Get in the Ring

Someone should've kicked dance-punk DJ-producer-bandleader James Murphy's ass by now. No one can.

It's late on a freezing February afternoon, and James Murphy, the rumpled, bearlike frontman of the New York itchy-disco band LCD Soundsystem, has spent several hours getting his picture taken for Rolling Stone. He's leaving for a European tour in a few days. Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler is calling his cell phone. But none of that seems to matter to Murphy, at least not as long as he's talking about his newest love: Ultimate Fighting.

"If I didn't have to go on tour, if I wasn't wrapped up in the LCD world, I would be training six days a week," Murphy says excitedly. "That's all I would do: working on music and learning to fight."

Murphy is three years away from his 40th birthday, and he's devoted his entire adult life to music, a relatively peaceful pursuit. But he's absolutely, completely serious. "I'm just getting started, but I think I'm naturally pretty good at it," he says. "I used to kickbox, and I'm really flexible for my size. I'm a little over- aggressive. I'm a little cocky, and I take chances that I shouldn't take. I make a lot of mistakes. I don't like learning the basics; I don't like being a beginner at things. I want to be good, so I rush ahead. We're learning move one, and I try to do complicated stuff and fail, and that's just my nature."

James Murphy
photo: Jake Walters
James Murphy

Despite those admitted weaknesses, though, Murphy thinks he has a legitimate shot at competing. "I can properly train," he insists. "I have the money to train; I don't have to work some other weird job. [Other aspiring fighters] have kids, and they have limited jobs, mostly. Until they get really big, they can't train properly. I'm glad the sport's growing, because more of them can actually get focused, and the sport'll get a lot better. But I'd be at a certain advantage because I can straight-up train all the time. It's kind of a fantasy.

"I am aware of how funny it is," he adds. "But I don't want to do things halfway. I don't like the idea of, 'I'm just doing a little Brazilian jujitsu for fitness.' I won't get out of bed for fitness."

Murphy doesn't like to do anything halfway. Before LCD Soundsystem released their first single—the cold, sarcastic scenester indictment "Losing My Edge"—he'd already made his mark as half of DFA, the DJ/production team that rebuilt early-21st-century New York underground rock in its own image by injecting an urgent rhythmic pulse. In their production work for the Rapture and Radio 4 and their remixes for Le Tigre and Fischerspooner (among many others), Murphy and DFA partner Tim Goldsworthy pulled ideas from disco and Krautrock and acid house, generating results that often bore little resemblance to guitar-based rock. DFA went on to become a record label, but more than that, it became a lasting signifier for the so-called dance-punk wave that, for a year or two there, had half the indie-rock bands in the country trying to figure out how the whole disco hi-hat thing worked.

This surge of success came as an exhilarating surprise to Murphy, already well into his thirties by the time DFA took off. "I suddenly was cool," he remembers. "I suddenly was able to fly to the south of France and London and DJ. This was totally crazy. I was in my thirties. I'd been a completely failed teenager and twentysomething, deeply failed, deeply deeply failed. Like 'live with your rich girlfriend so you don't have to pay rent' failed, 'be homeless in your office on an inflatable bed' failed, like 'start going to therapy in your late twenties because you had high hopes for yourself and you realized that you were a complete, total, abject failure at everything' failed. Like proper failure: not just failure financially, but you're not doing what you set out to do, not making creative work. You don't have money and you don't have a job because you're a musician, but you're not making music. That kind of failed. And then all of a sudden to be thirtysomething and be flown to all these places to DJ like you're the next big thing, but you're way too old to believe any of this . . . "

Before LCD Soundsystem, Murphy had played in a number of bands. "I was in bands my whole life," he says. "I've been in bands since '82. I mean, I was in new-wave bands when new wave was a new wave. I was in hardcore bands and punk bands and indie-rock bands, and it just drove me crazy"—specifically, the tricky internal dynamics and mind games that came along with functioning as a democratic unit, having to argue or cajole to get his bandmates to do what he wanted. So Murphy spent a number of years as a drummer. "It seemed more reasonable and respectable to be a drummer; it's like being a rock plumber," he says. "And I just kind of hid from responsibility and tried to be more democratic. I made it so I didn't have to negotiate with anybody, and I was suddenly really pleased."

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