Photographer Sean Murphy is the type of whole hearted maniac you want to take your photo. Part mad scientist, part dharma bum and wholly original, writer Sam Cohan sat down with the father of three to talk about fatherhood in the modern age.
Sean Murphy: You’re from Boston?
Sam Cohan: Born and raised.
SM: I went to New England School of Photography in Kenmore Sq. Back in the olden days in the 90s.
SC: When everything was still chemical. It was a different time then. The Combat Zone still existed.
SM: The combat zone! Yeah we had a loft in the combat zone above a fucking Chinese restaurant and sewing factory. And we'd have to keep moving our shit. Like the landlord would come and we'd have to hide our shit and pretend we didn't live there. And the Ratt was still in Kenmore square and playing all the rad classic punk bands and we'd get fucked up at school.
SC: Now the combat zone is all condos.
SM: Oh really? God Damn. That's how it is here. I moved downtown in 1996 and Dominos wouldn't even deliver to you at all, there was nothing there, like a zombie apocalypse. I was there last night picking up my kid up from a concert and it was just like....it's a real city now.
SC: But you're at the compound now, yeah?
SM: I was Downtown when I first moved here in the late 90s then I went east to west through Hollywood and the valley. I had my compound in Canoga Park for the last 9 years, we just moved out of it and now have a new compound out here in Chatsworth in the mountains but we live in North Florida about 50 percent of the time so we're really not here that much. We're kinda on the last two years of the LA plan. I feel like it's time to...you gotta know when to leave the party. I'm just repeating myself out here now and I've kinda done all that there is.
SC: Time for a new movement –
SM: Yeah. You know my kids are graduating high school. I'm not griping about it but there more to life than the grind here for sure. And with the internet I could live in a car around the country, which I do anyway, and you get a call and you go somewhere. But I loved where I lived in Canoga Park. I love Hispanic culture and where I was there was pretty much Hispanic and Indian people. You don't walk out the door and there are like 10 other of you. You have your own little Oasis. And it's nice. Nobody cares. what you've done or what you can do for them. It's pretty awesome.
SC: There's a freedom in that where you're not constantly surrounded by the other artists - you're surrounded by non artists - civilians.
SM: I like that term. I'm gonna steal it. Civilians!
SC: You’re welcome to it. So I wanted to talk to you today about Father's Day and Fatherhood.
SM: I'm a controversial dad to say the least...
SC: Do you self-identify as a controversial Dad?
SM: I don't how to describe it. I think I say and do the shit in parenthood that other people are thinking but they don't do because they don't want to get scrutinized. I come from the south and my dad was a Colonel in the Air Force so I grew up everyday getting my ass beat and having to say yes, ma'am and yes, sir and it was a little extreme. But still to this day in general and in that area every kid when I go home is respectful. They know basic shit and know how to hold a door. Or not fucking be an asshole when there are adults around trying to have a conversation. Put your phone away, that kind of shit. And in LA and everywhere else I go it just seems like kids are fucking assholes. I don't understand that so...I'm not the best...I'm an admitted recovered alcoholic and drug addict so you know I'm not perfect in my life.
But in terms of my kids...Since the day they were born, every summer we'd drive 5 to 10,000 miles around the country and do adventures and take them all over. Put them in real world situations and teach them how to build shit. They knew all the parts of an engine of a car when they were like five. They'd have to name them all out. You know, basic man shit. And if they got in trouble they'd have to do pull ups. My kids - one's graduating this week and my twins are a year younger so basically I have triplets. And they're really good kids. They're not like I was. I'mean I don't know how your parents are but you tend to be like: my dad was a hellion fuck-up and I'm going to be the opposite. Not that extreme but they became to be more well balanced than I was or am.
SC: What are their names?
SM: Ozzy is the oldest one. And the twins are Tripp and Milo.
SC: Three boys – that’s a rowdy house. Did you get sober when they were born?
SM: Yeah let's talk about that. I am big into recovery. I'm hugely involved now and will be the rest of my life. I got sober many times when they were little and they don't remember that. I'd have times where I was sober but I'd fall off the rails when I was on the road so they really didn't see it. And I got divorced from their mom when they were pretty young. 4/5 something like that. And I met a girl on a photoshoot for a band who is now my wife. So...I have six or so years sober now but they don't remember completely crazy shit. Like, I remember my dad was drunk all the time and I remember him as being a fucking drunk. But I don't think they remember me doing much of any shenanigans which is cool. So I hang out with my oldest and his friends and I think they respect me because I'm open with them. And I treat them as adults so they can kind of relate to me on their level and ask me things they're not able to ask their own parents. So that's been cool for me.
SC: And you shoot your boys a lot. You use them as subjects –
SM: Yeah man I was actually getting depressed last night looking through old photos for this and I don't like to do that because I get sad that they're getting older and going to move out. And we've had such an amazing run. So I've basically been doing a photoshoot a day with them. When the twins were two -weeks old they were on the back of a Tenacious D album cover. They were in the pentagram of the cover so they were in straight out of the gate. And I basically shoot every moment of their life so far so they're used to it.
SC: Yeah and now you’re losing your subjects.
SM: Man yeah selfishly I was thinking about that because before I had kids I was thinking I gotta have some kids so I can do some weird shit with them. And like, most parents would not let me put their kids in my shit. So we had models born to us who had to do what I wanted.
I would wake my kids up at 6am and was like: the light is perfect, put on this sailor hats. And like one of the photos I sent you is that photo. GO OUTSIDE! And his eyes would be closed. "How many clicks, daddy?" Now they're all bigger than me and handsome so it's different. But I have nephews that I can fuck with and friends kids...
SC: So other people will entrust their kids with you.
SC: You’ve shot a lot with big name people. Tenacious D. Weezer. Steve Aoki. What’s it like when you’re shooting with your kids?
SM: It's different because they don't see me as their dad who's the photographer who's done a bunch of rad shit. They just see me as their dad. I think they saw it as an annoyance...but I think now with instagram and social media and they're out trying to get girls...they see the importance from that angle. Oh my dad will take a rad picture of me and I'll get some Posty. But they loved the trips. We'd just get in the car for three months at a time and I'd be like: Ozzy where do you want to go? And he'd be like: I want to meet this guy, the Turtle Man in Missouri and we'd just get up and go. Call the guy up. We'd just do that all summer.
SM: Yeah I don't think they see that now. But I'm hoping that later they'll look back and they'll see that sort of thing instilled in them. They'll do that with their kids. Or they'll have knowledge about stuff they didn't realize they have. They've absorbed it through osmosis. But I told them today, you don't know when time's gonna run out. I'm about to take off for a few months. I got a buddy who just died at 45. You never know. You're gonna regret time not spent with your friends and family while you've just been in your selfish cell-phone mode or whatever it is you're doing. And all kids are like that and I was like that but I have regret. You know I wish I had another hour with that person and I was being selfish.
SC: What’s the wildest thing that’s happened with your boys? Any moments where you were like: Maybe we shouldn’t have used the pyrotechnics in this shoot?
SM: I'mean there's been a lot of them. I let them shoot guns and I would teach them how to clean guns and be safe. Safety was important. But my kids have almost shot me multiple times because I was teaching them safety. Or I let them light shit on fire because every kid should be able to play with fire, I feel. I'mean every kid plays with fire in secret. I just thought why not give them matches and teach them about it so they'd be safe with it. But....that kinda turns out badly sometimes. I've kinda let them do everything and thankfully nothing super bad has happened because I have been a lot of stupid accidents because of photoshoots. But they're cool and when they sense me doing dumb shit they tune me down a bit. There are many things I wouldn't do now as a mature dad...but as a 30 year old dad I was out of my fucking mind.
SC: Well yeah, you were running around with babies - strap the kid on the back mentality –
SM: So yeah my first wife got pregnant twice within a year of each other and both times were a mistake. They were a result of me falling off the wagon. Alcohol, as bad as it's been at times, has also given me a lot in my life. It gave me a career because I wasn't very social when I was younger. And it gave me my kids. It was a worked until it didn't work sort of thing. But when they were born I was 30 and my wife at the time was a dental hygenist, so I was immediately Mr. Mom. And I had this really shitty Volkswagen square-back that I had bought for like 100 bucks up in San Francisco which had like two gears and no roof because I had an English Mastiff that would sit in the back and his head would stick out the top. These shitty car seats. And I was trying to break into advertising world. And I'd put them in the car and I had this spray bottle of water. And I would drive to wherever, like westside from the valley - it'd be like an hour - I was trying to break into advertising, and they'd want to sleep. But my plan was I would take them to the meetings, wouldn't tell people they were coming, and I'd spritz them with the water so they wouldn't sleep. And it'd keep them awake until we got there then I'd put a blanket over their carriers and they'd just go to sleep during the meeting because I had made them stay awake for the ride. And then they'd hear the kid waking a bit during the meeting and be like what the fuck is that?!
SC: That’s just my kid, don’t worry about it.
SM: Yeah, and they thought that was cool. Like, look at this dad who has two babies and is really young and he's trying to make it happen. And like these days I see a lot of parents these days - I'm not putting them down - they're like 40, like older parents and they're just helicopters. They're like freaking out with just one kid. Try three kids at once. I'd be at home alone with all three of them at once and they'd be like monkeys. They'd crawl out and I'd have to just chase them all around. It's a whole thing but like, they're babies, they're not going to break. You know I grew up in the 70s and like, your dad is driving around and you're like sitting on the gas tank while they smoke cigarettes and drink beer. That's how shit went and I'm fine.
SC: Human beings haven’t suddenly become more breakable. But they’ve gotten more sensitive.
SM: Very fucking sensitive. It’s infuriating. I can’t deal.
SC: What do you think caused that shift?
SM: Man I don't know. I have many theories and I don't want to offend people. Maybe it's people waiting and having the career first so now the kid becomes this like precious thing. Like when you're young and you have a kid it's not that big a fucking deal because you have so many other things going on in your life. And like now it becomes the only focus in their lives and they stand over the kid...and like now we've got all these kids in their 20s and they can't fucking do shit. They come to work for me and they don't know anything. Can't charge a battery in their car, can't change a tire. They don't know how to do jack shit and they're on their phone the entire time. They've got no real-world experience because their parents don't teach them shit. That's my main rant.
SC: That’s a good rant. Do you keep any rituals with the boys?
SM: I mean the atmosphere where they grew up, the compound, it's a big part of their lives. And the ritual is every summer for a few months we just charge the country together and see what's out there. We run around and go wherever the fuck - that's the ritual - but like this year it's ending and it's a bummer.
SC: All good things…
SM: Yeah, they end. I mean my Dad didn't do shit with me. I couldn't wait to get out and I moved to Hawaii when I as 17 and I don't want them to feel that way about me. But they're growing up and it's time for them to spread themselves out and I respect that. And they're good humans and I've taught them some cool shit and hopefully they remember that. And their mom has too. And right now they're just dumb kids, and I was that way - I would have beat my own ass - hipster, asshole know it all - so I remember that. But they're more mature than I was at that age. But they know they can always come to me and ask me anything.
SC: One question I have is if there’s something different for them you’d want that you didn’t have?
SM: Well they already got that which is a parent that doesn't beat your ass all the time and tell you that you're a piece of shit. And they've had four parents growing up that are super supportive. I live to hang out with my kids. I wake up thinking what kind of adventure can we get into. I see a lot of parents that aren't as interested in that. But I'm fortunate that I'm in a position where my work is my life and vice versa and it just works. And I get work from taking images of my kids. The Getty images of my kids, I've bought houses from the money I've made. That's just the bonus. And I'm really lucky.
SC: Last question.
SM: Go for it.
SC: How would your kids describe you?
SM: For sure the first thing they'd say is that I'm crazy. And awesome. They probably wouldn’t articulate that much. But I'm sure they'd say we've done a lot of cool shit together and they're proud of me. And they've been around through my recovery so they know what I've been through. I love them. And they know how much I love people and that I'll do anything for the people I love. They get that about me.