James Murphy Knows He's Not Getting Any Younger
The LCD Soundsystem frontman talks fatherhood, brawls, and his obsession with British music.
If you're a fan of LCD Soundsystem then you're probably already aware of how David Bowie's imposing figure towers over the narrative of their comeback. Perhaps this was inevitable. Back in 2011, on the eve of huge farewell Madison Square Garden shows, de facto bandleader James Murphy seemed to be content with the idea of becoming the Brian Eno of Williamsburg. After the documentary (Shut Up And Play The Hits) and live box set (The Long Goodbye) came the wine bar, the coffee brand, the astoundingly good mobile disco, the actually quite amazing sounding but ultimately thwarted project to make turnstiles on the New York City subway system beep harmoniously with one another… It seemed like Murphy's time to become a thread in the bristling fabric of NYC public life.
The only genuinely unexpected misfire you could point to came when Murphy tried to set himself up as a producer. First he co-produced Arcade Fire's fourth album Reflektor—a move which did neither party any great favors—and then got involved in David Bowie's majestic swansong, Blackstar. It was his abortive attempts to help out on the album (according to Murphy, he contributed a sole chord change to a song and then slipped out, deflated, when no one was looking) which has informed nearly everything that has been written since about LCD Soundsystem's near faultless fourth album American Dream. And it's not surprising. Bowie gave him some sage and apparently pivotal advice when he was fretting over the idea of reforming LCD. You can hear an overt musical tribute paid to Bowie in the shape of the Robert Fripp/ Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)-referencing "change yr mind" and a genuinely touching goodbye in the form of "black screen."
But this just makes up the 10 percent of the story that you're being encouraged to see. The real story (or the rest of it) is what's going on under the surface and how this album signals a more marked return to his roots as an Anglophile post punk fan (The Fall, The Cure, Joy Division), how he squares fame with credibility, the violence of rebirth and how he looks to the same places as Bowie for inspiration (Krautrock, Eno, Robert Fripp, Harry Nilsson, Iggy Pop etc) instead of just to Bowie himself.
When we meet for coffee at a small east London cafe, Murphy is great company. I interviewed him once 12 years earlier—just before the first album came out—and he doesn't seem to have changed much in the meantime. He speaks quickly, brightly and at great length on any given subject, only pausing significantly for a few seconds first if you ask him a particularly difficult or negative question. He is endlessly enthusiastic about many things and when you hear him rhythmically rhapsodizing (an admittedly very good) flat white—"That was very good coffee. That was very good coffee. That. Was. Very. Good. Coffee"—it becomes clear that his lyrical style isn't so much weird or contrived as it is an example of the idiosyncratic way he sometimes speaks. He is very much the essence of Someone Who Would Be Good Down The Pub. We settled in.
Noisey: To break out of the Bowie thing: your synth player Gavin Rossum's amazing dancing. Discuss.
James Murphy: We haven't a band discussion about this yet but Gavin is definitely our best dancer.
There's a serious point to this question. LCD used to go out clubbing together but I'm guessing that's tailed off now—how does this affect the way you still make dance music?
To a certain degree we don't make as much dance music as we used to but we all still DJ. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old child so I don't feel compelled by that many parties. I would still go to Optimo if I had the chance though.
I've heard you care a lot about the drumming of Lol Tolhurst of The Cure.
One of my all time favourite albums is Pornography by The Cure. What a terrifying album, and I'm a massive nerd about his drumming [goes into long but precise description of The Cure's early drum sound is achieved]. When he left the group I was broken-hearted. During a specific era of my life, The Cure and The Smiths held two very different but very important polar feelings for me.
You're clearly an Anglophile. How far back can you trace this?
Between the age of 13 and 16 I liked The Clash, Bowie, Echo And The Bunnymen, The Cure, The Smiths, Sisters Of Mercy, Joy Division and New Order. Between 1983 and 1986 most of these bands were big in Britain but were still very, very underground in the US so would play smaller venues. And that overlapped really densely with some of the most important years of my life. Then when I was 16 I had a school trip to England. I fully expected to get off the plane and step into punk rock heaven, where everyone was going to be wearing long trench coats and have crazy hair. I didn't know anything about lad culture or how intensely conservative Britain was at that time. When I got here I was like… "WHOA… OK, now I get it. The Smiths and The Cure were born from how they looked totally not being OK in mainstream British culture." It was a great trip—very important—but it was also a real wake up call.
Does how Morrissey has become affect your enjoyment of his music?
I met Morrissey once, you know. I interviewed him for a magazine in 2001. He was exactly as you'd imagine: standoffish, prickly, fussy, but OK really. He was terrifying to me because I'd been such a big fan. I finished his autobiography which is almost unreadable. I didn't understand a lot of the background to him being decried as a racist or a xenophobe. He denies it but also doesn't make that many compelling arguments for you to give him a break on it either. But his relationship with the UK music press feels a bit witch-hunty to me. I just got hatcheted recently by somebody who wilfully took stuff that I said out of context just so that they had a story—and you can smell it on these guys—so I can imagine most journalists being out to throttle him. Is he insufferable? Yes, and he's bad at hiding it. But there are a lot of really insufferable people we've allowed to get away with it because they're really good at hiding it. And I think I'd sooner know he was insufferable and made really fucking great music and brilliant lyrics that both make you want to cry and laugh. It's a tough game, man. That Smiths shit is hard to fuck with.
Right. Does the reputation you have as an uber record collector guy with a bag full of obscure 12"s send critics scurrying down rabbit holes to pick up references in LCD's music?
I do this a lot less than people think. The presumption is an arrogant one: 'Oh he's just doing that.' People don't necessarily know how I work. If I realize something I'm working on is coming from somewhere then I tend to put a bell on it as a way not to hide it. Like with "All I Want" from This Is Happening [which bears passing resemblance to "Heroes"] or "Losing My Edge" [early single with similar beat to Killing Joke's "Change"].
Nancy Whang's "other voices" line about "This is what's happening and it's freaking you out" is a reference to " LA" by The Fall too, isn't it?
The Fall are part of my DNA, arguably as much as David Bowie. Mark E Smith is amazing. What a body of work. It's arguably the best body of work. I met him a long time ago at the Apollo, in Manchester. We went out for a pint and got along really nicely. He was very sweet. Very conscientious. I was totally surprised. Because he could have punched me in the face or done anything to me, this… wizened punk elf. And he didn't have to be nice to me, it's not a requirement to be honest. Later, the only negative thing I read him saying about me was I was ripping him off and that he doesn't sing like that anyway. And my response was… Yeah. You know? Totally.
How different would that "Losing My Edge" list of bands be if you were to sit down and do it today?
The whole point of it wouldn't make any sense today. It wasn't a list of bands that I loved the most but more this desperate screaming of things that would make you seem cool and developed. This desperate use of other people's art as your armour and your badge of who you are, which, as a teeanger, is a thing of beauty but as a grown person is almost embarrassing. It's not how we absorb music any more.
Although if one of the new young rappers like Lil Yachty was being "punk," by saying "I don't give a shit about anything that came before me," and all he did was shout the names of other young rappers who were awesome—ignoring everything that had gone before—that would be fucking amazing. Imagine him saying Lil Uzi Vert instead of The Sonics [laughs]. I came back to make better music, LCD came back so I wouldn't have to start again from scratch. I've got this trilogy of albums which I'm really proud of but I'm back to start again and we'll see what happens next.
What does happen next?
The only thing I want to do is to make records more frequently. The main thing is we're not hurtling further away from death and my relevant years are not getting longer. During the time away my wife shamed me: "What would your 14-year-old self say about this? You have a world-class studio that you built and you're not recording music in it. Your 14-year-old self would beat you to death with a hammer." Asking what your 14-year-old self would do is a good barometer, so I want to make more records, fail a little bit more and be OK with it.
You worked as a bouncer, right? What would your 14-year-old self have thought about the biggest brawl you got caught up in doing that?
Nothing terrible happened to me as a bouncer; I had to hit a couple of people. There was this time in a club called City Gardens in Trenton, which was a white flight city that had gotten very black, when these skinheads turned up trying to cause trouble. I separated the troublemaker from his mates because he wasn't so bold when he was on his own. I got him out of the door and shouted, 'Fuck off Nazi!' after him and shut the door and watched. Suddenly Mr Bold is getting his ass handed to him in a parking lot. That was satisfying to watch. Since learning martial arts I've never been in a fight since. As a kid I got into some fights because I had eyeliner and nail polish and funny hair but I was the same size at 16 as I am now. I was from a small town in New Jersey and I could handle myself though, so word gets around.
When was the last time you thought, 'I'm not going to get out of this alive or without serious injury'?
I've never felt that. But I did challenge an entire Glasgow crowd to a fight once. I don't remember it that well. Somebody threw a drink on me and I was like, "I'll fight anyone in here," haha. I have a very very long fuse but I can occasionally bypass it. Like, I have a bit of a touch thing. If somebody touches me I can see red and feel fearless because I won all of my fights when I was a kid. When I play basketball I'm in awe of people who can think a move ahead and see it all happening in slow motion. But that's how I was when I fought. I could see that the people I was fighting were embarrassed, they were putting their heads down or closing their eyes, they were fighting with their pride, they didn't want to be fighting at all. So even though now at the age of 47 I would probably fall over and hurt my back and start crying if a fight broke out, I would think automatically at the back of my head, 'Oh, I've got this,' no matter how crazy that sounds. It's a really unhealthy mentality because it's not how I really feel about things.
How did becoming a father change you in ways you weren't prepared for?
I wasn't prepared for any of it, even though I have nine nieces and nephews and I know what it's like looking after kids. I wasn't prepared for how much respect you gain for the mother of your child, watching her have a baby. People told me, "You're going to have this moment when you're holding your child for the first time" but, fuck that! He's just a loaf of bread that's covered in blood—I don't know that guy! But that person there just did 78 hours in labor. That's what no one ever tells you, that you won't look at your wife the same way again and that you realize that she's obviously much more badass than you.
But the other thing is it calms everything down, the stress and everything else. Making American Dream was much easier than making any of the other albums because my fear that a black pit would open up under me didn't happen. That fear didn't have the same power. I'm still afraid. I still want to make good music. There's still no phoning it in. But the wasted energy I used to have with doubt, and that then slipping into depression until I just couldn't work—that has gone. I had a couple of days where it wasn't working so I'd just go home. Whereas before a bad day, could turn into a bad two weeks. The others would be like, 'Fuck… He's still lying down under the piano.' And that's the big change, I'm working much better now. It's not what I would have expected at all.