LCD Soundsystem were one of the smartest, funniest and most literate bands of the last decade, and they did it by playing by their own rules. This isn’t empty hyperbole, there were actual rules. “No sunglasses on stage” was one, as was “No rocking out” and “No psyching up the crowd”. Why was this Spartan attitude to audience interaction so important? James Murphy, LCD’s erstwhile iron-fisted leader, remembers his reign with a broad grin. “We relaxed them for a while, but people would get like James Brown ‘fined’. “You’re rocking out! Stop that!” No cool stuff. It’s a shortcut for meaning. It’s a simulacrum for meaning. I wanted to do away with that as much as humanly possible. The end doesn’t justify the means.”
Murphy grew up in New Jersey listening to David Bowie, the Clash and the warm hum of electrical appliances. In his stoic Irish Catholic family, the sound of a refrigerator was a “replacement for hugs”. After moving to New York City in his late teens his attempts to understand the emotional power of noise led him into production and a series of failed bands. He was 35 by the time LCD Soundsystem released their debut album, and while he says now that he never made another song quite as direct as their debut single “Losing My Edge”, it’s the band’s second album, 2007’s Sound Of Silverwhich contains some of their most visceral and powerful moments, like the double punch to the heart and gut of “Someone Great” and “All My Friends”. Along the way he’s been charged with musical theft from time to time, and you can certainly hear him paying tribute to his heroes – well, specifically Bowie’s “Heroes” – on tracks like “All I Want”, but that was always sort of the point. There are no new things under the sun, just better remixes.
Following the release of their third album, This Is Happeningin 2010, Murphy called time on the band, as he’d always threatened to, with an epic 4-hour final show at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 2 April 2011. Now, almost exactly a year later, GQ.com meets him at London’s Red Bull Music Academy as he’s preparing to give a talk to a room full of the sort of wide-eyed kids that he’s been talking about “coming up from behind” since the days of “Losing My Edge”. The four-day beard growth that seems to have been a permanent fixture for the last five years is now almost entirely white, but at the fitting age of 42 Murphy seems to have found something like the meaning of life. He’s finishing work on the full-length concert film which will accompany LCD’s documentary Shut Up And Play The Hits, and he continues to make music without the pressure of the band. As he tells us, his restless curiosity about how stuff works is now also free to extend into the realms of wristwatches, making the perfect cup of coffee and fiction-writing, meaning his next big release could be printed and bound rather than pressed on vinyl.
GQ.com: Did you ever imagine you’d find yourself lecturing about music?
James Murphy: I never thought I’d do this. I have no game plan, I just improvise. I did a talk with David Byrne at Yale last month. David seems to have a career path that fits him very well and I would want one that fits me. I like that he’s cut a wide swath for himself. It’s very different though, because he was in a very successful band when he was quite young.
Are you growing more comfortable at being the centre of attention?
Sometimes my anxiety makes me very quiet and sometimes it makes me falsely gregarious as a way of trying to make everybody happy. It’s not something I desire. Stage fright is a very real thing for me. I don’t address performing. I try to play the songs. The performative aspect for me is always musical and physical and not about theatre, which I think is a failure of mine. I think if I had a little more confidence or I was a different kind of guy, it’d be cool. I love David Bowie, who’s obviously a theatrical performer but I don’t have that gene. I need to get over my self-consciousness and the only way to do that is to try and forget that there are people there. Luckily I designed a lot of music where there’s not a lot of down-time. I sing almost the entire time or play percussion. It’s very physical so that it’s easier for me to let go a bit.
Do you feel very connected to your lyrics?
Some more than others. I get rid of them if they feel too much like “Where did that come from?” unless I really like the way they feel or sound. David Byrne said that the words don’t matter to him, just the emotional tone. He’ll think in sounds and then fit words into them. That makes a lot of sense for him, but I feel like there needs to be a point of view. I feel like a newscaster, not a charming personality. If I didn’t have news to say, then why would you listen to me?
There’s an emotional weight to LCD Soundsystem’s music that means fans often say they’d like it played at their funeral. Is that something you can relate to?
As long as they don’t mean, “I hate this, when I’m dead you can play it!” I think that’s positive but I don’t know how it makes me feel. If I had to pick something to play at my funeral I’d force everyone to listen to “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” performed by Roberta Flack really loudly on a really good sound-system, just because I want everyone to hear what I hear when I hear that.
What are you most afraid of?
Making people feel terrible. Or the selfish version: being blamed for making people feel terrible. [Laughs]
Mark E Smith says the Fall would have been the same band even if he wasn’t from Salford. Would LCD Soundsystem have been the same without New York?
I think it had a big impact. I don’t think if I’d grown up in New York I’d have made the same music but I’m from a small place in New Jersey very close to the city. I moved there after fetishising it and as opposed to just being disappointed by it not being right, I tried to manipulate it into being right, so that was pretty formative. It’s a big part of me. I’m a reactive person. Mark E Smith seems to be a generative person. “I’m going to make this thing. Nothing like it happened before. Nothing like it has happened since.” I’m not that guy. I’m a middle-aged guy who responds to stuff. I’m a volley-er, not a server.
What was the best record in your parents’ collection?
For Sentimental Reasons by the Nat King Cole Trio – it has “That Ain’t Right” and “This Will Make You Laugh” on it. That was my dad’s favourite record. He was a bouncer at a jazz club.
What’s the secret to making the perfect cup of coffee?
Good beans, good roast and following the recipe. You’ve got to have a good brew ratio. You’ve got to have the right amount of grounds, ground the right way, in a French press, held for the right amount of time. It’s not a very sexy answer, but it’s the truth!
When did you first become interested in watches?
The first watch I had was given to me when my grandfather passed away. My mother gave me his watch, which was a Forties Bulova. My father’s father had passed away before my parents were married but when they saw that I liked that watch my father gave me my other grandfather’s watch as well. That was a Twenties’ Gruen. I went through a big phase of wearing old Timetron digital LED watches and actually I didn’t wear a watch for years and years. Recently I started liking them again. I just think these things float through space and they go into your ear and you find that you’re not alone. I started liking automatic and mechanical watches. I really like the mechanisms.
Can you recommend a good book?
David Foster Wallace is great so read Infinite Jest because it’s amazing, then Pale King because it’s beautiful. Broom Of The System is fine and you should read it if you want to know more about where he came from. Also, read Sam Lipsyte especially Home Land and The Ask. He’s a great contemporary writer, and young-ish. Young for writing, but older than me.
Do you have any plans to write fiction yourself?
That’s what I went to school for, so it’s where I come from academically. I’m writing now, actually. A novel. I’m always making things, but whether they turn into something that I’ll consider making a part of the public world is different. I mean, I write songs every day, but only once in a while do they go out into the public sphere. I’m also dubious because as a person who’s known for something else, something that I wrote might get published before it was ready. Maybe I’ll have to send things in under a pseudonym, just so that they’re considered fairly. Editing is no joke.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My dad gave me some good advice: when you’re walking with a lady you should always walk on the street side. His other advice was “Don’t do anything jailable” and “Don’t die”. [Laughs] He was using the minimum number of words but you got his point. If you’re doing stupid shit, be the guy who doesn’t do the stuff that could kill you. If you’re going to break the law: speed, run a red light, drink underage but don’t get yourself sent to jail. That’s when you know your dad was not raised fancy. It’s not like he told me: [adopts aristocratic accent] “Always take care of the little people.” It’s not noblesse oblige.
Originally published by British GQ.