LCD Soundsystem: Dancing with Discontent
James Murphy is moved to tears as he gazes across a room full of packed down equipment.
After LCD Soundsystem’s supposed farewell gig at Madison Square Garden, Murphy is contemplating exactly what he’s giving up, and his emotions finally get the better of him.
This moment in Shut Up and Play the Hits – the 2012 film which charted the band’s finale at the peak of their success – is interesting to revisit today. Murphy’s acute self-consciousness dominates the narrative – the film hones in on his demons, rather than presenting a solid reason behind dismantling the era-defining band in their prime. Indeed, across the film there’s a sense that a band who put such incredible effort into orchestrating their break-up probably had deep-seated reservations about breaking up in the first place.
In January 2016, LCD Soundsystem announced they would be performing at Coachella, which was followed by a world tour. Now, there’s a new album – American Dream. There are very few artists in music whose world is painted so vividly through their lyricism, and LCD Soundsystem’s new material has not deviated from this form. Nor has James Murphy’s ability to communicate.
“I’ve always had a good relationship with the press,” Murphy muses as we sip away on a summer afternoon in a slick East London bar. This press cycle is no different, it seems. The night previous to our interview, I join Murphy’s friends alongside members of other cultural publications for the listening party of American Dream. Before the music starts, sushi is served to the small crowd which includes musical luminaries Win Butler and Jarvis Cocker. Murphy insists that this is a gathering of friends rather than a session of chin-stroking. As he symbolically sets the album free, drinks flow and the air is celebratory. The process of presenting the new record seems casual, but the decision to actually start working on it was wrought with conflict.
“When I was working on Blackstar [Murphy played percussion on David Bowie’s final album], I was talking to David Bowie, which is a luxurious thing to say. I said to him, ‘I’m really freaked out as I’ve started writing music, what am I going to do? What if I come back after we quit so perfectly?’” Murphy’s voice quietens. “David said to me, ‘does it make you feel uncomfortable to come back?’ I said ‘yes.’ He said ‘good, you should be uncomfortable to do something. You need to be uncomfortable.’ It was a funny thing to hear from him, because I always assumed he was comfortable all the time.”
Conflicted, Murphy told band members Pat Mahoney and Nancy Whang that he was making music again. “They were like, ‘look man, this is LCD. Let’s do it.’ So my wife thought it was a good idea, Pat and Nancy think it’s a good idea and David Bowie thinks it’s a good idea, so I really don’t care what anyone else thinks!”
American Dream was recorded over a two-year period starting May 2015. The album feeds into multiple narratives, many of which tap into Murphy’s obsession with self-examination. The azure sunshine of the album’s artwork (reminiscent of the artwork of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, a text lauded by Murphy) plays with an idea of optimism and a brighter future for us all. However, the real mood is turbulent.
Murphy’s tense internal conflict feeds into everything from the band’s return to America’s political nightmare. The opening line, “oh baby, oh baby you had a bad dream here in my arms”, encourages us to take the journey, to be carried along in the dream, or, as we realise, the nightmare. Other Voices is a potent insight into a mind overloaded with distress. As Nancy Whang’s spoken word verse spells out for us: “Who can you trust and who are your friends? Who is impossible and who is the enemy?”
But it’s the title track that exposes the full meltdown. Murphy muses, “You took acid and looked in the mirror/ watched the beard crawl around your face/ oh the revolution was here/ that would
set you free from these bourgeoisie/ in the morning everything’s clearer/ when the sunlight exposes your age.” This is Murphy confronting himself in a post-Obama comedown of titanic proportion.
And then there is How Do You Sleep – arguably the most menacing piece of music LCD Soundsystem have ever released. It’s the sound of Murphy wailing out, bemoaning loss, bemoaning greed and bemoaning better times. As Murphy tells me, Al Doyle described it as “Dance Yrself Clean for the worst year ever.”
“Calling anything American Dream right now seems insane which I really love,” Murphy says before revealing a flip-side to the title’s irony. “It’s not purely ironic. I mean if I have to review myself, my father was quite a humble working class Irish guy from Boston. Pretty quickly it went from my family being very far from any artistic or cultured place, to me being a well-read, 47-year-old who travels the world and makes music. I do believe it’s a kind of an exceptional American dream.”
The genesis of James Murphy’s dream began very close to our interview location in 2002, when LCD Soundsystem performed their first gig at the hipster paradise Trash, Erol Alkan’s weekly event at The End nightclub in London. The band melded disco, punk and witty social commentary, channelling everything from ESG and Liquid Liquid’s dance punk blueprint to the The Fall at their most physical. By the time their self-titled debut album had been released in 2005, LCD Soundsystem had encouraged a generation of tight-jeaned indie kids to step inside nightclubs – a real progression after a stale era for dancing. But with Murphy’s impending middle-age on full display, it was his honest awareness of subculture and inert self-analysis that really turned heads. “I’m losing my edge/ To all the kids in Tokyo and Berlin/ I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered 80s,” he sang on LCD Soundsystem’s 2002 debut single.
Murphy kept the writing and construction of the songs as his personal project but pooled a union of session musicians and live performers, many of whom have remained integral family members, including the metronomic drumming of Pat Mahoney (formerly of Les Savy Fav), Nancy Whang of the Juan Mclean who provides synths and keys, and Al Doyle of Hot Chip. Doyle was a fringe member to begin with, soon graduating to full-time and, eventually, a pivotal production figure on the new album.
Murphy had achieved his goal of recognition among the trendy elites on their first record, but their stunning second album Sound Of Silver took them into new territory. Melding dancefloor fuel with a maturity of songwriting, as well as leaving a trail of hits (Someone Great, All My Friends), it reached a whole new audience and took the scope of the band further from the nightclub. Even after the trick was repeated on third album This Is Happening, a record where Murphy viscerally addresses his new demagoguery, the band hadn’t scaled the heights of their friends and noughties contemporaries Arcade Fire. Despite their success, they still had an aura of underground credibility. Your dad wasn’t listening to LCD Soundsystem, but it was only a
matter of time. This didn’t rest easily with Murphy.
“I knew what was going to happen next with us. I knew we were poised to make a very big record, like we could make a mediocre record and people that already really liked us might not like us after, but it would definitely be our biggest record. I hated that feeling of being set up to win. I don’t know why, I just… something about it just felt too fucking empty.”
So they didn’t make that record. Instead, Murphy orchestrated one of the most iconic break-ups in recent music history. In the intervening period he produced his own coffee, opened a wine bar, created and toured a 360 degree sound system as Despacio, worked on David Bowie’s final album, produced Arcade Fire’s dancefloor-focused change of direction in Reflektor and fathered a child.
Murphy’s time away hasn’t tempered his ability to capture the zeitgeist through his music. If Losing My Edge was for the studious hipster, American Dream track Tonite could be perceived as a kind of sequel, taking aim at the nihilism of live-for-the-moment hedonism. “Right now, almost every song on the radio is a very cheap version of that,” he argues. “The attitude is ‘we’ve only got tonight, lets get shit- faced!’ The song’s not about: ‘we only have tonight maybe we should review the way we live our fucking lives’. Like maybe if we die today would we be proud of what we accomplished?”
Over the course of our conversation, Murphy riles against the pre-packaging of subculture and authenticity ever present today. “It’s part and parcel of the short-cuttings of and commodification of alt-culture,” he says. “So once it was like oh ‘You look a bit crazy’, now it’s like ‘Oh I’m just a type of guy. I could be in Lisbon or Los Angeles or London and I have this haircut and a beard and yeah I make pickles and I have all the Television albums?’ No. You’re just some fucking guy and you look exactly like everyone else that looks like you. People are no longer in a sub-culture where they’re slightly marginal and as a result the way they look, act, the music they listen to and what they do at night is a representation or a manifestation of their otherness, instead it’s like there is a way you can look, act, dance and dress to seem like something.”
Like people who present themselves as personal brands? “Oh my god that fucking word ‘brand’. People aren’t ‘brands’. ‘Brand’ is like a fucking sneaker company, the amount of artists who are like ‘Well my brand, the value of my brand is…’ And I’m like ‘you’re a fuck,’” he vents.
Murphy’s intense cynicism continues when discussing the current musical landscape. “I was talking to Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs about this book that came out called Meet Me In the Bathroom. It’s this really great chronicle of New York and that era – the decade of 2001 and 2011 kind of starting with 9/11 and ending with our Madison Square Garden concert. Nick and I were talking about it and we were like ‘Are we old and don’t know what’s going on?’ At the moment I don’t feel threatened. I like to feel threatened, like ‘Wow that’s is fucking amazing, I maybe hate this, I don’t know.’”
The sense that Murphy has no one left to idolise hangs over our conversation. Death and the passing of age are topics that continually rear their heads. He tells me about the passing of his parents in 2001, and expands on the subject with his trademark openness. “During the making of Sound Of Silver someone really close to me died, so that was like a note within the record [Someone Great]. Then making the third record, another person really close to me who played with us died and so it’s like a tone, a colour in the record, you can hear some of it on Home. Since the last record to now there’s been this fucking massive die-off of musicians I admire and people that I care about.” Bowie? I ask.
“Yeah he was a friend of mine. I worked with him, he was my email buddy and it was the craziest thing in the world, and Lou Reed died, Alan Vega died, I mean, like you know Prince died but Prince was actually more relevant to a lot of my childhood than almost anyone. The attachment I have to some of these people was massive, people I really care about that were…” He stops talking to analyse. “It’s just like… it’s just a lot of fucking death and it’s a hard thing to make music without feeling or thinking about them, but this time it was like, fuck.” He pauses again. “Leonard Cohen died too.”
“When I worked on the last song of the record [Black Screen, a 12 minute-long Lynchian ode to impermanence that could be written about Bowie] I said I wanted a spoken word bit done at the end. I said it would be amazing to have Lou Reed on the end of that song but he’d died. But then I said ‘I feel like I could talk to Leonard Cohen, let’s call Leonard Cohen and maybe he’ll do it’ and then he died like three days later and I’m like… ‘fuck off’. I’m not going to ask anybody else because they’re just going to die.”
The darkness present on American Dream is under-pinned with a sense of loss. Loss of friends, loss of political stability, but also to a certain extent the loss of LCD Soundsystem as an entity. For those who’d invested so much into the band, those who’d spent three hours with them at their 2011 finale at Madison Square Garden, those who’d gone through the tribulations of James Murphy’s mental state in the lead up to their final gig in the documentary Shut Up and Play The Hits, and for some of those who’d given in to the dismantling of one of the only truly era-defining bands in recent memory – five years just wasn’t long enough.
“I thought the backlash was appropriate and not that terrible,” he tells me. “I know what it meant for me as a young person and what the music I listened to meant to me. It was literally fucking life and death. It just meant so much to me that if I felt betrayed it really hurt,” he rails.
“If you look at the history of LCD and DFA and you think quitting my income-generating thing for myself and my best friends, and then no longer making any money, and then coming back was an economic decision that was in any way cynical, you don’t understand how things work, and secondly don’t like my band. If you think I’m capable of that as a person, I’d prefer that you just like somebody else.”
One of the final shots in Shut Up and Play the Hits is that of a fan utterly distraught. Not tears of joy, just painful sobbing at the thought that LCD Soundsystem had played their last note. It might be the eternal image of the film. For those who, like Murphy, shed a tear over the split, he has another response. “If you’re hurt and you feel betrayed then that’s different,” he tells me, catching his breath. “That means you expected me to care and what I did didn’t align with what you expected. And I feel like that deserves to be acknowledged and respected.”
Murphy’s agitation regarding the turmoil he’s caused his own fanbase rings true and honest. And from the friction of reforming, to the political situation in America, the passing of friends and his own personal demons, American Dream vibrates with anxiety. But what is most pertinent from our time together is that unease and discomfort are the conditions in which James Murphy’s artistry thrives.
For this, the current climate couldn’t be better.
American Dream is out now via DFA / Columbia
LCD Soundsystem appear at Warehouse Project, Manchester, 16 + 17 September