James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem
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Over the course of three albums and a handful of singles, LCD Soundsystem has evolved from the self-recorded lark of New York DJ and DFA Records co-founder James Murphy into one of the most talked-about bands on the planet—and easily the most talkative. LCD Soundsystem’s 2005 self-titled debut launched a still-unspooling interior monologue on what it means to be young and hip that became one of the definitive documents of the New York hipster scene. His critically hailed follow-up, 2007’s Sound Of Silver, expanded his scope to examine what happens when responsibility, aging, and even death start intruding on the party—and suddenly, it seemed like Murphy was talking to everyone.
Now Murphy is done talking, at least for the time being: He’s announced that he’ll more or less retire the band at the end of 2010. And although his third LCD Soundsystem release, This Is Happening, wasn’t conceived as a swan song, it’s still a perfect summation of everything the group has accomplished in its brief existence, building from the self-aware hedonism of “Dance Yrself Clean” and “Drunk Girls” to the inside-baseball music industry slams of “Pow Pow” and “You Wanted A Hit” to the warm sentiments of “Home.” On the day of its release, The A.V. Club spoke to Murphy about leaving LCD Soundsystem behind, how that affected the record, and what’s behind his beef with the Village Voice’s Michael Musto.
The A.V. Club: Let’s just get it out of the way: Why are you quitting?
James Murphy: I’m not quitting, per se. I don’t want to be a professional rock ensemble that releases albums and goes on tour and does that all that stuff anymore. You know, there’s making music, and then there’s being a professional musician—and as much as I love it, it’s so all-encompassing that we really can’t do anything else. We’re just going to stop that part. LCD Soundsystem will still exist, to a certain degree, but people won’t have to disappear from their homes for months and stuff like that.
AVC: So there’s a chance LCD Soundsystem could continue making music, but you just won’t tour or do interviews behind it?
JM: I don’t know. It’ll be like it was in the beginning, when I released a couple of 12-inches, did a bit of it live, and just kept doing projects. I’ll have time to do production and other stuff like that, too.
AVC: Once you’ve achieved the sort of attention that LCD Soundsystem has, though, is it possible to take that big of a step back?
JM: I think you’re underestimating how short people’s attention spans are—or overestimating people’s interest. For example, with my band, nothing miraculous has happened in the last few months. A couple months ago, nobody really gave a shit—which is fine—but a couple months after that, there was a lot of activity, and then there’s press, and the record’s coming out, and people go, “Hey, that band is getting big.” And then people give more of a shit, but then that stops, and people don’t really care. I think it will just go back to what it was six months ago, where I’m riding the subway, and every once in a while, someone would just go, “Hey, dude, I like your band.” And I’ll be like, “Oh, thanks!” I mean, we put out singles between Sound Of Silver and this, and nobody cared, really.
AVC: You have to define what you mean by “care,” though.
JM: Well, not care, but it’s not like a big deal. It’s not high-profile. Profile is a transient thing, unless you’re, like, Madonna. I feel like it’s a pretty transient thing. I think that’s why people get paid tons of money to market things. [Laughs.] It doesn’t just stay there.
AVC: Was there a specific moment when you made that decision to step back?
JM: It felt less like a decision than a realization, for lack of a less-pretentious way of saying it. As we were making this record, it felt more and more like, “Wow, this should be the last record.” It felt more like realizing something that was there, rather than being like, “I have decided this.” I think I was just realizing that it was the better thing to do… [Pauses.] I think.
AVC: You talk a lot about wanting someone to “take me home” in the lyrics. Is it partly the physical drain of being in a touring band that led to that realization?
JM: No, home comes up a lot, and it has ever since the first record. To me, the band is like one of my homes, in fact. It’s not like, “I’ve got to get out of this band. I’ve got to go home.” This band is home in a lot of ways. It’s my closest friends; it’s a place where I really feel comfortable and happy. So it’s not like against the band.
AVC: So by leaving the band, are you actually leaving your home?
JM: One home for another, I guess. It’s like some sort of trade. One thing for another.
AVC: Did the fact that you turned 40 while making the record have anything to do with it?
JM: Yeah, definitely. I was trying to get the record done before I turned 40, but I lost my voice, so it kind of bummed me out. I also said in the beginning of the band, to myself, that I didn’t want to do it after I was 40. When I started, I was like, “I’ll just do this until I’m 40, and then I’ll do something else.” It seemed like a good idea at the time, and now it still seems like a good idea.
AVC: Did having this realization while you were making the album color the mood of working on it?
JM: I think so, for sure. Sometimes it was really exciting that it was the last thing. Sometimes it was really sad. To me, it’s a little bit like graduating from college, where it’s like positive and negative, up and melancholy all together. Like, “Oh, exciting! Oh no, it’s sad. I’m going to miss getting drunk in the quad with this record.”
AVC: Did you ever intend for This Is Happening to be a final statement?
JM: No, not really. I was just trying to make as good a record as I can, rather than being like, “This is the grand summation.”
AVC: What would you say this album is about?
JM: I wouldn’t. That’s a tough question for me. Albums to me aren’t really about things—they are things, if that makes any sense. It’s not a narrative, so I never know how to answer that. I understand the question, but I don’t know how to answer it, other than to make something up.
AVC: So make something up.
JM: [In pretentious voice.] It’s about man’s struggle against the mechanistic soul.
AVC: It’s like an aural version of the movie Metropolis.
JM: It’s much like the movie Metropolis—but you have to call that a “film.” You can’t call that “a movie.”
AVC: Oh, right. How about it’s just like that movie Short Circuit?
JM: It’s a lot like Short Circuit and Metropolis. [Laughs.]
AVC: What about the title? Where did that come from?
JM: The title is just the thing we said a lot while making the record, in various contexts. For example, when we got the keys to the mansion in L.A. and we walked in there, we were just standing around, like, “Where are we going to put the gear?” Because it’s a huge, crazy mansion with no furniture in it. What else do you say but, “Well, I guess this is happening”? It kept coming up—and also in a very positive tone, like, “Oh no, this is happening.” You know, when you’re being insistent. It’s just a phrase we kept using in various tones, so I thought using it completely tonelessly on the cover was a way of putting together three words that looked good in blue.
Titles are relatively arbitrary to me; they take on meanings that aren’t really my meanings. Sound Of Silver was just, like, I made the studio silver, and I wanted the record to sound “more silver.” The first one, I didn’t even bother, because I couldn’t come up with a good title. [Laughs.] This one just seemed like that was the thing that was said most often while making the record.
AVC: That mansion had quite a history—the Red Hot Chili Peppers did Blood Sugar Sex Magik there, Rick Rubin owned it.
JM: Yes, it has a storied history.
AVC: Did you see any Anthony Kiedis hairs in the shower drain or anything?
JM: No, there were a lot of System Of A Down stickers around the place, but that’s about it. No Chi-Peps stickers.
AVC: Did you just say “Chi-Peps”?
JM: Yeah, man. Jane’s, Chains, Peppers, and Rage, dog. Chi-Peps!
AVC: What’s the story behind forcing everybody to dress in all-white?
JM: This is going to be a potentially unsatisfying answer, but I thought it would be funny. I was just having—for lack of a less-weighted term—a vision of wearing a white suit and having a rock ’n’ roll mansion in L.A., and thinking it was pretty 1974 awesome. And I thought it would be really funny if everybody wore white all the time. So when we picked people up at the airport, we would have to take them to the store—if they didn’t have enough white clothes—to buy white clothes. In fact, my assistant Matt Cash had the best outfit of all, which I picked. I was like, “Dude, you need a white dashiki and white, flowy pajama pants, and no shoes, and no sunglasses.” And he wore that all the time, and it was awesome. It just looked great. It made you feel kind of cool. “Check this out! This looks cool! Everybody’s in white!” We had a white minivan—kind of creepy, like a cult. I like when you make a bad, simple joke and then follow through for months. If you’re just like, “What if everybody wore white? Ha ha ha.” “No, let’s do it.” That’s great. I love that crap. “What if we get the biggest balloon in the world?” “All right, let’s do it.” Those are my favorite things.
AVC: It seems like you’d have to be really careful about spillage.
JM: I think white clothes with stains in a rock ’n’ roll house is kind of what you need. Especially if you have a bloodstain—that’s a pretty good look. But yeah, coffee is a bummer. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve been pretty open about cribbing from your influences before, but the influence of Berlin-era Bowie seems especially obvious on this one. Did you set out with that specific goal in mind?
JM: [Sarcastically.] I can’t believe you said that was obvious, I’m very insulted. Well, no, I think that’s always there. I think it’s on “Get Innocuous!” and it’s on “Too Much Love.” That Bowie/Eno sound, it’s just a big part of my musical life, from when I was a kid through now. It’s one of those through-lines. As a little kid, “Heroes” was one of my favorite songs, and as a bearded hipster, Bowie/Eno collabs in Berlin are, you know, “check” as cool stuff to listen to that you like. [Laughs.] It’s just like a universal part of my background, as much as The Fall or Can. They’re just kind of always there. I think the noise—the sound of that stuff is probably louder on this record, purely because this record is more melodic. If anything, it’s that I’m singing more and there’s more melody, which tends to make me lean more on that part of my background. More than me being, like, “I want to make my Berlin record!”
Although we did get the Oblique Strategies box from my friend Dave Sardy, on loan. [Oblique Strategies is a set of cards with advice for musicians, designed by Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt. —ed.] We did use it once. It was pretty funny. It’s on film somewhere. Me and Al Doyle—Al Doyle and I, please excuse my grammar—were working on a song, and we were like, “Oh shit, Oblique Strategies. Let’s try it.” I think the card we got was “Enhance the differences,” and another one was “Do it backward” or something.
AVC: Even though you say you didn’t set out to do it, a couple of the songs almost seem like direct rewrites of that Berlin-era Bowie stuff—like you got “Drunk Girls” from “Boys Keep Swinging,” and “Somebody’s Calling Me” from Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing.”
JM: Well, “Drunk Girls” to me didn’t sound like “Boys Keep Swinging” when I was hearing it in my head. It just kind of went that way. I just wanted a dumb song. That was done in New York. When I got home from L.A. and was listening to everything, everything was really long, and nothing was dumb and immediate. “Drunk Girls,” it was just good to make something dumb and immediate. I wasn’t really thinking of making it sound like “Boys Keep Swinging.” You could also make the argument that it sounds as much like “White Light/White Heat”—which I also wasn’t intending.
“Somebody's Calling Me” was written in the middle of the night, and usually I’m pretty purposeful about my grand theft, like stealing the guitar sound from [Robert] Fripp for “All I Want” and stuff like that. “Somebody’s Calling Me” was written in my sleep, and the original was just the piano and the beat and the singing. And that was it, because I was on Xanax and asleep, and that’s what I did in the middle of the night. But then when I was working on it, putting in the little synth sounds and stuff like that, I was totally like, “Ha ha, this sounds like ‘Nightclubbing.’ Let’s put some crazy synth sounds on it.” Once you find out it sounds like that, you just have to allow yourself to use what you like, or else you’re trying to hide it—and that’s usually a way to make a boring song. I’d rather have a song I like that sounds like another song, than a song that I’m hoping nobody notices sounds like another song that I’m not that into.
AVC: Although you said this album isn’t really about anything, there are a few recurring themes—specifically the need to make a genuine connection with people and sort of break through detachment and distance. And those are also themes that play into Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, which you were working on concurrently. Is that thematic similarity a coincidence?
JM: Kind of concurrently, yeah. No, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. It’s not intentional, like I’m going to go make a bunch of songs about the need to connect with people, but I think it’s a pretty primary human need. So if that’s what you’re thinking about, it’s going to come through more than once. Greenberg was a funny one, because my intentions were radically different. I was making music for a movie that was supposed to sound somewhat timeless and reflect on what a 40-year-old’s musical, psychic vision of L.A. would be—and that was easy for me to do, because I’m a 40-year-old with a psychic musical vision of L.A. Thinking about Harry Nilsson and things like that—drunk rock stars with big houses and home recording units working on their own recordings, somewhat badly. I tried to make personal music, maybe with a guy who came over and happens to play bass in some other humongous band. For [This Is Happening], being connected to people is… [Pauses.] I never really thought about it coming up repeatedly until you said it.
AVC: And do you agree with that assessment?
JM: Sure. Yeah, now that I’m thinking about it, there’s a line about it in “Pow Pow,” I think.
AVC: And “Home,” and even in “Drunk Girls,” where the chorus is about how you “believe in waking up together.”
JM: Well yeah, of course. I didn’t even think about that either, until you said it. For me, it’s usually pretty surface. People being connected, no matter how shittily, is still pretty interesting. I’m pretty optimistic about people.
AVC: When you first started out, you were known for having this kind of ironic distance from things. You were a band making music about making music.
AVC: And with Sound Of Silver, you moved on to more of a personal perspective that became even more obvious on This Is Happening. Am I getting this right?
JM: Yeah, I think so. Although, I was really embarrassed about that. I kind of vowed not to make personal music.
AVC: Why is that?
JM: I don’t know, you’re in a rock band singing about your life, your feelings. It seems pretty yawny in a lot of ways. But I ran out of songs like “Thrills.” [Laughs.] And “Yeah.” You hit a wall, to a certain degree, and all of a sudden you’re writing songs about dead people and all your friends and stuff. I felt like those were hard songs to write, because I was a little embarrassed about the point of them. But then they wound up being songs I really liked. They wound up being strong-esque songs that weren’t just musical ideas about musical ideas. So I guess on this record, I was like, “Well, embarrassment is not a good enough reason not to do things. You should try and do the best you can, even if it’s a little embarrassing—or a lot embarrassing.” So I think this record had a lot more with me trying to do things that I think I unconsciously forbade myself to do. Like sing in a really arch falsetto, or write songs from a hackneyed position of desperation, things like that.
AVC: If you trace all this back to “Losing My Edge,” it seems like you started out being concerned with the particulars of being cool, but now you’ve gotten to the point where “cool” doesn’t particularly matter.
JM: Well, I’ve never been concerned with it, like, “Uh-oh, I’ve got to be cool.” I guess I was very concerned about it when I was a kid, but it’s more that I find the whole concept pretty interesting. I think “Losing My Edge” was not about me trying to be cool; it just had a lot more to do with understanding the way that worked. I still think it’s just as much a part of where my head is now as it was then. And I also think that “Losing My Edge” was just as emotionally exposed in its own way as anything is now. It’s just, what people noticed the most about it was the ironic distance. But that is a deeply embarrassing song, and a very, very, very personal song in a lot of ways. It just doesn’t read like that, really. Hearing it now, it has a context that it didn’t have when I made it, of being cool. [Laughs.] It wasn’t cool when I was making it by myself in the basement. It was not cool at all.
AVC: Part of the reason everyone honed in on that ironic distance was that you came off as this social critic of the hipster scene. Have you moved beyond that role? Do you still feel connected to the scene, even as an observer?
JM: Less so, because I’ve been on tour, and I’m older. It’s still my world. I live in Williamsburg, I sing in LCD Soundsystem, so I’m not an accountant. I am kind of, by definition, a hipster. I think at the time in New York, I was running around going to nightclubs all the time. And it was awesome. It was great. It was a larger percentage of my life, for sure. But it would have been silly for me to write “All My Friends” at that time, because that song is about being on tour and not seeing all the people that I wrote “Losing My Edge” about, if that makes any sense. These things have an arc that is based on what happens, and “Losing My Edge” wasn’t so much a song about music. I mean, it was, but that’s because my life was about music and going out and hipsters and all that sort of stuff. They were songs about my life in the same way that these [on This Is Happening] are, but my life was very different. “Thrills,” in a way, was totally about my life—and that was just dumb because my life was pretty dumb. Things happen in your life that change things.
For me, it always feels like I’m coming from the same place, the same way that you always think you looked the same all the time. Like, if you see a photo of yourself from a couple years earlier, and you’re like, “That’s what my hair looked like?” You just imagine in your brain that you looked the same and that your friends look the way they look now when you picture back.
AVC: You said in a recent interview that you split up with your wife after the last record—
JM: [Laughs.] I actually didn’t get divorced. I don’t quite know where that came from, but I’m not divorced, no.
AVC: That was quoted in an interview you did with Clash Music just a few weeks ago. Maybe you meant “split up” in a different way?
JM: That’s weird. I’m actually curious to find out where that comes from. I don’t really care, but no, I’m actually not divorced. [Laughs.] But I do hate my wife. No, not actually. Killing each other is actually a lot less expensive than divorce. I think we’ve hired hit-people.
AVC: In any case, there’s a sense of romantic yearning—or desperation, like you said—on this album that hasn’t really been prevalent before. Are those sentiments directed at anyone in particular?
JM: Of course, yeah. Just because you’re not divorced doesn’t mean you don’t disappear from a marriage for a year-plus when you tour. But also, those more “romantic yearning” parts of the record, those actually have less to do with my life than things like “Losing My Edge.” It’s funny that “Losing My Edge” may seem like just a song about music, but songs about songs and self-conscious exercises feel really super-personal to me. Something like “I Can Change” or the more romantically yearning stuff, while personal, was also more about me getting in touch with the music I listened to in eighth and ninth grade, like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and The Smiths—this kind of romantically yearning music that I really loved growing up, and have kind of gotten out of touch with. And letting myself be a little embarrassing, a little bit pathetic. Letting myself sing songs from these positions of being the all-knowing narrator-slash-character. But I wanted to do these romantic songs where you’re kind of blind to what’s going on—you’re like the ignorant narrator, if that makes any sense. I loved those songs as a kid, but something about me didn’t want to let me do that for a while.
AVC: So even these ostensibly “more personal” songs, to you personally, they’re actually more distant?
JM: Yes and no. These songs seem, on the outside, to be more, “Oh, he’s finally singing from the heart,” whereas songs like “Losing My Edge” are these studies in self-consciousness—when, in fact, “Losing My Edge” is completely written off the top of my head, like automatic singing, because it was so personal to me, so emotionally charged, so powerful an idea to that I could just make a seven-minute song off the top of my head. Whereas a song like “I Can Change” is me being self-conscious to a certain degree, and letting myself write these songs that are a little more desperate than I usually would write. Not that I think it’s necessarily super-distant. I think people equate emotionalism or romanticism with being “real,” or being the core of somebody’s person, and observation or ruminating as coming from a distance. If you know me particularly well, you can see that’s not necessarily how I’m built. I’m more emotionally attached to these observational things. [Laughs.]
AVC: In that sense, “Pow Pow” might actually be the most “personal” song on the album.
JM: In some ways, I think it is. I don’t know. I go back and forth on that type of crap. It depends on how you’re measuring it. I’d have to think long and hard to see which one is the most personal. I think “Home” is the most personal—and that one does sound personal as well. That blows my theory out the window, doesn’t it?
AVC: But “Pow Pow” does seem the most like one of your earlier, more self-analytical songs.
JM: That’s because it’s rambling. To me it’s “the talking guy with his talking face.” You know, “Talking Heads’ talking face doing his talking.” It was one of the last songs I made, like “Drunk Girls.” I was trying to make a song that felt like something between “Beat Connection,” “Losing My Edge,” and “Yeah”—like one of the old 12-inches. That, and try and make something that sounded and felt like the Idjut Boys edit of “Hot Love,” which I really like. And there was definitely a bit of making that the summation of one side of the record, and I think “Home” was a summation of that other side, in a strange way.
AVC: What’s the story behind its random dis on Village Voice columnist Michael Musto?
JM: It’s all this super, super-dumb insider crap. There’s this Paper magazine award thing—the Nightlife Awards, literally the silliest award-show possible. They give out awards like “Best Hotel With A Nightlife Scene,” things like that. [Laughs.] That’s actually an award. I went with a bunch of friends, and my friend Justine D. was up for “Best DJ Of The Year” or whatever. And the drunker I got, the more I was like, “If she doesn’t win, I’m going to pull a Kanye,” just because I thought it would be stupid. She didn’t win, so I just jumped up and grabbed the microphone—and apologized to Andrew Andrew, who did win—and said, “You’re not the best!” It was funny. Or not even funny—it was stupid, and I was drunk. And [host] Michael Musto called me a douchebag. So I thought it would be funny to put it in the song, like, “Hey, fuck you, dude.” Like, not really fuck you. [Laughs.] I just thought it would be like, “Why not?” A record lasts forever. It’s like The Downtown Book, you know, with photos from downtown New York in the early ’80s. It’s like if some bouncer had dissed him, and he wrote in the book, “Fuck you, Steven Ray.” Why not? I grew up in New Jersey reading the Voice, so I was a fan. But bitch, don’t come at me like that. [Laughs.]
AVC: He told you to “suck it” in response.
JM: He did? I love it! That’s perfect. I think he gets it. I hope he gets it.