James Murphy is a groundbreaker with a CV and column inches to make peers and pretenders alike envious. The geeky New York songwriter, producer, DJ, remixer and general all-round dance-punk electrohead, for the record, co-founded DFA Records in 2001 and unleashed his band LCD Soundsystem’s first single all the way back in 2002, taking another three years to get round to putting out the eponymous debut album.
He’s been where it’s at ever since, producing The Rapture‘s first album and remixing everybody from Hot Chip to The Chemical Brothers along the way.
Now the 37-year-old is one of 2007’s least likely pop stars after LCD Soundsystem’s second album Sound Of Silver topped critics’ lists and the six-piece band headed festival bills across Europe. Rather like this one, as a matter of fact.
We’re at Summercase, at the purpose-built Parc del Frum, Barcelona. As scenes go, it’s idyllic. The Mediterranean Sea shimmers and glistens as pleasure craft bob past under the waning glare of the late afternoon sun. The blue sky is darkening a little each minute, beginning its countdown into the balmy Catalan night-time.
Most of LCD Soundsystem, however, are not enjoying the idyll. The Statesiders (and one Englishman) are set to play Summercase’s dance tent in the early hours of tomorrow morning. But they’ve missed their soundcheck and the festival’s about to start. Their tour bus broke down in Italy, we’re told. Somehow they then bypassed the trifling matter that is France and arrived here anyway, albeit hours late. The band are not in their zone.
That is except for James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem’s main songwriter and front man. As we approach, the helpful Spanish festival officer guiding me asks the man standing next to him if he knows where James Murphy is, as he has an interview to do. It’s okay, I say to her, pointing and feeling rather sheepish; that’s him standing there. We shake hands and head to the artists’ bar.
“I kinda hate touring. It keeps me from being at work.” – James Murphy, longing for a studio
He’s just found a burger and, hunger sated, seems right at home as he pulls up a deckchair. No wonder – he spent part of his honeymoon in the Catalan capital, has DJ’d here on numerous occasions and loves the place. “I’ve probably been here 20 times already,” he says. But now he wants coffee, and the bar only has alcohol or carbonated toothrot. He settles for water.
We begin to chat about the tour so far, but then stop as James looks towards the huge arena stage, from where the noise of a soundcheck is reaching us. “I think that’s The Hidden Cameras soundchecking,” he enthuses. “They’re one of my favourite bands.” The gay Canadian indie rockers would seem a curious namecheck for a dance act. It soon transpires that James Murphy’s music tastes run far wider than the merely electronic.
As for playing live, there’s surprisingly less enthusiasm. “I kinda hate touring,” he says. “I’m 37 and I want to go home, I want to make records, and I can’t. I mean, I kinda enjoy the touring, and we have friends, and everyone’s a friend, we travel with family – my wife’s here, my dog and (drummer) Pat (Mahoney)’s son – we don’t travel badly, but it keeps me from being at work.”
Surely, in these days where we’re being told live music makes rather more moolah than recorded music, touring is commercially worthwhile? “Oh nonononono,” he says, shaking his head vigourously. “If we make money on this tour it’ll be the first time ever. It’s usually a loss. It’s expensive, we have a lot of people and equipment.” But the label covers that, don’t they? “No. I don’t ask for tour support. I don’t like it, because then they get into your business. If you have tour support then people have to, like, share a hotel room, and you can’t get this or that. I don’t want anyone telling us what to do.”
On another level EMI is getting into his business, through its distribution tie-up with his Brooklyn-based DFA Records. The label has signed several new acts this year. But how does he decide who to sign to DFA? What made him give Prinzhorn Dance School a deal, for instance? “Really (DFA co-founder) Jon Galkin’s the records manager, ’cause I’m on tour all the time. He found (Prinzhorn Dance School) I think through a demo they sent and we started communicating with them and got comfortable with them. We took them on tour in the UK with us and they’re kind of like family to us now.”
“My three-minute pop song is about five minutes 40.”– James Murphy: not your radio friendly pop star, apparently
But while DFA’s activities, which now stretch to the international imprint Death From Abroad, gather pace, LCD Soundsystem has been getting ever bigger too. The album Sound Of Silver has spawned a slew of singles and remixes, notably from Soulwax, and has been lauded across the critical board as one of the best records of 2007. What does he make of all the plaudits?
“It’s really nice and flattering and I appreciate that but I don’t really, ahh…” He pauses. “I mean, maybe I’m saying that the way a rich person says they don’t care about money. Historically DFA and LCD have done pretty well with reviews – we’re not one of those bands who sold a lot of records but didn’t get reviewed well and said ‘fuck journalists!’. We get well reviewed and don’t sell a lot of records!” He laughs. “I don’t feel a tonne of pressure, I just want to do better for myself and the people I’m surrounded by. They’re pretty critical – a lot more critical than anybody else.”
As for his own feelings on Sound Of Silver, he says “I don’t listen to it any more.” But he still has his favourite moments. “For a while it was New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. If I was going to put one song on I’d probably put that one on the most.”
The languid album closer, something of a torch song, is, I suggest, very different to the rest of LCD’s output. “It didn’t feel that weird to me. What I’m interested in is pretty broad. It kind of existed in my head for about a year and a half, two years.” Asked to name influences on his writing of that song in particular, he says, “from ’72 to ’74, whether it’s Perfect Day or Ziggy Stardust. That era of recording is what I really like.” It’s brought about some Lou Reed comparisons, I say. “Well, I can’t get mad at that.”
The rest of LCD’s output is testament to Murphy’s abilities at writing anthemic pop – Tribulations, All My Friends, Daft Punk Is Playing In My House, to name but three hook-laden stormers. But many of his tracks last for six, seven, even 10 minutes. Why?
“I think they stay in their spaceship most of the time and just occasionally beam in.”– James Murphy on Daft Punk
“It’s body music,” he explains, leaning in. “I like physical music whether it’s punk rock or techno… whatever. It’s physical. My favourite Beatles song when I was a kid was always Tomorrow Never Knows because it was really physical. It felt like it was under water or something. I think I’d prefer that to pop. I like pop, I respect it a tonne, but my three-minute pop song is about five minutes 40. That’s like what I wind up with. I don’t really know why. The pop songs on the records are always about five minutes 40, so they always have to be edited down to three minutes or whatever the hell it has to be. I prefer things to develop a little bit.
“What I like to do, whether it’s setting up live sounds, or making shows, or DJing, it all kinda comes from that physical thing. I listen to things like Matthew Sweet from back in the day, who’s like such a really well accomplished pop writer, and it doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t feel like that’s what I should do. Or do do.”
Yeah, from the debut album, remains one of LCD’s best loved numbers. It is the exemplar of body music – even by LCD’s standards, it’s a monster of a track which, when played live, is the closest music comes to being a narcotic. Its status within the LCD canon was not always assured though. “When I did it I was pretty embarrassed by it,” James says, rather disarmingly. Why? “It was really big room, crass techno. I sat around for a while and tried to make a little passage with gentle keyboards.”
As with everything he does, there’s madness in the method here. “A lot of times, to get those (gentle keyboards) I just loop up the section I want to put ’em on and play that for 20 minutes, and play that on different keyboards. Once I’d done it on two different keyboards and played them together and it was eight minutes of this gentle…” He pauses. “It sounded too much like noise, it sounded kinda pretentious. But I liked it.” As a counterpart for the crassness? “It was almost like an apology for how brash and big synthy the main version was. So they became a crass version and a pretentious version.”
Space was found on LCD’s debut album for both. And both are, relatively, long. “I thought, I like them both, I should just put both out as is. Normally I’ll try to find a bridge between the two versions, but that one I preferred to leave them as they were.” It was one example of why having control over his output matters so much to him.
But despite this level of control, there are still occasional slip-ups. He is, it turns out, mortal. At the 2007 O2 Wireless Festival in London’s Hyde Park, LCD Soundsystem supported Daft Punk on the main stage. “Oh what a terrible show,” he remembers. “That was one of the worst shows we’ve ever played, everything was a disaster. Our console died… it was just depressing. Me and Pat had been DJing in Barcelona the night before until 7 in the morning and then flew straight to the festival. It was nothing short of totally crazy and it really made me sad. Then the synthesiser stopped working.”
Daft Punk took to the stage directly after. What did the reclusive French duo think of LCD’s Daft Punk Is Playing In My House? “I don’t know, I didn’t get to see them. I think they stay in their spaceship most of the time and just occasionally beam in,” he shrugs.
If compressors define Daft Punk, to some extent the oscillating drum patterns on LCD’s songs are amongst the band’s standout features. On Get Innocuous though, they’re not drums at all. “I have a synthesiser I like to use for most things, a Yamaha CS-60. It looks like an organ but it’s actually a really powerful synth. I make drum sounds with it and mess with the oscillators.” On Someone Great he uses an EMS CEA – “kinda like an old Doctor Who synth with a trigger, four oscillators…” he goes dreamy. Where does he pick all these synths up from? “All my Moogs I paid about $75 for. I bought ’em in the ’90s when people hated them.” He knows I’m feeling a tad jealous right now. He grins.
“I don’t want anyone telling us what to do.”– James Murphy on funding his own tours
From being labelled ‘indietronic’ back in the day, LCD Soundsystem and the DFA are now credited with influencing just about everybody who dared to fuse the beats of dance and punk with pop melody. Are Klaxons and all their nu-rave baggage the next evolution of a sound he invented? “I’ve only heard a fraction of their music and I’ve never seen them live. But I don’t really listen to music when I’m working and I don’t listen to music when I’m on tour. The last thing you want to do when you get off stage with 130 decibels in your ears is listen to a record. I mean, Arcade Fire are some of my favourite people in the world, I’ve toured with them and almost worked on the record with them, they’re my friends – but I’ve not listened to their album. And these are people I see, like, Hey Win! My brain is just full.” His recognition of The Hidden Cameras’ music earlier is put down to their song being old.
Also this year he diverged into writing a blog for The Guardian. As that newspaper explained to disgruntled punctuation retentives, James had decided to write everything in lower case – it wasn’t a case of the Guardian returning to its infamous days as the error-strewn Grauniad. “My favourite part would be the extra text when people started commenting and I could respond,” he recalls. “My posting name was ‘theguywhowrotethis’ and I could defend myself. I really enjoyed that. There was a group of people who were mad at me for my punctuation.” Angry of Tunbridge Wells, I suggest. “It was incredible. I was dumbfounded. I felt much better about being American because I saw that people are stupid everywhere. It’s always a bunch of fucking dumbasses and those are the ones that raise their voices in every part of the planet. But it was very funny. I got into it.”
Should we expect more writing from him? “I like writing. That’s what I went to school for. It’s on my list. I want to teach, write…” He was going to retire at the age of 40. “I said, 10 years, from 2000. But it’s coming too fast. Touring takes so long. I think this is my last tour.” He wants to make “maybe eight albums”, he muses. And that means no touring after this year at all? “I don’t think so. I just don’t want to anymore. It takes too long. It’s lovely to be on vacation, but do you want to be on vacation forever? You want to go home. Touring is great, promo is fine – interviews have historically been really good to me, I haven’t had bad times.”
Just as well, as LCD Soundsystem have another release this year. 45:33, a sequence of six tracks originally recorded in 2006, helped form the basis for tracks on Sound Of Silver, notably Someone Great, which appears almost complete, though without the vocal line. James writes his lyrics just before recording them. Jarvis Cocker used to do the same with Pulp too. James wasn’t aware of that.
As the Spanish sun dips and Summercase fires up, James already can’t wait to leave the Med. But far from losing his edge, he just wants to head home. Which, for him, remains Brooklyn. “I’ll never leave New York. I want to raise my kids there,” he says. Even though, according to the song, it’s bringing you down? He grins. “Every love affair is filled with strife.”
LCD Soundsystem’s 45:33 is released on 12 November 2007 through DFA/EMI. James Murphy and Pat Mahoney’s Fabric Live compilation and LCD Soundsystem’s Sound Of Silver are out now.