“Mono-maniac”. “Sonic Perfectionist”. “Psychobabbler”. “Maniacal Jackass”. “A little myopic perhaps…”
After a couple of hours shooting the breeze at the top of possibly Los Angeles’ only interesting looking structure, the Capitol Tower, these are all descriptions that the one man musical whirlwind James Murphy has applied to himself.
Over the afternoon this singer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and co-owner of DFA Records has imparted many incisive theories on the DNA of social scenes, suppositions on the foundation of ‘coolness’ and why he wants a 23-year-old to kick his ass.
In 2002 his LCD Soundsystem project grabbed the industry by its bloated balls and absolutely rattled them. Partner of New York’s DFA Records - possibly the most distinct ambassadors of their city’s current underground sound – he runs his label alongside Tim Goldsworthy, former UNKLE lynchpin whom he met whilst working as a programmer on a David Holmes album.
Murphy delivers his views precisely yet with a sometimes quirky generalisation. 99% of this rapid fire verbal output is mandatory listening to even the most transient music fan.
Surprisingly the singer admits that LCD Soundsystem is essentially a theoretical band. Murphy started writing this music to “plug a gap” where he perceived modern music lacked.
“Sometimes everything just seems [he pinches his fingers aloft as if analysing an invisible but disgusting bug]… too indie! I always feel that I am constantly clawing a spot where something is missing.”
Therefore what started as a functional one-man studio project to sate this ‘spot’ has now slipped its collar and is charging hungrily and with dragging reigns.
His new LP ‘Sound Of Silver’ is only his second long player, however this fleeting discography belies his series of underground club 12” hits, which are as just as likely to be played in painfully cutting edge techno bunkers in Berlin as an indie student union in Skegness.
LCD is about finding a way to reach out and touch someone with some sort of immediacy but at the same time not be some fucking pop punk band!
He expands on his need to innovate: “It’s a place where I think I can do good. I grew up in a situation where certain types of music reached through the hole to me. Like through the wall. And this led me to other music which made my life better. And I like aspirational music. The stuff that makes people feel that they want to try something different. And I feel that there is a lack of that music; for me anyway.”
His debut ‘Losing My Edge’ was a stunning club smash with a complex and contradictory monologue commenting on the music industry clique and its petty scenesters. It was taken so seriously both on the dancefloors and for its lyrical slant; yet all borne from a musician’s studio itch – a slender musical plug - but an earnest one at that.
“It was never a joke band! I made the 12”s but I was never going to have a band. We were maybe going to play a show supporting The Rapture. It was never me and Pat in my room thinking we were going to take over the world. It was very utilitarian. It was meant to be a band about bands, which I still think it is… it’s a band about what a band is.”
LCD Soundsystem has another central pillar of ideology. It’s fundamentally about originality. To casual observers the references of Gang of Four, The Fall and the whole host of post-punksters are on show, but Murphy has exceedingly strong views on his own band’s aesthetic.
He is striving for something simple: a musical niche that hasn’t happened yet. A melodic gesture that communicates something pure to his audience. On paper this sounds normal. Big wow. But turn on a transistor or dip into a disco and you’ll generally find most music is moulding itself around a trend or chasing an existing scene.
Murphy is desperate to impress on the world that he’s striving for a small musical place that hasn’t yet been touched, and not for the first time in an afternoon, his delightful reduction of musical culture thrills
“For example, take The Stooges. There is this dude with no shirt on rolling around the ground yelling that he WANTS TO BE YOUR DOG while a bunch of dudes are looking at the floor and playing the loudest music you have ever heard whilst the dude on the ground is punching the audience in the face.
And you are like, ‘FUCK! That’s simple’. But now, if you take you shirt off, roll around on the floor and everyone plays heavy then it doesn’t mean the same thing as it did back in ’68. It means you are living in this city of Los Angeles and you have a really good manager and you want to be punk – and it’s FUCKING MEANINGLESS. These gestures that were once simple signifiers that indicated more inspiring meaning have become co-opted, corrupted and bankrupt.
So LCD is about finding a way to reach out and touch someone with some sort of immediacy but at the same time not be some fucking pop punk band! It’s like [adopts high-pitched persona of a supposed rebel and flips his middle finger], ‘Yeah, fuck you man!’
BUT THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT FUCKING SAYING ANYTHING ANYMORE! YOU ARE MEANINGLESS. YOU ARE A RETARD! Doing something different is a much more uphill task than it was in the 1970s. In 1972 you could go out with a synthesiser and make an ambient album and it would be lauded for two decades as important. Try doing that now! Go out and try to make ‘Music For Airports’ [by Brian Eno] and see how far you get and if anyone gives a shit. And they shouldn’t because it’s a different time.
It’s borrowing the posturing of the past without complicating it – that is what I wanna do. Find a way of having the kind of meaning of the records that changed my life had in a modern world where certain shortcuts to that meaning are just removed.
You can’t be the Velvet Underground anymore. You can have four people walking around full of heroin and wearing sunglasses. It’s a troupe. It’s now just a genre.”
Part of the problem of distinguishing whether LCD Soundsystem are still achieving their aim of demarking a new rhythmic nirvana has gotten blurred with imitators and the popularisation of a brewing sound which led to the bastard offspring known as (shudder) ‘electroclash.’
LCD to some degree was a watershed in reformulating several genres of punk, funk, dance and captivating monologue which spoke to a bored audience of typically misfitting youth.
Fans would argue that their blend of elements, both new and old, was completely unique, yet critics may say it represented the growing generic sound of ‘New York’, which has been an entrancing mongrel but conceived well before LCD exploded.
The new record ‘Sound of Silver’ is nine tracks which continue the band’s brief tradition of up-tempo grooving dance music, with a smattering of disco along with a mildly inflected punky edge. He is a well versed punk fan, yet Murphy, who was a sweet faced choir boy in his youth, claims the most rebellious thing he ever did was ask too many questions in an Irish family.
So what else makes LCD unique? Well as a journalist, roving for facts, you often have to talk to musicians about their ‘production processes’. It’s normally a boring necessity that could effortlessly sedate a rampant five-year-old on acid.
However the way LCD Soundsystem songs are assembled is genuinely fascinating since Murphy only writes his lyrics on the day he records them over a fully finished track.
So is this an attempt to unleash the purer distillations of his subconscious without the psychedelic excess and insanity with which Jim Morrison unleashed his own inner lyrical workings?
“No, no, no. I think that just helps me not get too wrapped up in my head. I just don’t like to write lyrics then sing them later because I already have a tendency to be too linear. I get very embarrassed by big rock things. They sound like bullshit but if I do things too far in advance then things get a bit too clever.”
To an equal degree Murphy will resist playing or writing or annotating any new song forms for as long as possible. He professes to write fully formed songs just in his head before even picking up an instrument or pen. His explanation is typically animated and populated with more theatrical impersonations.
“This is a very big thing. It’s a very bad way of doing things when you are having a bad day; it’s like there is a monkey in your head going: ‘YOU SUCK, YOU SUCK, YOU SUCK!’ and you are trying to hear the song over the monkey but the monkey is going [adopts face of an insane and very annoying primate waving his hairy arms about]: ‘Oooooooooooooo! No one is going to like this and you are hacking and just copying your own stuff!’
So you are like, ‘HOLY FUCKING SHIT! SOMEONE PLEASE KILL THAT MONKEY!’ Which is why people smoke, I think. To kill the fucking monkey.
I have to negotiate with that monkey to shut it up. So I try to sit down on the couch and envision everything. Literally down to how the music pans; like tambourine a little to the left and something on the right to balance it. Two basses or one bass?
The second you start playing an instrument it just goes. It’s like having a piece of paper with a very, very faint image on it. The second you put a big dark line on there the image underneath will be lost so you only have a fading memory.”
This unconventional approach certainly does the trick. His productions are lauded and his lyrical observations, thanks to his insightful debut, are picked over like indie carrion by hungry journos and geeks.
“‘Losing My Edge’ is the benchmark,” he concedes. “It came out first, the ante is quite high – bummer! Which is why ‘Yeah’ (his second EP) came out. It was supposed to just have ‘Yeah’ all the way through it, specifically to erase the expectations that there was going to be some other clever monologue for people to start blogging about.”
Track three on the new LP, ‘North American Scum’, is the (as yet unconfirmed) lead single from the next LP. It’s another strong vocal delving into the nature and preconceptions of being a currently unpopular global nation.
If his debut single endured the equivalent disco examination as one of Freud’s early cocaine-smashed psychoanalysis patients then this new song is going to have LCD commentators in quite a fishy and sticky lather.
“‘North American Scum’ is the one that I am dreading doing,” he grumbles. “Being an American is a complicated thing to be. I travel around and I’m expecting people to criticise me for this song [adopts voice of a redneck], “If you wanna criticise Americans boy, then don’t live here”.
It’s a weird thing to be right now. I am very, very pro American. I love the place. I think it’s got the best Constitution, it’s got the best oldest living political document, I love the history. I love the fact that you had these people that when they formed the actual country after abominations and the horror of their own, that they made a document that was way more smarter, way more liberal, way more progressive than they were capable of being. A document that was smarter than the society that made it. And that is a beautiful thing. Anyway I don’t want to get political. Eventually I am going to have to write a little speech and just say that I am not going to answer questions on ‘North American Scum’.”
During one of his pseudo-serious musings Murphy admits that ‘Sound Of Silver’ was nearly called ‘Oh Vanity Thy Name Is Sophomore Effort’, since he questioned why on Earth would he make another record for any other reason other than that?’
But ‘Sound Of Silver’ made sense to him for two reasons: one, his father used to tell him that when he finally had a kid it’d be the permanent silver medal for the Dad, because once you have had a kid you can do no better than second place.
The childless singer continues: “I also felt that the first record was a little bit too beige; I could never put it any better than that – ‘cream’, ‘earth tone’. I wore this brown corduroy almost entirely for two years on tour. I don’t know why, I just sort of did. And I felt like I wanted this record to be more silver but I don’t have a silver jacket. I have had difficulty in realising how I am going to integrate silver into something so humiliating as a silver jacket or jumpsuit.”
Speaking, reporting, watching and listening to James Murphy is intense. I’m under no illusions that reading this interview is probably going to get more intense since it’s effectively all about one man, one outlook, one man’s opinions and very much one man’s band.
However, LCD Soundsystem is very much a live act, and this ensemble is assembled from friends first and musicians second. It just so happened that Murphy is very friendly with some first class musicians, as he explains.
“Pat and I were in a band called Les Savy Fav, Tyler – he was the bass player in Outhud and !!! and I saw them and I needed a bass player that plays like a gorilla and he plays exactly like a gorilla. I can’t explain this. Nancy was a friend of Pat’s and who became one of my best friends who is super helpful and super great at shit. And without her support I don’t think I could even do it. Phil was in the David Holmes band so I knew him. So it was like a bunch of mates that I wanted to travel around with. I picked people who I could be around first rather than auditioning people.”
So do any of these consummate musicians ever get frustrated at the band’s dynamic where Murphy effectively is a musical dictator?
“We had a really good and clear talk about it all before we started the band. I have been in so many bands and most of these people had been in a lot of bands too.
I always feel that I am constantly clawing a spot where something is missing.
What I wanted to avoid was this false modesty and false democracy which comes in with a band sometimes. I preferred to come out and say: ‘Here is the deal. I made the two 12”s and a 7”. This is my thing. I need people that I like to go and play with. We are a cover band. We are going to go and cover this stuff. I’ll be the band leader; I have a very specific thing that I want to do. If you are not into that then that’s totally cool but if you are into it then lets go and do it and it’ll be fun.’
So it was very clearly set out to be my thing. No-one is coming in and going: ‘God man! You are not using my idea’. If you don’t smoke in my house then I am not telling you what to do with your life. I just don’t want people smoking in my house. We have just grown together working like that and people are happy with that… Unless maybe I am living in a wild delusion and in fact they HATE me.”
The band was formed in the rich breeding ground of the New York club scene. With The Rapture gaining prominence, the heritage of Liquid Liquid which has haunted the influential disco lifeblood now pumped into every club and rehearsal space from every angle. So from this tangle of genres where has his chosen name of LCD Soundsystem been plucked from?
“Empty signifier,” the singer quickly snaps. “I have a thing about these. I love things that don’t mean anything but to you. We have always made up stuff. ‘Lonely Crazy Dancers’, ‘Last Cool Dudes’, it goes on forever. I like to rush to where the name means nothing. And the less the name makes sense to start with then the faster you can get to that point.”
This again returns back to the theoretics of rock and fame. An omnipresent facet of holding audience with this man is his continual dismantling of the processes of music or in fact any form of engagement. Deconstruction and analysis is a distinct personality trait. However at one point he stops and tries to pull apart his own “psychobabble”.
“For anybody that knows me particularly well, I don’t think the theoretical way I talk at all. I talk the way I talk so that I can quickly sketch what I think. I tend to feel stuff and I am very much about my feelings. I like things to feel a certain way; I mix incredibly loudly, I arrange one single instrument through the entire track and build everything around the way that instrument felt. And how I felt making that.
So sequencing the record I just go: ‘This tracks needs to go into that one and that one here. These ones are orange - I may as well just say orange. This one is blue… no, wait I have two blue ones… I’ve got a couple of green ones too so they need to go there to make a pretty pattern’. It’s as if my operating system is a very primitive culture and I’m writing a college doctorate on how this primitive culture operates.”
The whole concept of ‘scenes’ is a bit of a tentative subject with this band. In as much as ‘Losing My Edge’ poked at the edges of a self-effacing contradiction about trendy ‘scenes’, Murphy is perhaps the most explosively resolute and adamant when he is challenged about his own ‘scene’ of DFA in New York.
He erupts: “BUT THAT IS WHAT WE WANTED! That’s why I always resented it when we got put into other things. My scene is very small. It’s called The DFA, it’s in New York, and it’s my life, my friends and my people. And it’s the only thing that keeps me grounded; it’s the sanest thing to have. I thoroughly believe that the great music that our history of rock has created were anomalies and great luck of circumstances of local scenes with local responsibilities with local influences and local feedback. The punk in New York, the London punk stuff, the Berlin music.
A scene is just a bunch of people that like us. And this self regulates since the people that don’t like you leave and the people that do like you climb in and cheer for you.
So we have always slogged forward [he starts windmilling like a drunken boxer] with people shouting ‘You are the next big thing’. We just need to look at our goals and one of these is, ‘In 20 years what do we not want to look back on with humiliation?’
1) Am I running from responsibility and taking the easy way out?
2) Will I look back on this with humiliation?
3) Are we taking care of New York?
4) Are we honouring our world?
5) Do we continue to support our friends that support us?
6) Do we keep working with the people who we admire?
7) Are we continuing to try to be a good label?”
Now, like suspicious policemen or a teacher catching a pupil in the act of something flagrantly naughty, some readers may now be clearing their throats pointedly since in late 2006 James Murphy was caught doing what many fans would regard as the unthinkable.
Their underground hero. Their lord of independence. This free thinking, free acting, philosopher of punk rock made a track for a multi-national sports company called Nike.
Four weeks into making ‘Sounds Of Silver’ he broke off his process and recorded a piece of music for Nike called ‘45:33:’ which was a continuous piece of music designed to exercise to.
But should it?
Our subject here is uncharacteristically nonchalant and during his defence imparts some insightful observations on how he thinks ‘cool’ works.
“Yeah! there was a little bit of backlash. Sure, I think there should be a question. This is what I always have a difficulty with, dealing with public opinion.
It’s like driving a car on ice. Once it’s skidding then you are ALWAYS compensating, trying to slide the other way, then once that’s in motion you are over-compensating to slide the other way. So there are people attacking me; a few people were like, ‘You are a fucking sellout!’ and I tried to point things out so I asked them to talk about it. [all on the DFA Records web forum on which James is particularly active]
I don’t like Nike, I don’t own any Nike, I don’t wear any Nike and I don’t like the company particularly; I shouldn’t really say that but… I don’t really give a shit and to a certain extent it was just a song and it was fun to make.
People just have a visceral reaction to that. I have to respect that and you have to respect that someone just doesn’t feel cool about it.
My opinion is that most people refer to ‘sell-out’ when they want to use you to feel cool about them selves; they want you to be an emblem of something that they are wearing. Like, ‘I am into DFA! And DFA is cool therefore I AM cool!’ and when you deviate from what they want you to be then they get angry at you.
I don’t think that they think about it as deeply as that but the emotional response comes from that. On one hand I find that kind of bankrupt emotion but then on the other hand I think that’s the core about what’s great about being a kid that likes music.
But that actually really saved the record for me because it really opened me up. I took a lot more chances on the Nike track because I was like, ‘Ooh, this isn’t the album - I can do these embarrassing things’. Then after I was like, ‘no actually this is liberating’, so the second half of the record, going back and finishing it was the most productive I have ever been in my entire life.”
So after his second LP, a near countless amount of remixing and DJing, not to mention the years in various lowly gigging bands such as Pony and Speedking, what has been the most challenging project of his career thus far?
“The Rapture. That was the most difficult. It was awful for them; it was two and half years, it was off and on and fighting, disagreeing and torturing one another. It was really difficult. I think I was really hard on them and I regret how hard I was on them.
It could have been a better record. A lot of the blame lies with Tim and I. Back then I was really intense, a lot of drugs. I was all about burning everything off, smash everything and whatever is left is the stuff that matters. It was a pretty fire and brimstone type of scenario. Now I produce myself and I can be like that and I’m not hurting anyone else but me.”
And what of other regrets or black sheep grazing on their back catalogue? Well, hardly any skeletons as it transpires. There was however nearly one blip. Murphy and Goldsworthy had built up their reputation to the point where the mainstream started battering down their door.
I suppose you know you’ve caught the wider musical communities attention when Britney Spears phones for a post-punk dance hybrid remix to flog her lacklustre reputation or perhaps try and ‘buy’ into cool; to get her own DFA badge so to speak.
Murphy however was very grown up about this: “I like to address to Pop, I think my band is Pop and I’m a Pop person. And I didn’t want to write Britney off without meeting her. You could play her The Fall and she may go [adopts Britney voice], ‘This sounds like crazy people’, but she may go, ‘Wow what the fuck is this?’ Ultimately working with her was unrewarding; she wasn’t really there and was a bit distracted with other things. That scenario made me feel like music was a part time job and for me it’s a full time job.”
This display of veracity is just another signifier of the level to which DFA are now an accepted litmus test of integrity. As just revealed, they only want to work with the ‘real thing’. No Time Wasters need apply. So what else really gets the singer’s goat in the modern music industry?
“Oh man! The list is too long. Bands with low expectations of themselves. Bad audiences with even lower expectations of the bands. It just seems like a really desperate race to the middle… [adopts the voice of a dizzy blonde with arms in the air] ‘Woooooooo 50%! Yeah!’; it’s all very uninspiring. And that is what bums me out about rock / punk / dance / whatever, because it became this retarded genre full of talentless hacks that just wanted to be part of a new thing as opposed to trying to do anything good. Not that I am bitter…”
Yet the ‘Sound Of Silver’ is not dramatically different from his debut. There’s more work on each track, a string quartet in three places and the songs arguably have a greater depth and the scope of sounds is perhaps wider.
So if LCD Soundsystem started as a theoretical band to ‘plug gaps’, is he now still plugging gaps where once there was a void? Having comprehensively innovated once already, then reading from his own rule book, is there a need for this music if it’s not radically different to what he has already forged?
“That’s a good question. I feel that since DFA started there has obviously been a lot more dance / rock or whatever. Most of it is shockingly dubious in its aesthetic, so on the one hand we should move off and make ‘fairy music’ or whatever. Every once in a while I will read an angry blog saying we are just following our own formula, but I’m waiting for someone to wipe us out.
I am desperate for some 23-year-old to kick my ass and send me home. I am desperate for some band to come out that are so much better than us that I don’t feel like I should bother - but it just doesn’t happen.
The people that I aspire to - the Bowies, the Iggys, the Enos, even the Violent Femmes – are all just missing right now. The ones that oscillate between the avant-garde and Top of the Pops.”
It’s hard to tell whether this is rhetoric or a genuine wish; is this selfless musical philanthropy? Does Murphy really want a 23-year-old to come and seize his legacy whilst kicking his ass? What would he do if it happened?
“I kinda don’t stop. I am starting a Jujitsu school with my trainer. I wanna toughen up a bunch of scrawny and pasty musicians. I like doing all that Ultimate Fighting stuff but I don’t always like the type of person it attracts. I actually love and am obsessed with ultimate fighting. I am a big fan. I fly to go to the fights. I know some of the fighters.
Aside from this, I was designing a phone for a different type of technology. I wanna open a hotel, design new sound systems, I wanna do some more mixing, start mixing people’s records, throw more parties, do more DJing, you know…”
You suspect that if his band was wiped out by a more original force then he’d simply resurface elsewhere with another refreshing plug for a musical void. Yet in the meantime he’s still understating his achievements and gently trying to nudge things forward.
“But you know what? I am not fucking Lou Reed! I wasn’t in the Velvet Underground! I can’t put that hat on and stroll out and pretend that’s what I am… but at least I can try to shove people into trying.”