Stephen Malkmus Listens to LCD Soundsystem: “It’s a Dance-Rock Workout”
Before LCD Soundsystem became the Grammy-winning, festival headlining force in indie rock and dance music, it was a vehicle for James Murphy to release 12-inch singles. The first, 2002’s “Losing My Edge” served as a blueprint both lyrically and sonically for the future of the band. Murphy sings as an aging music obsessive DJ over a hypnotic beat on the cerebral dance floor filler, which tread the line between punk and dance as well as irony and heart. It’s a formula LCD Soundsystem would tweak and perfect on 2005’s LCD Soundsystem (which included “Losing My Edge” and other released 12-inches on the CD version), followed by acclaimed albums like 2007’s Sound of Silver and 2010’s This Is Happening.
Looking back at the final third of the near-eight minute “Losing My Edge,” where Murphy exclaims “But have you seen my records?” and shouts out several influential artists like This Heat, Talking Heads, Joy Division, Pere Ubu (twice), and many more, it’s actually shocking he didn’t shout out Stephen Malkmus or Pavement. After all, Malkmus is one of the most influential figures in indie rock, fronting Pavement in the ‘90s (one of Murphy’s earlier bands Pony were clearly influenced by the band’s 1992 masterwork Slanted & Enchanted) and having one of the most consistent runs with his band the Jicks culminating in perhaps his best non-Pavement LP yet in 2018’s Sparkle Hard. Malkmus’ clever, sometimes stream-of-consciousness wordplay, laid-back attitude, and underrated guitar-work has seeped into so many corners of rock music over the past quarter century.
James Murphy’s now-iconic “I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables” line on “Losing My Edge” doesn’t quite capture Malkmus’ new direction on his electronic and experimental solo LP Groove Denied, which is out on Matador in March. But when Malkmus told Noisey he had never heard a full album by LCD Soundsystem, it felt like we had to make him listen to it. Plus, the fact that both Murphy and Malkmus grew up loving The Fall (not to mention countless other overlapping influences) seems like a near-perfect musical fit. So before Malkmus performed with the Jicks at Metro Chicago, we brought our copy of LCD Soundsystem’s 2005 debut to the green room.
“I know LCD Soundsystem is fronted by a producer, singer, wine shop owner, coffee connoisseur, Williamsburg, Brooklyn OG: James Murphy,” explains Malkmus before launching into a story: “I also ran into a woman in his band named Nancy Whang surprisingly at the turn of the century. I went to a party on Orcas island in the Seattle area. It was an escape to a kinda hippie camping zone and she was there.” He continues, “She wasn't in LCD Soundsystem yet because that wasn't even happening by that time but then I met her again in 2011 and asked her, ‘Do you remember that weird party we went to?’ So I know that, some of their songs from the radio, that they had a bunch of shows at Madison Square Garden and went away for a while, and the fact that they're a huge band.” Read on for Malkmus’ song-by-song commentary and observations on LCD Soundsystem.
1. "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House"
Stephen Malkmus: I'm definitely familiar with the first song, "Daft Punk Is Coming to My House" [sic] and we'll see what comes next. I might even turn out that I know more than I thought.
Noisey: Since you know this song already, what do you think of it?
It's fun and it's kind of simple and sounds a little bit like The Fall but not really. He's not the first person to have sassy vocals, you know.
It's funny you say that because James Murphy has said that the Fall were his Beatles.
I can see that. This is more poppy, of course. There was a time in the late '80s where the Fall were produced by John Leckie and trying to make hits. This isn't any more poppy than that.
Are you familiar with any of James Murphy’s earlier bands?
Pony. So my girlfriend at the time was in a band, like an indie guitar band in New York, and she's like,"I really like this band Pony." I think we went to see them at like Two Boots or something like that, but I don't remember what it sounded like. She liked it and so I knew that they must be pretty good.
So with James Murphy being in that band, he was doing that and then was like, “hang on. This isn’t going anywhere. What can I really do?” And then LCD Soundsystem happened. So this is the first song off their first album. I don’t know if they had any singles before this one.
They definitely did. The first single was called “Losing My Edge.”
Oh, I know that. I thought that was going to be on here.
Technically it’s on the CD version of this album. The second disc compiles all the non-album singles but since we don’t have time to listen to all 100 minutes of it, we’re just doing the LP version.
OK. So that’s not on here. So this song, in a way, plays up to the “Losing My Edge” idea in that is has lyrics that reference pop culture and put the author in a place of relativity to other things. It’s like saying, “I’m a fan of music. I don’t have the ego.” It’s breaking the fourth wall a bit. That’s a statement of purpose for the band. It adds a cheeky layer to their whole thing. The music is cool. They’re all playing hard.
Totally. One thing about this record is that all the music is pretty much solely from James Murphy. There’s a difference between LCD Soundsystem the live band and LCD Soundsystem, the recording project. The latter of which at this point was pretty much just James.
It says on the vinyl that it’s pretty much him.
Going off on what you said about this song being a statement of purpose, James Murphy has said in interviews about how dance music missed out on the punk ethos of house shows.
Yeah. Just some suburban fantasy dream where there’s house shows and Daft Punk is going to play. It’s definitely kind of a Mark Smith idea where you just have one thing you say that sounds good with the music. He probably didn’t think too much about it and he didn’t need to. He was probably just like, “Ok, that’s it.”
2. "Too Much Love"
Right, so obviously LCD Soundsystem are a New York band and this album came out in 2005…
Would you say they were part of the wave of bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, and The Strokes even a little bit? There was that New York Meet Me In The Bathroom renaissance with bands like Interpol.
Yeah, they were lumped in with those bands maybe not sonically but they all were New York bands in similar circles. Have you read the book? There are multiple chapters devoted to James Murphy.
I haven’t but he’s in there a lot, huh? That makes sense. Alright, so James Murphy seems a little bit older than those bands which is probably why he did “Losing My Edge.” He’s already been around. I don’t know if those other bands like the Strokes had bands before but this is Murphy’s second or third go around. He’s an aging Gen-Xer like me. He’s probably almost 50 now. He’s at least seven years older than those bands and he’s also more ironic in the lyrics than any of those bands. Interpol would never sing, “Joy Division is coming to my house.” They wouldn’t even want to admit that! This is a little more fun.
I agree. With this one I get a lot of Talking Heads/David Bowie vibes.
That’s a great idea. I can hear that and even like 99 Records New York bands like Liquid Liquid with that “doot doot doot doot bah bah bah” and that ESG band. He’s probably referencing all those things purposefully. He’s a New York artist and this kind of dance-punk he’s doing was a very cool thing after all that grunge.
Liquid Liquid is a huge reference point for LCD Soundsystem. Do you remember that band the Rapture?
Yes! [Laughs]. There were the first ones to really make that happen. It does not sound exactly like the Rapture but you’re right.
James Murphy was pretty much essential to the Rapture’s sound. Their breakout album came out on his label DFA and he produced the record and co-wrote a few songs.
They had that song “House of Jealous Lovers.” They blew up really huge and then they disappeared. I feel like they were like James where they had tried to do other types of music before then they hit upon these thin guitars, a lot of bass, and this sound. By the way, the keyboards here have a lot of “And you may find yourself / Living in a shotgun shack” or whatever “Once In A Lifetime” vibes.
The fun part of LCD Soundsystem’s music is picking out the references, which Murphy pretty self-consciously wears on his sleeve. It’s pretty much like the final third of “Losing My Edge” where he’s just listing influential artists.
Yeah, it’s just a dance-rock workout.
When you were growing up were you into dance music at all?
I was into disco for a little bit. It was a fad but I was into Saturday Night Fever and “Do The Hustle.” I’m a bit older, as you know, so this was like in 1975 to 1977. I wasn’t even into Giorgio Moroder or whatever, it was really just the hits. I went to some dance lessons in the 7th grade where I actually had to ask a girl to be my date for these lessons. I also remember I was really into this song “Pop Muzik” by M, and I thought that was more punk than something like “Boogie Fever.” But after that I wasn't a fan of eighties dance-pop like Duran Duran, which I thought was the devil. That was another record we could've done for this because I know younger people think they're cool now.
Alright, so we’re on a new one. Number three.
This one’s called “Tribulations” and in an interview I read, James Murphy claimed that he wrote this one in about 40 minutes. “I remember trying to explain to my friend how easy it is to write pop songs. I was like, ‘well, watch’ and I wrote it and just made it up.”
Interesting. Yeah, it’s just 4/4 and it’s got a little bit of “You spin me right round, baby / Right round like a record, baby” going on too or something with that arpeggiating synth. The title also sounds like a New Order track to me. Do they still play this one live?
Yeah, it’s actually one of their top three most played.
Really? [laughs]. I’ve seen them play. When Pavement did our reunion tour, we played with them twice and they were so good. They had a monitor on each side of the stage (and I was watching them from the side of the stage because I’m lazy) but they sounded so good. I was impressed and jealous and all that stuff.
James Murphy is a great frontman.
He did a good job too but the whole band just sounded great. Both times we played with them, Pavement was absolutely horrible. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s moment if they had a moment at one of those shows but we had some serious meltdowns. I guess you could see this song live building up to a real frenzy especially with some more oomph in the drums and some extra BPMs.
They definitely speed it up live. It’s almost a different animal entirely.
This also reminds me of “Sweet Dreams:” [sings] “Sweet dreams are made of these / who am I to disagree?” Which is fine, there’s no problem in anything reminding you of something. It’s just language. You’re communicating with someone.
Out of the three so far, does anyone stick out?
Not really. It’s just going along like an album. I’d probably get tired of the first song after a certain amount of time.
That song was everywhere 14 years ago.
I remember they had a video. Were Daft Punk in it?
They weren’t. James Murphy had said they couldn’t coordinate because Daft Punk were recording an album at the time but I always wondered why they didn’t just give two strangers helmets.
That’s very true.
The tone of the record shifts a little bit here. It gets more punk.
Mark Smith is back. It’s cool. “Movement” it’s named after a New Order record. Not that that matters because it could just mean it’s going to get you dancing really hard here. It’s got a really short loop almost like Suicide.
This is his reaction to the new rock scene of the early aughts that he could rock harder than those bands for four minutes.
What do you mean by the new rock?
The wave the Strokes started, even though James Murphy is a fan of the Strokes. You had endless headlines saying rock is back and even someone like Justin Timberlake wearing an MC5 t-shirt on the cover of Vibe .
People were rockin out, yeah.
What were you listening to around 2005 when this came out?
I was probably into the guitar music of the time. Maybe some rootsy things and some psych-folk if I was listening to anything. My first kid was being born around then so I was kind of out of it. This song is rocking. You’re there at the show and the strobe lights are going.
This one is also in the top three of LCD’s most played songs live.
I know from making setlists you always are looking for the fast ones because you need em for concerts. They kept it short, I like it.
5. "Never as Tired as When I'm Waking Up"
This is very Pink Floyd. I’ve never heard this one before.
It’s very Beatles to me. It uses a guitar line from “Dear Prudence” in a bit.
I can see that. Especially with that part. It’s a very addictive part because it’s always nice when you can keep the bass on the same note. There’s nice bass sound on this album in general. Good recording. It doesn’t sound particularly dated to me. That’s a nice thing.
Before this when James Murphy was trying to build his own studio he consulted with Steve Albini and Shellac’s Bob Weston in Chicago.
That was smart. My friend Nicolas Vernhes, who lives in Williamsburg, used to work his Albini but now he has his own place Rare Book Room. It’s a nice studio. He was probably there for the rise of this band jealously watching them explode [laughs]. This is also a nice way to end Side A to put a chill one on there.
Because James Murphy had released so many singles up to this point, he was very intention about making LCD Soundsystem sound like an album .
This song sounds like another song.
[Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks drummer Jake Morris]: “Before I sputter out!”
Jake thinks it sounds like the Eels but I’m thinking of something else. It’s George Harrison but I can’t remember the song.
6. "On Repeat"
Moving onto side two. This is a song. It’s good. It’s a dance song.
It doesn’t hit as hard as some of the other ones but I still really dig it.
It’s got electronic drums on it to spice things up. I like that. I also like the bloops.
It’s a groover. There are four minutes left.
Well the title is called “On Repeat.”
Yeah, I don’t know what he’s singing about but maybe he’s just saying it’s “on repeat.” I’d put it out. There’s nothing wrong with it.
There’s one of my favorite lyrics on the LP coming up.
He’s subtly building everything up with different hi-hats and that funky no-wave guitar. I can’t hear what he’s saying. Something about eating the rich?
“I wish I could complain more about the rich but then/All their children would line the streets/Come to every show/Unwashed and drugged.”
[Laughs] yeah. There’s some bass in your face here. It’s fine. You can see if you’re a fan and you listen to it all the time, you might skip this one. No disrespect to the band.
What was your big gateway into electronic music? Especially with Groove Denied coming out.
It was more through post-punk, stuff like Section 25 and Cabaret Voltaire. I like things where it’s kind of a fusion of styles. With new stuff, I watch this YouTube channel called HATE. I don’t even know who he is but I look at his stuff. He just puts on tracks. I don’t really know what do with that genre but I like OPN and stuff like that. A friend recently told me to check out the first Eurythmics record and it turns out I’m not a Eurythmics hater because I’d heard “Sweet Dreams” too many times.
I don’t listen to sequenced music all that much at home. I like hip-hop though. That’s electronic as far as I’m concerned. This song here sounds like a rock band.
Did you expect them to get a little more into the electronic weeds here?
Not really because I’ve seen em play live. It’s influenced by no-wave and actual people on real drums and getting some tribal jam going. There’s definitely a lot of rock in it.
I read that James Murphy was really into Timbaland around this time and you can hear it in the drum sound here.
I can see that. Trying to find your place and you realize you’re not going to be a hip-hop producer. It’s not like you have to stay in your lane but you know if you’re a b-boy or not. It’s kind of in your DNA. This is a weird one. Side two is more experimental.
8. "Disco Infiltrator"
This one is also an experiment and probably my favorite LCD Soundsystem deep cut.
This is a really cool loop.
You mentioned the one-note bass riff earlier and that’s also here. The entire song is pretty much octaves.
Do they play this one live?
Not really. I’m not sure they’ve ever played this song actually. It was one of the first songs James Murphy wrote for the project.
It’s cool. It’s got some of those Daft Punk brutal filters feel to it too. It’s different kinda music. This is a cool album.
This comes from when he was working with Ad Rock from the Beastie Boys.
He worked with him?
Yeah, BS2000. You remember that project?
I’ve never even heard of it. Huh. Did they release stuff on Grand Royal?
They did. It was Ad Rock and the drummer from Suicidal Tendencies.
Oh wow. Pavement did a tour with Beastie Boys, who were the headliners, and Bikini Kill in Australia and that’s where he met his wife Kathleen Hanna. They fell in love on that tour. Bikini Kill played a lot of amazing shows on that tour. Not on the actual festival, which was called Summersault, but they broke off and played a ton of great gigs on their own.
That must’ve been incredible to see.
This song was really cool. So far there hasn’t been any changes to side two and I really like that. It’s all drone one-notes. It’s definitely interesting. There weren’t that many changes at all. Minimalism, you can say a lot about it. I like things that are hypnotic and get you in a trance and just keep going. It’s more visceral than I thought it was going to be, which is nice for them. I thought they were a burly rock band. But it is more burly sounding than the Strokes or Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Those bands are thin-sounding even though I like them. It’s almost lo-fi. I wouldn’t call this lo-fi.
9. "Great Release"
Here for a sad, epic closer. We’ll see. Maybe it’ll have some feels because there hasn’t been any feels since side A song five.
You really keep setting it up for me.
I think all the song titles are good. The lyrics are good too even now 15 years later they don’t seem bad. Even though they’re just words, they’re not trying to be brilliant. It’s good. Does he say “Great Release” in this one too?
He does, actually.
Yeah. It’s got a little heartbeat pulse kick drum thing happening. It’s the heartbeat of humanity. Quiet vocals. Two James Murphys stacked on top of each other at least in the vocals. It could be someone else with him but probably not.
It reminds me a lot of Brian Eno.
That’s true. I was trying to think of that. He’s another guy who you could’ve asked me to listen to.
That’s right! I noticed you had Roxy Music on the list you sent me. So yeah, that was the record.
That was a cool. It was a good way to end the record. It wasn’t too long, which I think was a good thing. It’s a feeling song. They gotta have that side of them to fill out the picture of why you should like the band. Otherwise, you’d just be a hits band and no one wants to be that. You have to have the feels and the real thing too. The people want their heart-strings pulled. It’s not manipulative or a chart an artist has to check boxes in but James and the seldom seen musicians on this LP did it.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of here, that’s for sure. I mean, this is probably going to get me to check out the rest of their catalog. I’ve liked most everything I’ve heard from this band. However, I do remember that one song they had on a later record called “Drunk Girls.” I don’t like that one. We all make bad songs. I’ve made plenty so it’s nothing to feel bad about. And you can take it if you’re someone like LCD Soundsystem. But that’s the only one I’ve heard where I was like, “that’s just not that good.”