The Story Behind Every Song On Viagra Boys’ New Album Welfare Jazz

The Story Behind Every Song On Viagra Boys’ New Album Welfare Jazz

Viagra Boys arrived like a hurricane. In a moment that saw an increasing amount of “post-punk” or punk-adjacent bands coming out of Europe, the Swedish group was like a whole other beast: Sardonic and snarled lyrics, all manner of skronking and screeching saxophones, big slithering riffs, all of which turned into a complete storm of noise and pent-up chaos onstage. They were cacophonous, they were hilarious; they seemed just a bit “actually dangerous” compared to most rock bands today, yet simultaneously you couldn’t quite tell if the whole thing was one giant piss-take.

Then it turned out the band weren’t just a gleefully hedonistic experience, but also a group capable of surprising, explosive music and songs that gripped you by the throat. Their 2018 debut Street Worms had its fair share of filth-covered sonic breakdowns, but it also had stuff like “Sports.” That song seemed to sum up everything this band could be: Ironic and dry, but then legitimately infectious and maybe even cathartic. Along the way, Viagra Boys gave little glimpses into an actual human core. “Just Like You” was a brooding, corroded interpretation of synth-pop that mulled over real anxieties. In the early months of 2020, they released the Common Sense EP. It came with a title track that was oddly beautiful, a haunting and simmering haze through which frontman Sebastian Murphy asked all the hard questions about what he was doing with his life.

That set the stage for Welfare Jazz, Viagra Boys’ sophomore album. As you might expect, Welfare Jazz does not signify the band’s pivot to another genre (despite some of them already having roots in jazz), but it does offer a moniker that sums up their own little world. Welfare Jazz has a handful of those trademark Viagra Boys rockers, but it goes all over the place from there — to arid, sideways meditations like “Into The Sun,” fractured new wave in “Creatures,” even a disco beat and a John Prine cover. It’s in some ways more somber than what we’ve heard from this band before, and in other ways it’s as wild and frenetic and restless as they’ve ever been.

Welfare Jazz suggests a band that’s just getting started with their evolutions. But that took a bit of change in their personal lives, too. Murphy spends a lot of the album looking back on the person he used to be when he was addicted to speed; he spends the rest of the album imagining who he’d like to be instead. It’s one more paradox for Viagra Boys, the band whose name always made you think the whole thing might be a joke: No matter the self-destructive narratives and the frazzled punk party mood, this music also deals with some very real traumas. Welfare Jazz still has a lot of the band’s instinctive humor. It also depicts people coming to terms with their lives, and how they might save themselves.

Ahead of the album’s release, we caught up with Murphy, calling over Zoom from Stockholm. He walked us through each of the songs on Welfare Jazz, from its seemingly goofy interludes to compositions that catalogue the worst moments of his struggle with addiction. Now that you can hear the entire album for yourself, read along below to get the stories behind Welfare Jazz.

1. “Ain’t Nice”

This feels like some classic Viagra Boys. Why was this the one the band chose for the lead single and opener?

SEBASTIAN MURPHY: I think it ended up being the way because, as you said, it’s very classic Viagra Boys. I guess it’s kind of fan service to have it as the first track, and the rest of the album is like, “Fuck you.” [Laughs] But it had this sound to it and it had a lot of energy to it, I think it’s always nice to start off an album with a bit of energy.

I remember when the EP came out last year and the song “Common Sense” was this cloudier, more meditative thing, and it was implied this was a transition into a new era, one that might be a bit sonically different. How intentional was that? Like, were you avoiding the swagger-y rock songs?

MURPHY: The thing is, who knows, there could be more swagger-y rock. We’ve recorded a lot since Welfare Jazz as well. I think it’s more like we don’t have any plan to stick with something we’ve done previously. We don’t see any reason for that. I think as musicians most of us like testing out new shit and going forward musically. When I listen to music, as well, I like when albums from certain artists sound way different than the ones before. That’s always the goal as a band, play the shit we want to play and not fall into the same shit. Some bands can get away with it, but I don’t think we’re that kind of band.

The song also came with this very memorable video with you wreaking havoc on the street and then getting transported back in time. The story continues with the “Creatures” video. What was the inspiration here? Were they intended to link up with the themes of the album?

MURPHY: Not so much with the theme of the actual song, but maybe a bit more with the feeling of the song. The video came from this horrible nightmare I had where everyone was just so pissed off with me. Everyone in my life: My mom was really upset with me, my dad was upset, all my friends hated me, my girlfriend was crying. I walked down the street and people were throwing shit at me and calling me names. I wrote it down and I thought it would be a good idea for a music video. I don’t think when I want to do a video that it necessarily has to have anything to do with the lyrics of the song. But more the feeling.

The name of the song is “Ain’t Nice,” so I guess it was just this feeling like I’m just a shitty person. When I wrote the song, I just felt like a shitty person also. I wrote it when my ex-girlfriend kicked me out of her house and I had all this shit there. All these old electronics and shit. I filled entire cupboards with halfway-taken-apart record players and stereos and stuff like that. Because that’s how I spent the two years I was with her, in her kitchen soldering shit and taking apart electronics and taking speed and being an asshole. I didn’t feel like a very nice person after that, so that’s what that’s about.

I knew the song came from some heavier experiences, and you can hear this is in many other songs on the album. But when that happens in one of the more “fun” Viagra Boys songs, like the catchy rocker–  

MURPHY: Yeah, the song is a bit more light-hearted, for sure.

Is it cathartic to address those kinds of experiences in that context, or is it more like you’re embracing some aspect of it in character?

MURPHY: I think it’s definitely more cathartic, in a way. But as you said, it’s kind of taking a character. When it comes down to it, I do see myself as a nice person. I wouldn’t take any pride in being an asshole, that’s for sure. I kind of write shit from how I’m feeling at the time, you know?

Do you actually have a collection of vintage calculators?

MURPHY: I have one. I had to throw a lot of this shit out because it was kind of a trigger for me to have it at the house. I still can’t walk by vintage electronics without like, “Ohhhh.” [Laughs] The calculator I have somewhere in a box actually. It’s this huge thing with a phosphorous display and it makes all these noises when you plug it in.

What was the attraction to vintage electronics?

MURPHY: I used to take speed every day and I was just really into schematics and building electronics, and taking apart electronics and trying to figure out how shit works. I thought I was some sort of genius. I thought I was an engineer. Mostly I was just killing time, I think.

2. “Cold Play”

This is a short instrumental and one of several segues on the album. What purpose do those serve for you?

MURPHY: It was actually originally an intro to “Toad.” It was just what Oskar [Carls] was playing before we started getting into the song and we kept it there and somewhere along the line someone decided to make it a separate track, and one of our producers wanted to call it “Cold Play.” To be honest, I don’t really know why, he just thought it was a good name.

I was going to ask if it was some kind of inside joke about Coldplay.

MURPHY: I think it is, but I don’t really get it. [Laughs] I think it’s mostly just funny that we have the words “Cold Play” on our record, because we’re pretty far away from Coldplay.

3. “Toad”

You can hear your country influence a bit more on this record, and with “Toad” it’s there lyrically and thematically. I didn’t know until recently that you were actually born in America. So was country music something you kinda grew up with?

MURPHY: Yeah, from my childhood, but even more now. Country is probably 75% of what I listen to. I always loved country music, and I always wanted to make country music, and that’s about as close as I get to making country music in Viagra Boys. The theme of the lyrics is kind of inspired by the way a lot of these country singers wrote songs that were just like, they’re not an asshole, they’re just a rambling man. I feel like country singers are so good at not placing the blame on themselves, just saying “This is the way I am!” [Laughs] Even a song by Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man,” he’ll do a bunch of shit and you just have to stand by him anyway. There’s this weird irony in it, somehow. Especially from the outlaw country era. I just wanted to write a song a bit like that. The whole song in itself is kind of satire. The way I’m saying I don’t need any woman, any man, anybody, but obviously I do. But it’s also something I’ve felt at times: “Fuck this, I just want to hit the road.”

“Ain’t Nice” and “Toad” seem to come from a similar place, and it seems there’s a specific arc to the album beginning here and changing tone quite soon.

MURPHY: In the beginning it’s kind of this whole “Fuck it, I’m fucked up but whatever I’ll just keep going.” “I’m a rambling man and I’m always going to be like this.” Blah blah blah. Later in the album I think it’s a bit more, “OK, yeah, maybe this isn’t the best idea.” [Laughs]

4. “This Old Dog”

This is another segue, but a spoken one. There’s a lot of recurring dog imagery on the album. This song sows the seeds for “Secret Canine Agent” later on.

MURPHY: I don’t know if it’s possible to even hear the lyrics in the recording, but it’s kind of a little poem I wrote. It’s this idea that I got to a point where I felt judged even by dogs. I think it comes from some sort of paranoia, which also bleeds into “Secret Canine Agent,” like even dogs know what I’m up to. I guess when I was deep into my addiction, I had this idea that I knew what I was doing was wrong and it wasn’t going to work out, and I needed to fucking quit, but somehow I kept justifying it. I felt like some sort of doctor. “If I just do this much, then I’m still cool, as long as I get this much sleep and I still go to work.” Still, I always felt like someone knew what I was up to. A dog sitting there and staring at me and I’m looking at this dog like, “This motherfucker knows.”

Like a pet knowing better than a person.

MURPHY: Exactly. The whole recurring theme of dogs — I can’t really explain it, I just get these fixed ideas. It was actually a friend of mine, I showed him the record, and he was like “You talk about dogs in almost every song.” I think it’s a weird theme I have, I get stuck on four or five things. Shrimps, dogs, chickens. Rubber balls. But it comes from a love of dogs. I just love dogs.

5. “Into The Sun”

After these couple quick shots in the beginning it goes to “Into The Sun,” which I see as a big pivot on the album. It also brings me back to “Common Sense.” That was so explicitly about self-destruction and addiction, and “Into The Sun” feels like a similar reckoning.

MURPHY: It’s the same song as “Common Sense” in the way it’s like, “What the fuck have I been doing?” There’s a lot of regret in there. I wrote it at this time where I had realized what a fucking asshole I’d been to my ex-girlfriend and I still had hope she would realize that I realized that and maybe take me back. But at the same time I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I don’t want to talk about it too much because I’m gonna piss off my girlfriend that I have now. [Laughs]

Viagra Boys had this reputation for these very fun but apocalyptic, chaotic live shows. That’s the concoction of all these different players in the band, and the different backgrounds they come from. When you’re trying to grapple with some very heavy themes from your own life, or regrets, do you have to come to the band like, “This is where my head’s at, I need some of these types of songs.”

MURPHY: No, it’s completely my own world. Most of the time, they’ll be 60% done with the song before I even start recording lyrics to it. That kinda depends where we’re at. We recently did some recording and we were doing that together all at the same time. Some of the other guys don’t speak all that great of English so they don’t even know what it’s about until it’s done. So I think it’s more like I try to read the riff or the general feeling of the song, and that’s where the writing starts. But it’s nothing that the guys know too much about.

6. “Creatures”

I saw “Into The Sun” and “Creatures” as collectively the “Just Like You” of this album, the slightly prettier, emotional center.

MURPHY: “Creatures” is also about electronics, and stolen bikes and shit like that. It’s about this period of my life where I was just at my worst with speed. The only people I hung out with were other speed creatures, pretty much. All you do is talk about stuff you bought or found. “I’ll trade a stolen bike for this stereo” or whatever. It’s about people that have chosen a path to live like this. You’re at a crossroads: “I’m either going to quit and get my shit together, or I’m going to die doing this with the rest of these guys and we’re all just going to try to survive how we can as long as we get speed for the day.” It’s about that kind of lifestyle and how it felt. I say “I couldn’t breathe/ I was underwater,” and that’s basically what it felt like. Waking up every day and being like, “What the fuck am I doing?” but at the same time I woke up every morning and just took a fat line of speed. The rest of the day was all about electronics. It wasn’t about getting my shit together. It was just this life, being this speed goblin.

How long did that period last?

MURPHY: Maybe three or four years.

Was that during the first half of the band?

MURPHY: This was around the time the band started, that’s when I started getting really into that shit. I’ve been slowly weaned off of it for the past couple years and now I’m completely done. I’ve been clean for a while.

Congratulations on that.

MURPHY: Thank you.

Where does the album title come in with all of this? I originally read it as more of a social commentary. I know you guys have said you don’t write political songs…

MURPHY: I don’t write any political songs. If I sit down to write a song, I’m definitely not going to write about politics, but in our day and age everything is political in a way. If someone else perceives it as political, then I guess it is political. But I usually just try to tell stories from my own life. But Welfare Jazz, I don’t think the name really has any politics behind it. It came from a joke. I recorded vocals on a free jazz album. A lot of the free jazz musicians out here, my friend jokes and calls them “welfare jazz people” because they can’t get money from gigs, they just get money from the Swedish government. That’s the only way they’re going to get money, because no one wants to pay for a free jazz gig. He was like, “What are all these free jazz dudes going to say about having you on their album?” Because compared to them, I’m a fucking sellout. He said it in Swedish, and I thought it just translated into such a good album name with Welfare Jazz. It didn’t really have that much thought behind it besides the fact I thought it sounded cool.

7. “6 Shooter”

This is a longer instrumental. Are these the results of jams in the studio?

MURPHY: I think that was actually meant to be a song. I wrote some lyrics for it and they felt forced. I didn’t like my singing on it. I thought it was much better to do it as an instrumental. I feel like that song is classic Viagra Boys live. If you see us live, some of the songs that are five minutes on the record end up being 29 minutes live. I think it encapsulates what goes on at our shows, this churning train of sound that’s kind of a party. Other than that I don’t have too much to say about it since I’m not featured on it. [Laughs]

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8. “Best In Show II”

This slots in with the other spoken segues but it’s also a callback to the first album.

MURPHY: It’s a direct shoutout. I like having these segue parts. When I listen to an album, I enjoy that kind of stuff. I like it when there’s a theme to stuff, also. We threw that in towards the end. It’s also on the theme of dogs. I don’t even remember what I say in that, to be honest. [Laughs]

9. “Secret Canine Agent”

On its surface, this is kind of a funny thing coming out of “This Old Dog” and “Best In Show II.” But this is the paranoia you were talking about before.

MURPHY: Yes, and it’s also a shoutout — or, it’s a continuation of “Frogstrap,” in a way. “Frogstrap,” I wrote it one day when I smoked a joint and laid in my bed and I had this image in my head that someone was smuggling a frog into a meeting and the frog was collecting information. There’s no real meaning behind these songs, more than that they’re just this world that I build, the same as I would paint a painting. “Secret Canine Agent” is this idea that all these dogs have some elaborate plan and they’re listening in on everyone. Yeah, it’s a continuation of that first poem I wrote, “This Old Dog.” I actually even mention “Frogstrap” in “Secret Canine Agent.” There’s some line like, the dog can smell someone is wearing a frogstrap. It’s just building on this world, like illustrating a cartoon or something.

Yeah when you say that, I think about the title Welfare Jazz not meaning anything except for these strange vignettes you put into that world.

MURPHY: Exactly. The funny thing is no one asked me what Street Worms meant. They were just like, “Oh, yeah, Street Worms.” That had just as little meaning — well, I guess Street Worms, you’re just some fucking worm on the street. It’s easy to know what it means. But Welfare Jazz… I like the name. “Secret Canine Agent” and “Frogstrap” could be two chapters in a comic book named Welfare Jazz, you know what I mean?

10. “I Feel Alive”

After that zanier passage, there’s some more emotional stuff towards the end of the album. “I Feel Alive” deals with some of the threads we’ve already talked about. Was it literal? You wrote this when you were in those initial throes of trying to get clean and just counting the days?

MURPHY: I think we had started recording a bit of the music, and I was like “What the fuck am I going to write?” I started going through the notes on my phone and there was one that just said “I feel alive.” I just started laughing at it, because I had obviously written it at a time when I was so far from feeling alive. I just felt fucking dead. I probably wrote it when I was laying in bed like “Huhuhuh, this is stupid.” Nobody would think that’s a funny lyric except for someone like me, who would think those three words are funny — which is pretty dark. It was just far away, for me, to feel alive. Of course I felt alive every time I took a line. I think the song is kind of from the perspective of, I’ve just railed a huge line of speed, “Woo! I feel alive! My life is great!” Which I usually felt as soon as I railed a line of speed, but at the same time, “My life is horrible.” [Laughs] It’s definitely an ironic song, but I think anyone who hears it will hear that irony.

Musically, this one has this kind of weird, staggering barroom blues thing going on.

MURPHY: I get this image in my head like I’m walking down the street with a big-ass smile on my face and sunglasses and I just feel like a fucking badass even though my life is total shit. [Laughs] Sometimes you’ll see some homeless guy on the street just vibing, and you’re like “Oh, that guy’s having a great time,” when in reality he’s having a great time for five minutes and the rest of the time he’s laying there in agony.

11. “Girls & Boys”

There’s quite a few shapes and sounds on Welfare Jazz. But this is almost like some Viagra Boys maelstrom disco moment.

MURPHY: We recorded a version of it at Electric Lady in New York, and at the time I had just discovered White Claw. We were all just vibing in the studio having a great time. I think you can hear it on the track. It’s this vibe-y song that we would usually never write, with these disco melodies. The lyrics, I just wanted to write something stupid. First, I just wanted the song to be a gross song about girls, from like an Italian disco perspective. About “how I love woman,” you know? Then I thought, “Ah, fuck it, I don’t want to go down that route.” [Laughs] So I had to involve boys as well.

And dogs and shrimp.

MURPHY: Dogs, shrimps, yeah. Words that came to my mind. I did an interview where a guy as like, “That’s my favorite song on the record.” I was like, “What the fuck man, what’s wrong with you people.”

There have been times where people have talked about Viagra Boys, like the band playing with a certain kind of masculinity but undermining it. You know, the aggression of the live show, historical punk signifiers, whatever. “Girls & Boys” at first glance could be that again, but based on what you’re saying maybe that’s a bit overblown.

MURPHY: Definitely. I’m fucking around for sure. I’ve been fucking around for five years. A lot of people put a lot of words in my mouth that I think sound really smart and I’m like, “Yeah, OK, cool, I’ll just ride with that.” They think that the whole idea of Viagra Boys was to crush this whole masculine ideal. Man, half those songs are about me. But, hey, whatever floats your boat. I’m down with all that shit. If that’s what people get out of it, I think that’s awesome. Because those are my ideals, for sure. It’s just that I haven’t tried to write songs that are about my ideals. I guess you do that shit on accident. We’re not a band like Idles that maybe literally says in their lyrics [mock British punk accent] “Don’t be mean to women! It’s not cool to spit on immigrants!” It’s like, yeah, dude, we all fucking get it.

[Laughs] I take it you’re not an Idles fan.

MURPHY: I think they’re great. It’s just that I don’t think they’re great. [Laughs] I think they’re a good band, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that we always get compared to them. Everyone always talks about Idles when they do interviews with me. I just hear it all the time — this kid at my work, he just always plays it. Ughhhh.

There was one time I saw them and he did this kind of “This is Sparta!” chest-beating pose while screaming “I! Am! A Feminist!”

MURPHY: Oh, no. My girlfriend went to this show. I’m a feminist, my girlfriend’s a feminist. But, you know, she went to this show and it was a really intimate show, with maybe 30 people there. And he started off the show with like, “So if anyone here is a fucking transphobic, or homophobic, or a sexist, you better leave right fucking now!” She was like, “Man, you personally invited everyone at this show. Why would anyone here be that? You gotta start fucking thinking about who your friends are.” [Laughs] Sometimes I think people can try a bit too hard. I think they just do it to get laid, to be honest. [Laughs]

12. “To The Country”

This is what I was saying about the arc: This very much felt like an end destination on the other side of “Ain’t Nice” and “Toad.” Initially, I still heard it with an undercurrent of irony, like this escapist fantasy of “We’ll start a new life in the country.”

MURPHY: You know what, that song is the least ironic.

I was going to say. Now with what you’ve told me otherwise, I feel like this must be quite genuine.

MURPHY: Yeah. I’ve had other people interview me like, “Oh, but you’re kidding, right?” No. That is literally what I want in life, what is in this song. I’d love to move out to the country and have a bunch of dogs and be with my girlfriend and go fly-fishing and say fuck it to this life out here. Be without partying. It’s a very genuine song, actually.

There’s really some quite pretty moments in it, too, like when those saxophones rise up a little ways into the song. On the first album, there’s the song “Worms” as the sort of thematic conclusion and then the epilogue of this noisy instrumental. I heard something similar here, like this felt like the end of the album as the penultimate track.

MURPHY: That’s kind of how I hoped it would be. Like, “Yeah I’ve done all this fucked up shit, but I want to leave it behind me and hopefully end up like this.”

This is something of a happy ending on the album then.

MURPHY: Hopefully, yeah. I’m not there yet.

You think you’d actually do this, move out to the country and keep the band going?

MURPHY: Yeah, definitely. A lot of the guys are similar in that sense. Most of the guys in the band are family guys. They’ve got wives and really young kids and shit. Some bands make it work out. I know the guys in the Hives. They all live in different parts of Sweden and they all travel to practice every two weeks or whatever it is. I traveled around Sweden during the summer and saw where some of these people live. It’s just beautiful. It’s like, “Oh, people can do this and live the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle,” which would be a dream come true. I don’t want to stop playing rock ’n’ roll. But I don’t want to end up being some washed-up fucking dude in the city that goes and DJs every Friday night at some fucking rock bar and still takes blow with the young kids and all this shit. That’s just not my jam.

13. “In Spite Of Ourselves”

Why did you want to cover this John Prine song?

MURPHY: I heard it pretty recently, I guess it just spoke to me. It was near the end of recording a bunch of this stuff, so I heard it maybe a year ago. The lyrics really spoke to me and they really spoke to my way of songwriting and my outlook when it comes to output. This dark humor, in a way. The narrative is like, it could be a shitty relationship but there’s still beautiful things in it. It’s just really wholesome. I showed it to the rest of the guys and said, “I think we should have this on the album somewhere.” We had kinda spoken before about wanting to have a duet of some sort. We never really had any good reason to do it. Then we found this. Then I called Amy [Taylor of Amyl & The Sniffers] and she was super down right away.

Like three weeks after it was recorded, he died, which was pretty crazy. We planned on releasing it much earlier, but I didn’t want to release something just like “Oh, yeah, John Prine died, let’s release a song.” I’m sure a lot of people will think that anyway. I think it’s important to know we recorded it before. It’s just a beautiful song, and I think it’s a great way to end the album. It’s a little bleak, then there’s a little hope, and then there’s this wholesome — where you just kind of laugh at the shitty things in your life.

So you didn’t know this was the closer when you first brought it to the band.

MURPHY: We had a bunch of songs. We didn’t know what the order of the album was going to be. We didn’t know that cover was going to turn out that we all really liked it. There were a bunch of songs that didn’t make the album, probably six or seven, that are either too weird or… there’s one I wrote called “Piggy Farm” that’s just too gross. It’s about rolling around in the mud doing nasty stuff. [Laughs]

What are the songs that are too weird?

MURPHY: Just musically, sonically weird. They were just too experimental, I think. I think it’ll all be released on the deluxe version, like we did with Street Worms. There’s one song about me being a shrimp that got hung by his balls in the Great West, or something like that. That one “Piggy Farm,” it’s about weird bodily fluids. The rest of the band were like “Ehhh, I don’t know man.” [Laughs] I was pissed when it didn’t make the cut. But it’ll be released. It’ll be released.

Not to jump the gun since Welfare Jazz is just coming out, but since this has been finished a while and you’ve mentioned you guys have been recording otherwise, what do you find yourself playing with now? Do you feel like Welfare Jazz set the band on a particular path after this?

MURPHY: For sure. This album… it was a bit confusing for us to make as well. It was all recorded in such a long stretch of time, in different places, and it kinda got a bit… when we heard it again as an album we were like, “Oh, yeah, this is actually pretty cool.” But we had all been in weird places at the time of recording it. I think it has its place for sure. I’m really thankful for the album now. But it had a weird process of getting everything done. As with doing anything, everything is a learning experience of how you’ll do it the next time. The shit we recorded recently, we did it without any producers. We practiced for weeks, wrote all the songs beforehand, and we went and banged out 11 songs in six days. And it’s all fucking great. But it’s got a completely different sound than Welfare Jazz and Street Worms. It’s almost like a classic rock album or something. [Laughs]

Fredrik Bengtsson

Welfare Jazz is out 1/8 via YEAR0001. Get it here.

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