Ever lain awake at night wondering what would happen if you crossed a ‘Metal girl’ with a ‘House guy’? Well, just in case you have, Kiwi musician Murmur Tooth relocated halfway around the world from Ōtepoti to Berlin and partnered up with British-German house DJ Lars Moston to answer just that question. With a joint album titled ‘No Time to Explain’ due out May 2023, Paul Moran talked with Leah Hinton.
From her early beginnings as a classical pianist, via Dunedin takes on Europe avant-metal trio El Schlong, and later another German-based Kiwi rock band Kobosh, the current incarnation of multi-instrumentalist performer Leah Hinton is as doom-pop artist Murmur Tooth.
‘Murmur Tooth is a multi-instrumentalist, singer and producer from New Zealand, based in Berlin. Dark and cinematic, grimy and beautiful, not for elevators, not for dancing.’
Two Murmur Tooth EPs (‘The Room EP’ in 2016 and ‘Dropping Like Flies’ a year later) were followed by a fully self-recorded debut album, ‘A Fault In This Machine’, made in her Berlin apartment and released in March 2020. As she explained on Bandcamp:
‘This is the first full-length album I’ve made from start to finish (excluding mastering – that’s still a bit beyond me!). It’s all my lost and all my love laid out in hertz and decibels, and it has been my sense of purpose through a time adrift.’
From the collaborative follow-up ‘No Time to Explain’, due out May 2023, takes an unexpected direction into deep dark electronica, the result of a developing collaboration with British-German house DJ and producer Lars Moston.
“This latest album is completely different!” Leah Hinton exuberantly explains. “‘A Fault In This Machine’ was just me, and I really used that album as a means to learn. I produced, recorded and mixed it all myself whilst learning those skills along the way. Lots of Youtube videos and a very long process!
“‘No Time to Explain’ is a collaboration that was done utterly together; all of the songwriting, start to finish, everything was done together.
“I’d never actually done that before so it was really interesting. Even in the NZ bands I played in, I would do a lot of the songwriting alone and then take them into the band. Being a solo musician can be arduous and sometimes a little lonely, and working collaboratively brought back some of the fun.”
Despite having lived in Berlin for some time now, Hinton wasn’t bitten by the electronica bug until she actually started creating in that world.
“I was quite lucky to fall into working with Lars, who has been around for ages. I’m having fun with writing electronically. The first official thing we did together was a remix of Beautiful For Claptone, who is of course one of the biggest electronic musicians in the world, so that was an auspicious start!
“It opens up so many songwriting possibilities when you have every instrument that ever existed at your fingertips, all these crazy arpeggiators and synths.
“When I write on guitar I find that I have to concentrate on the physical act of playing, whereas when I write electronically I can focus more on being creative, and it also allows me to avoid falling into the same old finger patterns with muscle memory being such a big part of the guitar.”
Fun is a key feature of ‘No Time to Explain’, with unusual lyrical themes and found sounds, no doubt growing out of such differing musical backgrounds of both artists.
“These songs are a bit more quirky. I mean a song like Ribcage… ‘I want to curl up around your ribcage and stay there for days…’ it could be a love song, or it could be something darker.”
It’s not just the lyrics either. Quirky is quite the theme for Murmur Tooth, with lots of household objects featuring on the album – ripping tape and flicked paper bags for a snare sound, spaghetti scraped against a fan for hi-hats and a children’s walkie-talkie solo.
“The only rule we had during the whole process was that if one of us suggested something we HAD to at least try it. It was just very much an experiment.”
How much of the metal girl came through on the album?
“The songwriting! Even on the more electronic songs I can still hear that grunge element coming through. That kind of Nirvana thing flavours some of the darker songs. I naturally tend towards the dark, although some of the songs are a bit more upbeat, such as David Attenborough.
“That one just fell out. Lars was being really annoying and zoning out on his kick drum sound and doing boring nerd shit, so I decided I was going to write some lyrics. All of these phrases just fell out like, ‘Call a doctor, call a lawyer,’ and the whole song was just there. I mean obviously, they are a bit irreverent, they don’t always have to be dark and deep, just something a bit different that grabs you, y’know?
“I’ve always enjoyed creating and making things, and music is something that you build that has a bit of permanence. Maybe it comes from our need to mark our time in the world, making something that wasn’t there before but is now.”
Videos have also been an important creative tool for Murmur Tooth.
“I actually studied film before I switched to music, and I had always thought that I would be a filmmaker. I enjoy the music video format as it suits my short attention span, and I enjoy creating cool little narratives. As soon as we decide that a song will be a single my brain instantly starts to write a movie in my head. What I enjoy about the videos and the songs, is that they are all so different.”
The DIY approach to the videos importantly extends to costuming.
“I seem to be obsessed with stupid costumes. The video for Radio Silence features me in a UFO costume made from a great big compost lid that I’d bought in a hardware store and dragged home on the train – only to find that it was too thick for me to actually cut! Fortunately, I found a builder who was able to help with his electric saw. The mirrorball helmet that features in the same video was actually something that I bought, but it is the best helmet ever!”
Filming of the wacky western showdown video for Now Is Love was split between Egypt and NZ, inexplicable inflatable costumes and all.
“I got the idea in my head that I wanted to film a faux spaghetti western, so we headed out to Egypt to film the desert scenes. We didn’t realise at the time but it was actually super dodgy filming in Egypt. We were getting lots of funny looks which I had assumed were because of the crazy costumes and toy guns, but it was only when we were at the airport to fly out that we found out it is completely illegal to film in Egypt. We thought they were going to confiscate the camera and film! Luckily we got out okay, and we filmed the mountain scenes in NZ.”
In another nod to NZ, the album art for ‘No Time To Explain’ features an AI-generated sheep on a beach.
“I asked AI for ‘an award-winning National Geographic photo of a sheep standing on a beach in front of a glorious sunset pondering life’ and that’s what came back. We actually tried a few different things, and all of the sheep that came back just looked so ridiculous that we did a whole series of farmyard animals on beaches.”
With Berlin’s music scene still reeling from the effects of Covid there aren’t many live dates currently booked, but Hinton intends to come home to NZ at the start of 2024 to do some shows through Aotearoa and possibly Australia. Get along, they’re bound to be an out-of-this-world theatrical experience.