'They should embrace that oddness'

Mark Guyers meets Matthew Murphy ('Murph'), lead singer of the Liverpool band The Wombats, to talk about psychological influences on his songwriting, and musicians' mental health.

For those that don’t know who The Wombats are – who are you, and what are you up to at the moment?

The Wombats are a band from Liverpool. We have just released our fourth album. I’m currently in LA just about to shoot a music video for a song called ‘Turn’ and we are about to go on a big UK tour – it’s all very exciting.

Your songs make numerous references to psychology, and specifically clinical psychology. For example, 'I will be your Freudian slip', 'self-help helps us when it makes us laugh', 'right now we need some pop psychology'. It’s clear that psychology informs a lot of your songwriting process – why is that?

I have probably had four serious episodes of depression combined with anxiety. I guess the moment that that first starting happening I got interested in things like Freud, delving deeper into my psyche and then experiencing therapy a lot. So I guess this is how it falls into the lyrics somehow – the Freudian slip lyric is just a phrase, but it is something I have been trying to understand more, and this goes in sequence with the lyrics.

I understand that the song 'Anti-D' recalls your personal experiences with mental health and addiction. Do you find it difficult to write songs which are so personal, or do you find it therapeutic?

All forms of music and art and writing are a form of therapy and it seems adept with that particular song I wasn’t worried about what anybody thought of me. I had stopped taking Citalopram that I had been taking for around three years. I was in Spain and felt dizzy coming off the drug and that kind of chorus came out which finished it off and I I decided to be as brutal as possible with it. I felt like if I was going to write a song about anti-depressants, I should go all out with it.

The song received significant rotation on Radio 1 and brought the subject of mental health to a younger audience. Could you ever have envisaged this happening when you wrote the song?

Thankfully Radio 1 have supported us a lot over the years. It’s an important topic and it seems like a radio station that is essentially owned by the tax payer should be representing mental health anyway. It wasn’t so much radio play, but I’m always constantly surprised that that song is something we always come back to. It's always a focus of questions in interviews and the song which fans always message me about. It seems like that song had a spider-web effect into the people hearts and souls.

Social media and its effects on wellbeing is a hot topic at the minute. Given that The Wombats have around 750,000 followers across numerous platforms, how do you switch off from that? Is it easy to take that break and to not become burnt out by it?

To be honest, I don’t do Twitter or our Facebook, but I do have my own Instagram and sometimes do the band’s too. I’m on and off them most of the time. The negative effects that I have found is that I’m probably more impatient and anxious than I would have been 10 years ago so I definitely need to do some kind of retreat from it. Two or three weeks away from social media would be really good, it’s just hard when all of your business relies so heavily on it. Maybe when the album has died down at the end of the summer, I will turn my phone off and go and do some yoga and drink some bizarre juice for a month.

Is it fans contacting you or criticism you get which can make things harder across those platforms?

I don’t go into that stuff anymore. There was a time when I would read reviews or look at what people thought about things but it's utterly futile and I feel like trolls are just trolls and they don’t really deserve my time. I just don’t go for that anymore.

I can imagine being in a touring band presents it’s own issues. Hard to get into a routine etc. How do you stay well whilst all of that is going on? Is there a specific strategy the band uses?

It’s really hard. It depends how self-disciplined you are. It’s easier in the UK because the drives are smaller… in the States, or in Europe, you're knackered all the time and then that exhaustion leads into other things. You can have a healthy week were you are not drinking or anything and then you can have one great show, all of your friends are backstage and you're getting smashed and then there is that whole other side of the touring life… it's just about balance and I’m still struggling to find it!

There have sadly been tragedies in the music world in 2017 with music stars taking their own lives – are you aware of any safeguards that protect you or people in the music business from poor mental health?

Not really for artists, no… you’re talking this endless dichotomy between record labels, management, booking agents, they want you to work as hard as you can to generate the most amount of revenue you can and depending on what kind of artist you are, you want to generate that revenue as well. The amount of times I have said, “I don’t want to do this” and then get a load of emails saying how important it is and can lead to this and that, which never leads to it except making a bit more money, and some other people have taken off the top line… I think that’s where artists need to be mindful and think about it more. If your brain and wellbeing is healthy you’re probably going to be successful anyway, so working to the bone is not the way to do it. You have to feel okay to say no to things. I’m sure there is great managers out there who know that.

Musician’s Minds Matter is a mental health charity that has been set up to support the music industry in general and musicians from all backgrounds, from those we hear on the radio to those who busk in the street. Given the specific nature of the charity, have you found that a career in the music industry can cause poor mental health?

It's crazy but I don’t think the public has a lot of sympathy for a successful musician, actors or artists but there is uproar when one of them ends their life. I think if there was a way to have a better understanding of how the entertainment industry works and how brutal it can be; it would allow people would be able to sympathise a bit more.

I don’t know if you know this, but WOMBAT is actually a psychotherapeutic acronym which stands for Ways Of Me Behaving & Thinking – where you aware of that?

I have heard of Waste Of Money Brains And Time though. That’s cool though, I didn’t know that.

Finally, if there was one song you would recommend for the readers of The Psychologist, what would it be?

Probably the song 'Turn' – it’s a positive reinforcement thing for people with brains who are maybe a bit weirder than others. They should embrace that oddness and not feel as out of place because of it. 

- Mark Guyers is a psychological well-being practitioner working in the NHS.

- Find out more about The Wombats. Photo credit: Tom Oxley.

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