LCD Soundsystem on the end of touring

James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem. Photo: Corbis Outline -

James Murphy, the driving force behind DFA Records and LCD Soundsystem, is feeling his age.

Before his latest album This is Happening was released last month, the burly New Yorker had suggested it was to be his last – queue outpouring of grief from fans.

“Yes, I think it’s the last,” he confirms by phone from Zagreb, Croatia, where the band is due to appear at a festival. “It’s the end of the band as a band that does albums and tours and makes videos and stuff,” he explains. “LCD will still exist in some form or other, releasing 12inches or music, but it’s the end of being a professional rock band. That was never the plan. It’s great, but it’s not the plan. We’re getting old and people have other things they want to do.”

So Murphy has had enough of the touring life. Has turning 40, as he did in February, changed how he feels?

“Definitely. I definitely feel that a lot of things I’ve done were a longer time ago than I would like, and I’m aware that I’m so tired, and that I want to do so many things but that I’m on hold while I’m doing this. I like touring, but I’m not a big fan of what it takes away – time and life and productivity. There’s no time to do anything else creative because you’re just running to catch up with everything else.”

Groggy from having travelled overland from Germany the previous day, Murphy is surprised to find today’s soundcheck put back – “It was delayed an hour by Billy Idol. I never thought I’d hear myself saying that,” he laughs in a voice gravelly with tiredness.

The affable Murphy has been ploughing his own furrow for 10 years since founding DFA (‘Death from Above’) Records with English producer Tim Goldsworthy, the man behind unclassifiable trip-hop act Unkle and the influential lazy breaks of MoWax Records. Ten years ago, skinny jeans, pointy shoes and one-inch ties for men and jagged angular guitar bands were only on the cusp of becoming the all encompassing cultural meme they are today. New York was synonymous with bands like The Strokes who led the garage rock revival.

But despite – or perhaps due to – having already weathered the 1990s in little known indie bands Pony and Speedking, Murphy found this of little interest. After meeting Goldsworthy, the pair realised there was more potential in ploughing their different musical traditions into one.

“I hated dance music when I was young,” Murphy recalls. “Or at least, what I thought was dance music. I thought it was just pop. Talking to Tim we realised that it was around the 90s when our music diverged. We were both listening to the same things before that – we’re both big Smiths fans, we both liked My Bloody Valentine. Then Britain went all ecstasy and America went all grunge and suddenly there was a divide between the continents.”

“We thought – let’s make some music that appeals to both of us now, and there’s probably a lot of people out there that agree with us.”

With their dance-punk sound resounding in clubs and bedrooms ever since, it’s potent mix of punk’s physicality and the infectious machine-funk of electronic dance and disco undeniably catchy, it’s safe to say there were.

So such caché must have come as a bit of a surprise to Murphy, whose first success as LCD Soundsystem, the 2002 single Losing My Edge, was a comic send-up of the coolest of cool, with the song’s narrator checklisting influential bands and inserting himself at seminal moments in music history (“I was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft”) even while betraying his fear that the young are surpassing him and that “I’m losing my edge”.

As a youngster, Murphy was distinctly not-cool. He was never in the in-crowd, and in some respects realised the fickle and destructive nature of trying – like the narrator in Losing My Edge – to be on the right side of every social trend.

He says: “When I was young I think I desperately wanted it. It wasn’t until I was 13, when people start getting weird – that I chose to be different, partly because I was bigger than everyone else so I could just be as weird as I wanted.”

A keen martial artist for many years who at one point ran a jujitsu school by night in the same offices he ran the record label from by day, as a younger man Murphy was a fighter at school and even spent a brief stint employed as a club bouncer.

“I always wanted to be cool – I just wasn’t any good at it, so I gave up, started DJing disco records and things I liked and suddenly I was cool, which was obviously deeply, deeply weird for me,” he says. “People started being nice to me all of a sudden.”

It turns out that doing what you always wanted to do turns out to be the right thing after all – “It so hokey to say it, but it’s really true. It’s just near impossible to pass on to my nieces and nephews,” he says.

Murphy has described the catchy, repetitive grooves he creates as ‘body music’. “I never really liked the same things as other people,” he says. “The ones I like are always the really physical songs, with really hard hits, or drones underneath them, stuff with a real visceral quality to it.

“Dance music is most obvious, but also something like early Metallica – physical, punishing music. Or [1980s New Wave band] Liquid Liquid, or [70s disco band] ESG. Or The Fall – bands that bash their instruments rather than play them, that’s the stuff I’ve always liked. ‘Nice’ never really appealed to me. ‘Pretty’ is the province of the boring.”

“I suppose,” he muses, “that means I don’t care so much about songwriting. That’s why I never cared much about pop, because it never really moved me.”

Even if Murphy’s being sincere, he’s surely wrong. LCD Soundsystem’s second album, 2007’s Sound of Silver, contained extraordinary songs like Someone Great, a poignant song about loss over a metronomic, hypnotising backing track, or All of My Friends, the lament of a man whose youth is behind him looking back at his former simple pleasures. It peaked at 28 in the UK charts but was lavished with praise by critics and voted 17th best album of the decade, with All of My Friends voted second best song of the decade.

This is Happening takes off from where Sound of Silver left off. Murphy is a bit older, a bit more weary, and the sense of looking back and looking in pervades the album. “Everybody’s getting younger/It’s the end of an era, it’s true” he sings on Dance Yourself Clean, over rattling, squelching electro that makes you want to. “Never change, never change/this is why I fell in love,” he sings before concluding “I can change I can change/if it helps you fall in love” on I Can Change. And rearing out of the more percussive electro numbers is All I Want, a guitar and vocal-led piece reminiscent of Bowie.

Recording the album was interrupted by creating the soundtrack to the Noah Baumbach film Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller as a 40-year-old man who spends time with old friends, old flames and former hangouts after suffering a nervous breakdown. The soundtrack is suffused with the sound of the 1970s, and showcases a completely different side to Murphy’s skills.

Some years ago, Murphy said he “had about eight albums in him”. With four LCD albums under his belt and now a soundtrack, even with Murphy retiring his soundsystem now, we can look forward to – at least – another three records from a musician at the top of his game.

He says: “I feel like the band achieved a lot of stuff that I’m psyched about, but it’s not worth doing at the exclusion of everything else in our lives. It’s good to go out this way.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, June 2010]


Is it nature or nurture when teenagers kill?

The death of Ralph Millward - after the trial.

The notion that children and teenagers could kill is deeply shocking because it upsets our preconception of the young as innocents, incapable of such brutality.

This has always been a rose-tinted view – as much as when two young New Zealand girls beat their mother to death on a whim in the supposed ‘golden age’ of the 1950s – a tale which inspired the film Heavenly Creatures – than in how 19 teenage boys from British cities were killed in the first half of 2008 alone – the youngest 14, the oldest 19.

When a shocking attack or killing occurs, we convince ourselves our children are not capable of carrying out such violence using fanciful means – rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, violent films and more recently computer games have all been fingered as culprits in turning otherwise ‘nice’ children bad. But it is pointless to blame such media for the actions of a tiny minority when millions consume them regularly without ever developing violent or homicidal urges.

A study in 2005 by the American Sociological Association concluded there were no links between violent video games and homicidal behaviour in children, remarking that homicide arrest rates among children and teenagers fell 77 per cent in the 10 years after the release of computer game Doom in 1993, seen at the time as a touchstone of violent games.

The authors take a further step in pointing out the latent racism that lies behind the suggestion that white boys who kill are driven to do so by external forces. The report stated: “White, middle-class killers retain their status as children easily influenced by a game, and victims of an allegedly dangerous product. African-American boys, apparently, are simply dangerous.” The report’s conclusion that youth violence is better addressed by studying broader problems such as family breakdown, poverty, addiction and education seems crushingly common-sensical by comparison.

The three boys that killed homeless Big Issue vendor Ralph Millward in Bournemouth last year, Jimmy Ayres, 15, Warren Crago and Craig Real, both 17, do not seem to be the mythologised ‘teen killers’ – loners, mentally unstable, or obsessed with death or violence – that have committed even more appalling crimes elswhere, for example the Columbine School and Virginia Tech massacres in the US, and similar shootings in Germany and Canada.

On a sunny day in May, the Rossmore estate in Poole where the boys lived does not seem a threatening or unruly place. It is not an estate in the urban high-rise sense, more a neighbourhood of single and semi-detached houses, none older than thirty or forty years. One group of teenagers know the boys well. A cousin of Crago, 20-year-old Alex, said: “Warren was always a bit of a wild child, he got excluded from school and that, but he had a girlfriend and had just started to settle down. He had hobbies, you know, he liked bikes.

“When I heard from my father that he’d been arrested I said, shut up, you’re joking. We got round to see my aunt and uncle, Warrens’s folks, and they were in a terrible way.” Jimmy Ayres, the youngest of the group, lived with his grandparents after his mother left two years ago. He never knew his father. “They had enough on their plate already without this,” Stephan added. Ayres’ grandmother declined to comment. The television was on at Crago’s house, but no one answered. Real’s family had moved to Brighton, according to a neighbour.

While perhaps their defence of their friends is admirable, the darker implications are made explicit by another teenager, Jack: “Everyone’s got into a fight over nothing before. I’ve kicked a tramp in the head before. You do, if you’re boozed up.”

Others who knew the boys were far less complimentary. The grandson of one of Real’s neighbours said he had often thrown stones at his grandfather, smashed windows and hurled abuse over the fence.

“He always tried to be the big man,” said Jason Evans, 16. “Always trying to make out how hard he was, pick fights with people. He wasn’t well liked – there’s been a fair few cases when half the estate had been outside his house.” He added: “You do wonder if it’s the family or whatever, but it always seemed his mother was trying to bring him up right. I never thought he could do something like that.”

Other neighbours had similar stories of abuse, smashed windows, egged cars. Poole Council said antisocial behaviour in the area had dropped 30 per cent in recent months. So if the three were not irredeemably violent, then they at least thought nothing of using violence in the extreme. The court heard how, after the initial attack, Crago and Real had come back to throw a shopping trolley onto Millward’s battered body.

Christine Barter, senior research follow at Bristol University’s School for Policy Studies said that experience of violence going un-chastised by adults, or meted out without consequence built up a greater tolerance for violence. “There may be a high tolerance of violence, not just in young peoples’ culture but within their broader communities,” she said.

“It is not always easy to pinpoint a cause,” she said. “But complex families or difficult backgrounds often appear in these cases. There does seem to be a link between experiencing violent behaviour or neglect in the home as a child and then acting out that violence later in life.”

As the boys and their families were known to social care and other council services, the Poole Safeguarding Children Board, a watchdog set up to oversee the child protection work of probation, social care, education and other services, is to hold an independent review into whether there were any missed opportunities in previous dealing with the boys, perhaps providing better means in the future to help difficult families and children.

Although the board usually looks at cases of violence by adults against children, board chairman Ron Lock felt that although “most unusual” it was right that the board also review this case.

The inquiry will report within three months. The boys’ sentencing for manslaughter is at the end of June.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, June 2010]