James Murphy interview
Oliver Keens talks retirement, vinyl and coffee with the man behind LCD Soundsystem
It wasn't until he'd entered his thirties that music fan James Murphy started his band, LCD Soundsystem, and became a hero for a generation. Now he's ended the project before it went stale. A new documentary about his group's teary finale at Madison Square Gardens – called 'Shut Up And Play The Hits' – is released on DVD on Oct 8. With LCD out of his life, Murphy is supposed to be relaxing. Yet, as Oliver Keens finds out, a fierce love of coffee and an unrelenting passion for music makes it impossible for him to relax...
Firstly, you have a place in London – what do you get out of it?
'I love it. I've always liked it. Like any city, the only way to really like it is also to dislike things about it. Once you start pissing and bitching about things then you know you know a city.'
What drives you to despair exactly?
'I love the buses and stuff. I don't like that the tube shuts at night, so it's a little kooky. But overall I really like the food. I also like it now the coffee's really good here. I credit it to the death of the pub, because pubs always had Australians and New Zealanders working in them, but when they all got laid off, it was like, "Well, what do we do?" and Australia and New Zealand make, I'll argue, the best coffee in the world. And since London had shit coffee, and knew it, it worked.'
Where do you rate for coffee in London?
'‘I really like Giddy Up in east London, Flat White in Soho; there's Workshop [on Clerkenwell Road] which used to be St Ali; Allpress on Redchurch Street is good; I love Monmouth in Covent Garden too. I live right near Giddy Up so I just go there. They get their beans from a bunch of different places. I really like Present, a men's shop [in Shoreditch] that serves coffee in the front. It's really, really good. It's set up by Gwilym Davies, who was a Barista World Champion in 2009, so he's quite on it.'
How does one become a Barista World Champion?
'Well you compete, first and foremost...'
Like the DMCs for DJs?
'It's sort of like that, yes.'
Speaking of DJing, you tend to play whenever you’re in town. What do you look for in a venue?
'First and foremost is somewhere not filled with assholes, but a very close second to that is sound. Unfortunately the places that have the money to spend on sound are usually filled with assholes. The real problem I'm having is getting DJ booths that can actually handle vinyl. They all feed back. They're all built for CDs and scratch controllers and
Would you ever consider going digital?
'I don't think I'm morally superior playing vinyl. I just happen to think it sounds better. I also happen to have records. For my life, as a guy who has thousands of records, the record store I go to the most to find new records is my house. I've got records, I've got needles, it's part of my life. I can't really get high-horsey about it.'
Do you enjoy it?
'I love it. I love it when it works. I'm at an age where I don't feel that I don’t need to compete with the DJ before me anymore.'
It seems around the period of 'Losing My Edge' there must have been a competitive element to you?
'Oh my god, yeah.'
You don't really come across like that.
' ‘Oh I am. I'm really competitive. One of my favourite tours ever was with Arcade Fire because I really like those guys, and I know them, and they're really competitive too. So it was like a fucking basketball game every night. Seriously. We weren't just trying to win, we were trying to dunk on each other. And I think both bands played some of the best shows they've ever played just out of an unwillingness to lose that night. It was great to open too, 'cause we were the underdogs and we totally got to dig in and go for the jugular as much as possible.'
It’s great to see Arcade Fire feature in the 'Shut Up And Play The Hits' (as backing vocalists on 'North American Scum'). It must have been sweet of them to have come all that way for that one appearance?
' ‘Yeah they flew themselves there. As much as I would regret not doing things like that later, I probably wouldn't have done it myself, because when you're a touring musician you're just fucking tired and anything that's between you and getting home is just a no-fly zone. If someone was like, "John Bonham's back from the dead and they're gonna play a Led Zeppelin show", I'd be like, "I know, but I just wanna go home and have dinner." I was stunned that they came.'
Is it strange to have reached that status now of having a film made about your musical career?
'I mean, to be fair, I'm part of making it, so it's cheap to say, "Look, I'm one of those people that gets a movie made about them." I'm also one of the producers.'
There's a bit in it when you're sitting in the storage room with all your equipment and you're sitting in a director's chair…
'Yeah, we made those for the tour.'
The imagery of that is quite stark. It does subtly remind the viewer that you were involved in this project. You cry just afterward, when you see all of LCD's touring gear boxed up in storage. Just how awkward was that?
'‘The whole thing is weird. But I got over that part being in the editing room. I don't think I could have seen the movie if I'd had to watch it for the first time in an audience.'
You remastered the performance. Is there something a bit strange about remixing something that purports to be a 'live' document?
'Well, "remixing" is a funny term for me. We've done it before – when we played radio shows for example, I'd get the tapes and mix them. We'd play TV shows and very often we'd have it in the deal that we'd do the soundcheck and I'd get to go downstairs and mix the soundcheck, and that'll be the setting for the show.'
On Todd Terje's 'Let's Nerd' blog, he asked how you got that distinctive LCD Soundsystem drum sound. And you gave him every single clue, every single secret. Is that something you're cool with now?
'I've always been cool with it. I've never guarded a technique in my life. I want music to sound better. I think I'm good at making it, so I would like other people to know how it's done. If there's some kid that can use that information and a light bulb goes off in their head, that's great.'
But isn’t there a danger that everything could end up sounding the same?
'I don't think we're having that problem – I think the problem we're having is all drums sound like Daft Punk. I love them, but if another producer tries to make their drums sound like Daft Punk drums then put a pop/R&B thing on, I'm gonna fly to whatever city they're in and shoot them in the face.'
Going back to the movie, it was amazing to see your manager Keith in it yet we don't really know who he is. What’s his relationship with you exactly?
'He was my manager. He's retired now to paint in the country. In the DVD, we have a bonus feature called "Catching Up With Keith", where I go upstate and interview him. Keith's fucking incredible. It was just him and I, there was no-one else in the team for years. No assistants, secretaries or anything.’'
How did he come into your life?
'He was the first person who worked in the record industry that came to DFA's office, ever. And he was just this really cool guy. He painted the backdrop at the Isle of Wight Festival and did lights for psychedelic bands in the '60s and stuff. He's been around and he's been cool at every step of culture. When we put out the first singles he came over to see us and was just like, "Who are you guys? What the fuck are you doing?". He was just curious and the friendship made sense.'
You also talk in the film about wanting to end LCD mainly because of the grey hairs you were accumulating rapidly.
'But it wasn't just the grey hairs, it was the getting sick as well…'
Getting sick how?
'Well I had pneumonia, like, ten times and my voice went out. And eventually you realise it's not a very healthy life.'
You must be appreciating this self-imposed retirement in that case?
'I've been Djing so much I haven't really been able to take a break. This movie took up a lot of my free time also, so what normally would have been three weeks off has been taken up with work. Like here I am doing interviews again…'