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]