FACT caught up with James Murphy at his Williamsburg loft on a bitterly cold but crystal clear New York winter’s morning back on Sunday December 10th 2006.
Having recently completed second album Sound of Silver, the 36-year-old had been kicking out the jams by spinning records at the latest of his DFA label’s increasingly regular parties at Brooklyn’s Studio B club…
Did you enjoy the party on Friday night?
“It was better than last time, because last time there was too many people, this time is was appropriately crowded. Last time, you couldn’t move, about 1600 people showed up with another 800 outside. This time it was about 1,000 people, which was a lot more manageable.”
How do you promote them?
“We do very little promotion. It’s mostly word of mouth. Traditionally DFA parties were never advertised. I have an email list of about 200 names and that’s it, and we can get 1,000 people in 48 hours with that, but this time I didn’t even do that…DFA has its own mailing list…since 2001 probably 30 names have changed. Now, we use MySpace also.”
It genuinely felt that al the DJs were into it playing records they love rather than the latest floor-filling tunes…
“Lately people have asked me, what’s your favourite place to DJ? And I’ve been able to say New York. I think they’re surprised because they’re expecting me to say Berlin or somewhere in Spain…as long as you don’t bum people out, people here are ready to dance, And they’re psyched to hear things they’ve never heard before. They don’t need to necessarily at the place where you’re playing the newest record…I just don’t think it really matters that much, as long as you don’t bore them. I really like that. Especially for disco. New York’s had a bit of a renaissance in the past year and a half. It took enough of a beating from its own residents. People like myself did a lot of complaining about New York. This is one of the Mecca’s for dancing music, and it had forgotten what it is. It was just playing, y’know, Justice Vs Simian…records from other places. I think New York DJs have been digging into their own history to a certain degree, and it’s been really wonderful, I think a lot of it is down to people like Rub ‘n’ Tug, who just reinforced that history of good parties…and the fact that Mancuso’s Loft is strong again.”
Do you always play vinyl, or a mix of other formats too?
“I like records. Sometimes they don’t sound as good because the turntables aren’t set up right or they feedback, but in general I think they sound better. Flipping through CDs doesn’t make me want to play anything. I’ve tried to make covers for CDs or make art on them so they attract me, but it just isn’t the same. I tend to forget they’re there.”
Do you buy as much new music as old disco?
“No (laughs). As usual…ever since the first time I DJ’d, I played old records. We started making records because I couldn’t find new records to buy. That really was no joke. When we made ‘House Of Jealous Lovers’, I said ‘can we make a dance 12” out of this so I have something to fucking play’. I still like older records more. I don’t mean to be bitchy about it. It’s not fair. You have 12 months versus 22 years, there’s gotta be more good old music simply by numbers. But I’m always looking for new records, I like some stuff, but it is harder.”
What about digital music?
“Oh god, no, no, no, I will not go play with a laptop. I don’t wanna be go checking my email. I hate the way it looks, I hate the way it feels…titles of songs, the lack of object-ness. Plus, if you pull a fucking laptop out you better blow my mind. If you have that much access to technology and you’re just playing tracks so that it’s easier to mix and you have more options, I think that’s kind of reprehensible. For the most part, when I see that come out it’s time for me to fucking go home.”
One thing I did notice though was how young the crowd was…does the age gap bother you?
“I don’t really care about the age of the audience, it’s always been just whoever wants to come and dance and have fun. I like it when it’s more of a mix, but Brooklyn is not a mix. I prefer it when it’s young and old, and I mean people much older than me and much younger than me. That’s why I like Manhattan, because it’s much more of a mixed bag, whereas Brooklyn’s a deep early-to-mid-20s demographic. It’s like college town. That said, I’m not complaining about anybody being there. But I moved to New York because of the mixed bag and being out here’s a little weird because you can get 1,000 of the exact same person in the same room. When we started the DFA parties we used to invite people very specifically based upon them being from different places – people that work in film, magazines, young punk kids, people who did house and techno, old hip-hop guys. We definitely wanted no one to feel like it’s wasn’t their place because it was ‘these other people’s place’. The only thing I would complain about the other night was that if you walked in and you weren’t a white hipster from Williamsburg, you might feel like it’s their place and not yours and that can create an environment where some people are looking and judging other people. I’ve always wanted to erase any sense of that easy demographic us-ism…it’s always been a bummer for me, the recreation of 14-year old dynamics.”
That seems to play quite a part in shaping your outlook…
“It never ends. It tortured me desperately at that age, though I was never the object of high school derision…I think it might be more obvious if I had been. I was a weird kid. I was the kid who dressed weird and looked fruity, but I was also huge, So, like, I had a lot easier time than other weird kids. Other kids got beaten up. I never got beaten up. I was bigger than the kids picking on me. But watching people that I knew were friends, best friends, and then six months later one is in a group of people making fun of the other one. That was always a really horror to me, like deeply horrifying. I spent most of my time at that age, trying to figure that out, aloud. But it never met with such great response. I guess it started a life-long desire to undo that, or at least ruin that the best way I can. If you can’t explain it away at least ridiculing it and trying to undo it and trying not to support it is the best I can do half the time.”
Do you think that’s what informs the way you still begin to write a song?
“Oh yeah…it’s not even people that I have a problem with usually. It’s lots of forms of group mentality. It informs everything, not just lyrics. It informs my musical choices, my record covers and art and my willingness to do campaigns, to do or not to do interviews, how long to tour and how much it costs to get in and where we play. It’s always a massive part of my conscious and unconscious decision-making process. I don’t like the results of the way things operate, but I’m perpetually being asked to jump into the stream of how things operate and I’m very rarely comfortable with it. So it’s the endless push-pull of what I’m willing to do and where I’m trying to go. I’ve failed enough musically in my life to be fully aware to a certain degree that if I do accept the way things go, then I shouldn’t really make records, because there’s nothing all that riveting about me, there’s nothing really all that exciting. I don’t feel like I was born destined to make ‘rock’. I don’t feel like the world needs another body, another space-taker. Space is pretty full. If I’m not doing something that I feel is engaging or interesting on as many levels as it possibly can be, then I should quit. In a lot of ways, I’d love too.”
Was it more difficult to come back and make a second album after the success of the first? You describe the pressure of making this album as ‘brain-melting’ on one of your DFA blogs…
“Making the record to me didn’t seem that much more pressured than making the first record, and the first twelves, everything seemed to be filled with as much pressure and expectation. I don’t see more bodies as more pressure. I felt just as much pressure trying out our first show. I felt just as much pressure putting out the first twelve-inch that no one cared about. All I know is there’s more bodies and more opinions, but there’s nothing more valid or more terrifying to me. Saying that, making music to be is often a horrible experience. I mean it’s not horrible like working in a diamond mine or something, but emotionally it can be pretty horrible. It’s very intuitive and visceral and physical and euphoric for me, not always positive but very emotional. Being creative is work though. It’s a massive effort that I never thought it would be. I always envisaged making things as a freedom from all that work stuff that you had do in school, when in fact work is very simple. Every job I’ve ever had has been very easy. People tell you what to do, you get most of it done and they kind of get off your back. Making things is terrifying. You have to have so much more discipline, which I never had till later in my life. Which is why I was a failure.”
The new album’s called Sound of Silver’– presumably this refers to the feeling you get from hearing an incredible record…
“It’s means a bunch of things, that’s one of ‘em…you know, other worldliness. The other thing was that I very much like the concept of silver. My dad used to say, ‘having a child is a permanent silver medal’, meaning that the best you can ever do for the rest of your life is second place. Because you just made something that for your lifetime has to be first place. I’m aware that this is our second record, and I think it’s better than the first. In 20 years time, if anyone cares about records then, I think it will be looked at as better. But have myself to compete with. I have the first time anyone ever heard LCD Soundsystem – which to a lot of people was a big moment. With that kind of expectation, this record is bound to be second best. It’s like when we did the ‘Yeah’ twelve-inch, we etched ‘Not as good as Losing My Edge’ into the out-groove, just because I knew that’s what people were gonna say anyway. I wasn’t trying to be ironic. It can’t be as good as the first 12”, because now you have an idea of what’s coming you can’t just take it and rub it on yourself and think you’re cool.
“The other meaning of Sound Of Silver, the big one, is that I felt the first record was a little beige, was a little ‘safe’. I had taken big chances on the twelve-inch, but then the record came along and I didn’t put as much detail and risk humiliation quite as much. This time around, we made the studio silver as a constant reminder to remember the glam rock, Chrome and DAF, the things that I think of as shiny music – T Rex, Heaven 17 and Human League, but more Hawkwind, with ‘Silver Machine’. But Chrome are the ultimate silver band to me.”
How did ‘North American Scum’ come about?
“I needed a song that I felt would be good to play live. It was the last song written for the album. I wanted something we could rely on if the show wasn’t going very well. All I had was the title, ‘North American Scum’. Immediately I knew exactly what it meant. I knew that it was different than just calling it ‘American Scum’, that was just too flat. ‘North American Scum’ is just funnier. And I knew that it meant something complicated, that it didn’t mean something anti-American, which I don’t feel. For all the bad things, and stupidity and silliness of this country, it really still is kind of your choice what you are.”
“When it comes down to writing the lyrics, it’s usually very mechanical. I have to come up with a certain amount of verses and this and that. I do it in one day in the morning before I sing it so that it’s fresh in my mind, and while I’m singing it I can at least make adjustments because it doesn’t feel write, rhythmically or emotionally. To write lyrics that are just cool – that’s just bad. I’m not saying my lyrics are great. A lot of the time they’re just dumb. Only time will tell as to whether they’re dumb good or dumb bad.”
Some of your musical heroes – Brian Eno, Lou Reed, etc. – have set benchmarks in modern pop music – is your ambition to do the same with LCD?
“You know, when I look at the cultural position of the people that I admire…I don’t want to match them. I just don’t want to embarrass myself in front of them. I’m not self-deprecating enough to think that I’m on an equal playing field and failing this horribly. I don’t think it’s an equal playing field…I don’t think that the game I’m playing is similar to the game Lou Reed was playing. I don’t think it’s fair to compare the two in a lot of ways. The naescent moment of the birth of rock is a very different creative time to 2006. To be Brian Eno is not the same as being DFA. I can’t go make ‘Music For Airports’ and make this droney piece of ambient music and put it out and actually think anyone is going to take it seriously, including myself. If you put that out now, you’d be laughed at, and with good reason. We don’t need any more ambient music made by post collegiate dipshits. It was relevant then, it was actually meaningful. You can’t write songs now about heroin and think anyone’s gonna care – who cares about you and your boring drug habit? But when you write ‘Heroin’ in 1967 that’s a big deal – there were more options you could try and keep your fucking dignity. Right now there’s very little opportunity. I mean, to be The Stooges, to go out and yell, the second you do that you’re part of a history of stuff that has really dubious ego issues now…there are limits to being in a rock band now.”
You’ve said that” “musical hybrids are always atrocious” – what do you make of ‘new rave’?
“It’s not worth doing simply because you want to mix this and that…two words, Jesus Jones.”
Have you heard the Klaxons?
“I’ve heard them. But the music’s too new for me to say. It didn’t jump out at me. I get it that it’s a big idea and I get that DFA to a lot of people was a big idea in the beginning, I just don’t know musically yet…let’s see what they do. Let’s see if they can stand the weight. Dude, I was like 31, 32 when ‘Losing My Edge’ came out. It’s a very different thing being able to withstand the pressure of being the cool guy on the NME Cool List – when you’re 19, 22 it’s a very different thing. I always liken all that stuff to be like a sail and a ship. If your sail’s bigger than your ship then you’re flipping over. At 36 years old, my ship is pretty big, it takes a lot to knock me over at this point.”
It’s been 5 years since the first LCD single – what have been the highlights?
“The beginning was pretty incredible. We were very optimistic. And I think in a really good way. The parties were really amazing. We were really ambitious. Even though we had no idea what we were talking about, like ‘We’re gonna take over the world’. Tim and I had a big conversation when we started. We were like, ‘well, you like this, and I like this, so we’re not gonna be totally alone.’ We used Liquid Liquid as an example. We were definitely interested in making things complicated, keeping things mixed up, Chicago house and punk rock, this and that. We didn’t anticipate was that it would become a genre – which depressed me, because I loathe genres. They’re definitions that have nothing whatsoever to do with quality, so by nature by definitions are kind of meaningless. Since the only thing I really care about is whether something’s good. So ‘punk-funk’ whatever became a genre…it was supposed to be about quality. I think we’ve never deviated – we still try to make things the best we can.”
And the low point?
“When the Rapture left, that was the worst. That was a really dark year, of really low productivity between Tim and I. We tried to do the Britney Spears track…we really didn’t know where we were supposed to go. But we kind of just re-invigorated ourselves and got over it. But that was really dark. It probably didn’t help that we’d spent two years doing a gram of coke and six Es a week, I don’t think any of that helped.”
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
“I’d buy stock in some stuff so I’d be independently wealthy now and we could do whatever we wanted… I would do The Rapture thing differently, get our shit together faster. I wouldn’t waste quite as much time. I just wouldn’t waste as much time as I think I’ve wasted.”
How much involvement do you have in DFA the label these days?
“Very little. I’m not able to be as involved as I want to be and it’s very frustrating for me, and I think the label suffers for that. So we’ll see what happens after this record tour is done, how much time I can put into the label. I’m a business person, I like making stuff up, I like doing stuff like that.”
Your personal life has also changed – you got married, have a swish place and a dog, you seem a lot more comfortable now. Is it still easy to be motivated to write a great song?
“I lived on an inflatable mattress in the office for two-and-a-half years (back in 2002). I have to kind of watch it, because I want to try to appreciate things a bit more, spend time with my wife and not be so obsessively worried about everything, and micro-managing. And I’m not very good at that. I’m kind of built for one speed. It’s either stop or 100 miles an hour. And I’m not good at stop anymore. I never wanted to get comfortable, but I’m not. I’m very lucky, in that money – after a certain period of my life- never mattered to me. I never had any, so that was great. And now I may have some money, theoretically or coming to me, but I don’t really know, and it doesn’t affect my daily life so I don’t have to make decisions based upon it. When I did the Nike thing, people assumed I made a lot of money. It really wasn’t very much money because it’s a six-month licence. It’s really like being used for an ad, because I own everything and get it all back. But I really don’t have to do that – I can make my rent money DJing. I never have to do anything for any other reason than it’s fulfilling. That said – I work like a maniac. I work like I’ve got the tax man after me.”
You’ve said in the past: “I’m fully aware of how transient ‘cool’ is. And it’s usually accompanied by a backlash.” Are you honestly expecting one?
“The UK music press invented the backlash. There’s a ball that has cool on one side and backlash on the back. It’s been so long now that I don’t care anymore…I steeled myself so desperately for it. Though backlash really comes when you show weakness and we’ve never shown weakness. I still say this today, ‘anybody wants to say shit about us and our remixes and our productions, that we’re repeating ourselves…point me to anybody, anybody in dance with as many good tracks as we’ve put out’. Consistently. I’ll take anybody on. It people were way better than us, and kicking our ass then I’d retire. I’m happy to retire. I’m 36. I’ve got things to do.”