The Murlocs’s Ambrose Kenny-Smith talks about their new album Bittersweet Demons


Credit: Jamie Wdziekonski

The Murlocs have come into their own as one of the prominent voices of the Australian rock revival. Over the course of four records and collaboration with other bands on Flightless Records (including rock titans King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, with which they share two members), their style of rock and roll blends the 70s glam/RnB era with Lennon-esque power-pop and lead singer Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s distinctive wailing on the harmonica.

Released today, Bittersweet Demons is an impressive record that takes The Murlocs’s sound in a varied and more personal direction. Eschewing the guitar-psych of their earlier records, Kenny-Smith and company have leaned in heavily to piano-based melody and lyricism that hones in on both the personal figures of Kenny-Smith upbringing and the tales of growing up in suburban Australia. Bittersweet Demons ebbs and flows in a marvelous way — the upbeat lead single “Francesca” is about Kenny-Smith’s mother’s personal strength and reflects more of their prior discography, while songs like “No Self Control” and “Skewiff” are straight-forward piano ballads that bring to mind the anthems of Elton John if passed through a scuzzy, psychedelic filter. The final track, “Misinterpreted”, is one of the finest closing tracks that I’ve heard this year, slowly twisting and turning its way to an ending coda that finishes off the record in a cinematic fashion. This record is The Murlocs operating on all cylinders, and it demands your attention in a year that’s been fairly slim on good rock music. Stream the record here, and keep scrolling to read our chat with Ambrose about the record’s development and influences.

Melodic Mag: One of the biggest shifts that I can hear on this record is the move from guitar-based songwriting to a more melodic, emotive piano-based style. Was that an intentional change, or did it just occur naturally?
Ambrose Kenny-Smith: It came into my mind that I wanted to write like that after we wrote “Comfort Zone” on our last record. That was one of the first piano-based songs that we’d assembled as a group, and I remember driving home after that first practice and I realized that this is the music I want to make. I was so excited about it. But after we finished that album, I was pretty set that I wanted to make a heavier record — like heavier than we’ve ever done — so we began to write those songs but then King Gizzard went on our Infest the Rats Nest bent and toured that like crazy, and I realized I’d rocked all the rock out of me! So I started writing more songs on the piano, and we all just embraced it. “Bittersweet Demons” and “Blue Eyed Runner” were the first songs that came together and kind of set the mood for the rest of the record.

MM: It’s pretty well-known that your projects (both The Murlocs and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard) are extremely prolific — with that in mind, what did your writing process look like for this record? Was there a clear separation between these tracks and other things you were working on because of this stylistic shift?
AKS: For my song ideas, I’m thinking of lyrics and melody rather than the music itself. So I’ll have chords or a little riff here and there — the basic structure — and then I bring it to the table and let the band work their magic. Cook’s bassline on the title track is one of my favorite bass lines that we’ve ever written. So everyone has their draw cards as to what they do — a lot of it is built on my ideas, but we make it the song. I love keeping it very collaborative – I really cringe trying to make my demos with drumbeats and doing it all myself. Trust me, it’s a lot better when the band brings what they’ve got into the mix. 

As it relates to Gizz, we change albums so constantly there, so it’s pretty easy to adapt to whatever we’re doing at the time and dive headfirst into that. If I’m not super into it, then there’s always the next record (laughs). So with keeping it separate from the Murlocs, we’ve had a lot of success in making that sound like our own as compared to anybody else.

MM: Are there any particularly memorable moments or tidbits from making this record?
AKS: The song “Limerence” came about super organically. I recorded it all by myself at home on just an acoustic guitar and single microphone, and quickly realized that it’d be cool with more things underneath it. So I brought it to the band and Matt, our drummer, put this super minimalist beat under it that really pointed the song towards this straightforward, simple direction. “Skyrocket” and “Illuminate the Shade” were leftovers from our last record that we could never get super happy with in that era, so we just kept tweaking them and it worked out very nicely to have a couple of rockers on this record to break up the flow a little bit.


MM: Bittersweet takes a markedly more personal approach with regards to the lyricism, whereas you were a little vaguer with your songwriting in the past in an almost diaristic sense. For instance, “Francesca” is about your mom, and the title track is about your dear friend Keegan Walker passing away. What led you to do this as you were writing the album?
AKS: It just sort of happened — when Keegan passed away I had been playing with “Bittersweet Demons” and it felt like I needed to be grounded and connect with something again. Shortly after he passed, I sat down and started singing about the funeral and how many people he touched in his life. I was listening to so much Elton John and Lennon that were singing so personally, and I decided I wanted to try it. Might as well stop tip-toeing around these ideas and push the envelope and send it to the abyss.

MM: Do these folks know that you’re writing about them, or are there some awkward conversations to come in the future?
AKS: (laughs) My dad and mom know the songs written about them, but I’ve kept it kind of vague with everyone else. “Dangerous Nature” is written about the suburbs and the kind of rough characters that inhabit them on the outskirts, doing meth and shit, so I’m not trying to talk about that too much. I like singing about rough sides of life with kind of a bright element — I was consistently drawn to old blues or soul songs that have musical tones that are pleasant, but lyrically are a little bit tougher.

MM: That’s a perfect segue into what I wanted to talk about next! The press for this album has referenced The Plastic Ono Band and Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats as the forebearers for this album, but I hear a little bit more 70s glam than those albums let on. What all were you listening to while you were constructing the record?
AKS: Oh yeah, there’s a ton of T. Rex and glam rock in my music library that definitely made its way onto the record. But I was drawn to those 70s singer-songwriters — Nilsson and Emitt Rhodes, you know? Those kind of guys that had these minimalist, piano-based songs that could still punch you in the gut.

MM: Oh man, I went through a huge Emitt Rhodes phase after he passed last year. I think his final record has one of those all-time perfect closing tracks.
AKS: That’s the way I felt about “Misinterpreted” (the closing track on Bittersweet Demons). We wrote it and I instantly knew that it had to close the album — it just felt right. I’m happy with the way that the album flows and ends there.

MM: Sequencing is so incredibly important — do you have an all-time favorite closing track on an album?
AKS: Oh, Christ. (laughs) That’s tough to answer. I tend to gravitate more towards the opening tracks — like on Plastic Ono when it just starts with all that clatter and noise. I guess for closing tracks I prefer things to either be a long, extended jam-out into oblivion or a more stripped-back aura that concludes the album.

On our own Gumboot Soup (King Gizzard’s last record released in 2017 after they made five records in one year), the track “I’m Sleepin’ In” should’ve been the closer because Stu (Mackenzie, King Gizzard vocalist) is just singing about how tired he is, which we all were after making five fucking records in a year. (laughs) It’s not the closer, but it would’ve been beautifully ironic if it was.

The Murlocs have a album-release livestream tonight that you can buy tickets to here, and you can purchase Bittersweet Demons at their Bandcamp.

Keep up with The Murlocs:  Twitter // Instagram // Facebook

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