James Murphy’s Cerebral Cortex Cannot Handle a DFA Musical


As part of the ongoing series of events Red Bull Music Academy has been hosting across New York City for the past month or so, former LCD Soundsystem frontman and founder of DFA Records James Murphy held a conversation with the Music Academy’s Editor-In-Chief, Todd L. Burns. The interview took place at NYU’s Skirball Center and broadly covered DFA’s beginnings, Murphy’s activities now that LCD Soundsystem is never, ever getting back together (unless, he said last night, one of the members gets injured without health insurance and they have to tour to make money), and his thoughts on esoteric subjects like a performer’s relationship with his audience. Despite Burns’ underprepared, meandering questions and a seemingly endless Q&A session, Murphy’s stamina and onstage charisma throughout the two-plus-hours managed to salvage the lecture.

The evening started out with a 15-minute documentary, 12 Years of DFA: Too Old To Be New, Too New To Be Classic. Released by Red Bull Music Academy and narrated by comedian Marc Maron, the short film follows DFA (which stands for “Death From Above,” a reference to Murphy’s ribcage-crushing live sound engineering) Records’ rise from Plant Bar, the tiny East Village drinking establishment where Murphy DJ’d and the DFA family coalesced in 2001, through LCD Soundsystem’s existence to the present day. It features interviews with people like label affiliates YACHT, the Juan Maclean, Holy Ghost!, and Jonathan Galkin, DFA’s co-founder, current director of operations, and otherwise known as Jake Decker on Hey Dude! Colorful, precisely edited, and hilarious, 12 Years of DFA is a good primer for anyone unfamiliar with the “Department of Funny Americans” or “Dumb Fucking Assholes,” depending on which featured band interprets the acronym onscreen. The movie is also worth it for Murphy’s sound bites, which come from his interview on a cruise ship in Jamaica as he nurses a plate of cookies.

Following that, Burns introduced Murphy, who immediately lay down on the therapist’s couch in the middle of the stage’s elaborate living-room setup. It was nicely arranged if a bit contrived: a potted plant, equipment carrying cases in the background, and two cans of Red Bull where any other interview would have a pitcher of water. Burns lobbed mostly softballs, asking Murphy what he thought of the film (he liked it) and about Plant Bar, which was owned by DFA signee Shit Robot’s Marcus Lambkin. “It was illegal to dance, because that’s how we kept the people of New York safe,” Murphy said, referring to the fact that the club didn’t adhere to the city’s cabaret laws. “It was doomed, because it was so small that everyone there was a friend of the owner. And the friends of the owner just got pint-sized free drinks. They’d close the doors because the owners would be wasted.”

A lot of recurring topics emerged over the course of the evening, one of which was Murphy’s fascinatingly complex relationship with concert audiences, mostly hinging on his lack of respect for artists “feeling it” onstage. His list of rules for LCD Soundsystem’s performances included no sunglasses and no “rocking.” One of his favorite shows was author Sam Lipsyte’s band Dung Beetle, when a band member grabbed Murphy’s face, shoved him backwards out of the room, and screamed “Not tonight, fucko!” He also detailed his obsessive need to make things he sees better, using one example of American bathrooms: he plans on installing drains in his to catch overflowing toilet water, much like the Europeans. That attitude led him to start his own label to indulge his unfulfilled “ambitions for weirdness.” Eventually it brought him to the Rapture, whose performance he admired so much that their song House of Jealous Lovers was the first that DFA put out.

When Burns asked Murphy about his interest in coffee, however, the thread between interviewer and interviewee started to fray. “Nice bridge,” quipped Murphy, who had previously described a tableau of his parents drinking coffee at the kitchen table while he lay on the floor as a four-year-old, humming along to the refrigerator. Moving on to the sound system Murphy is currently building, which will be unveiled at a festival this summer in the UK (he was appropriately embarrassed about not being able to remember the name; “It just says Manchester in my calendar,” he said), Burns asked, “Are you excited about it?” “Yes, very excited,” Murphy answered. He remained self-contained as his interlocutor shifted uncomfortably in his chair for a beat or two of silence. “So what do you want to talk about?” Burns asked.

Fortunately, Murphy can pretty much carry an entire conversation by himself, even through a good half-hour of audience questions. It seemed like they went on longer than planned because Burns was not keeping time, but Murphy answered all except for one about a DFA-inspired musical that may or may not have already been written by the person asking the question. To that one, he responded, “My cerebral cortex is overwhelmed trying to imagine what that would even look like.”