Jun 08, 2021
By Celine Teo-Blockey
Photography by Jack Bridgland
In a year when everything seemed to go to pot, Murray Matravers, frontman of Leicester, England-based band Easy Life wrote his chirpy songs for Life’s a Beach—a debut album of pure escapism that doesn’t shy away from darker themes. It taps nicely into our collective need for a holiday from the things that were bringing us down, and in this moment, might be the perfect soundtrack for our journey out of lockdown.
“Who gives a fuck about my nightmares?” he sings on early single “nightmares” (all of Life’s a Beach’s song titles are intended to be styled as lowercase), listing warning signs of someone going off the rails—barely able to focus, sleepless nights, wrestling with vices. But as the brass horns purr, the bass slaps, and the music makes you sway, we’ll just choose to ignore the alarm bells and heed the chorus: “It’s nothing you should worry yourself about.”
“Nightmares” also soundtracks a pivotal moment in Michaela Coel’s lauded TV show, I May Destroy You and put a well-deserved spotlight on a band that was formed only a couple of years earlier, in 2017. Just as Matravers was about to throw in the towel and contemplated joining the army, he penned “pockets” about his frustration with writing songs that were getting him nowhere.
The five-piece was born when Matravers and school friends Sam Hewitt (bass), Oliver Cassidy (drums), and Lewis Berry (guitar) decided to get multi-instrumentalist Jordan Birtles, a member of one of Leicester’s famed, local reggae outfits, to join their band. The diverse musical backgrounds accounts for the band’s indefinable sound, led by Matravers’ laid-back rap stylings—like a more cuddly, Northern, Eminem—and rounded with a poppy mish mash of funk, jazz, and reggae. In November 2019, on the heels of Junk Food their third mixtape, they released “sangria,” a winning collaboration with indie darling Arlo Parks and finished the year on a high with a place on the BBC’s Sound of 2020 list.
Celine Teo-Blockey (Under the Radar): How long did it take you to write this album because apart from “nightmares” and a couple of other songs—I understand most of it was written during the lockdown? And you didn’t want to just pull the songs from your mixtapes and merge that into an album.
Murray Matravers: I used to hate it when bands or artists do that exact thing where they release like a best-of as their debut album. We definitely didn’t want to do that. I write so much music that it was nice to write new stuff for the album. It took about a year—which is really annoying because…I could have done it in a week if I would have pulled my socks up. It’s funny I spent a lot of my time writing songs that didn’t make the album. Most of the time over lockdown, given the luxury of having loads of time, it was great! But part of that kind of interrupted and interfered with my process because I started overthinking things and trying to write songs—and as soon as I try to write something I always fail. The beauty of all the Easy Life songs that made the album are all happy accidents and very spontaneous, so given the luxury of having loads of time, I went down a few rabbit holes to say the least. So it took a year but it feels like it should have taken a lot less than that. You live and learn.
How would you guys jam together? Over Zoom? I saw you did a couple of lockdown versions of your songs but actually writing new songs over Zoom might be a little trickier—or maybe not? Some bands need to jam but even if you don’t, there must be a certain amount of coming together to craft the songs?
Luckily, I do a lot of the writing in isolation anyway so, on a laptop or whatever, so it was always something I was ready for. It wasn’t like we had to change the process. I think that must have been terribly difficult for artists that do need to be together (in a room) and bands in particular. I’ve not actually given that much thought because we were blessed in that, we all work on our laptops anyway. A lot of the time, I would just write something in my room, record it, I bought a microphone. I’ve subsequently got this studio but at the time I was just working from a bedroom much to my girlfriend’s annoyance. The bedroom was all synthesizers and cables, it was literally just hell. It got really, really, crazy actually. And bless her—I was really like, “It’s only one more tape machine, I promise, just one more.” It was bad. But it was good. So we were always set up to write like that. And the internet, that’s such an incredible tool for songwriting. And I just sort of sent WeTransfer’s of stems and files all over the place. We just work like that really—much the same as everyone else. You just sort of get on with it and make it work don’t you? Luckily, it was something that we were all really fluent in already. It didn’t really put a stumbling block there. We were really quite lucky in that respect.
Your music is very “easy” on many levels—it’s uplifting, easy-listening that pulls seamlessly from various genres, but as a five-piece, in putting together the album, were there ever songs that you maybe couldn’t agree on? And were just banging your head against the wall?
The irony of it all is that the songs that made the album were all really easy and spontaneous. And there was in general just a “yeah, that’s good. Let’s put that on the album.” And the arguments and the frustrations—the ones that were really, like you said, “banging your head against the wall,” they never made the album because they were never good enough in the first place. Something that Easy Life’s always been is just sort of, as raw, honest, and authentic as it possible can be. And I think you can only really establish sort of true authenticity, in a kind of spur of the moment way. If you sat down weeks on end just thinking about it, you’re kind of diluting that spark that was there initially. A lot of things—don’t get me wrong I do obsesses about the details, in terms of the mix and the production, all that kind of stuff, it does matter to us but really that doesn’t make a great song, a great song. I think the song exists from the get go and if it’s good, it’s good! And if it’s not, it’s not worth fretting about. I think the biggest difficulty was being trapped inside. And I think everyone can relate to that as being a difficult scenario. You’re trapped in a house with nowhere to go and you can’t see your friends, your family—we’ve all lived that. And I think that was difficult for the album. That was difficult for everyone. But I think the music was a savior. I love making music. That’s never a chore. Always a blessing and never a chore, it really is.
Speaking of lockdown—I loved the lockdown versions you all did with the five split screens and then with Arlo Parks for the song “sangria”—how did that collaboration come about initially?
I’m just a huge Arlo Parks fan before she became massive. Before she was cool. And you know it was her first EP that I heard. And I was just a massive fan. Maybe a couple of years ago, I was in a studio in West London, and I was in a smoking area and out came Arlo Parks. And I was like, super star struck. [Laughs] I don’t think she even knew who I was or that I knew who she was! And that was weird because she was still a small artist at the time. Bless her. And I was like “OMG it’s Arlo Parks.” And I’ve got no chill either. I’m not very smooth. I was like freaking out and like “Arlo, please come talk to me. Have my cigarettes. Take whatever you want!” And she’s super chill. And we had “sangria” for I don’t know, six months to a year? It was exactly like it is now but minus Arlo. So it just had this huge hole in it. I wasn’t really planning on getting a feature or anything. I just thought, “Arlo will kill it.” And I said, “Let me send you some music.” And she said “Sure,” and later that night she sent us a demo, of her singing in her house. And I was like, “Right, what are you doing tomorrow? I’ll book us a studio. Meet me at the studio.” I set a mic up and recorded her maybe twice through the song. She just smashed it. Then went off to a party. And that was it. She was one cool customer. She sounds incredible in real life. Honestly, being in the room was mental. She’s a really fucking special artist.
At the end of 2019, you were on the BBC Sounds 2020 list—at the start of 2020 it must have been so exciting to be on this steady rise and get on to the poll. How hard was it for you guys to go from that high to lockdown?
Well, it was scary wasn’t it? It was just terrifying at the beginning. I didn’t do any work for about three months because I didn’t feel like music was that important. Subsequently, I came round to think, “No, it is important because we have to provide sanity for our fans,” who were all dispersed—and everyone’s life just stopped. I try not to complain about it. I did get coronavirus but it was okay. I was fine. It could have been worse. My family, thank God we’re all fine. It was a bit of a stress the fact that we couldn’t play a few gigs, but who really cares? Don’t get me wrong it was massive for us but you’ve got to put it in perspective, we’ve been terribly lucky. I was terribly lucky to have something to do over lockdown, which was write the album. I kept speaking to all my friends and most of them were just bored out of their brains. And I had a cure for that boredom, which was just make music. Honestly, I think it was a really good time for self-reflection, I didn’t realize just how privileged I really am. I got it so good during lockdown. So we can’t play gigs and sure, we were on to a good thing, but I don’t know, I was just super lucky and grateful. Honestly I can’t sit here and complain, and say “it was so hard” because that’s just not the way it is.
You seem pretty level-headed and down to earth, what was it like growing up on your family farm in Loughborough? You have a real appreciation for where your food comes from and an awareness of environmental issues in a way that people growing up in the city might not have as acute an understanding and it finds its way into songs like “earth” from the Junk Food EP.
It’s something I take for granted because it’s just the way I’ve been brought up. Lots of people may not understand where their food comes from, which I find really troubling. My parents have been organic farmers for 35 years. We were raised to appreciate nature and do things in harmony with nature—no pesticides, and animal welfare being right at the top of their priorities. Again, what an incredible thing to be exposed to at such a young age and I’m super grateful for it. That definitely affected the way I view life. I find the world totally beautiful and nature completely inspiring and that comes from spending so much time outside. Also growing up on the farm made me like music—I didn’t have TV for a lot of it. I didn’t have games consoles. And certainly the internet, hadn’t become the internet yet. Back then, you made your own fun didn’t you?
What were some of the things you did on the farm for fun?
For most of it, I’d just be helping my mom and dad, feeding the animals. And I was obviously pretty obsessed with tractors for most of my childhood. Then my parents got me a drum kit when I was about eight, and again I was so lucky because my friends at school, they couldn’t get drum kits because they had neighbors. But I didn’t have a neighbor so I could go crazy. I was bored all the time and my mom would say, “Only boring people get bored.” And I didn’t want to be a boring person so I would go play the drums or feed the cows—I’ve always learned to entertain myself. That’s really why Easy Life started—just for something to do. It still is that for me: It’s entertaining!
And at home your mom was into ABBA and the Bee Gees and your dad was into jazz and classical music, so you were raised on some eclectic musical tastes. Could you pick a favorite jazz album or artist that you loved growing up? Or do you want to pick a favorite ABBA song?
I can’t pick a favorite ABBA song that is like choosing between your children. There’s too many. When I say that, people are always surprised, it’s like liking Coldplay or something. [Laughs] Anyway, I love ABBA. But my favorite jazz album—my parents always had Dizzy on the French Riviera [by Dizzy Gillespie] that was something that was always playing—if I had to name one. They also played a lot of Beatles. My dad really likes his classical music. And I guess that’s been good for training my ear to understand music theory. Some of it is so complicated but when you have a young mind, you just digest these things so easily. My parents, they’re incredible really, because they had gone and done things that were slightly out of the ordinary. At the time, organic farming hadn’t become mainstream—it’s still not mainstream, a lot of it is still mass produced. Conventional farming is still happening, and organic farming has had a revival but certainly when they were doing it, there was no money in it. It was a bit of an outlier—so when I turned around and said, “Hey, I want to do this music thing,” they were like, “Well, go for it! Who are we to tell you that you can’t do that because look at us, we have a farm now. And we started with nothing!”
Is it true that you were trying to write pop songs and make it for a quite a few years? And in that time all your mates had gone off to university and then came home, while you were still working your same small town job. Then you had a sort of crisis of confidence and just thought, “What am I doing with my life?” And were about to chuck it all in, maybe go join the army, then “pockets” happened?
That’s exactly it! Yeah, for ages—now with the benefit of hindsight I know where I went wrong—but for ages I was trying to write music for the people. Or what I thought they would like. The worst part is I didn’t have a clue what they wanted, and I was always off target. I guess it was again this ABBA and Bee Gees-thing, these perfect songs. I was overthinking it. How could I make music for a living? Well, write a huge hit. I don’t know, it’s a rational thing to think. So how do I write this song? And for ages I was just trying to write songs for other people. It wasn’t until I got completely fed up and wrote “pockets,” which was all about trying to do it for me and to do it for the love of music. I didn’t think anyone would dig it. And they did. That’s still something that I find fascinating—that it was genuinely me rebelling against all the conventions of songwriting that I’d been following.
And it was something that John Cooper Clarke had said that also struck you?
The importance of idleness—that resonated with me. He said it on his Desert Island Discs [appearance on BBC Radio 4], that he spent so many years and months just being idle with nothing to do and be like, “Okay, I might just write a poem now and busy myself.” It’s like what I was saying about being on the farm with no phone, no internet, no TV—all the things that could easily entertain you. Being idle is so important to what we do. I sometimes just sit in the studio and read. And when I get bored with that I try to write a song.
What books do you read?
All sorts, mostly novels now. To be honest, for a long time I just needed to get through the classics. Like Jane Austen, I’d read it and be like, “come on,” but I just needed to get to the end. And Charles Dickens, I just needed to tick it off the list. I’ve got a strange relationship with reading, I treat it like a job. And my girlfriend, she can’t understand it. “Why do you do this to yourself, it’s suppose to be enjoyable?” I didn’t go to university, but I’ve always been fascinated with form, prose, and structure, how things are written. But I also think it’s a great way to pass the time.
Okay, so with Life’s a Beach—first, what’s your closest beach because you’re in the Midlands right?
That was the whole reason we called it Life’s a Beach, because there’s this kind of idea that life definitely isn’t a beach but we can pretend that things are okay. Our closest beach is two-and-half hours away, it’s quite a long way away, its called Skegness.
When I think of beaches in the North of England, I think of movies where beach or English summers were portrayed with blow-up paddle pools, garden gnomes, and plastic flamingoes.
That is the vibe. Maybe not the Californian beach you’ve grown accustomed to.
On “a message to myself” it’s like a little mantra to just be yourself. And a song like “have a great day” is when you’re in the good spot in a relationship. When you still care how the other feels because you don’t know for sure. There’s an excitement and optimism of what could be. The first half of the album is quite upbeat, before we go further, what is the significance of the goldfish in all your music videos?
In the songs, the protagonist is usually myself. But I’m usually singing to somebody else. I wanted to have a “you”—the idle mind it does wonder and I came up with this goldfish. We made “message to myself” and the visuals for it simultaneously. It’s the only song where we’ve made the audio and music video at the same time. The music video was made by my friend, Andy Baker, who is an animator. Animation is an incredible art form but it is very labor-intensive. You could only make five seconds a week so it took 18 months to make this music video. I called him up one day, he had left London for Portugal and said, “Look I had to get out of town, I feel like I’ve got a goldfish bowl on my head.” And I thought that is brilliant because I’m just writing this song about claustrophobia and having the space to be yourself—and I said let’s make this video and that’s where this goldfish idea first came from. Then we expanded it and thought maybe the goldfish could be that positive voice inside your head, reassuring you. We’ve used the goldfish in numerous videos now. And have plans to keep using it for many more.
The first half of the album is more cheery sonically and lyrically. Then you have that interlude and it gets a little darker. “Living strange” is so dark. The character you depict is in a real, bad state. And I do think many people out there will identify with it. But the line “I hang myself from the ceiling, it’s a real pretty art installation”—it’s a well composed line that is essentially about suicide ideation. It is particularly harrowing. Can you tell me how you wrote that song?
So I wrote that with my brother—and my brother’s a music producer and songwriter too, which is great because he’s also like my best friend. He lives in Leeds. That song’s quite old, it’s one of the oldest ones on the album but it didn’t sound exactly as it does now. We sort of recreated it. I was going through some crazy shit as the song depicts, but with my brother—I just tell him. We write music and I just tell him through song. I can be so candid with him. He’s been through some mad stuff too so we just talk. At that time, I think he’d been at the end of this really long term relationship, which had it’s flaws but also all these beautiful things—we’d both found ourselves in this weird head space. I was just this typical lost young adult getting up to all sorts of terrible things. I don’t know, stuff that was going to kill me eventually. So I just sat with my brother and was like, “Let’s work this out.” And that song really helped me get from A to B. It was a great outlet and we were talking about things we’d been thinking. That suicide thing, I don’t think you need to even be that lost to contemplate your own suicide. I, in general, feel like I’m a happy, and very optimistic person but even I struggle with a lot of anxiety and paranoia. Maybe it’s the cannabis but I do think that in general, I’m quite an anxious person. I’m definitely anxious and I do think it’s worth talking about. Putting it in song and talking about it so openly and the line about “hanging yourself from the ceiling”—I think it’s worth saying, it helps create a dialogue. And all of a sudden people that are prone to those thoughts, they don’t feel so alone, and are like, ”Oh, Murray from Easy Life said it, so maybe, maybe there’s loads of us?” The way I write a song is, if I think something then I know that everyone else thinks it too. Obviously, no idea is original right? If it’s happening to me, then I think it’s probably happening to others in my demographic too. So let’s just write it down. That’s the way I’ve always approached lyrics for sure. And I always think my brother is a great vehicle for that because I can say anything to him. The microphone’s on and I think you can even hear on the vocal take how irate and frantic I was, it really was like a therapy session.
The album closes with “music to walk home to,” which is one of my favorites. It’s a bit stream of consciousness-like—did you write that in the same spirit, in a vocal booth after a night out?
It wasn’t after a night out. But it was in the middle of the night and I was completely wasted. I was with a friend called Fraser T Smith, who helped with the production on “nightmares,” he’s a really good producer. I was at his house and we were getting completely blasted. We were listening to a lot of Fela Kuti—that song with Roy Ayres, “2000 Blacks Got to Be Free”—it went on for 18-minutes and we were listening to that on repeat. And we made this, then I had to think about how I was going to get home so I just free-styled it in the vocal booth. And then we went to bed and I never thought it would ever see the light of day. And the next day we went to the studio and I thought, “Let’s see what we did last night, it was really kind of funny right?” Then we thought, “There’s something in this,” so we send it round to the lads in the band. And they said, “This is just hilarious, we should put it in the album.” So it’s kind of an in-joke that this is on the album. To be honest I’ve had quite a few people say that it’s their favorite song and it’s just testament to me to literally not care or think about songs too much. Because all of a sudden everyone likes this. I hate it [laughs] because I put so much time in all the other parts of the album and all anyone is saying is this one song—that I’m talking about getting drunk and having to walk home.
Do you guys have any plans to tour America?
I don’t really know when, I think next year, I hope it’s realistic. I miss America man. I spent quite a lot of time there in 2019. And we performed at Coachella. I really can’t wait.