Interview

Viagra Boys – punk songs about flaws and failings

"I’m kind of proud of things I’ve created out of depression, anxiety and social unrest"

Swedish outfit Viagra Boys are hardly the poster boys for wholesomeness and good health. In the video for recent single ‘Sports’, taken from their recently released debut album ‘Street Worms’, singer Sebastian Murphy slouches around a tennis court while a game is being played over the top of him. ‘Baseball. Basketball. Weiner dog. Short shorts. Cigarette,’ he drones. The players are clean cut, athletic, with perfect aim and neat activewear as they serve tennis balls directly into the side of his head. Sebastian is shirtless, tattooed, in sunglasses, track pants and trainers; the strung out, hungover antithesis to the people around him. It’s pretty clearly a piss-take, but who the joke is on depends entirely on which way you look at things. Sure, the song lampoons a particular kind of lifestyle, playing off the uber strong, uber healthy preening of sports culture. Look at it from a different angle, though, and the joke is on the band.

“There’s probably a bit of self-hatred in that song also,” Sebastian notes. He is holed up in a bar somewhere in Stockholm, bartender patter and the solid clunk of full glasses seeping down the phone line.

“I’ve got a lot of friends that take care of themselves and do a lot of sports and have fun with each other and it’s like, ‘fuck, why can’t I do this?’” he says, “and then I kind of make fun of it instead. I have a problem with sports culture, mostly because I’ve never had the self-esteem to do sports, or to take myself seriously, or take my body seriously, or my mental health or whatever.”

It’s a ‘screw you’ to a part of society that won’t let him in, the musical equivalent of a sniffed ‘well, I didn’t want to be part of your stupid club anyway.’ But there are no hard feelings.

He laughs. “It’s just kind of making fun of masculinity in general but at the same I don’t have any grounds to make fun of it.”

It’s safe to say, then, that Viagra Boys’ breed of punk doesn’t take itself too seriously. At least, Sebastian’s doesn’t.

“I can’t speak for the whole band, because a lot of the shit that I originally wrote for the album, the guys were worried about [turning into] slapstick comedy,” he says. “But I like it when it comes from Butthole Surfers or bands like that, because you can see the bleakness and the irony in the shit that they write. It’s funny, but it’s not funny at all. It’s serious shit. But that’s the only way I can look at my life, I can’t sit and talk about my life in a way that’s depressing because then I’ll get depressed. It’s kind of like a coping mechanism, to laugh at it and just move forward.”

This whole ‘personal growth’ thing doesn’t necessarily mean that Sebastian is pleading for forgiveness for past excesses and indiscretions though. It’s done, it happened, and he’s not ashamed of it. It’s just that things are different now, and so he’s turning it into art.

“I was having this conversation with a friend a few days ago, about how him and I did an art show together and spent a week in a basement putting my shit up on the walls and stuff. He got to see the worst sides of me and I got to see the worst sides of him, because we were living really closely together and I was really fucked up on speed all the time, and I was just an asshole, you know? I’ve quit all that stuff and I’m trying to get my shit together, but when we talk about it now we’re like, ‘fuck man, we did a lot of cool shit also.’ I did a lot of artwork that I couldn’t have done if I hadn’t felt like shit.”

One of the works that exists ­(at least in part) thanks to that period of turmoil is Viagra Boys’ latest single, ‘Just Like You’. Part industrial, part new wave, the song imagines an alternate reality in which the narrator’s life went very smoothly; wife, dog, house, job. At first it seems like longing for a missed opportunity. Then Sebastian subverts it. The dream is a nightmare, and that life is a kind of emotional death.

“That’s kind of the essence of that feeling,” Sebastian says. “In the last verse I say something like, ‘thank god I didn’t go to school and thank god I didn’t end up just like you,’ and that’s because I’m kind of proud of things I’ve created out of depression and anxiety and social unrest. There’s a certain pride in that. Because society wants you to feel like shit about making these choices, but I couldn’t have known better until now,” he laughs.

The outcomes of those choices, and the depression and paranoia that informed them, come through in waves on ‘Street Worms’. The record is permeated with a ‘been up all night’ sort of haze, like the soundtrack to waking up on a bus at eight in the morning surround by City workers in suits. A musical hangover.

“I mean, I was in a massive hangover for two and a half years, pretty much. Or, I was addicted to speed for a long time. Shit’s leaving your body all the time, so it’s like a constant state of being irritated and fucked up all the time. That’s kind of how it was for two and a half years – I was depressed and paranoid and thought that people were out to get me and stuff. I think that shows on the album.”

It’s also one of the reasons that the record has been in the pipeline for going on two years now.  It can be kind of difficult to get things done when your bloodstream is crammed with more chemicals than a research lab. Strange things tend to get in your way, and ideas take hold and then take flight again without any time in between to process.

“It’s been a long time, but really not a lot of work,” says Sebastian. “Just a lot of bullshit, you know? Like me flipping out about different things, but mostly due to stupid reasons like drug use and stuff, and getting hooked on one idea that was stupid and realising it was stupid and taking it back. That’s why it’s taken such a long time, just due to stupid shenanigans from being in a haze.”

Still, the obstacles don’t always come from a lifestyle issue. Most of the songs on ‘Street Worms’ were written at the eleventh hour, while the band were already ensconced in the studio, because, Sebastian says, “I procrastinate a lot. The others would ask, you know, ‘do you have the shit ready?’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I think I have some ideas…’ and then I get to the studio and I have no ideas at all, and I’ve said that I’ve written something and I haven’t written any lyrics. So while they’re recording, I write the lyrics and then go record some of them and realise that it’s missing some parts and go and add them.”

This stream-of-consciousness, backed-into-a-corner way of writing doesn’t give Sebastian the most time to interrogate the themes that he’s putting out.

“I realise what I’m writing about probably six months after I’ve written it. But everything that comes from the subconscious is from somewhere, you know.

“The first EP was much easier because I just took four or five very solid things that were happening in my life. Like, you know, I couldn’t get a boner, I was taking a lot of research chemicals and then I didn’t remember anything because I was addicted to benzo for a long time, then ‘Liquids’ was about my sexual desire. But after I wrote the EP I didn’t have anything left to write about so I just winged it, and then I realised months afterwards that it had a deeper meaning.”

There are some songs still left to figure out. ‘Down in the Basement’, for example, seems to take another shot at masculinity and manhood, as the singer impotently insists that he’s ‘not like those other guys.’ In the narrative of the song he is, of course, exactly like all the other guys. An absolute carbon copy.

“That song, I kind of listened to after we had it recorded like, ‘Jesus Christ what the fuck did I write here?’ It kind of sounds like I’m a closeted homosexual. Or that’s my interpretation in a way,” he laughs. “It’s like, okay, everyone’s going to misinterpret this song.

“I guess I’m just talking about relationships in general, and how men deal with relationships. I’ve seen a lot of guys acting like total assholes, and they don’t really know why they’re acting like assholes. They go out and make the same stupid choices every night, whether it’s doing cocaine when you’re with a woman that doesn’t like cocaine, or whether you’re gay and you’re with a woman. I like it and it definitely comes from something, but it might have been from shame.”

He considers this for a moment longer.

“I think it’s about shame. Yeah, there you go, it’s about shame.”

Other tracks are more straightforward. The second-to-last song on the record, ‘Worms’, is clear cut grunge. It’s also the wildcard on the album; less tangled, more intimate, with a streak of nihilism that borders on tenderness.

“I kind of wanted to have a song on the album that had this ’90s riff, kind of like Breeders or Pixies or Nirvana, all that kind of shit. I hated that music when I was younger and I really like it now, and I just wanted to do a song like that. The lyrics, I just kind of got stuck on the word ‘worms’. There was a girl working at my job, she came in one day and she was like, ‘urgh, I don’t want to have kids anymore cause I’ve heard they have worms!’” He cackles. The chorus, though, sprang from something more serious.

“I heard something else the same week, this guy from El Salvador I think, he was talking about Donald Trump and said, ‘the same worms that eat you are gonna eat me too.’ Like, ‘what the fuck is wrong with you, why can’t you just realise we’re people too?’”

The man was furious about Trump’s ‘shithole countries’ remark, and his phrasing stuck in Sebastian’s head. It’s easy to understand why. ‘Street Worms’ is an album about flaws and failings, and the ways in which the two interact to make us all just people. Ridiculous, deeply fallible people who are all going to end up as wormfood or topsoil someday. The record is the existential breakdown after a particularly big night, and Viagra Boys make it seem like an essential part of the ecosystem. One more story to tell. They’ve made it a good one, at least.

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