Alternative Press is resurrecting the Alternative Press Gallery, our section dedicated to the world of music photography. With each issue, we’ll take a look into the archives, highlighting some of the most iconic photographers and memorable shoots from the history of the magazine and beyond. Along the way, we will explore the great moments that brought your favorite artists to the pages and covers of Alternative Press.
To relaunch what you may remember as the AP Archives, we reached out to storied cameraman Sean Murphy. As a photographer, Murphy has over 30 years of experience, shooting everything from national commercials and lifestyle portraits to film actors and outdoor photography. He’s also a prolific music photographer, working with a wide range of artists, including Ice Cube, My Chemical Romance, AFI and Donita Sparks. Murphy stands out for his ambition, his attention to detail and his love of the craft. He’s just as ready to dress Weezer up in alien-inspired costumes or have Beastie Boys climb into a stranger’s car as he is to ditch the props and capture a simple portrait.
Murphy spoke to Alternative Press about his unforgettable experiences shooting for the magazine. He broke down some of his most distinctive images, reflecting on the tricky (and often messy) circumstances of life as a professional music photographer. During the chat, Murphy recalled what it was like to pie Green Day and blink-182 in the face, how he ended up working with Weezer for over two decades, how he got to spend an entire day with PJ Harvey and why he became known as “the angel of death photographer.”
You’ve worked with so many musicians over the years. Your Green Day/blink-182 cover is a natural starting place. It’s such a great image. What was it like to create that shot?
Norman [Wonderly, former Alternative Press publisher] came to me and said he wanted to recreate the cover of the Damned album [Damned Damned Damned]. He thought it’d be a good way to put Green Day and blink-182 together. I have a stylist that I worked with on a lot of shoots back then named Houston Sams. She got all the exact clothes [the Damned wore] from some prop houses. I think we got pie crusts and filled them with whipped cream or cool whip or something like that. It sucked because my studio was brand new at the time. We didn’t have a shower, just a little janky thing.
It was a little rough around the edges, but Green Day just roll in like, “What are we doing? Let’s do this.” You know, full throttle. It was a really great shoot. I think it turned out perfect. If people ask me, “What are your three favorite bands to shoot ever,” I always say Green Day, Weezer and Maynard [James Keenan] from Tool. Those are the three that will turn on every time and never say no to anything. They are super professional and badass.
I want to discuss your experiences working with PJ Harvey next. What was it like working on that shoot?
This was probably the best shoot I’ve been on, the all-around experience. At the time, I was really poor. I didn’t have any money. You know, there’s no money for shooting these things. I can’t remember how I scraped the money together. But I flew myself to London and a friend drove me to her town, which is a couple of hours’ drive from London. She met me at a bed and breakfast. I was very nervous. I was shaking, probably. She had just done the album Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. She was asking me if I liked the album and was nervous about it. I was like, “What the fuck are you asking me for? Of course! It’s badass!”
A lot of times, the bands are either uninterested in the shoot, or they’ve got other shit to do, or they don’t have a lot of time. But she spent all day with me. I’m talking about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., something like that. As you would think, she doesn’t give a shit. What I love about her most is her confidence. It might be a slightly unflattering photo for whatever reason, and she goes with it. She doesn’t care. I think on every level, she’s just fucking genius. To this day, it is one of my favorite shoots.
You’ve worked with Weezer for two decades. Some of your collaborations are really adventurous, involving costumes or props. Tell us about the UFO photo shoot, which has to be one of the more unique images you’ve done for the band.
The UFO image was my first shoot with them. The theme was from AP, and I think all the photographers on this issue had the same concept of a space odyssey. We thought it would be funny to make a cardboard UFO sprinkled with glitter on it. And so I called Houston. She went to Home Depot and bought a bunch of tin foil, dryer hoses and different things. I had never met the band before.
I didn’t know what to expect. So they show up to my house. Rivers [Cuomo] is very hard to read. After 20 years of knowing him, he’s still very hard to read. He’s really smart and quiet, and he’s thinking all the time. Rivers’ like, “What’s the idea?” I told him, and he just gave me this blank stare, like, “OK.” And so I was like, “Goddamn. Does he like this idea or not?”
Rivers is another one. Every shoot I’ve done now, I don’t know how many shoots in 20 years. Hundreds and hundreds of photos. And every time, he is the same. He says, “What’s the idea?” I give him a list of ideas, and he’s cool with it. We dress him up, and he gets into character, and he’s all business, and he kills it. That was the same with this idea. You know, we dress them up, we put them in front and we work with the scale, probably a wide-angle lens to give some depth to the UFO, which was very small, probably 4 feet. The way we put it in the frame, it probably looked like it was bigger, like a life-sized UFO. And then we shot them.
That’s a great shoot for me because they called me to shoot Make Believe. I just shot another one last year, Van Weezer. They would call me up for everything, publicity or an album, usually once or twice a year. That started our relationship, which is still going on to this day. I consider them friends of mine. It’s been a really great 20 years.
You also shot the band in the middle of Los Angeles. One of the most distinctive images from that shoot is a photo of the band posing with an umbrella in front of a rainy backdrop. What’s the story behind that shoot?
I would sometimes rent backdrops from this place in L.A. called Grosh Backdrops. I thought it would be cool to shoot them against a cloudy sky with an umbrella, and I thought that would make a good cover. They were recording an album at the time on Hollywood Boulevard. I shot that cover with the rain, and then all the other shots were around there: at the recording studio, the basketball hoop and then we ran around Hollywood Boulevard.
A notable story from that shoot is that shot of them standing on Hollywood Boulevard with the bus going behind their backs. They almost died for real on that shot, and I got in some pretty big trouble with their manager. I asked them to go out into the street, which they did reluctantly. I wanted to do a long exposure of the traffic going by. So they stood on the yellow line, and then an L.A. public bus came by in their lane and literally scraped the back of their shirts and sweaters. It was that close. I wake up in a cold sweat every now and again thinking about how that almost ended.
Let’s talk about this shot you did of Beastie Boys. It’s a really compelling image, showing the group casually sitting in a convertible. How did you decide on this concept, and what was it like working on that project?
Norman asked me to shoot Beastie Boys and Rage Against The Machine. I was supposed to shoot Rage Against The Machine in L.A. and Beastie Boys in New York. Each picture was going to connect the two covers. So I went to New York first and shot the Beastie Boys. We met in a recording studio where they rehearse. No one told me that Adam [Horovitz] was epileptic. I had brought a ring light with me. And so I started shooting him with a ring light, and he was feeling funny and told me he had epilepsy.
That changed the whole tone of the shoot pretty quickly. I took them outside where there was a Cadillac convertible and a truck with a stuffed animal on the front, and I asked them to get in the Cadillac. I didn’t even know whose Cadillac that was. They thought I brought it for them. I just went along with it. It was just a random car on the street. And we just shot the Beastie Boys in somebody’s car they didn’t even know.
The thing that happened after the shoot is Mike D was riding his bike home and got hit by a car and broke his arm. When I got home to L.A., I heard that news and that they had to cancel dates on their tour because of that. I was not blamed for it, but I was starting to be called “the angel of death photographer.” They show up, and then bad shit happens to people. That wasn’t the worst thing that happened. A couple of days later, I shot Rage Against The Machine in L.A. at the Dragonfly on Santa Monica [Boulevard]. Their mood was off that day. They weren’t really into it, and they were sullen, and the vibe was not great. After I got done with the shoot, two days later, they broke up. It might have been a week or whatever.
Those two shoots for AP—which never ran, I don’t think—were connected to both bands. It’s crazy, man. People were like, “What the fuck, dude?” It’s one assignment for AP, and two bands got destroyed!
You can read this interview in issue 393, available here.