Murder City Sparrows is a band assembled as randomly as their name. “It started out as a singer-songwriter thing that Jay was doing and he needed players to do a record,” says the band’s drummer, Lanny. “So the engineer at the studio called Doc and myself to come in and do it. We got a copy of the songs of Jay singing with an acoustic guitar, came up with parts and arrangements, and just started working on the record. Everyone was playing really well together so then Jay said, ‘well, I’m gonna need a band.’”
Natives of Edmonton, the members intended to call the album Murder City Sparrows, a title that pays homage to the city’s criminal notoriety and Charles Bukowski’s publishing house, Black Sparrow Press. When the album was finished, however, it was obvious that it was no singer-songwriter album — they sounded like a band. Their producer, Gordie Johnson (of Grady/Big Sugar fame), encouraged them to drop “The Jay Murphy Band” name for one reflective of their sound. Adopting the album’s title as their name, the four musicians developed a powerful brand of rock’n'roll without over-production. “We subscribe to the ethic that if you can’t play it live, you shouldn’t record it,” says bassist and Danforth resident Doc de Groot. “I can’t switch from bass to lap steel in a quarter note and then get back to my bass — so it became, for all of us, about making something that we can put on a record and then reproduce live, convincingly, without anything missing.”
As a self-proclaimed live band, Murder City Sparrows records off the floor to properly translate the energy of playing together — and it’s that raw passion that makes their self-titled debut stand out. Recorded at Pedernales, Willie Nelson’s legendary studio in Austin, Texas, the album earned Murder City Sparrows a “Band of the Month” feature with Sonic 102.9, an Edmonton alternative rock station. The single stayed in high rotation for several months and started getting radio play across the country. As their popularity grew, the band did several tours of Western Canada and decided to move from Edmonton to Toronto. “Eventually it got to the point that we were in Toronto so much anyways,” says Doc.
During this time, Murder City Sparrows wrote a new album, Dead Horse Disco, which departs from the dark, political tone of the first and builds on a more wholesome rock sound. “We’re all — with the exception of Mike — small-town kids,” says Lanny. “So I was like, let’s write a record about small towns: doing stupid stuff, getting in shit, the girls we liked, and just have a fun record.”
The title comes from what Doc calls last winter’s “driving tour from hell.” “We toured from the end of November until March…and it was literally blizzards everyday,” explains Lanny. While braving highways littered with abandoned semis, Mike and Jay noticed that the overturned trailers looked like big dead horses. “And some of the songs now, because they’re more fun, have kind of a dance-y, groovy feel,” says Lanny. “So. Dead Horse Disco.”