Drummer Al Murray juggles up theatre, jazz, underwear and punk

At just 34 years old, the musician’s performance resume reads like that of a 65-year-old drummer-veteran. Now they’ve added clothing designer to the list.
Zircus designer and owner Al Murray in front of their textile table with completed briefs and juggling balls.
Zircus designer and owner Al Murray’ runs the new business start-up for now from their basement. Photo by Meghan Hilborn

Al Murray started as a career drummer at the age of 21, performing in over 24 theatre productions and over 1,000 shows since 2011, all the while recording in different indie, folk-rock, punk, Latin, jazz, and popular music bands.

As a session recording musician, Murray’s impressive local studio work tops it all off in several complex music genres on more than 10 recordings. Now at 34 years old, they carry a music performance resume like that of a 65-year-old drummer-veteran. 

“I’ve always liked variety. Playing in these different bands with wildly different styles, I think they’re not all isolated experiences. Like, the way I play jazz and the way I play punk, or Latin, I’ve taken from the experiences that I’ve had with those different bands, and it makes its way into my other music as well,” they said.

I first listened to Murray perform at a big band concert seven years ago and was floored at their drum feel, with a beautiful swinging sound and gloriously hip digging in. At the time Murray was performing with Andrew Homzy’s NOLA Nighthawks.

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Experience behind you speaks, but Murray had never tried to guess at the impressive numbers behind their own prodigious music performance history until it came up in our interview.

A person with a ball cap and black T-Shirt plays the drums with two bandmates partially visible in foreground.
Al Murray with Country Mouse. Photo by Denisa Reyes

Murray grew up in Coquitlam, where their mom was a piano teacher. “I was really young when I started, but I would mostly hide under the piano bench,” they said.

“I was 12 when my parents bought me a yellow sparkly drum kit…that was amazing. My parents made me a space where I could make noise and make music… they were really supportive.” 

Murray’s Nanaimo grandmother bought an accordion from a door-to-door salesman that they played as a teen at summer camp. 

They went on to study at Capilano University where they graduated with a Bachelor of Jazz in 2011. Murray then started travelling between mainland and Nanaimo theatres to perform on the drums five days a week. Locally they played the Chemainus Theatre for shows like Mamma Mia, Grease, Footloose, and It’s a Wonderful Life, and still travel to the mainland to perform.

“And then one time I came over for a Christmas musical… and then I just never left,” they said. 

This past Christmas, Murray went home and musicians and non-musicians in their family surprised them with a family band. “They had all been practising to surprise me. They made T-shirts and everything. It was great,” says the drummer.

Now ten years after moving to Nanaimo, Murray has founded the innovative Nanaimo clothing company Zircus Apparel, which, as the name might imply, also creates hand sewn juggling balls. 

A home-business start-up preparing for the international market, Murray’s Zircus designs range from bright colours like purple and seafoam to stunning bold stripe statements. Murray designed what they were envisioning for the undergarment market but was not able to find. 

“The discomfort that I’ve felt with clothing choices and difficulty finding them to fit my body as a trans person spurred on something that I didn’t even know I wanted to do at first,” they said.

“I wanted to make things that I felt good about wearing. And I knew that other people were also looking. 

“The community that’s come up for me in this process, all of these friends of mine that have helped out in numerous ways; the sharing of their time with me to help fit-test things. All of the modelling is just me with my queer friends having a nice time and capturing it on camera,” they said.

Since 2015, Murray has sessioned on the drums regularly and kept busy with studio recordings, with up to 10 releases from artists like Shera Kelly, Ben Zyakin, Chris Thompson, Paul Gellman and others.  

A person juggles in a large open field with cattle, Sheffield, United Kingdom.
In November 2022, Murray toured with Ora Corgan, stopping-off for a meditative Zircus Apparel photo in a peaceful cow pasture in Sheffield, United Kingdom. Photo by Erin Burton

Their inspirations range from The Bad Plus’ Dave King to Vancouver bandleader Allan Johnston’s Zapato Negro to drummer Gilberto Moreaux and bassist Avashai Cohen

“I absolutely love them,” says Murray.   

Murray has played and recorded for several years with numerous local bands including Nanaimo balladeers Country Mouse. Murray also launched the swing dance event Log Cabin Speakeasy with local pianist Patrick Courtin

A recent film appearance included Murray playing the accordion in Ucluelet and more recently, they have been involved in a soon-to-be-released film.

A person with a suit vest and tie plays drums with visuals of a bearded man in the background.
Al Murray has played the drums since being gifted a set as a child. “I just really liked the idea of the drums. Yeah, hitting things. That was a really fun idea,” Murray said. Photo by Robert Ell/Roshine Photography

For the last three years, Murray has drummed for Nanaimo’s The Cramps’ cover band, Bad People.

The former rockabilly punk band The Camps merged the aspects of B-movie sci-fi and horror, while adding touches of campy and at times offensively fun humour and sexual double entendre. Bad People explores the repertoire of The Cramps, adding in their own dash of healthy cathartic rebelliousness.

Shannon Strohm started the band, and I didn’t know any of The Cramps’ music at the time… It’s just been a really tight band of friends. We’re having a really good time,” said Murray.

Guitarist-bandleader of Bad People, Strohm, sums the scene up nicely.

“I think Bad People means a lot to [local Nanaimo] queer and creative culture. The Cramps were wild, free, and sexually expressive in an in-your-face way, taking traditional rock, putting it through a meat grinder with glitter, irreverence, and gender-bending pulp abandon,” says Strohm.

“It’s a good chance to howl at the moon. To not be judged…And be free.”  

Al Murray performs with Country Mouse May 20 at Backyard Fest in Nanaimo at the back of Sound Heritage Music downtown, bands to be announced.  

Catch Bad People this summer, July 7, at the Army, Navy & Air Force Veterans Club.

Trans community members looking for a swim buddy in Nanaimo can contact [email protected]  

Follow Zircus Apparel and drummer Al Murray on Instagram.

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