Because, in the studio, LCD Soundsystem is just James and his multifarious musical, vocal and production skills. But, onstage, LCD Soundsystem is a quintet of similarly funk, punk and art-obsessed friends – featuring Pat Mahoney (drums); Nancy Whang (keyboards, vocals); Tyler Pope (bass – also of !!! And Outhud); and Phil Mossman (guitar, percussion, keys, bass – ex-Sabres Of Paradise)
For someone who hails from the very epitome of small-town America, James Murphy is extremely partial to a very English insult. Particularly when it’s a self-deprecating one. Despite being labeled as a tragically hip super-producer – ‘the Pharrell Williams of punk-funk’ – the wiseass sarcasm that comes out of his own songs is generally aimed, first and foremost, at himself. The ‘tit’ reference is provoked by a conversation about Losing My Edge, the 2002 single that launched LCD Soundsystem’s recording career, skewered the vanity, insecurity and one-upmanship of the ageing hipster with hilarious accuracy, and remains, thus far, his signature tune. ‘It still kinda weighs on me a bit’, confesses James, ‘because we keep getting better and better at playing it live. It’s surprising how long Losing My Edge lingers around, for a dance song. But everyone’s silly and shallow and insipid and vain and the more they accept it the less boring records we’ll have. This year I made ‘Yeah’, which pretty much consists of me saying yeah over and over, to try and erase the expectation that it was gonna be another clever diatribe of lyrics. Etched into the vinyl of Yeah is, “Not as good as Losing My Edge”. I always try and help people write the reviews.’
Like I said, no-one gets dissed in an LCD song – or a Murphy interview – more than Murphy himself. So, when grabbing a first listen to LCD Soundsystem’s first, self-titled album, and clocking Murphy’s wry sense of humour, don’t be fooled into thinking James Murphy is a jaded cynic. After all, after almost two decades of making music, he’s finally in the place where he wants to be: In New York, teamed up with a contrasting but complimentary partner-in-musical-crime in England’s Tim Goldsworthy as part of the Death From Above aka DFA label and production team, and touring with his very own rock ‘n’ roll dance band.
Because, in the studio, LCD Soundsystem is just James and his multifarious musical, vocal and production skills. But, onstage, LCD Soundsystem is a quintet of similarly funk, punk and art-obsessed friends – featuring Pat Mahoney (drums); Nancy Whang (keyboards, vocals); Tyler Pope (bass – also of !!! And Outhud); and Phil Mossman (guitar, percussion, keys, bass – ex-Sabres Of Paradise) – all striving to make you dance while challenging the tired rules and predictable poses of live rock. As James explains, ‘LCD is like a laboratory for experiments on what a band should be. There are issues of ego and presentation that I don’t like about touring bands. But I love the power and the potential. I once saw some footage of Black Sabbath setting up to play on French television in 1972. They’re not really that professional at it, but then they play and they’re just unbelievable. Then you figure that Black Sabbath now would be sixteen trucks, fourteen buses, a crew of 200 and some guy tuning up thirty guitars. It’s all very false, and safe and protected and corporate and vapid. This system is imposed on bands when they’re young and it kills creativity. There’s no magic.’
James should know, having spent most of the ’90s doing live sound engineering for US punk bands. Indeed, James is quite the musical Renaissance man, what with being able to navigate pretty much everything needed to make modern noise. Not that he’ll describe himself as such. Perhaps Murphy’s suspicion of ego is a product of his upbringing.
James was born in 1970, and raised in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, an overspill suburb that exists in the shadow of the famous Princeton Ivy League College, literally and otherwise. ‘There’s a movie called Over The Edge (seminal teen alienation cult movie from 1979, directed by Jonathan Kaplan and starring a very young Matt Dillon.) That’s my town, if you removed the recreational centre. Constant identical houses being built where you just got drunk before they were finished. There was no movie house, rec centre or bowling alley, so kids just got wasted. By the time I left in 1988/89 it had transformed into a wildly more affluent American suburb. But the place just left me with a staggering inferiority complex.’
Unsurprisingly, punk rock was Murphy’s saviour. ‘A great record store in Princeton called the Princeton Record Exchange probably saved my life. The Birthday Party ‘Nick The Stripper’ twelve-inch was one of the first I bought, mainly for the cover. But every time you picked up something as great as the first Suicide record ‘cos of the cover, you’d also end up with some horrible piece of crap like The Mission.’
Murphy somehow got over being exposed to Wayne Hussey at a tender age, and served his punk band apprenticeship with Speedking (1995-97) and Pony (1992-94). ‘Pony had been pretty successful. We were always supposed to get somewhere. Any minute now, the next big band from New York. But we just hated each other so much. We were signed to Fire in The UK, and just before our first big tour in England we self-destructed. And no-one at Fire told us that our band name was cockney rhyming slang for “Crap” (ie: Pony and Trap = Crap – Cockney Ed). I’m kind of glad we never came over.
‘Speedking came out of Pony. It was mediocre ’90s stuff… I think we were quite good for what we were doing, but what we were doing was dated and silly. Bands we played with like Six Finger Satellite were so superior that it was humiliating. Plus we’d made these self-destructive decisions like, “We’re never gonna put an album out”, out of over-arching punk rock ideals. I got it out of my system, thankfully.’
‘Punk rock when I was a kid was a really optimistic thing. You could listen to Jonathan Richman and the Violent Femmes and Black Flag and Big Black and Neu! and it was all punk rock as long as it wasn’t mainstream rock. There were no mopey shoe-gazers. In the ’90s, when I got my chance to actually be in punk bands, it was like being in my hometown high school – there were cool kids and loser kids and rules and power games. You had to record a certain way with a certain producer for a certain label… even drive a certain van. It just wore me out.’ So James quit, took stock, concentrated on being a soundman and building his own studio, and eventually met the equally alienated Tim Goldsworthy while working with David Holmes in 1999 and formed The DFA. You’ll find more details about that on the biog that accompanies DFA Compilation #2.
Meanwhile, we have to ask James the burning question thrown up by the opening track to the debut LCD Soundsystem album: Have Daft Punk really played at his house?’ Of course not. I used to play house parties in punk rock bands. You don’t really get paid, but what you do is sell a ton of merchandise, and get a place to sleep. When I got into dancing, taking E and being optimistic, I thought; wouldn’t it be great if some kid wanted Daft Punk to play at his house? So he rings the agent who says they’ll cost40, 000 and he saves for seven years and finally gets enough money and flies Daft Punk over. And, of course, they’d have no idea where they would be landing, ‘cos the rider includes two first-class tickets on Air France. And the kids would be earnestly trying to meet all the rider requirements, but Daft Punk would still end up playing in the basement next to the washing machine, which we all did. A local hardcore band is supporting, and the PA consists of all the local kids’ amps and stereos taped together. I thought that would be like the best show that anyone would ever see. My goal is to actually make that happen for a video – find a really great punk rock house, get Daft Punk to play, and LCD Soundsystem would be the opening local band. It just makes me happy.’
‘Daft Punk… sets the tone for an album that mixes James’s trademark hook-laden punk/funk/house hootenannies with the kind of melodic ruminations that many won’t be expecting. Indeed, the gently psychedelic and angelically sung ‘Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up’ – apart from being a title that many of us can relate to – is surprisingly reminiscent of White Album Beatles. ‘Its an old song that a wrote years ago on piano, when I didn’t have a home for about two-and-a-half years and just slept in the studio. I used to play piano in the elevator shaft in my pyjamas. ‘Never As Tired’ is a little love song – or a little lack-of-love song. I always wanted to do something with that Dear Prudence descending chord sequence, so I did. I was too embarrassed about it to release it, but, after various psychological ruminations, I figured why not? What… am I really gonna pretend I’m cooler than I am?’
In contrast, the trance-punk rant that is ‘Movement’ is… uh… what is ‘Movement’ about, James? ‘That’s mostly about the ‘new rock’, which is a movement without the bother of having any meaning. You know a journalistic movement that announces, ‘Rock is back! The guitar is back!” Whoo-hoo. But for what? Its like saying, “The high-waisted pant is back!” Its fucking vacuous and the bands are tedious. They all sound like The MC5. I get excited about The White Stripes ‘cos they’re some people who are obviously trying to do something of their own. But most bands will never be good because they don’t even ask themselves why they’re bothering until its too late.’ This is probably a good time to bring up the major influence on James’s vocal style. The Fall’s Mark E Smith haunts this album’s more testy testimonies. James makes no attempt to pretend it’s an accident.
‘I thought about trying to hide it. But then I thought, we all sing like The Beatles and The Stones, don’t we? And nobody tries to hide that because it’s so pandemic. For me The Fall, along with The Velvet Underground, are the best rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time. The Fall are my Beatles. So, rather than sound like Mick Jagger, I’d rather think about what I like, and sound like Mark Smith. Although I’m sure he’s gonna fucking blast me one of these days.’ Indeed, Smith could well have written one of the album’s most striking lines, from the city throb marvel that is ‘On Repeat’: ‘Here comes the new stylish creep’. ‘Another old song. The new stylish creep could be me, or Pharrell Williams… you just get flung up to mean something and you’re the new stylish jerk, which has been my job three or four different times. But maybe it’s more Pharrell – the unimpeachably hip. There’s a definite resemblance to I Zimbra by Talking Heads. It’s a great song that I wanted to refer to. I like to quote a lot.’
Sadly, that essential Canadian gay folk influence you’re waiting for never arrives. But instead, we get a proper, old-fashioned, album closer, in the beguiling, optimistic, ‘Great Release’. ‘The last song on an album should erase an album enough so you can put it back on and listen to it again. My favourite last song of all time is Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets. There’s so much Eno in ‘Great Release’. To a certain degree I’m a pretty nihilistic person. I don’t believe in much except the tangible. But I’m pretty optimistic despite that. I don’t have much fear of death. I wanted to make an ending song that was uplifting.’
One ingredient that dominates LCD Soundsystem will delight all those grateful to James for the major part he’s played in the revival of ’70s/’80s vintage post-punk. This album is full of big, mean and insistent basslines.
‘The bass is the best instrument. It’s the most important but the least egotistical. A lot of my favourite musicians are the bass-players, like Richard McGuire from Liquid Liquid, Holger Czukay from Can, and Jah Wobble from Public Image Ltd. When it’s right it’s the best thing in the world. If you think about The Stones’ Emotional Rescue you think about the vocals. But if you listen to it, the bass on that record is totally schizophrenic and insane. If a guitar player was doing that it would be a much more an egotistical exercise. You don’t play bass like that for glory, because there isn’t any for bassists. Even drummers get more attention. I love things like The Stranglers and The Birthday Party, where the bass is just this monster. One of the reasons I love The Fall is because the guitars are as ego-less as the bass. And that’s a rare fucking thing.’
LCD Soundsystem is, first and foremost, a dance-rock party album full of dirty sounds and nasty grooves. But, as you would expect from the composer of Losing My Edge, it’s also got plenty of great lyrics, smart themes, sarcastic insults and good jokes. All of which makes James Murphy the perfect guy to reclaim a word that has been abused so badly over the last decade that it now seems to mean ‘knowing shite’ for most people. Let James set the definition straight.
‘For me, irony’s a dirty word that’s been overused in the past ten years to mean something cheap. “Oh, how ironic. I’m wearing a Bon Jovi shirt – and I hate Bon Jovi ! Ha Ha Ha.” Being aware of the crassness of your own taste is not so cheap. Being aware that we’re vain and manipulative and silly because we’re humans. We’re pack animals. We’re like dogs. We whine when we want food and make a little face when we want to be petted. Investigating that is exciting for me. It makes me not want to go jump under a bus. Apparently, that’s ironic. To me, it’s just dealing with real life.’
LCD Soundsystem is a slice of funky life that holds that intelligence is not something to be suspicious of, but aspired to. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of throwing yourself around a dance floor like a big, sweaty fool, of course? After all, we are, when all is said and done, tits. And, as LCD Soundsystem proves, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Perhaps the album’s most striking track is ‘Disco Infiltrator’, which comes over as a full-on Murphy manifesto. ‘It was, at first. It’s another old song which has changed a lot for me now, but it was originally, a doomed manifesto. The more I work the more I realise that very successful people have very different brains than I thought they did. Pharrell came to a party we were having and he looked nervous and out of place. And I suddenly realised that he was just a kid who’s terrified, I’m sure, that he will not be the Golden Boy at some point. So everything that’s happening must be nerve-wracking. If one of these things jumps up and he’s behind on it, you just kill yourself. I feel that way sometimes myself – am I just not paying enough attention to Canadian gay folk bands?’