10 Who is Neil Murray? Interview with Neil Murray 1998
by on November 18, 2023 in Bass Black Sabbath Brian May Whitesnake
Aria Integra 1989 with Sabbath

Aria Integra 1989 with Sabbath

by David Lee – Reprinted with permission

DAVID LEE How are you?

NEIL MURRAY Not bad. I am rushing around this week a lot because we start rehearsing for the Brian May tour next week and I have got lots of learning of songs to do and equipment things to sort out. 

DL Just little things like that?(laughs) 

NM (laughs)Well, some of it is dependent on other people, the amplifier company, coming up with stuff and if they are not going to, what else am I going to use, and all that kind of thing. It doesn’t get resolved until the last minute. 

DL Is that the way that most sponsorships are? 

NM Hmm…Yeah. This particular company is American and a fairly small amplifier company and they tend to not ship stuff out to Europe until after everybody in America has been satisfied with their deliveries. So, you never know if you are going to get something that is supposedly available.

DL That and knowing that Brian’s music is pretty involved, so that has to be a chore to sit down and learn all of your bits for that. 

NM Usually, as long as you’ve got enough time to listen to things and then go back to them and kind of double check. Generally speaking, anything that is fairly well written, I mean, if it is a good song then it is memorable, or if it has got good melodic parts to it, it is O.K. If the bass is played by somebody else and if they have done something very weird, then sometimes… it is difficult but if it is memorable, it’s O.K. It might be something that I would never think of doing, but in general, if something is a bad song, it is hard to remember. 

That is the difficulty. In this particular situation we have to learn quite a few songs that we probably won’t do. We have to choose the best ones really. It should be alright. A lot of it is stuff that we did five years ago on the previous tour and we have been doing a few unplugged and little acoustic gigs a few months ago so there really isn’t much that I really haven’t ever played ever before. 

DL Unfortunately, you will only be having one date in The States. 

NM Yes, it is a kind of separate thing to the main tour. Originally we were going to have done a few warm-up gigs before that but that is not happening either and really, if it wasn’t for the fact that the manager who used to manage Queen set it up… if one wanted to be sensible you wouldn’t go to America to do just one show. 

DL No. 

NM Particularly if it is the first thing that we will be doing. I think that it has a potential for disaster but anyway…  I think that the album is coming out fairly soon and if, for example, it managed to sell a lot, or get a lot of air play or something like that, it would be quite easy for us to come at the beginning of next year. It just depends, because it is just so expensive to get over there and then to cover all the areas that you want to. Even five years ago when we were partly touring with Guns ‘N Roses we kind of hit all of these secondary markets, because they had already been all over the place in The States so, we didn’t really get a chance to play some of the places that we should have really done. 

DL I have followed the more publicised portions of your career and I have a lot of questions about that but I am also interested in all of the stuff that comes in between those points… 

NM Yeah, sure. Sometimes without having things to refer to I get a bit blurry as to when something actually happened or to when something actually came about but, I will do my best.

DL It does seem that over the years that “Neil Murray” has become the name of the bass player to go for when you are looking for a bass player. Is that something where you say to yourself “Are they hiring me for my name or for my abilities?” 

NM It is not only that, but it is also, “Are you a nice guy?” Because you have to be a genius musician if you want to be a really nasty person and vice versa; you can get away with not being so good if you are good fun to be around (laughs). I am pleasant company, I would say. I mean, I am not the “life of the party” who cracks jokes all of the time and everybody loves to be around them. Sometimes those guys can get away with not actually being all that great, although sometimes they have a definite style of their own which is kind of what you need as well. In my case, it is often that one thing has led to another. I mean, purely by chance, but following up a couple of things that happened very early on before I was even a professional musician. Those things led to me playing with Cozy Powell and then in his band, with Don Airey and Bernie Marsden, and knowing and playing with those two led on to other things. Gary Moore was in that and that led on to me working with Gary again later on. With Bernie Marsden, when he joined up with David Coverdale, I knew him and worked with him before, and he knew that I was a capable musician. I got asked along, not even to audition for Whitesnake but just to help out because they had a bass player already. It was only that he changed his mind and decided not to do it that I got a second call back, so at that point I wasn’t a name particularly, in the late seventies. Later on you become a bit better known because you have been in a successful band, but it can work against you too because people think “Well, he can only play that kind of music, he wouldn’t be interested in doing what we are doing.” or “He is going to cost far too much money.” or something like that. Later on the Cozy Powell thing became much more important, mostly after joining Sabbath because they had actually tried… I think that they had done the “Headless Cross” album which was in 1988, and there was a vague approach made to me then, and then after they did the album I think that they wanted to get Geezer Butler back in the band, and he was saying yes and then no then yes and being very undecided. They auditioned a few, kind of, unknown players and couldn’t find anybody good at all, in Britain anyway, and so Cozy thought “I’ll try Neil again and see what he thinks.” and I went up and played with them and that was that. That partly led to me and Cozy working with Brian May and that led on to Peter Green, but in the last ten years it has been a situation where Cozy has been asked to do something, and he will say “Well let’s get Neil in as well.” He is not obliged to do so, but generally speaking he would get offered the gig first, so it is not necessarily that I am such a big name or anything like that.

I mean, people know that I have done good things in the past, but their memories are fairly short. You can’t trade on something that you did fifteen years ago. People seem to think that if you disappeared in between times, “Well he can’t be any good.” or “He must be a druggie or an alcoholic or something. Why haven’t I heard of him since then?” That sort of thing. Then you get people like the fans of say the post ‘87 Whitesnake who have hardly any idea that I exist. The fans of the early Whitesnake are pretty much in the minority these days or they certainly do not make their presence felt very much (laughs). Let’s say that you admired what I did with the early Whitesnake. The later albums like “Slide It In” and the ‘87 album, they are not really featuring me, bass playing wise, either in the mix or the lines that I am playing, because of the way that the songs are written. 

There is much less freedom than there was in the early days so you don’t listen to those albums and go “Wow! Listen to that bass playing.” whereas it was much more prominent in the early days, so all through the eighties and to an extent since then, with Sabbath and Brian, my bass playing is very decent quality but it doesn’t jump out at people. Because of the situations that I have been in I am not really able to do as much in terms of putting my own thing on it, compared to the early days of Whitesnake. I kind of feel that I slightly have a reputation as having been in big bands and stuff, but I am not such an influence on other musicians as much as I would like to be, simply because I haven’t really done anything where people are sitting and listening to the bass playing as a very major part of what is going on. It is like, I am in the rhythm section and I am doing a really good job but, you know, most of the time it has been reproducing what other people have done before or putting my little spin on Geezer Butler’s bass playing or John Deacon’s bass playing.

DL As you say, in the early days of Whitesnake, save a few Deep Purple songs, you were playing all your own lines and now most of the material that you perform was originally written by someone else. Is that something that frustrates you? 

NM Yeah. Admittedly, a lot of those songs were standard chord changes and nothing terribly adventurous about the song writing but, yeah, it has been a bit frustrating. It is enjoyable to play songs that you like, don’t get me wrong. In most cases I have played with people that I like, and I have made a decent living at it and I have certainly not played horrible music or anything like that with horrible people, but a lot of those things don’t give you that much freedom to put your own stamp on it. That just seems to be the way that it is. If you come into a situation that is already established and already very famous, then you have to stay true to that, I suppose, at least that is my reading of it. 

Maybe somebody else comes in and stamps their own personality all the way across it, but I tend to try and stick pretty much to how the songs were on the record because I reckon that the audience for bands that have been around since the seventies want to hear something that is fairly close to what is on the record. They don’t want to hear some kind of completely off the wall version. 

DL How do you reconcile that with being an artist and wanting to break out of that and say “O.K. I have played “Paranoid” every night for the last couple of years is there any chance that we could put some of the songs from records that I played on into the set?” 

NM Well, that wouldn’t work. I am just totally realistic that if, for example, I play on a Black Sabbath album that isn’t particularly featuring the bass very much, compared to the ones when Geezer Butler was in the band, and if that record doesn’t sell very much you really don’t expect the band to keep going back to that record and keep plugging away at these songs that nobody is terribly interested in. Obviously, when you are touring to promote that record you will play four or five songs off of the new album, so after we did the album called “Tyr” we would do that, and more recently with the album called “Forbidden” we did the same with that. If I was back with them now and they had another album out, because neither of those albums sold terribly well, you wouldn’t say “Oh let’s do this song.” just because it was something that I was on. You want to do the songs that are best, really. The only thing that I would say is that a lot of the enjoyment that I get from playing is playing to an audience that is enjoying what you are doing, so I wouldn’t want to go on stage and play something just for myself if the audience wasn’t into it. I would rather play something that was maybe not what I would want to go home and sit down and listen to on a quiet evening, but I can really get into it if I am in front of a few thousand people who are going nuts! That makes it all worthwhile. There is always a more perfect situation where you are playing huge places and the sound is fantastic and the audience is really intelligent and music loving, but also incredibly enthusiastic as well. It doesn’t exist, you go to different countries and you get different responses. Some places are better in some ways than others and some nights are better than others. Some nights it is purely because you are feeling hung over, and other nights you are playing great and it just doesn’t happen for some other reason. Maybe the acoustics in the building or the other members of the band are not into it or whatever; you just can’t kind of predict which makes it interesting. Part of being on the road is that you can try a few things here and there just on the spur of the moment, so I do get some satisfaction out of it by changing things around. I certainly don’t play everything note for note exactly the same every night but it is more that I have to be careful not to overstep the mark, and it would be nice to play my own parts from albums that I contributed a lot to, but in general these days, even from mid eighties Whitesnake really, it is more like it has been somebody else’s band and I am just the bass player. With Gary Moore before that really… but I shouldn’t complain too much because really what people do in this circumstance is they become songwriters themselves, and they start their own band up or they basically get things their own way by being the composer, and I really haven’t done that so I shouldn’t complain because I know that is the necessary thing to do. 

DL Is that something that you have purposely not done or is it that you just haven’t found the time to do it?

NM Neither really (laughs). It is that I am not driven to do it. Some people have a burning creative energy and they have to show the world what they can do, and I am somewhat lazy, but also I am not that kind of creative individual. With me it would take a lot more work and encouragement which I have not really had that much of. What has given me a good reputation as a bass player, I suppose, is spending a lot of time working on my bass playing, but really I should have spent a bit less on bass playing and more on learning the guitar or the keyboards or singing. I mean, I am aware of what I should have done over the years which isn’t to say that it isn’t still a possibility, but I have lasted kind of a long time compared to other people. 

DL Your bass playing style is obviously very rooted in the blues… 

NM Yeah. 

DL And when kids today are forming and playing in bands they are a bit removed from the origins of blues-based rock and roll. It is like they are looking through several layers of glass and getting a somewhat distorted image of the original. Is that something that you notice or something that concerns you at all about the state of rock and roll in general? 

NM Well, the difficulty is that I am seeing it from my perspective of a late forties (age) person so I am a product of what was around in the mid-sixties, which in England was the blues boom with John Mayall and Cream and all of that stuff. It just happened to come along at the right time for me, and that was a very good sort of grounding from which to go off and explore the black blues artists, and then you would take off in the other direction towards jazz and jazz rock and other morecomplicated aspects of rock but it certainly is the basis for everything. I have always thought that even Black Sabbath is very blues-based music, but has taken off in a direction away from there. If you start off just listening to Black Sabbath and then take that somewhere, you are missing out on some of the thing that they were. In early Whitesnake it was a lot of early sixties blues-rock influence there, and then later, of course, it became much more American AOR sort of stuff which is fine as well, but I think that what is difficult for people now is that they do not hear that music, and if it is not seen as being very exciting there is no reason for them to get into it. 

DL As a matter of influence I would say that despite the fact that the latter day Whitesnake was significantly more popular in America, the early band has had a great impact on the kids from that generation who are now becoming professionals themselves. Is that something that you have taken note of? 

NM Well, from my point of view I have been on a lot of records that were not that successful, and a couple that were, but it is just hard to know who is out there listening to stuff that you might have recorded some years ago. I tend to not listen to anything much after I have done it, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect people to be still playing stuff that I played on fifteen or twenty years ago except once in a blue moon they may pull it out and go “Yeah, that is a nice bit of nostalgia.” I don’t know but it is nice when people say that they admire what you have done. 

DL When kids approach you with an item that they would like you to sign what is it that they usually hand you? I mean, is it something by Whitesnake or Black Sabbath or… ?

NM Well, it depends on the band. I mean, to be honest Brian May fans, unless they are the obsessive type who kind of collect everything that any member of the band has done, will bring Queen albums and Brian May albums and they won’t really be interested in Whitesnake, ninety-five percent of them, or Black Sabbath or anything else, and vice versa. They are quite narrow minded in a nice way. They tend to be very enthusiastic about what you are doing in that particular situation. For example, Peter Green fans would have no interest at all in anything else that I have ever done, maybe some early Whitesnake, but that is about it. If I say that I played with Gary Moore that might go down very well with them, but I didn’t play blues with Gary Moore. Most people are not incredibly wide-ranging in their tastes, they tend to like what they like and that is it. 

DL I know that it is not a great leap from Whitesnake, but something that I liked quite a bit in my own musical explorations were the Phenomena project. How did you become involved in that project? 

NM It was a kind of a session type of thing where the guitarist who was in Whitesnake around that time, Mel Galley, he and his brother had written songs and it was their project, and Mel Galley was always a friend of Cozy Powell and a fan of his playing, and a friend of mine and wanted us both to play on that first album. The sound, the way it ended up, Cozy was very unhappy with, and it sort of went on from there, and I played on the next one. It was very much that I went in and played on all the tracks on the first album in a day, and that is all the involvement that you have with it. It was just a session and sometimes you would like to be more involved, but that is not the way that it works. If they write songs where, frankly, the bass part is going thump, thump, thump because that is what is required, you might like the music but it is not going to be difficult to play and it is not going to impress people as being very creative, but sometimes that is all that is needed. 

DL Those sessions never involved everybody on a given track being in the same room at the same time? 

NM No, definitely not. I mean, in that situation I think that I was playing before any real drums were put on. I think that there was a drum machine or something, so that is something that is not enjoyable. There has often been circumstances where I am there just on my own, which is not as good as a lot of people playing together. It is much better for me to play after the real drummer has already played, because it is just much too sterile or tame with a drum machine or programmed drums. 

DL I can imagine, especially with the long relationship that you had with Cozy, that the two of you knew when one would zig and the other would zag. 

NM Absolutely. And in his case he is pretty much going to set the direction, I mean, you have to follow him (laughs). It was, particularly on the road, if he had worked out a particular way of playing a song he would pretty much stick with that. He’ll stick to that, he won’t change it around very much, so it is very easy for me to duplicate it and make sure that we are both right there on the money. I would definitely be slightly in his shadow in that case. If I played with somebody who is just much more straight and keeping it very simple and maybe less powerful, then maybe I might come across a bit more myself. 

DL Now that he is gone do you think that you will establish the same type of relationship with another drummer? 

NM Not as yet. I do try with all drummers really, to lock in with them. His actual replacement is Eric Singer from KISS and Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath… and Gary Moore (laughs). He is a very good player but we will just have to see, because I think that with him he is going to have to duplicate what was done before, so it will take a bit of time for him to put his own stamp on things. I am sure that if you asked him you would get similar kinds of answers because we both have played with lots of different bands, without being the most important core member from year one if you know what I mean. 

DL Absolutely. 

NM It’s like, Geezer Butler is the bass player with Black Sabbath and I am just sort of substituting really (laughs). 

DL While trolling around the Internet I have noticed that there is a certain rabidity of the fans for certain bands in particular some that you have been in. Does it ever concern you that the music is being lost in all of the trivia that people collect, or even the fact that there may be too much information about a given person floating around on the web? 

NM Hmm? Yes, you could be right, I mean, what is funny to me is that people will believe the rumour every time. If somebody says… I don’t know… “Tony Iommi rides goats around.” “Does he really? What kind?” And they won’t be sceptical, they will believe it every time. It is difficult because sometimes you want to write back and say “The truth of it is…” but then it just goes on and on and on, and you just can’t stop the tide of information, so you have to be careful and let people chat amongst themselves. Also with all these bands it is so subjective; one person will absolutely love one version of the band and certain songs and they won’t hear anything apart from that, and if you dare say that “It is not quite as good in my opinion.” you might as well have said that I am going to kill your mother (laughs)! There is no reasoning with it and I mean there probably shouldn’t be. It is all down to individual tastes, and sometimes people who are not musicians can enjoy it more, because musicians are always analysing and they have heard it all before. I don’t know, maybe I miss out, because they may be hearing it in a much more direct emotional way. 

DL I know that much of the music that you have created has touched many in very deep and personal ways, but I am curious to know if there have been artists who had that effect on you or even if new artists have that effect on you at all?

NM Yes but very, very rarely and as the years go past there is less and less that really knocks me to the floor. I would try not to act like a fan, because I know what it is like to be on the receiving end of that and it is kind of putting the other person up on a pedestal and you down on the floor and it is much better to try and establish more of a rapport with them. Yeah, there are a few people. Jeff Beck, I think, is amazing. Eric Johnson, the guitarist very few others really. There are a lot of fantastic musicians but the people who really, really grab me are few and far between.

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