Alt-pop star purpl shares vulnerable new single ‘Morphine’
James Murphy is in a chipper mood, or, to use his vernacular, he’s “really psyched”. The 36-year-old New Yorker just seen some footage of himself in a space suit surrounded by model planets bouncing in super slo-mo across some pseudo planet surface. His band LCD Soundsystem have just finished shooting the video for North American Scum, the first single from their second album, Sound Of Silver. He’s very pleased with the results. The only thing threatening to upset his mood, as he bustles around the room of his hotel suite in London’s Liverpool Street, is a dodgy light, which keeps flickering. Before he can settle he gets up and switches it off.
Murphy is wearing a T-shirt and black blazer with a pin badge on the lapel. It’s been his look since LCD Soundsystem’s debut single, Losing My Edge, thrust him, slightly startled and hair askew, into the spotlight in 2002. The band’s self-titled debut album followed in early 2005, as did calls from Britney, Duran Duran and Janet Jackson, all keen to work with the burly dude. However, if LCD Soundsystem confirmed Murphy as an underground hero, it didn’t establish his band as a mainstream chart act like Daft Punk, the subjects of their sole hit, Daft Punk Is Playing At My House.
Two years later, the wardrobe remains the same (a pair of Banana Splits-style plastic white specs notwithstanding), but Murphy has upped his game considerably. Sound Of Silver is a masterwork of Eno-style atmospherics, psychedelic pop and LCD’s patented punk funk. There are show stoppers such as North American Scum, which draws on Murphy’s newfound experience of touring as a live band, something both he and they have become very good at. Meanwhile, five tracks clock in at over seven minutes and owe much to the lengthy, highly detailed DFA remixes he produces with Tim Goldsworthy. 2005 saw a bumper crop with inspired DFA reworks of DARE by Gorillaz, (Far From) Home by Tiga and Slide In by Goldfrapp.
Murphy started down the road that led to Sound Of Silver last year when he composed the soundtrack to a training regime for Nike. The resulting download-only track was called 45:33, it’s running time. It featured Murphy sounding quite unlike himself, or Mark E Smith, or indeed whoever he was accused of aping on LCD Soundsystem’s debut. It also sparked a creative purple patch from which Sound Of Silver was borne, and from which he is still bristling.
He’s keen to keep making music, promising a new track with each single taken from the album. “I was kind of devastated when Sound Of Silver was finished,” he says. “I knew I would be in Now I Can’t Make Music Mode. It’s like being starving and remembering the plate of pancakes you pushed away because you weren’t in the mood for them.”
But most of all Murphy is happy to have proved he is not a flash in the pan hipster. “I met a journalist in Paris,” he says. “They said, I didn’t listen to you for two years because your name was on the lips of the people I loathe. You know, fashionable people.”
James Murphy: listen without prejudice.
How did you avoid the difficult second album syndrome, the traditional stumbling block for artists who have had hyped debuts?
“I think I was lucky. I think album one was my album two. The pressure was on after Losing My Edge. I went from stunning anonymity to being known by a few hundred people worldwide, and that was enough to send me into a tailspin of craziness. I dealt with it by putting out a seven-inch [Give It Up], which I hoped would quietly float into the air. But then the NME made it Single Of The Week. So I was like, Oh crap. Then I made Yeah, which nearly killed me. It was supposed to go, Yeah, all the way through because people were like, What’s his next lyric going to be? So I wanted lyrics so stupid the pressure would be off. I was constantly trying to take the pressure off. So when I got to the album I’d already wrestled through that pressure and I wanted to write songs and stake out some landscape for myself and be calm about it. So it felt like record two for me.”
Do you feel the album lives up to the lofty ambitions you set yourself with the DFA remixes?
“I felt album one failed to have the production detail the DFA remixes had. But I think the quality of the remixes have been just as good as anything, which is quite hard to do. Not to have your head up your own ass and freak out at what’s coming next and coming up behind us. I keep seeing stuff coming up and it’s pretty good and I watch it self-destruct and watch it get boring or believe it’s own hype. We consistently tried to stretch out, and I don’t think we failed on any of them. With the album I felt like I was on a roll. I wanted to have it congealed and run together like an LP rather than a compilation. I think it works better as an album.”
Did you record alone or were you with the band?
“For the first half, it was just me, and then Pat [Mahoney, drums] and Tyler [Pope, bass] would come up to the studio. My wife would come up. I’m working on something, people would wander in and out, stay for a few days, do some back up vocals, do some clapping, play some video games. I like the pressure to be on me and them to be open minds and open ears. I’m more free creatively when I’m not worried I’m stepping on somebody’s toes or thinking, If I need to do this 30 times at least I don’t have to ask someone else to do it 30 times and feel fucking guilty about that. It’s my problem and I’m paying for it.”
In the past, you said you thought your vocal range was limited. But you sound totally different on Get Innocuous and on the track Sound Of Silver you seem to have extended your range to incorporate Phil Oakey.
“It’s more Heaven 17! The vocals on 45:33 were retarded. I really wanted to push myself on that. The first half of making Sound Of Silver had me laying on the couch with a jacket over my head asking everyone to leave, phoning my wife and asking her why I put myself through this. All I can hear is the rattling around my head that this is bad. Then I made 45:33 and I promised myself to just take the chances I promised myself I would when I took on the record at the beginning; just go for it and do shit that may be embarrassing; think about what I admire in records that other people don’t really like and accept that I’m going to do things that people don’t like. I was more proud of it than of a lot of things. When I made Losing My Edge it was totally humiliating and terrifying to play to people. I needed to remember that feeling. A lot of that 45:33 mentality spread to the album – branching out and not worrying if it didn’t sound like me – and as a result I’m happier with the vocals. How I’m going to do Get Innocuous live I don’t know because it’s ten tracks of vocals, half of which are speeded up and slowed down. It‘s not the easiest thing to replicate.”
You made 45:33 for Nike. What’s next? A fitness video?
“It’s disco for me, man. I don’t give a shit about running music. I’m not a runner. I’m a grappler. There were certain limits with my decision to make that track. The main thing being that if I take the job then there’s to be no back and forth. I was fully expecting Nike not to take it. I was happy to have the directives to work from: seven minutes of warm up, a target of 45 minutes, a structure to work in, a deadline. I think people think I got a lot of money from them, like it was, I don’t want to do this for Nike but it’s so much money. It was like, I’ll do it if this list of ridiculous requests is met. And they met them. I thought it would take five days to do it. It took me two months. But it got me in a great working habit. It made the album way better.”
There’s a track on the new record called New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. Do you have a love/hate relationship with New York at the moment?
“It’s love, but sometimes love has a bit of hate. It’s a love relationship with a little peanut butter in the chocolate. It was so bad at the end of the ’90s that it was great. Because we just walked in and were like, We’re going to throw a good party, and everyone was psyched. Then we went on tour and there was no one around to throw the parties. Then everyone went, We’ll dance, but where do you get dance music? Er, I guess Europe. And then it was Justice Vs Simian everywhere. Nothing against it, but I don’t want to hear the same shit I hear in Barcelona in New York. (Shouts) Hey everybody, it’s fucking New York! We have a pretty good dance music history. The invention of disco. The Paradise Garage. It‘s not like we’re a second city of dance music. Lately, with Rub’n’Tug and Tim Sweeney, New York has really discovered its roots. My favourite place to DJ right now is New York – one hundred percent. I can DJ to a thousand people with the lights off with a pounding good sound system of weird disco and leftfield crazy stuff, and it’s not a bunch of muso’s weirding out. It’s fifty percent guys, fifty percent girls, a high percentage of gays, not like three gay dudes – a mixed bag of people getting down and dancing with each other. It’s a dream.”
So you’re not jealous of cities like Barcelona and Berlin, where people can party all night, like you say you are on North American Scum? Are you getting too old for all that nonsense?
“Exactly. I just want to hang out with my dog. What’s he like? When he’s asleep he’s like a drunk monkey in a pig costume.”
You turned down the chance to work with Duran Duran a few years ago. Now Timbaland is working with them. What do you think of that?
“He needs the work, so it’s great. I think that guy’s gonna have a moment this year. I mean, I keep saying that, and he’s always lurking about in the wings with his demo CDs and shit until I’m like, Hey T-land, want a beer or something? But the truth is, I think the kid’s got talent. Maybe he can take that band of up-and-comers and make stars out of them.”
Two years ago you said you would be happy to occupy the kind of space Interpol were in? This time you seem ready to lasso the moon?
“I think my targets have changed a bit. I’m not concerned with where I land. I do hope to do well. I’ve got more perspective on what the band is in my life versus the label versus being a producer versus being a guy at home. I always wanted a gauntlet or a challenge and a lot of that was working with Luke (Jenner) and The Rapture and working with someone so magnetic, so musically intuitive with so much access to himself and I was literally pushing myself as hard as I could to challenge someone like that. I don’t think the music world is much of a challenge compared to when Roxy Music, T Rex and Bowie were duking it out.”
So you’re ready for a scrap? Or, at the very least, a grapple?
“When you play a gig don’t you want to wipe the other band off the stage? We may have had dinner beforehand, but on stage I want to kill them. It’s a fight. Don’t you want to be the best band on the planet? There’s a tradition of British bands claiming to be the best band on the planet. But to genuinely want to be that rather than it be a pose? When we play I want to generate moments as precious as a Nina Simone concert, scare people like The Stooges. It’s not gonna happen, but I’m gonna try. So many bands are good enough to have a certain posture and style and be lyrically vague, and there’s a morass of sameness and people seem to still like them. There’s so much pressure to not make mistakes versus actually doing something. I’m frantically trying to wave my tiny little arms to step it up. Don’t accept being a mediocre band. Don’t accept it as an audience. I’m not the Arctic Monkeys target audience, but for a British teenager it’s a fucking winner. But don’t you think a bunch of bands are going to dress like them and sound like them? And aren’t a bunch of bands going to not notice? And isn’t there going to be an article about the new wave of the same shit? Arctic Monkeys get it in your head that you are competing with Antony & The Johnsons, Arcade Fire and Björk. Your target competition is Radiohead, not the Kaiser Chiefs. Your target is the greatest music in history. If that thought drowns you then fight your way out and come up stronger. Don’t avoid the thought because it’s too depressing. That should be the expectation. There should be a little more fight.”
LCD Soundsystem’s second album, Sound Of Silver is out on DFA/EMI. 45:33 is available through iTunes.
Written for the spring 2007 edition of Dummy.