Get in the Ring
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."
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.
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"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 singlethe 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."
But Murphy's success as a DJ and producer allowed him to structure a band completely around his own ideas. Murphy isn't just the frontman of LCD Soundsystemhe's the sole core member. Hot Chip multi-instrumentalist Al Doyle and !!! guitarist Tyler Pope are among his more prominent collaborators, but everyone's there to help Murphy realize his ideas. "Being a frontman is just a concept I don't really think about," he says. "There are these bands, like old big bands, where there'd be a bandleader, and he'd play one of the instruments, and he'd also probably introduce everybody and sing the little one line when not playing trumpet. And that's what I feel like. In a weird way, James Brown makes more sense to me, even though he was also a dynamic performer. But that role of the guy who's trying to get the band to be a piano or trying to get a band to do this weird thing that has nothing to do with playing it right or wrong, that has everything to do with playing it in this really specific way: That's kind of what I like."
Murphy insists he isn't a dictatorial leaderthings just run more smoothly his way. "I have really good people in the band, and they've been really generous to me to let me be kind of crazy. Like, 'No, you have to go a little ahead of the beat here, and it needs to feel neurotic. It needs to feel lighter, like a light robot, not like a heavy person.' I talk about all this esoteric shit, and they roll their eyes at me, but they've been really magnanimous and going with it."
The result is a touring band powerful enough that, after years of apparently cinematic failure, Murphy feels comfortable indulging in a bit of Ultimate Fighter bravado. " Nobody can play live like us," he insists disgustedly. "Nobody tries. And there are more talented people that should be better. That's what I take exception to. I think it's insulting. It's like coming into the ring out of shape. Don't fucking come into the ring out of shape; it's disrespectful. Don't come play a show with us and bring your B-game and phone it in and pose, pull a whole bunch of rock bullshit moves and emote and shit like that with us because I'll fucking punch you in the face. That's bullshit."
On LCD Soundsystem's early 12-inch singles, Murphy's excitability manifested itself as equal parts sardonic and ecstatic. In his sneery monotone, he took pointed but funny lyrical shots at his own audience and at himself (famously, for instance, ending "Losing My Edge" with a laundry list of hip musical influences) while canned, claustrophobic synths and drums piled up around him. Over the long running times of tracks like "Beat Connection" and "Yeah," though, those rigid percussive tics would open up and spread out, spilling gradually into euphoric dancefloor release. On the band's self-titled 2005 album (packaged with a bonus disc of those early singles), Murphy pushed those alternating tendencies further outward, sharpening his jittery thumps on some tracks and playing with warm, expansive, Eno-derived sonics on others.
Since LCD Soundsystem's release, Murphy has kept a frantic schedule. He's toured the world to promote the album in addition to maintaining a full slate of DJ and production work; DFA Records released two separate compilations of Murphy and Goldsworthy's remixes last year. But maybe Murphy's most ambitious project arose after Nike contacted him to create a long, continuous piece of workout music as part of their ongoing Original Run series. Murphy had already been toying with the idea of making a 45-minute track, but he was initially skeptical. "At first I was like, 'Well, I don't want to do it,' " he remembers. "And then I asked myself: Well, why don't I want to do it? And I realized that the reason my knee-jerk reaction was no was a pretty untenable position. It was that it's not cool. And I have a problem with cool as a means of measuring things."
The more Murphy considered the project, the more sense it made. "I wouldn't do it just for shits and giggles," he says. "I need a deadline, and this was a deadline. And [Nike] had rulesthey had things they wanted, which really made me happy. I think other artists might get bummed out about doing a seven-minute warm-up and a seven-minute cool-down, but I'm not that precious. I love having boundaries and rules like that. It gives you something to push against and push into. So it just seemed like a good thing to do."
Released in October, the result was the iTunes-only track 45:33, a layered but propulsive multi-movement work that cycles slowly through its own peaks and valleys, exploring different facets of disco without ever losing its central pulse. "I didn't think [Nike would] put it out because it was too gay and campy and weird for them," Murphy admits. "Not that it's left-field music; it's just disco. But a company like that is pretty brand-heavy. I thought maybe it wouldn't fit in with them. But they totally put it out. And I'm very, very proud of it; it's one of my favorite things that I've ever made."
One part of 45:33a light, twinkly, melodic interlude of synth plinks and whooshesfound its way onto Sound of Silver (LCD Soundsystem's proper sophomore album, out this week) after Murphy added a plaintive and melancholy vocal. "While I was working on it, I kept singing things on the subway home while I was listening on my iPod to check the mixes," he says. "And it started turning into a song."
That song, "Someone Great," is a clear highlight of Sound of Silver, an album that finds Murphy easing up slightly on his nervous, clenched groove and easing into prettier, more thoughtful territory. Though tracks like "Us vs. Them" build up frantically rhythmic beds, and the single "North American Scum" gleefully and sarcastically lampoons the guilt and confusion of Americans traveling in Europe, songs like "Someone Great" and the similarly gorgeous "All My Friends" show Murphy in a mellower place, developing new ways to let beauty coexist with his beats.
Murphy doesn't see this as a move toward tranquility. "I'm still making songs with the same sets of intents, with some minor adjustments," he says. "I'm not saying that it isn't different; it's just really weird how similar the two records are, in a way. I purposefully tried to make a record that was a companion to the first record."
But major differences exist. On Sound of Silver, for instance, Murphy is more willing than ever to delve into his love-hate relationship with the city where he's lived since 1989. "New York's the greatest if you get someone to pay the rent," he whoops on "North American Scum." And the downcast, album-closing piano ballad "New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down" takes a conflicted view of the city's gentrification: "New York, you're safer, but you're wasting my time/Our records all show you were filthy but fine."
"New York's the place where weird people have some actual power, and that's why I love it," Murphy muses. "You can bitch and piss and moan, but you're never going to hear 'Love it or leave it' here, because being patriotic doesn't mean being retarded. It's just an irrelevance. I love New York. I super love New York. It is expensive, and it is retarded and filled with assholes; I just wouldn't live anywhere else. I don't see the need to make New York seem like it doesn't have things that make me want to shoot myself in the fucking face as a way of explaining that I love it. I don't see the point. I love it. It's my home."
For the rest of the year, though, Murphy won't get to spend much time here. Instead, he'll be touring the world promoting Sound of Silver, threatening to punch unworthy adversaries in the face. He sees a lack of competitiveness in the indie-rock world, and he isn't happy about it. "I feel like all bands could be better if the sense of competition was stronger. Imagine if they saw the Jesus Lizard as many times as I did. What if you were playing with the Jesus Lizard? That band was fucking good live! If you don't like that macho '90s Chicago rock style, fine, but a band like that live, you really had to look in the mirror backstage. You really had to ask yourself if you were willing to go where [penis-waving Lizard frontman] David Yow was willing to go."
But the Jesus Lizard broke up nearly a decade ago; it's safe to say that few of Murphy's tour-circuit peers are old enough to have ever seen the band at their peak. Murphy has been a musician for decades, and he's still just getting used to the idea of his success coming so late. "I should not be in a band," he says. "I should not be on tour. I should be laughable. I'm 37 years old. I'm 220 pounds. I'm a producer. I've got about as much likelihood of being a fucking frontman as Christopher Cross, for fuck's sake. I should have my ass wiped off the stage every night." But that's not happening. And if Murphy's as competitive about Ultimate Fighting as he is about music, maybe the idea of a middle-aged dance-music producer entering the octagon won't be so funny after all.
LCD Soundsystem play Bowery Ballroom March 3031, sold out as fuck, boweryballroom.com.
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