An Interview With Murlo

Michael McKinney speaks to the Manchester multi-hyphenate electronic artist about discovering club music in university, the relationship between his different mediums, including visual art, 3D...
By    September 11, 2023

Image via Murlo/Instagram

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Spend enough time looking through Chris Pell’s work and you’re going to find bodies. They appear again and again: wrestling whilst straining towards the skies, dancing amidst a cubist jubilee, resting as the earth envelops them, ingesting mysterious foods as their very musculature transforms. Pell, who makes deep-space electronic music as Murlo and crafts cheeky club-night cuts as Sharda, has been imagining alternative anatomies for years, stretching limbs and contorting skeletons, gesturing towards entire universes outlined in his sketchbooks. His work is a kind of all-in world building; follow him long enough and you’ll find alien architectures, sounds, religions, and technologies. He pulls from all sorts of idioms and ideas, but, without fail, he twists things until well-worn typologies come out as something wildly new.

Puckle, Pell’s latest LP as Murlo, takes the world he built with 2017’s Club Coil and complicates it further. The record’s narrative tackles the ideas of cults, A.I,, and egotism run amok; its ideas, and its aesthetic, are rooted in highly specific histories even as they stretch into parts unknown. Murlo—who cut his teeth in the UK club-music scene playing bassline, UK garage, and Baltimore club—does something similar on Puckle. The record is indebted to umpteen dance-music histories in the UK, but it seems locked in a constant evolution; even if the skeleton is recognizable, the form that surrounds it is strange and unfamiliar. In this way, Puckle sounds the way Pell’s drawings look: both familiar and disorientingly new, a collage of histories and possible futures.

Pell is hardly the only one making music in this vein, of course: as Pell would tell you, people have been making heart-on-sleeve and left-field dance music for decades. You could spend hours picking out possible reference points on Puckle: the early-aughts sound of hardcore breaks and sun-blasted jungle; chopped-up MIDI sections a stone’s throw from Beer on the Rug; dreamy ambient-trance à la Malibu; full-throttle bassline that, if you tweaked a few knobs, might as well be part of the next Off Me Nut compilation. But Puckle, critically, sounds like none of these in whole. Here, as in the rest of his discography, Pell digs through all sorts of electronic-music traditions, pulls out their guts, and constructs another solar system.

On the heels of Puckle’s release, we got a chance to catch up with the Manchester multi-hyphenate, digging into all sorts of corners of his craft: growing up in the Midlands to running club nights in university; his approaches to world building and drum programming; how video games inform his artwork and his relationship to sincerity; and plenty more along the way.

​​(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

What’s some art that connected with you early on?

Murlo: I’m from the Midlands. It’s kind of a void, culturally. I don’t want to push my luck too much with dissing where I’m from, because there’s elements to where I grew up that I love. I’m from a working class background; I’m the only person from my family who’s been to university. Growing up, I was a skater. I used to listen to At the Drive-In, Fugazi, and Rage Against the Machine, that kind of stuff. I was listening to reactionary and noisy music. It wasn’t until I went to university when I started experiencing proper club culture, going to clubs and listening to dubstep, bassline, funky, and all these other genres that I grew to love and started producing.

I really didn’t have a music background, in terms of playing instruments. I drew a lot: I went to university for it, doing illustration at Brighton. It was the furthest place that I could pick, outside of maybe Glasgow, where I could have moved. I just wanted to get away. So I said, “where’s the furthest place?” while looking along the coast. I managed to get in. I was a bit of a loser; I’d stay in my room drawing. I still love it. It’s the only thing I’m gonna keep doing, because I know that I’m never gonna get bored of it. There’s always stuff to learn.

For me, growing up where I did, I was waiting to move away. Drawing was a big escape for me, as well as video games and such. I’ve always continued that while I’ve done music, but it wasn’t until later on that I made them gel a bit better. They were really separate creative outlets for a long time; I couldn’t figure out a way of doing it that really satisfied me until I started doing the world building stuff. A few releases ago, right before Dolos, I said, “oh! I know what I want to do.” I had a stronger direction of where I wanted to go from there.

Even though the music I grew up with was very different to that, I still think you’re still informed by that stuff. I used to enjoy more math-rocky stuff, like Hot Cross, a screamo band. I love a lot of their riffs; they’re really intricate. That always resonated with me. I wasn’t always huge into math rock, but I appreciated it. It must have affected me in some way: melody is a big thing for me. When I started producing, names like Sticky and Dubbel Dutch had a really big influence on me: their music had a melodic essence. That’s what I wanted to do, too.

You mentioned that you found club music in university. Can you elaborate on that?

Murlo: I first started going to club nights run by other people at our university. The biggest thing about university, for me, was leaving the place I grew up in. Part of that was discovering the stuff that people did that I didn’t have access to. Nottingham was one of the closest cities I was able to go out in where I grew up, but the cost of a taxi was extortionary—like, £60. It wasn’t until I was in Brighton where there were clubs on my doorstep.

When I started going out in Brighton, I realized that a lot of the DJs I’d see used to DJ before they went to university. I had a few friends who used to play garage records in London. We’d do parties to fundraise for our courses, and then it became, “let’s just do nights anyways.” Because we really enjoyed it! There wasn’t a lot of pressure for it; there were a lot of clubs in Brighton, so as long as you brought people, they’d say, “do whatever you want.” That was the first experience I had with saying, “I could try to learn how to DJ.”

I remember bringing my desktop PC to a house party to play a set off Ableton. It was a CRT monitor on a table. [laughs] I used to borrow my friend’s laptop and use Traktor. Then I realized I couldn’t wheel up a tune. I remember, once, early on, I was playing, and someone told me to wheel up a tune, and I panicked—I didn’t know what to do, because the jog wheel didn’t do what a CDJ jog wheel did. So I just pressed “back,” it went “brrrrrr,” and I remember everyone looking at me. That’s when I thought, “yeah, I should probably learn how to use CDJs.” I remember supporting Joy Orbison in Brighton—I used to do a lot of support sets. I was on so early that it didn’t really matter if I was still learning how to play. It’s a learning curve, though; it makes you thick-skinned.

So that was my first foray into DJing. I didn’t actually start making music until maybe a year or two afterwards. I wanted to make edits. I’d love to find the first thing I ever made; it was completely out of tune. I had to train my ear—it was a slow process, with a lot of trial and error.

Art by Murlo

I was digging through your work and trying to place your first instance of worldbuilding; from what I can tell, you started the world that Puckle inhabits in 2017, with Club Coil. Does that track?

Murlo: Yeah, pretty much. I’m not saying, “I’m going to invent a world”—it’s just something that slipped in. I like the idea of soundtracking things—if I did a song, I liked picturing where that song would be. Take Adder—I liked the idea of making a scene and soundtracking it. From there, I’d say, “these scenes could be connected,” and from there, it snowballed until it was a city. From there, we’d do a club night, and I’d say, “it’d be cool if this is an actual club in this city.” That was Club Coil; we did a couple of those nights.

This came after all that, though. I started making music that wasn’t necessarily for the club. It didn’t really have a space in my head; I was like, “I don’t know where this exists.” As an artist who had only made music for the club before that, I felt like I had to invent one.

Between visual art, world building, 3D modeling, foraging, and music, you’ve got your fingers in a lot of pies. How do your practices talk to each other?

Murlo: I try not to do one thing for too long. If I’m producing music, I’ll hit a wall where I need some other kind of motivation, or idea, or understanding of where I’d like to do next. I’ll write some music, and I’ll listen back to it quite a bit. That usually informs me of imagery or gives me ideas of where I want to go next. But I fixate on things quite intensely. Take 3D modeling. That started quite a long time ago, when I found Blender and decided to have a look. The next thing I knew, I was watching tutorials at 4 a.m. It’s the same thing with 3D printing—I’d see what’s possible, and I’d say, “oh, okay, but that’s probably a whole thing.” I’ll try to take my mind off of it, but then I’ll find an article, and I’ll say, “this might be possible.” Next thing I know, I’m watching videos about resin exposure times. Last time I was in Korea, I was with my girlfriend, and we were talking about what I was going to do for merchandise. I just wouldn’t shut up about 3D printers, and she said, “can you just get one if you’re going to get one? Because it’s all you’re talking about.”

It all comes together bit by bit. I’ll spend a week drawing, and usually, that informs my next steps. Drawings can turn to models, which can be used as reference models [for other art]. With music, I’ll say, “I’ve got this environment; would it be cool if it sounded like this?” I could say I’ve got a structure, but I really don’t.

What were the beginnings of Puckle like?

Murlo: I could take a track off there and tell you how old it is. The last tune—”Adrenaline”—I’ve had that for years, but it’s never been suitable for an EP. I’ve always seen it as part of something else. After Unearth, I said, “I can’t see myself doing another EP for a long time. If I want to make music, I’m going to go in and do an album.” I looked at demos and found a few that didn’t make the album but that I still really liked. I based that whole album around “Adrenaline.” This was around the time that Unearth came out—in July 2021. The pandemic had a big effect, obviously; I stopped playing shows, like everyone else.

This might be a good time to mention my alias. There was a time when those split: I made a graphic of me handing the Murlo USBs to Sharda. Sharda’s the DJ now; Murlo’s going to be buried away in the basement just being a little art guy.

With the Murlo stuff, I made an audiovisual show, which I toured a bit before the pandemic. I decided I wasn’t going to DJ as Murlo any more, because the stuff I was playing was further and further from stuff you’d mix. Sharda was an alias that I had from years ago—probably eight or nine years ago. It was originally just silly bassline tunes, and then I started making more garage stuff, and then I connected with Conducta. We both made a tune called “Together,” which is credited to Murlo, but deep down, it’s a Sharda tune. There’s not much difference between the aliases anyway—it’s all a laugh; I found the mysteriousness really funny. I liked the idea of starting an alias where some people might not know it was me. I was playing Sharda shows for that whole time until the pandemic. I did some Sharda shows after, but something irreparably changed. I don’t know what it was, and I still think about it all the time.

It got to the point where I had to make a decision for what I wanted to do as Murlo: did I want to do another album or just move on? It’s connected to me getting older, too, and wanting something a bit more stable. I was really lucky: I got a big advert placement last year, on a tune that had already come out. That gave me the freedom to properly focus on an album. That’s really rare; it’s a privilege. I don’t have a background where I’ve ever had financial stability to that degree before. I thought, “I’m gonna make the most of this, and do something I really want to do.” That’s what Puckle was.

I don’t know what my future is, in terms of being a full-time musician. I can’t see how it’s sustainable. I don’t even know if I’m going to make another album. For me, Puckle was my last chance to do what I really, really wanted to do and do it as best I can. No matter what happens afterwards, I don’t have to wonder, “did I squander that opportunity?”

Let’s say I get a job that’s more focused on the visual side of things. Maybe I’ll get a job in a studio. I’ll still have time to focus on music, but it won’t be the same. Those were my thoughts behind this when I came in: I’m gonna throw myself completely into it, do everything that I wanted to, not worry about having to play live shows. I’ve had a lot of messages asking if I’m gonna tour it, but the Dolos live show took five months of solid work to get where it was. This is a whole new album. It would have taken me that same amount of time as making the models, the compendium, and such. I’d rather make something that’s a bit more tangible, something you can hold in your hands. There’s a lot of instability with live shows at the moment. Imagine if I spent six months doing the show and, for whatever reason, couldn’t hit the floor running. It was a risk to do away with the idea that I couldn’t tour it at the moment, but I’m happy with the choices I made.

Art by Murlo

I don’t envy you that instability.

Murlo: I think I’ve got the personality for it. I don’t think too far in the future, which is a massive detriment in some ways, but in other ways, it makes you a bit more resilient in terms of rolling with the punches and thinking on your feet. When it comes to money, you know, I’ve been lucky to DJ as long as I did. It’s a stupid job to explain to someone—”I got paid £500, £1000, whatever, for playing.” And people will say, “it’s not just the set, it’s travel, it’s taking that time.” But you realize how most people live, right? People don’t do that. It’s a ridiculous thing to get paid for.

My dad’s a sheet metal worker. We’ll chat, and I’ll explain things to him, and if I have something on my mind that’s bugging me, I’ll realize very fast as I’m explaining it that it’s a stupid thing to complain about. Oh, the trains aren’t very good at the moment, or I had to wait at the airport? But I’m playing in Porto—it’s a gig! It’s just perspective, you know?

I’m very grateful. It’s almost like I’ve managed to get away with this for this long. I can still try and keep this going, but I’m a bit older now; I just turned 36. I started thinking a bit more about the future—I don’t know if my maturity is finally catching up with my biological age. But maybe I want more stability, and to not need to worry about paying rent. That opportunity with that advert gave me a chance to invest in passion projects, like this album, and maybe then get something that’s a bit more stable but still make music on the side. That’s probably where my future lies—the arts, in general, are not that stable. But if it’s commercial work, I can keep my head down, get on with it, and be happy.

Some kind of illustration work, I imagine?

Murlo: Yeah. I used to be very precious about it. When I first left university, I thought I could be an illustrator. But, suddenly, I realized I’d spent a lot of time developing a style that wasn’t that attractive to clients. I tried to change it a bit, and then I realized I hated it—I said, “I’d rather work retail than change.” I was stubborn, like all twenty year-olds: “I’m not gonna change for the man.” I’m not saying I’ll do that now, but as I’ve grown up, my mind has broadened. Growing up, I’d just draw dragons and peregrine falcons, that kind of thing. I’d go to university, and I noticed tons of people drawing like David Shrigley. I was mad the whole time. I wanted to do high fantasy, and it just wasn’t very cool. Now that I’m older, I appreciate all types of things.

When I was looking through the art for Puckle, the two things that stood out for me were your focus on imagining other bodies and the focus on a combination of “artificial intelligence” and organized religion.

Murlo: There’s a lot of things I get drawn to, imagery-wise. There’s anatomy, like you mentioned—even Cronenberg-style body horror. As for the cult aspect, I’ve followed this “AI”—really, machine learning—stuff for a long time. With the Metaverse and such, people talk about it in a very cultish way so it felt like a good vessel for it. The story is about the cult members mostly, but I try to leave things open, where I can work on different characters and such. I try not to completely explain a story and define everything; I like the idea of being able to revisit stuff.

Dolos is part of the same story. But that was more about how a sentient AI managed to escape, while this isn’t about the A.I. at all. Here, the A.I. is a force that’s completely beyond human comprehension; you can’t know its intentions. I like the idea that it was providing something to someone, and who would accept it first if not a raging narcissist who was using it for his own gains? One, this person completely gets it wrong. I wanted the cult member to be a kind of new-age person who bends everything to their own interpretation. He thinks it’s some kind of deity who’s destined to wreck the city, and he wants to use whatever it’ll give him to complete its plan. It all goes wrong, because he doesn’t realize that what he’s receiving is destroying his body. That’s essentially the story; I’ve touched on other things, like how the A.I. lives in mycelium network, on Unearth. Dolos was about a recluse who gets tricked by the A.I. to help it escape.

I like the idea of comparing the story’s A.I. with a pearl. A pearl is, essentially, an immune response, but we all take it to be something else. It’s beautiful and we all wear it around our necks, but it’s a calcified protection against a grain of sand. When it comes around to telling the story, one thing I learned from Dolos is that I ought to play to my strengths. I don’t think that writing on-the-nose graphic novels is my strength. Here, I went a bit more left-field. I wrote poetry that wasn’t even good, but I like the idea that the person who wrote it was so enamored with something that they couldn’t help it.

I was joking with my friend the other day, and I said that I hate sincerity. And he told me that I’d made the most sincere record he’d heard—he said it was so over-the-top. I don’t know how to explain it, really, but there’s a nudge-nudge-wink-wink thing to a lot of art at the moment; nobody can fully commit to the bit. It’s an epidemic, where people don’t want to fully commit themselves to something because they’re afraid they’re going to be called cringe.

That’s what I love about high fantasy. I don’t want any fourth wall breaking. That’s why I went with this kind of poetry. I can’t think of anything more sincere than a William Blake romanticism kind of poetry. I wanted it to be so over-the-top sincere that you can’t take it any other way.

Art by Murlo

In Puckle, the drum programming and vocal chops seem both busier and looser than previous LPs. Does that track? Has it been a conscious shift?

Murlo: I think so, yeah. With being a club producer for so long, I’d listen to music that was a bit more off the grid, or to music that doesn’t have any drums in it at all. And I’d think, “If this is something I really want to make, I have to be more conscious about it not being so rigid.” I tried that with this album. I’m always worried about being one of those producers who never really grows and just keeps making the same thing.

What distinctions do you make between club and listening music?

Murlo: I view this album as not being very dancey. But I think my barometer for dance music, for functionality, is different. I’ve noticed that when I get write-ups, it’s like, “this is forward-thinking club music.” And it’s not at all! [laughs]

The distinctions I make between something being made for the club versus simply having tropes of club music are whether I could mix it or if I remember the BPM. For most of this album, I can’t remember what the BPM is; I’m really happy with that. If I remember making a tune and it’s like, “oh, that’s 130 BPM,” that’s not a good indication, because it’s probably very functional; it probably sounds like it’s 130 BPM.

I’ve had write-ups where people say, “this is a garage tune,” and it often isn’t—it’s 110 BPM. I wouldn’t call it gatekeeping, per se, but there are certain genres where I know them when I hear them. I know when I hear a garage tune, just because of the drums. It’s like drum-and-bass—there’s a pattern and history to it; I can hear things from old garage tunes. When I make music as Sharda, I’m making stuff with my garage hat on. I don’t mind making it more experimental or a bit different, but I try to stay true to the essence.

With this album, I used some swung drums, but everything else in it isn’t a garage tune at all. This isn’t me trying to change garage; I don’t want people to think I’m trying to “advance a sound,” because that’s egotistical. The album sounds like it does because of my influences. It’s like what I was saying earlier, with things informing you without you necessarily knowing it.

I think about an interview I ran with Sabre last year, where he spoke about the distinctions he makes between “dance music,” “electronic music,” and “electronic dance music.”

Murlo: That’s a really good point, especially with UK music. UK music seems to be pigeonholed quite aggressively with people outside the UK. If it sounds a bit like a grime song, it’s definitely a grime song; if it sounds like it’s got some swung drums, it’s a garage tune. It can’t just be electronic music. I have always described my Murlo stuff as “electronic music,” because it’s a broad term. Genres set a lot of expectations. People read about it before they’ve heard it, and they go in with a certain expectation. With “electronic,” it could be anything: it could be Björk, or Dorian Concept, or Squarepusher.

Tell me about your recent NTS special, where you explored “cinematic” music—both Dorian Concept and Squarepusher were on that. When you say “cinematic,” what do you mean? Is it a question of where it comes from or what it stirs in you?

Murlo: It’s definitely the latter. I’ll play a song by Salamanda, a duo from Seoul, and their music is very cinematic to me—it evokes visuals, and it’s wide. Generally, I think it’s beatless; it’s off the grid. I didn’t really know what else to call it—it’s me fumbling for a word for a specific sound that I have in my head. It’s not like I’m gonna get the Gladiator soundtrack out. It’s a way of saying, “I’m not playing any dance music in this mix.”

There’s a few selections I’d like to dig into. Do you play [Warhammer] 40,000?

Murlo: I do, but mainly Total War: WARHAMMER. I did dabble in it growing up; I collected some Necrons. I didn’t think I was bright enough to learn how to play, but I liked painting them. Plus, they were expensive! When they started making figurines in this white metal, they charged a fortune—like, £15—and I said, “I can’t afford to play this game.” But I haven’t even played the game that that track is from. I’ll do that quite a lot—I’ll play a bit of a game, or watch the trailer, and say “the sound design is quite interesting here.” I’ll listen to the soundtrack before playing the game. I never finished NieR:Automata, but those soundtracks are amazing—I’ve not heard anything like them before.

Warhammer has some neat parallels to what we’ve been speaking to, though—taking storytelling tropes and saying, “how can these be reimagined?”

Murlo: Yeah. One thing I like about video games is how they tell stories with worldbuilding. Dark Souls, in particular, has a very obtuse way of telling its stories. One thing I really like is that the weapons have stories in their descriptions, and I love that. That’s one of the reference points I go to when I think about how I want to tell stories—have snippets of things that people can get involved in if they want, but that they can also enjoy on a surface level. You don’t have to sit and read every book in Skyrim. I like things that have levels of lore. I want my music to work like that, too.

Talk to me about Twin Peaks.

Murlo: I love Twin Peaks. I had one of the original scores in a previous cinematic special. This one, though, is from series three, when they’re in the restaurant. When I watched that episode, I recognized that melody, and it almost sounded like a Ghibli score. I looked for that tune everywhere, and all I could find was the Twin Peaks official soundtrack, but I wanted the original. That’s actually from something on YouTube—I don’t know what someone did; they must have taken the piano and added restaurant ambience onto it. I love what David Lynch did with the third series; it would have been so easy to make it a fan-service kind of reunion, which in some ways it kind of ways. I wasn’t expecting it to go that weird, which I was really happy about.

The last name I’m curious about is the PS22 Chorus. I found them on an NTS special last year.

Murlo: You’re joking!

Here, let me send you the special.

Murlo: That’s crazy. I can’t remember how I came across that video, but I’ve been revisiting it for years. They’re quite young—like, 11 years old or something. I used to watch it with my girlfriend; we’d Zoom chat a lot, because of time differences. We’d have nights where we’d watch YouTube videos together, and now and again, it would pop up on my feed because I’d watched it before. We’d watch it, and I love how invested they all are in the tune. It’s a testament to how good their teacher is. It’s so good; it’s wholesome; it’s pure.

At this point, what is your relationship to the Manchester scene?

Murlo: Much of the reason I moved to Manchester is that I slowly connected with people when I had a residency at Swing Ting. I played there for years, and I said, “I can’t afford to live in London any more; I don’t like living here.” I already had some friends in Manchester, so it made sense. It’s an amazing place; it’s just the right pace for me. There’s enough going on, but you also get your moments of stillness. It’s a bustling city, but not the same level as London. I feel like I’ve made some good producer friends here, and there are bags and bags of talent in the city. I don’t think I’m as integrated now as I was earlier, though, in part because I barely leave my flat.

But yeah, I have a lot of love for Manchester. I don’t know if I’m going to stay here, or where I’ll go next. I could go into a rant about how London-centric the music scene is; it’s not fair, but what is in the music industry? Manchester deserves its flowers.

Art by Murlo

What have you been reading lately?

Murlo: At the moment, I’m reading Robot. The artwork instantly made me pick it up and buy it, but I’d heard it was quite good before. I just picked up American Psycho today; I’ve not read it, but I do like the film. and I try to read the source material for films and media that I like. It extends the world a bit for me.

I’ve been reading a manga artist called Keiichi Koike. This is a big inspiration for me, not just in terms of story, but also in terms of visuals. I’m really into that kind of style—I’d say it’s more on the abstract side of manga. It’s a bit more philosophical, not to sound pretentious. [laughs] There’s a story in that called “3000 Leagues in Search of Mother.” It’s about a robot that’s having a dream, and it’s beautiful. There’s a Satoshi Kon collection I read, and there’s a story in it called “Carve,” which I really liked. I read “Child of God,” by Cormac McCarthy, which was harrowing.

There’s Junji Ito’s short stories—there’s one I love that he’s done, called “The Enigma of Amigara Fault.” When I was in Japan recently, we went to a bookshop and saw a collection of his original drawings. I think about it all the time. It just gets under your skin—there’s an element of claustrophobia to it, but there’s also just something creepy about something being perfectly shaped just for you.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

Murlo: I don’t know. We’ll see what happens with the album. I’d like to do an installation. I’d like to do some kind of immersive extension of the album; I’d like to do an installation, to present the record to people in a way other than Instagram or Spotify. It’s not necessarily the easiest thing to get the ball rolling on, but I’d love to do that. Apart from that, I want to figure out what I can be good at that will give me a bit more stability. I’m going to keep making tunes, because it’s a bit of a habit that I won’t be able to stop. I’ve still got a lot to give. I’m still going to release a few singles through Sharda, making fun stuff that I enjoy making. For Murlo, I’ve got a bunch of songs that I’m happy with, which might find a home, which might lead to something new. But for now, I’m gonna take a few months to not do anything.

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