock” label, says Murphy. The band co-writes their material, and they incorporate an array of musical knowledge, from jazz to classical to R&B to heavy metal. It may be their commitment to the vigorous drama of electric guitar, or the complexity of their arrangements, that brings to mind proto-progressive bands like Queen or modern prog-rockers like Dream Theater. Yet Murphy insists that their approach is one of subtlety and intuition.
“I just pick up a guitar or piano and bang it out and whatever happens, happens,” says Murphy of his songwriting process. “Then if I get into a hole where I can’t finish an idea, I have the nerdy stuff upstairs to be like, okay, let’s look at this mathematically, use it to bridge one section to another, and then put it back upstairs and don’t use it again until I’m stuck.”
Over the years he has found the task of lyric writing to yield satisfaction far beyond the cerebral pleasure of jazz and experimental music. In 2009, The Shills released “Ganymede,” a full-length concept album that for Murphy was as much an exorcism of his inner demons as it was an artistic challenge.
“It’s musically the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says of the record. “It connects a story from the first song to the last song. And it’s pretty serious topic matter because I’ve always had really bad anger issues. I’m just a cranky, curmudgeonly, angry man. It’s not outward most of the time cause I’m kind of a goof outwardly, but I can get cranky thoughts and I’m always thinking, like, wouldn’t it be funny if I could create a person from my subconscious, the angry person, and then kill him. And so I did.”
In contrast to the epic arc of “Ganymede,” the band’s 2012 EP, “Keep Your Hands Busy: Volume 1,” features four concise, catchy songs. It was produced by Scott Riebling, former bassist for ‘90s alt-rock band Letters to Cleo. The Shills are currently at work on “Keep Your Hands Busy: Volume 2,” which they hope to release in early 2014. But the show at the Sinclair will be their last for a couple months while Murphy tours with Philidelphia-based experimental rock band Man Man.
Murphy, who also plays trumpet in Boston surf group Trabants, is not the only member of The Shills with other commitments; both Zaner and Sicilian are full-time studio engineers. The band will probably never become a primary project for any of them, but for Murphy, this is the necessary truth of a musical life.
“I’ve had only musical jobs for ten years,” he says. “And I’m broke as a motherf---er. But I get to travel, and I get to play with my favorite people in the world, The Shills.”
This article was originally published on August 15, 2013.
This program aired on August 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.