A Marriage at Lansdale Station

By: Alan Rhody

Lansdale Station by Bob Minkin
Though the sepia-toned front cover art of Lansdale Station‘s signature CD, Lansdale Station featuring Judge and Lauren Murphy (self-released last December) depicts a leggy beauty backed by a gang of four black-clad outlaws stiffly posed on the railroad tracks, you’d be incorrect to assume that this album is intended to showcase a fashionable solo act supported by non-descript cowboys. Rather the photo on the back cover – a relaxed shot of husband/wife Judge and Lauren Murphy gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes at the station – more accurately depicts what this musical endeavor is all about: The successful marriage of two contrasting styles into a pleasing and unique blend of authentic Americana.

A native of Northern California, Judge is known to many jam band fans as the gravely-voiced guy in Zero who, in addition to Jerry Garcia, really took possession of a dozen or so Robert Hunter tunes and made them his own (a result of Hunter’s collaboration with Zero in the early ’90s). No one sings “Catalina,” “Horses” or “Pits of Thunder” like Judge Murphy. Characterized by a blue-collar gruffness that is more distinctive than abrasive, his vocal style includes elements of R&B, soul and blues. He is especially adept at straight out, kick-ass barroom rock & roll.

In contrast, Lauren has an angelic voice anchored in her native Louisiana. As evidenced by her portfolio, she has an impressive and versatile range that encompasses truck stop country, airy folk, sultry blues, swamp boogie and Southern rock. She’d sound equally genuine at a recital, coffee shop, or honky-tonk. Although she has been compared to Joni Mitchell (most probably based on her solo studio work), she is easily capable of conjuring up a much less gentile persona when performing onstage with an electric band. Perhaps the former reference was to her proficient songwriting abilities, which are featured on this latest release. Four of the seven songs on the CD are credited to her.

As within the traditional American melting pot, their two diverse styles successfully blend together (with just the right amounts of additional instrumental spices) to create a very tasty vocal gumbo. Actually, it might be more accurate to use the American tapestry as a metaphor; for on this recording the two vocalists remain sonically distinct, but are interwoven to create a complimentary quilt of duets artfully sown into a background of tight musicianship. It seems the expression “a marriage made in heaven” fits more than just their personal lives. The CD is dedicated in loving memory to the legendary saxophonist, the late Martin Fierro (Legion of Mary, Zero, and too many more to name), and we’d like to think he’d agree.

We caught up with Lauren and Judge soon after their recent 10th wedding anniversary.

JamBase: How would you describe your latest collaborative release, Lansdale Station?

Vintage Lansdale Station
Lauren & Judge Murphy w/ Rich Kirch & Liam Hanrahan
Lauren Murphy: It’s a reflection of our roots, pulling from my Southern rock/country blues influences and Judge’s R&B, psychedelic Bay Area upbringing. For me, it’s the most cohesive piece of art with which I’ve ever been involved.

JamBase: Why did you release this material now?

Lauren Murphy: The band originally formed in 2005 as a result of a recording for my CD, Magnolia Heart. That body of work is primarily a Lauren thing. During the sessions, we got a call from Phil Lesh‘s publicist, J.C. Juanis, who said, “I need some help at a benefit. Do you ever do anything together [with Judge]?” To which I said, “Yes!,” got off the phone, and said, “Hey honey, we’re doing a show! Better work up some songs.” Since then, Lansdale Station has grown into a solid entity. But, we play such a broad spectrum of styles we can be hard to describe. We wanted to release something that showcased the variety of musicality we have as a band.

Judge Murphy: It came about as finally having the perfect mix of artists to play the material and all systems were go. The official CD release show was December 27, 2008 at the Mystic Theatre.

JamBase: Was this release produced independently?

Lauren: Yes, this body of work is entirely self-produced and self-backed – we’re literally a ma-and-pa business. Our friend, photographer Bob Minkin created the cover art and collaborated in the design process. It’s available online, by mail [PO Box 221 San Anselmo, CA 94979] and soon at iTunes.

Is the CD reflective of your live performances, or would you consider it more of a studio craftwork?

Judge: Since I’m not a cut and paste recording artist, the idea of the session was to set up the band and play live. It’s a technique I’ve always used when recording. I always told my bands that if you can’t record the song in a take, it’s a lie.

Lauren: Because we wanted to capture the true live Lansdale Station vibe, we booked Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco for one continuous twelve-hour session. During which time we tried to lay down as many quality tracks as possible – kind of a marathon of music. We had already woodshedded the selected songs during live shows and rehearsals, and knew exactly what our mission as a group was. We ended up with six solid songs, to which we later added number seven.

The sonic quality of the recording is very notable, especially the mix. To what do you attribute the high quality of the audio?

Lansdale Station by Bob Minkin
Lauren: We had a concise vision, some fabulous engineers and great gear. Enrique Gonzalez Muller [Metallica, Dave Matthews, Taj Mahal, Train] engineered my second solo record and he was the obvious choice to get the project going at Hyde Street.

Judge: It’s kinda funny. I asked the band to show up at the studio promptly at 11 a.m., though everyone had a late gig the night before. Fortunately, the drummer actually showed early. Enrique was so into getting a good drum mix, it took four hours to get the drums dialed in, and my poor tired musicians stood around giving me stink-eye for three of the four hours. They later thanked Enrique; because GOD did those drums come off good in the recording. Dana Miller is a very creative drummer and a solid member of the team.

The guitar amps were set in the hall outside the studio, except for the slide. The slide guitarist, Jimmy Cucuzella, did kind of an elaborate grouping of ancient tube amps underneath a bunch of blankets because he didn’t trust anyone with his sound. It actually came off great. The bass was run D.I. [a recording method that results in a direct, clean signal path]. Lauren and I were both in separate isolation booths.

Lauren: Though we are acoustically isolated, Judge and I do have to see each other when recording or singing live. He can be quite spontaneous, which keeps me on my toes.

Judge: By early afternoon we were ready to go. We recorded until midnight.

Lauren: The engineers were inspired and worked another couple hours to get a fine first mix. It was pretty much ready.

Judge: A few months went by and Lauren and I were itching to further mix and master what we had. While most of the existing vocals were pretty good, the long hours we put in at Hyde Street took their toll on a couple of vocal parts.

Lauren: Singing for eight hours straight is pretty intense.

Judge: I phoned up Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati. My friend Mooka Rennick turned us on to his engineer, Timin Murray [Rob Wasserman, Steel Train] and said Murray would be the perfect guy for our kind of music. Man, was he right! We brought the rough mix to Cotati to do a few vocals and a little bit of guitar clean up. Also, both studios had Nieve boards [built by Rupert Nieve in London in the late 1960s]. These boards were originally used by The Who and The Stones. They helped provide the retro-contemporary urban sound we were looking for.

Continue reading for more on Lansdale Station…

On musical decisions, Judge and I collaborate on everything. We’re kind of like two heads on one body.

Lauren Murphy

Photo by: Bob Minkin

As vocalists, do you have a preference when it comes to microphones?

Judge: In the studio, the Neumann U47 beats them all hands down. It’s a tube mic made back in the 1930s. They have a rich tonal quality; the kind you used to hear on the Nat Cole and Sinatra tunes. For performances, Lauren normally uses an old Sure 55 Grill mic, ala Elvis/Jerry Lee, and I use an Audio Technica ATM41E. My voice is so low it gives me a little extra heat. Most singers feed back on such a mic, but I dig ’em.

During the recording and production process are all important musical decisions made by mutual agreement between the two of you or does one of you act as the producer?

Lauren Murphy by Bob Minkin
Lauren: On musical decisions, Judge and I collaborate on everything. We’re kind of like two heads on one body. When we record we use our individual ears, then talk to each other, and then play it back together with the engineer. For this CD, we sometimes drove the engineer nuts, but he was a sweetheart and humored our every whim until we got just the right fidelity.

Judge: Enrique and Timin both have a young and fresh take on music, and were very objective throughout the recording process

How did the song selection come about?

Judge: Lauren had just written a couple of very cool tunes and the band was inspired. Some songs just jumped out as the strongest of the lot. Mostly, the selection came as a direct result of being the most popular tunes with the crowds. The audience knows.

Lauren, can you discuss the four songs you penned on the CD?

Lauren: “Family Asylum” was specifically arranged around Judge’s vocal. Lyrically, I think a lot of people can identify with the subject matter. Everybody’s got a crazy family member hiding somewhere on the tree.

“Blue” was written over ten years ago, but wasn’t complete until we chopped it and rebuilt it around our co-vocals. For me, Judge’s voice brings a balance to my writing. It’s a yin-yang thang.

“Here We Go” came to me in rush hour traffic with my five-year-old throwing a shoe at me. Appropriate, as this song is a warning to where our country and the world is heading if we don’t get it together.

Of all the compositions on this CD, “Houselevelers” is the closet to my beginnings. It’s about my coming of age as an artist in New Orleans. I was hanging out with my friend singer-songwriter Grayson Capps [a longtime JamBase favorite that chatted with us in 2007], who lived within walking distance of Tipitina’s Uptown. The neighborhood was pretty much poverty-stricken shotgun houses. We were all young and broke, but happy. Grayson played in a local band, The House Levelers, and lots of artists and musicians ended up dropping by. It wouldn’t be uncommon to wake up to find someone like John Mooney sitting on the stoop with him, playing slide guitar and singing.

I originally wrote the song in 1996 as a tribute to this time in my life, but it needed something else. When we arranged it around Judge’s voice, the characters of that street came to life. Folks have described it as having the feel of early Jefferson Airplane. “Houselevelers” is getting a lot of attention on the radio and that really warms my heart.

How did the other three tunes get included?

Lansdale Station by Bob Minkin
Lauren: “Come all Ye” came to us as a surprise. We were playing a show with a band that was working with Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally. He came up to me afterwards and said, “You remind me of a young Sandy Denny [Fairport Convention].” I was not then familiar with her work, but knew it was a huge compliment. A few weeks later, I heard “Come all Ye” by Fairport Convention. It was weird, almost like hearing a twin from a past life. We began to incorporate it into our live shows and the reaction to the song was huge. There was no way we could not record it.

Judge: I played “Hired Hand” in my own band as far back as 1989. I always loved the tune because of its energy. We included it on the CD because my friend and former bandmate John Cipollina [the song’s author] said he thought I’d do a great job with it. I was honored that he thought so. At the Hyde Street session, guitarist Danny Uzilevsky manifested the spirit of John and blew the doors off the place with his solo.

Lauren: When I first heard Grayson’s song “Mercy” I said, “Man, Judge would sing the shit it out of this!” It’s such a fun blues rollicker to perform. It always gets the crowd going.

What should your fans expect in a live performance?

Lauren: The CD encompasses most of the styles of music that we play; although live, we really like to stretch it. Having some jam band roots keeps it interesting. We love to improvise.

Every now and then we get someone really special to sit in like Doug Harman [Rowan Brothers, Béla Fleck] on cello and piano, or the fabulous Dave Zirbel [Commander Cody, Always Patsy Cline] on pedal steel, or our dear friend, the late Martin Fierro on saxophone. That’s where the real fun is – playing live shows.

Do any Zero tunes surface at the live shows? How about “Mona”?

Judge: We actually do two or three Zero tunes. We perform them live because frankly, we enjoy the Zero/Robert Hunter material and the fans really like hearing it. We play “Mona” just about every show. It’s kinda the song that kick-started rock & roll.

What are your plans for 2009 and will we see you at any of the summer festivals?

Lauren: So far, we’re confirmed for June appearances at the Summer Arts and Music Festival [Lake Benbow, CA] and the 32nd Annual Fairfax Festival [Fairfax, CA], and in July at the Trinity Tribal Stomp Festival [Weaverville, CA]. We’re working on booking a few more. The rest of the year we plan on touring behind the CD and continuing to drum up attention around this work of art that we’re so proud of.

“Family Asylum” @ the Sweetwater 11/2008 from Lansdale Station’s new CD

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