New York City's James Murphy is the mastermind behind the popular and influential electro-punk band, LCD Soundsystem. Over the past two decades, Murphy's worked as an engineer, producer, and musician, both on his own projects and for many others, including scoring the 2010 Ben Stiller dramedy, Greenberg. He also co-founded the electronic label DFA Records and toured the world behind acclaimed LCD Soundsystem releases, including their eponymous 2005 debut and 2007's much-loved Sound of Silver. His latest and purportedly last release as LCD Soundsystem is a stunning one called This is Happening, and Exclaim! recently caught up with Murphy and band mate Nancy Whang to discuss the record and the end of the band.
My impression of This is Happening is that it represents a more disorienting perspective than something like, say Sound of Silver. Within that, it also seems particularly emotive, both within your voices and the things you're singing about. How would you describe your mindset over the course of writing This is Happening?
James Murphy: Well, it took three months in L.A. and then another three months in New York. So, varied? Very varied? I dunno, I had a pretty enjoyable time making the record actually. It was fun; we had a lot of fun. Depending upon the song; some songs weren't so fun but most of them were pretty fun.
Was there a particular mood or tone that you hoped to capture?
Uh uh, not at all; I never think about that stuff. I mean, I wanted it to be a little more melodic; I wanted to sing a little bit more, and not be quite so Spartan in production. But I think about things in those terms, not like capturing a Dark Side of the Moon-vibe or whatever.
Yeah, there is a tendency for people to apply concepts to records they hear if they become apparent.
I think people should learn to record things before they apply concepts. Judging by what I usually hear, they don't do it in that order.
I can see that. What would you say to someone who views this as a darker record?
I have a hard time knowing how that stuff works. It usually takes me a year after a record's out to have some sort of grip on what it is. I think a record is a communication device and it takes a year for me to see how it exists in the world and that's sort of what it is. It's some combination of what was originally intended and the life it took on its own. And so far, I don't remember what everything was originally intended as, because I was wrapped up in working and it hasn't had a life of its own.
You're still processing.
I'm still processing.
Nancy, what's your perspective on the record?
Well, I guess I have a little bit of a different perspective because I've been more outside of it than James has. I don't think it's particularly dark actually; I find it to be very sunny. Maybe that's just because I know it was recorded in L.A. but I don't think so. I'm sure there are some more grave elements to it. Maybe that's not the right word. I mean, it's not all like, sunshine and lollipops but...
Murphy: It's mostly sunshine and lollipops.
Whang: It's not so much lollipops...
Murphy: Puppies and rainbows?
Is it 80 percent lollipops and 10 percent something else?
Whang: Maybe....puppy dog tails?
Murphy: Six puppies, one rainbow, a lollipop, and a grave.
Okay, that's all in the record? That's quite a stew you've brewed up there. Musically, there's a real emphasis on dynamics and meshing different sounds within these songs, which, again lends the album a rather off-kilter energy. There's ambience and hard beats but they melt into each other a lot. It's kinda euphoric and super real all at once; how do you suppose the music on This is Happening complements what you're saying as vocalists?
Murphy: I dunno, I mean, usually the music starts first. It's musical energy, for lack of a better term, first, and then you just hope the lyrics don't get in the way more than anything, or the vocal performances don't ruin it, or that they line up. I like things to be a little bit wrong, so some things will just be too loud or too quiet, which I really like. So, it's maybe more unbalanced sonically. It's interesting what impression that leaves, because I think there are definitely darker songs on Sound of Silver but it's much less unbalanced. So, maybe it's more the sound palette that people find lends an emotional thing that sounds darker than the actual lyrical content or anything.
Are you saying anything in particular about club culture on this record?
I don't think so. Um...I'm trying to think (pauses). No. Not much at all, other than it's fun to... go... dancing.
There is a lot of stuff about dancing and motifs that represent what club culture can be. Or maybe, night life is a better way of describing it. Are you critiquing night life?
Not so much. I mean, I don't think so. Like "Dance Yrself Clean" seems like it's just like, go out and dance and be fun. And "Drunk Girls"? Nah, that's just supposed to be dumb. Dumb and happy and observational. A lot of times I just like to put down what I would think would be specific or pictorial observations, rather than making a statement about something. If I'm gonna make a statement about something, I usually try and make that pretty clear. But usually it's just observational stuff from a perspective, more so than like, "Damn this..." Except for things like "Yeah" or "Beat Connection," which were very clear, statement-y type songs.
You don't feel there's as many statement songs on this record.
I have a hard time remembering what the songs are about when I'm not listening to them.
You're still processing.
I'm still processing in a deep and meaningful way.
Okay, that's fair. There's been much made about how This is Happening might mark the end of LCD Soundsystem as a band. Is this actually true?
Well, it marks the end of an era of what the band is. It's three albums that are professional rock band albums where you go on tour and you make singles and videos and stuff. I think it's a nice trilogy and I think that's the end of that because it's a full-time job in which you can't do anything else. I'm 40 and these guys have things they gotta do and people have kids. It's the most fun job with the best people but, as awesome as it is, it doesn't seem to be worth doing at the exclusion of everything else. So, it might as well go back to it being a fun thing that we can do different things with.
So, it's not simply a moniker change or something?
No, I mean that would just be a surface change; that would be meaningless. Then I'd just start another stupid band with another name. There's no reason to do that. It just means I don't wanna be a professional musician anymore.
Whang: At least not that style of professional musician.
Murphy: Yeah, like make a record, go on tour, do interviews, make videos. I wanna just go back and produce other people again, keep running DFA, work with my friends, make singles ― things like that.
Okay, well do you have any plans to score more films? How was your experience scoring Greenberg?
It was great but that's because I got along with Noah [Baumbach], the director, really well. I normally don't think I'd score films. That industry is really kinda horrifying. So unless I could deal with a director one-on-one, as if they were just my friend, I wouldn't probably touch it with a ten foot pole. They're kind of a bunch of morons. They hate music! (laughs)
Do they really hate music?
They don't care. They're all so afraid. The movie business is just a lot of people trying not to be the one who messed up, which is the worst group of people to be around. I mean I met some amazing people who work in there but there's just tons of people who are just like, business affair, nightmare nonsense. Like trying to ask me how many songs are gonna be on the soundtrack before the movie's been shot. "You're gonna have three songs and five interstitial pieces." I'm like, "It hasn't even been film rolled! Get out of my face!"
So you're not heading back any time soon?
I'm not rushing back to Hollywood. But I had an amazing time because I just dealt one-on-one with the director because I wouldn't talk to them.