Interview: Beat Disconnection – James Murphy Says Goodbye To LCD

Thanks to our friends Dorian Lynskey and Mixmag Brazil for this excellent James Murphy interview, in this the first of our features on the best of 2010 at the half-way mark... Live picture by Maria Jefferis of

James Murphy’s stubbly, hangdog face looks even more stubbly and hangdog than usual. “I’m a 40-year-old sick dude,” he sighs, politely declining a handshake lest he spread his tour germs.

We’re meeting at the Manchester Academy in the early stages of a marathon tour for LCD Soundsystem’s third and last album, This Is Happening. It’s the conclusion to a virtually faultless career as an improbable frontman — a career that he never expected to have. By the end of the 90s, he had failed first as a singer and then as a drummer, eventually giving up bands to work as a sound engineer at concerts and build his own studio in New York. But in 2001 he established DFA Records with former UNKLE member Tim Goldsworthy and brokered a new agreement between indie and dance music via production for the Rapture and Radio 4, and remixes for the likes of Goldfrapp, Le Tigre and Gorillaz.

In 2002, he risked disappointment again with LCD Soundsystem’s first single, ‘Losing My Edge’, a lo-fi comic monologue about growing older in a scene obsessed with youth and newness, only to find that a lot of people were interested in what he had to say. 2005’s LCD Soundsystem album was justly acclaimed but it was 2007’s Sound of Silver which added new dimensions of pathos to his smart-alec persona and ended up being widely named as one of the decade’s finest albums. Hence the excitement around LCD’s swansong, This Is Happening. Hence the mammoth tour. Hence the germs.

But even a sick James Murphy is better value than most interviewees. He ends up talking for twice the allotted time, with dazzling candour and eloquence. Like Brian Eno or Neil Tennant, he’s musician-as-critic, putting his own work, and pop in general, under the microscope. It’s tempting to just throw random topics at him to see what theories he has about them. “If I’m in a room with people I don’t know I’ll talk too much out of nervousness,” he says. “I don’t like silence. I want to make sure everybody in the room is happy.”

His beefy frame does indeed give off waves of nervous energy as he cracks his knuckles or drums his fingers on the arm of his chair. Having spent most of his 20s in therapy, he is uncannily adept at examining his own motivations, his strengths and weaknesses, why he makes the kind of music he does. Though he’s too modest to say so himself, he could give other musicians a few useful pointers too.

Did you only agree to a tour this long because you know it’s the last one?

James Murphy: Yes. If I thought there was another record and tour coming I’d be freaking out right now. I’d be having deep existential crises.

When did you decide this would be the last album?

JM: Towards the end of the record. There’s a lot of reasons and they’re all good enough. One: I promised myself I’d be done by the time I was 40 and I think these are safeguards against ambition and egotism. We’re a bigger band than I ever planned on being, and I do best as an underdog who’s pissed and thinks things should be better.

Do you still feel awkward as a frontman?

JM: It’s always going to be weird although I don’t have to drink myself into a complete blackout to do the show anymore.

And you used to?

JM: I don’t remember the first five years of touring. I would be completely blackout drunk. Alcohol doesn’t hit you when you’re filled with adrenaline so I’d just keep drinking. And then we’d get five songs in and I’d start to relax and I’d be like bssshh. That’s why I invented my drink: whisky and champagne. Champagne hits you quickly so if I got the ratio of whisky to champagne right the champagne would be a warning. If I just drank whisky I’d be like, ‘This isn’t doing anything’ and drink more and then get hit by the whisky truck after the first few songs.

Do you ever get the feeling that you don’t belong on stage? That you’re an imposter?

JM: No. I don’t feel like I’m self-deprecating. It’s not that I don’t think that I’m good or that I can’t sing. I just don’t have the mindset for it. I like being myself and being myself is neurotic and worrying. It’s just my nature. I’m thinking about what’s happening. We’re going to go on stage, I’m going to stand there, there’s a microphone, I yell into it, people pay money to watch that. That’s what’s in my head. I’m not like, fuck yeah! It’s not a schtick — this is how my brain works. I’m a little bit neurotic and that doesn’t make for a smooth transition into rock dude. It kind of fucks me up.

You’ve described yourself as a complete failure until your late 20s.

JM: Yeah. I know a lot of people who are really talented and interesting but they don’t know failure and I think it makes me different. I wasn’t trying to stick with it until it worked. I’d already accepted it wasn’t going to work.

Was there a crunch moment that turned everything around?

JM: Oh yeah. One really important thing happened. David Holmes came to make his record [Bow Down to the Exit Sign] at my studio in New York and with him came Tim Goldsworthy. Tim was a legendary programmer from Mo’Wax – music I didn’t know anything about but everyone else was like, woah. I was always a total outsider but super ambitious and aggressive. I built my own studio, I built my own equipment, but I didn’t know what to do. But David was this guy who wasn’t really an engineer, he wasn’t a musician, he was just an idea guy. He was like, ‘I want to make a record like Can.’ And I was like, ‘You realize that Can was teachers from the Mozarteum who played eight hours a day together? That’s not a formula that’s easy to replicate.’ But here he was calling people like Richard McGuire from Liquid Liquid and getting that done. I was dumbfounded! ‘You just called?’ And he was like, yeah. It was really an eye-opener: Why am I not just doing these things I want to do? Why am I sitting around moaning about how things aren’t the way I want them to be when I should just fucking do it? David was a real role model in a way. He just does things. He’s got balls. I was like, ‘I’ll practice with my band for six months before we’ll play a show and you don’t even play an instrument and you’re making your third album! I’m an idiot.’ So Tim and I started working together saying, ‘Well you moan about shit and I moan about shit so why don’t we just not moan and do stuff as an argument.’ And that was a real epiphany – putting my money where my mouth was. It seems simple but it was revelatory.

In what sense is LCD an argument?

JM: I’m obsessed with how bands should perform live. I don’t like the easy way out. I like sound and power. I will go on stage and play a song that we have never played together as a band but I will not go on stage if our monitors aren’t right. I’m concerned with having a physical experience and having the band feel the power of what we’re playing sonically, and trusting that the audience will either like that or not. Try to be thoughtful and concerned but don’t pander. Sometimes when people get into being professional it’s pandering — it’s a fear-based performance where you’re trying not to fuck up and not to be judged or fail. Whereas I don’t care. I’d love to fail and be judged and crash and burn. I’m not like, ‘We don’t care about you, we’re here for ourselves.’ But I also don’t want to be like, [sings] ‘I’m performing and making faces for you.’ I want to stab them. I’m not a fucking four-year-old! Do your best! I want to watch you do your best and experience that as much as possible. As a band that’s the argument.

You used to be thought of as cool first and foremost, before you started making overtly emotional songs

JM: Well I think ‘Losing My Edge’ is tragic and sad.

I agree, but I didn’t realize that until hearing ‘All My Friends’.

JM: Right.

Anyway, you were thought of as cool.

JM: Which I found deeply hilarious. Cool never computed to me very much. I did realise that cool often has a component of terror – yours and others’. To try and be cool in a way that’s not being yourself, to work the cool machine, is to be a liar. And to lie is to be afraid. I realised that all we had to do to be cool was to do what we wanted. And I thought this is hilarious – let’s see how far we can go. I’ve never turned into what I imagine being cool is.

Were you always that confident?

JM: No, I was very nervous. I got my feelings hurt a lot by trying to be really honest as a kid. When everyone became cruel at 13 to gain social power I was deeply horrified. I matured really young. My voice changed when I was 10; I was shaving when I was 13; when I was 15 I was the same size I am now. I was like an alien, like ‘Why are you suddenly being mean to him? You used to be his best friend and now you’re calling him a fag and a nerd? How is this possible?’ I’m thinking that you just say the truth and everyone’s going to calm down. But they’d just be like, ‘Oh yeah, are you a faggot too?’ Luckily I was huge so I’d just beat them up and get called down to the principal’s office. I was always in a morally righteous position but it didn’t work. I was very ostracized and lonely. I wasn’t a nerd. I was a big scary dude who was hypersensitive and listened to The Smiths and could beat up the football players. So it was a weird failed attempt at trying to be honest with people, and I just got more bitter and craggy as the years went on until I got to be 28, 29 and started flipping my life around and rediscovering that part of myself. I was always afraid of myself and afraid of people. I was like, what the fuck’s going to happen if I stop acting on my fear? I went to therapy for 10 years, twice a week. And I was in a bad relationship and afraid she was going to yell at me. And one day my therapist said, ‘What if you just didn’t care about that? What’s going to happen?’ So I started experimenting with that and changing my relationship to the world. It didn’t bother me that the world was the way it was – I was less invested in it negatively. I was still an angry dude but that’s different from being paralysed by anger – more empowered by it.

What else changed around that time?

JM: I just started to realise what my self-belief was about. I believe in my taste because it’s my taste, not because it’s better. And I believe in my ability to view situations and come up with plans. And I do think that I’m better at that than a lot of other people. I continue to make more complicated arguments for myself and I can solve puzzles without losing myself. Little arguments like that are what I obsess over all day every fucking day. Finding ways to win. Because it’s like win or whine — you gotta do one. I don’t do losing very well. The trouble is that built into all the arguments I like to make is this dangerous dance with ego and self-interest, and I’m always very skeptical of things that are in my self-interest. Whenever something happens to work out for you, you have to look at it carefully.

So if it’s easy then you must be doing it wrong?

JM: Well yeah. Then you should be doing something fucking else! If it’s easy then what else are you doing with that time? Enjoying it? I guess enjoyment is cool but I enjoy kicking ass and getting shit done. That’s what makes me happy. Everyone who works for me gets the same speech: ‘If I’m working you’re working, and I’m always working so you’re always working.’

Do you get that from your dad?

JM: My father was an accountant. He was the first guy in my family to go to college. He was an uncomplaining, dedicated dude – he just did his fucking shit. The only way to gain respect from him was work. I was a whiner, man: a sensitive shitty little indie kid with funny hair and nail polish. My dad was drafted to play pro-football and didn’t because he had a decent job and here I was, bigger than he was, and not playing sports and playing guitar and talking about The Smiths and shit. But as long as I worked nobody fucked with me. If I didn’t come and ask for money then he couldn’t complain, and I never came and asked for money. He wouldn’t allow me to get financial aid – it was not acceptable. He said, ‘Well you can go to college and I’m not going to take money from people who can’t.’ And I said, ‘Well most of these kids lie to get as much money as they can.’ And he said, ‘Yes but not you – that’s not what you do. It doesn’t matter how fucked the system is, you’re still accountable for what you think is right.’ And that’s still the way I carry on. It’s irrelevant how compromised everyone around you is — you still have to answer to yourself, and I think people forget that sometimes.

Do you keep seeing other bands and thinking, ‘You’re doing this wrong’?

JM: Bands either have fear or ego, that’s all they ever have. All this idiotic nonsense. What is it that’s important to you? What compromises are you willing to make? That’s the argument I get into with people in the industry. Why the fuck did you do this? If you’re trying to make money go be an investment banker – there’s fucking tons of it there. If you’re about music let’s talk about it. What are you doing actively to make music better? If you’re not doing that you’re just taking up space. Everyone seems so beaten. [sighs] ‘I’d love to but there’s no money in it.’ I’m just like, aaarrrrggggh. You’re just dying slowly.

On the new album, ‘Pow Pow’ seems like a very revealing lyric: ‘From this position, I feel affinity for the both of them, which is confusing.’ Do you always have a dual perspective on a situation?

JM: Yeah, always. With ‘Losing My Edge’ I wasn’t making fun of anybody. I was just trying to talk about that weird feeling of being mad at somebody because you think you own something that you don’t own, and being embarrassed by your own feelings because they’re childish and silly, but at the same time they’re a little bit right. It’s a complicated feeling.

Do you sometimes get that sensation of observing your own actions from a distance?

JM: All the time. I have to work at it. Playing music stops it. Drinking stops it but sometimes stops it too much. Being around friends stops it. It’s a pretty normal thing for me. It’s like having your photograph taken and you don’t know what to do with your arms. But it’s interesting to dig into that stuff sometimes.

Were you surprised by how much ‘All My Friends’ resonated emotionally with people?

JM: After ‘Losing My Edge’, very little surprises me because that was the surprise of my life. Nothing will ever be strange again because the experience of doing ‘Losing My Edge’ and suddenly not being an invisible person was so immense. ‘All My Friends’ woke me up to something else. I didn’t realize what emotional impact melody has on people. I always think about lyrics and what they actually mean and then I realised the energy I respond to physically people respond to emotionally. ‘Transmission’ is my favourite Joy Division song because of the way it arcs and arcs and arcs and at the end he’s screaming the same thing. And all he’s saying is ‘Dance to the radio!’ and I just want to cry. I never really considered what the song is about – it’s just an object. I think about songs in terms of them just being objects and not things that are about something else.

Is that why you’ve never explained what ‘Someone Great’ is about?

JM: I just think it’s unnecessary because it’s personal. Songs are songs and to reduce them is to waste them. If I wanted to make something about something I would write an essay. But even within an essay you want there to be an objectness to it. It would be great to have an essay that has language that sonically is beautiful. I always hated poetry because I felt like it seemed like a waste of an opportunity. To hide that in prose seemed more interesting — to try to get away with that density of meaning without being like, ‘Hello! Density of meaning!’, which made me want to fucking die. [Hushed, pretentious voice] Because then/People would read them/In this voice/That was reserved/For poems/And I felt/That I should kill them/Today/Tomorrow. Whereas nobody will do a better job than ‘Drive to the forest in a Japanese car/The smell of rubber on concrete tar/Hindsight does me no good/Standing naked in the back of the woods/The cassette plays Poptones.’ It’s amazing! It’s perfect. Or ‘Loose’. Iggy could be yelling anything, John Lydon could be whispering anything, but the fact that there’s also all these dense things is kind of incredible.

You studied fiction at college. Would you want to return to that?

JM: Yeah, I’d love to. I write all the time. I write like I write lyrics – it’s the same voice essentially. That was a big revelation for me – to write lyrics the way I talk or think, rather than write ‘lyrics’.

Do you still want to make pop music?

JM: The thing I’m saying goodbye to is being a professional rock & roll artist. I don’t want to make albums and tour and make videos. I don’t want that to be my life anymore. When you have a kid in college, all your money goes to college. You stop saving, stop going on vacation, you don’t buy a new car. When they get out of college you go phew, OK. That’s what I’m doing with my time. Right now my time is in LCD college and when LCD graduates then I can go back to the DFA and production and DJing and all the other things. And maybe gardening. I want a garden. I want to grow some vegetables.

This interview was originally conducted for Mixmag Brazil

More information at <a href=" target="out">LCD Soundsystem’s official website

Watch this space for more 2010: A Glass Half Full features on The Fall, Lindstrom and Christabelle, The Shining, Factory Floor, Gayngs, Skwee, Cold Wave, Glo Fi and more this week

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