Fun Is an OK Thing: An Interview With LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and DFA Records talks corporate sponsorship, German pronunciation, and why the kids who don't dance aren't alright.
By the time you're reading this, it's all over.
Based on the chart performance of LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver in its first week of release, it turns out that James Murphy -- according to the "marginally accurate" barometer on his website -- is now somewhere between being totally famous and maybe having a drug problem. So much for #2.
Which is a shame, although #46 ain't too shabby either. Sound of Silver is so good that it certainly justifies a little validation on the Billboard 200, even if such distinction is about as artistically meaningless nowadays as a Grammy. One could go on and on about that central prevailing truth of popular music -- its astounding simultaneous marketability and mediocrity -- but I've only got a few hundred words here. In any event, Murphy definitely deserves to have his balls cupped by Top 40 radio just a little bit.
By contrast, it's interesting to consider the recent chart performance of darlings like the Shins and the Arcade Fire, whose new records both debuted at #2, and of course Mary Kate & Ashley's über fave, Modest Mouse, grabbing the top spot. In a way, Murphy's goal of hitting one of those marks did seem a bit out of reach, but for the indie rockers it's actually not all that surprising. At a certain point, even the most die-hard Top 40 listeners can only take so much Nickelback, and the suits know this. Hipsters are becoming the new tastemakers, and the next logical move for the bigwigs is to market Braff's Kids as the next best thing (a well they're bound to hump dry eventually).
So why does there still seem to be this hesitation by the masses to acknowledge LCD Soundsystem as one of the truly great bands of our time?
Now, consider some observations made by DJ and writer Philip Sherburne in the January edition of his "Month in Techno" column for Pitchfork:
"...the UK has definitely got this scene now where bands are bringing parties, and gigs are no longer gigs in the traditional sense -- they're more of a party atmosphere. Of course, indie rockers have long bemoaned their brethren's arms-folded stance; one suspects that bemoaning indie-rocker Puritanism is in some sense as crucial to the genre's identity as that Puritanism itself. But there's no doubting that 'the rock kids' are taking gingerly steps towards the dance floor..."
Shit, sounds great to me.
Sherburne was commenting on the explosion of the so-called "new rave" scene in the UK, the latest Brit-ufactured genre tag which seems to be the successor to the "dance-punk" obsession of the early double-aughts. And Murphy and the DFA have been lumped in with the whole dance-punk whatever from the start. They were instrumental in breaking the Rapture, one of the flagship dance-punk bands, but five years after "House of Jealous Lovers", I'm still not seeing here in the States the full-on Madchester-style renaissance I assumed would grace my 20s, with James Murphy perched triumphantly at its helm.
So again I ask: where's the love for LCD? Do the indie kids fear taking the plunge? Are they wary of it like a gateway drug that leads to the sweet, sweet crack of dance music, the embracing of which would be just totally uncool and embarrassing? Does the level of active participation necessitated by dance music frighten off the traditionally passive and introspective indie crowd? Is this all complete bullshit?
Whatever. All I know is, dude remixed Justin Timberlake, and that's hot.
So here you have him: James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and DFA Records talks corporate sponsorship, German pronunciation, and why the kids who don't dance aren't alright.
And that's pretty much it. I enjoyed talking to James very much, but we went off on so many tangents (most of which have been mercifully omitted here) that I didn't get to ask everything I wanted, delve too deeply into some of those aforementioned questions above, or even finish some I'd already started.
I should have known someone on a major label might just have time constraints in this respect, so that's my fault. But I can still listen to 45:33 and Sound of Silver anytime I want, and they more than speak for themselves.
Well, I guess I'll start with my corny icebreaker: have you ever Googled yourself?
Oh yeah. In the beginning of DFA our job was to Google all the artists and Google the label and everything. I guess it was 2000, so the internet and how things were working with blogging were still getting set up, so that was really interesting to kind of watch that happen. Googling myself doesn't really work.
When I did, the first thing that came up was--
James Murphy, Heavy Metal Guitarist.
It's like Googling "John Smith".
I was looking at his site and thinking it was kind of lame, but then there were all these little hints about how he had cancer, or a brain tumor I guess.
Yeah, it was a brain tumor. It was really intense for a while, and it was a weird one that pressed on a part of his brain that caused all sorts of personality disorders, so nobody knew what was going on, it just seemed like he was going crazy. People have been trying to raise a lot of money for him the last couple of years. So go James Murphy, Heavy Metal Guitarist.
Yeah, I felt pretty bad.
He's got a lot of respect, like he's been around for a long time, he's no joke. He's not some third-rate, he's definitely the bigger James Murphy.
[laughs] Bigger than you?
He's never had a Nike partnership though.
I was listening to [45:33] again last night and I was wondering, did you have a bit of a Krautrock influence with that?
Like the cover looks just like E2-E4 --
Well the reason [45:33] was even made was I'd been thinking about the E2-E4 record for a while, and I was kind of stunned that this artist made a full-album song and turned it in and got it released, and I was like, oh that's a little bit sad, that seems very impossible to do right now. I wouldn't want to be a dick to EMI and be like, "Here: fuck you, try and put this out!" But it would still be such a good thing to do, so when [the opportunity] came around at first I said no, but I thought more about it and it actually sounded like kind of what I wanted to do. I was an enormous Krautrock nerd in the '80s and '90s.
For [Göttsching], he did it off the cuff, it was something for him to listen to while flying on an airplane, but you were actually commissioned to do yours. I was reading a lot of the user reviews on iTunes when I first got it and it seems like it was really polarizing for a lot of people, they either loved it or hated it, especially the exercise people.
Yeah, the exercise people hated it; I thought it was really funny! They were just like, what the fuck is this retarded garbage? There's kind of a world out there that you forget about, of dudes who run and want anonymous music to run to, and I guess it's not a bad thing that I don't do that very well. I don't feel so bad that I don't make anonymous background music particularly well, even when I'm trying. I think it's probably too much of a bummer, it's way too gay for agro dudes.
On the other hand, it seems like the more music-oriented people were split, not over whether or not it's good music, but the fact that you did it for this evil Nike corporation.
Most of those people own Nikes, so I'm not really too worried. And I actually fully expected [Nike] to reject it. When it first came to me I said no. My manager barely sent it to me, he was like, "I know what you're going to say but I have to send it to you," and I said no. But because I'd been thinking about the Manuel Göttsching thing I thought this could be totally sweet. And I actually really liked the treatment they sent out because it was really specific: we want a 45-minute run, we want a seven-minute warm-up, we want a seven-minute cool-down, we need some peaks throughout. I was like, this is actually awesome to have this list of crap that you're supposed to do, just to keep yourself going. If you're a little at a loss you can just keep working on the structure that they need, which I really liked.
So having that structure was actually, in a way, really liberating?
No, not just in a way, like, 100% liberating. I found it really helpful, stuff like that keeps me going, when you get confused or stuck you just focus on that. I think it's a common misconception that I did this as some sort of compromise, that I did this because I made a ton of money, and in fact I really didn't make very much money, partially because I was relatively inflexible about a certain set of points. One, I get the thing back in six months, they don't have any rights to it after April. And to give them credit, they were pretty flexible about the shit that I wanted. I totally expected them to reject it, which is why I used one of the pieces on [Sound of Silver], because I also said there's no going back and forth. I will turn it in and you will take it or leave it, because I work on a desk, I don't work in a computer, so once I mix it it's done. There's no calling me back and being like we want this a little louder or quieter, we want this to happen earlier.
You can't just like open up Logic and cut and paste.
Yeah, so there's not really a way ... I sub-mixed some sets, like one of the tracks would be pre-mixed and it would be laid in. We use the computer to edit and to record but we don't use it for sound. You don't do any sonic treatments, any mixing or any EQing or compressing on the computer. So I thought that would be rejection #1, and then I thought of how wussy it was would be rejection #2, but I needed the deadline and the structure to actually do the thing. And in the end they took it, I was kind of dumbfounded.
By contrast, was it harder to find a direction to go in with the new album?
No, doing the Nike thing saved my ass. I was in terror, I did the first half of the album and I wanted to fucking jump into a river with weights around my neck. Then I stopped and did the Nike thing for two months, and that really just calmed me down and opened me up, and the second half of the record was actually a real pleasure.
Was that when you first did "Someone Great"?
Yeah, I'd already done the first half of the album, and then I did the Nike thing and that's where the music for that came in. It was the first track I started the Nike thing with, and the whole thing was gonna be that, but it wound up just being one element. So yeah, the thing totally saved my ass. Go Nike!
Just Do It!
Oh boy, I hate even saying that.
How did mixing Prinzhorn Dance School go?
Fucking awesome. That's the first time I've mixed somebody in a long time, especially a band, and they were totally great. They were so good to work with, they were such nice, sweet, awesome people. I miss mixing people, I don't have time, too busy being a jackass artist.
Does the DFA have plans to do another DJ tour like you did last year?
Yeah, the things I don't like about touring are, one, I don't get to make music, which is a real killer, and two, I don't get to really DJ or throw parties, which I really, really, really, really, really like. It makes me incredibly happy, actually.
I went back and downloaded a show you did on [Tim Sweeney's radio show] Beats in Space, and it seemed like you were really into the disco records; is that what you like to spin mostly?
That's kind of my bag.
That makes sense.
Yeah, disco makes me super happy.
I read an interview you did where you were talking about when music is "quietly tasteful", as you put it, just kind of playing it safe. Actually, the one example you used was Neu! [pronounced like "new"], which I thought was pretty interesting --
What was that?
Neu! The German band.
Neu! [pronounced like "noy"]
Oh, is that how you pronounce it?
Yeah, like Deutsche.
Oh ok. I had no idea. I don't think I've ever said their name out loud before.
But it means "new." So if somebody gives you shit about it you can just be like, "Dude, I'm translating."
[laughs] Well, this is kind of like a two-part question, I guess: like a lot of stuff coming out of Europe now, it seems like is running in the vein of the whole minimal scene, and a lot of it is really good, don't get me wrong, but there's also a lot that seems like it's going nowhere and is kind of boring --
Yeah, for me it's like there's this phenomenon that always happens in music, it's this very straight-white-maleness, which drives me crazy. It doesn't mean it's not good music; like I love Neu! I've loved Neu! for fucking decades, I would sit and listen to Neu! all the time. But then you'd start getting a bunch of bands, like in the '90s you had Tortoise and stuff like that, that just sort of became really chin-scratchy tasteful, basically music that only other straight white music nerds will care about, kind of self-congratulatory tasteful. It doesn't mean it's all bad, it doesn't mean it doesn't have its place, but I always get very suspicious when there's suddenly tons of it. It really feels like there's some lack of challenge going on, that the bar has been lowered enough that people who don't want to take any chances, people who are essentially mediocre hacks, have like their moment in the sun and they jump in and make a bunch of rules, and that I find really, really, really tedious. And I think everyone is guilty of it or capable of it; I fight with it all the time because I'm a music nerd, and I'll get very excited that there's something that I'm doing that sounds really Neu!-ish, but I gotta be careful. Will girls dance to this? Will gay dudes dance to this? If the answer is no, and you know the party is going to be a bunch of not-dancing straight white dudes, you gotta get back in and do something. That music is not fun, and I think fun is an OK thing.
Yeah, I do think some people are afraid to have fun like that because it's like, well this isn't cool, so I can't let on that I'm actually enjoying myself.
It's basically thinly veiled homophobia or racism. I think it's kind of grotesque.
Yeah, disco can definitely have that gay connotation that people back away from.
Yeah, gay, black, and Latin music. Or too many girls like it. Whereas you and your nerd friends can sit around and talk about the references and nobody else gets it and that's how you know that you're smart and they're stupid, but the joke's on you when you throw a party and there's nothing but your friends sitting there scratching their chins about it and then blogging later. If you look around at a party and there's a bunch of dudes facing the DJ booth and kind of dancing with themselves, you're not having a good party and your music blows. [laughs] Especially with dance music, it's dance music, not fucking sculpture, take it easy! It's not a dissertation.
[At this point an EMI representative says, "Hey David, I'm going to have to steal James away and move him on to the next interview if that's cool," but gives me time for one more question]
OK, cool ... uh, shit...
Yeah, we got meandery, sorry.
Yeah, no problem. Uh, where to go from here ... ok, good way to finish I guess: you've been talking a lot about your plans to get the new record to go #1. Any sort of pitch you want to make right now?
No! Very simply --
I don't mean like a sales pitch, but like you were saying, get people who were going to buy it anyway to buy it at the same time.
That's all I care. If you're thinking you're going to buy it anyway, buy it the week it comes out. I just think it would be fucking hilarious. I know it won't be #1; I'm actually shooting for #2. I think that's a better goal.
[laughs] Lowered expectations?
Well, not even, I just think it's more accurate.
You should get EMI to get you a Super Bowl spot.
Oh dude, if I get #2 I can get EMI to promise me anything because they know it's not gonna happen.
I mean like in advance, to get people talking.
I'll just play on Oprah.
It could be her download of the month.
Exactly, instead of a book this month it's some stupid record.