LCD Soundsystem Finding My Religion
Published Aug 22, 2017James Murphy is happy.
Seated on a large, comfortable couch in a Brooklyn hotel room, the LCD Soundsystem frontman is open, talkative and polite; bright sunlight pours through the room's floor-to-ceiling windows, so he puts sunglasses on, but he takes them off periodically to make eye contact. His shoes come off too; before long, Murphy is comfortably cross-legged, socks only.
"We're back," he asserts, "and I feel really good about it."
On September 1, LCD Soundsystem will release their hugely anticipated fourth album, American Dream, seven years after their last and six since Murphy walked away at the height of the band's powers. It was supposed to be forever: "we are retiring from the game," he wrote in a 2011 letter to fans; "gettin' out. movin' on." He never wanted to be a professional musician, and the DIY dance-rock project he started as a creative outlet had begun to feel like a full-time job.
"I like making music a lot, I like playing shows — there are elements of being a professional musician that I like, but I'm not fond of what it does to you. Really professional bands start delegating: somebody writes your Facebook posts, somebody makes your plans — suddenly you have a backstage meet and greet. It's no longer the Beatles making Help!; they were like, 'Hey, let's make a movie!' There wasn't a day that got scheduled and they showed up and somebody shot a video. They had time."
By the time LCD Soundsystem had become "sort of accidentally, what we did to make a living," Murphy had run short on that precious commodity. His love for music never wavered — songs about music comprise nearly half of LCD's discography, and in this interview alone, Murphy mentions David Bowie, Suicide, Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, the B-52s, Black Flag and Talking Heads — but the more it became a career, the less passionate he felt.
"The more professional side these days means you're never delivering what people want or expect. By the time you do 60 percent of what you're supposed to do, you're used up, and you have no time to be creative. That wore me out a lot."
So he quit.
For the next few years Murphy kept busy producing for artists like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arcade Fire. He wrote his second film score, made a signature coffee and opened a wine bar, and, in mid-2015, he and his wife welcomed their first child. Secretly, though, he also entered one of the most fertile creative periods of his life. Murphy was writing songs again — not for a film, not for others and not for money. Ideas were pouring out of him.
"I literally was just making songs up, having fun and being happy coming up with ideas and not thinking about them in terms of, 'Oh shit, I have to make an album.'"
By early 2015, he'd amassed what, in a letter to fans a year later, he'd call "more songs than I'd ever had in my life. Just loads of them, and I found myself a little perplexed. If I record them, what do I do with them?"
Faced with the prospect of releasing a new LCD Soundsystem record, some kind of solo project or, worse, not releasing them at all, the choice seemed clear: He had to reunite the band.
Returning, Murphy knew, would be no small feat. LCD Soundsystem's DIY approach and minimalist sound — a synthesis of '70s post-punk, '80s dark synth-pop and ironic, detached '90s cool — won the band legions of fans; their trilogy of studio albums, 2005's LCD Soundsystem, 2007's Sound of Silver and 2010's This Is Happening, didn't just reflect the changing perceptions of genre and musical taste in the 2000s, but stand as some of the most beloved albums of the era.
Not to mention that Murphy had ended the band with such finality — via a sold-out, three-hour, career-encompassing show at Madison Square Garden later released as vinyl box set The Long Goodbye, and which served as the centrepiece of a 2012 doc about the band's demise — that many diehard fans even felt betrayed by their return.
American Dream comes with the unenviable task of living up not just to LCD's previous masterworks, but to a legendary decade as arguably one of the best bands of the new century. It had to be — has to be — worth the wait. But where expectation used to cause Murphy anxiety, now, a month before its release, he seems simultaneously excited and unruffled. After a decade of fronting one of the most successful bands of his time, Murphy has finally realized that he is what the world always thought of him as, even if he didn't: A musician.
It didn't start that way. Despite being an expert curator, producer and DJ who had just co-founded record label Death From Above with Tim Goldsworthy and Jonathan Galkin, in 2002, Murphy was hesitant about starting a band. He never considered himself a traditional musician.
"Making music at all and singing was so shocking to me when I started LCD," he admits now. "The whole endeavour was so embarrassing and naked. You have to understand: 'Losing My Edge' was the first song I turned in, and everybody hated it. Everybody at the label hated it. When I left the room, they were like, 'What are we going to do? We can't put this out!'"
Released as a 12-inch at Murphy's insistence, the eight-minute "Losing My Edge" found him admitting, at 32 years old, that he'd never again be as cool as he once was. "But I was there," he intoned in boastful consolation, "at the first Can show," "in the Paradise Garage DJ booth with Larry Levan" and "playing Daft Punk to the rock kids" for the first time.
The song brought LCD Soundsystem to the attention of fans and critics, but for Murphy, it established the self-assuredness versus self-doubt push-and-pull that would characterize his next decade-and-a-half. Outwardly, the band were seemingly impervious to missteps — from their debut onward, each new record added a formidable new element to LCD's dance-punk sound, and reflected the curatorial finesse that Murphy bragged about on his first single — but inwardly, he suffered intense anxiety over every step the band took.
"Anxiety and depression are things I was born with that I've just been able to chip away at. As I get older, I have better tools to help me be less anxious. The first record was really easy, because I was just like, 'I have nothing to lose,' but as soon as I had something to lose — that second record, Sound of Silver, was like… soul-destroying. You know when you need to sleep, [but] then you start panicking because it's 3 a.m. and you haven't fallen asleep yet, and that keeps you wide awake? That was me making Sound of Silver. I was like, 'I've already paid for this studio week, and I've done nothing, and I can't think, and why am I doing this?!' It was really brutal. This Is Happening was less brutal, but I had some brutal moments; there was a week where I was like, 'Uggghhh.'"
By the release of their third record, Murphy had already begun contemplating the band's end. In 2010, he told Exclaim! that if This Is Happening wasn't the band's last record, it was, at least, "the end of an era of what the band is. 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."
Time away was crucial for Murphy, but it ended up being good for the band, too. When Murphy approached them about LCD's return, they were refreshed and enthusiastic.
"It was hard stopping," he says now, "but I feel like having everybody want to come back was really healthy, as opposed to people being like, 'We're still doing this? We're going to tour again?' Everyone got to make a purely no-pressure, positive choice, which is really special."
It was precisely the pursuit of other interests that prompted the epiphany that led to his return.
"I learned something important, which is that I'm a musician. I can do a lot of other things that are interesting to me, but there's nothing that I understand as deeply as I do music. That's what I most naturally am. It was good taking time off and having that realization."
The sessions for American Dream were, according to Murphy, the happiest he's ever been making an LCD Soundsystem album; age and experience helped stave off the anxiety that had plagued him.
"I had a couple of bad days where a thing that I liked suddenly sounded terrible, but just knew, like, 'I'm listening to something I know I liked, and it sounds bad to me now. I'll come back tomorrow, and it will either be really bad and I'll move on, or it won't be and I'll keep working on it. It's fine.' I never really got into a panic state, which is interesting, because it allowed me to make a darker record. Because I wasn't being stopped, I was able to hang onto that stuff — to hold my breath longer, if that makes any sense."
Darkness is a through-line on the record: Opener "Oh Baby" is a minimalist dirge with a slow doo-wop melody whose tension never quite breaks; "I Used To" is a mass of guitar squalls and distorted vocals; and the title track channels Lou Reed and the darkness of Suicide's Alan Vega through a gloomy, wall-of-sound waltz. Even the pulsing, wah-inflected "Tonite," ostensibly about seizing the day, obsesses over death and questions linear progress narratives as it lyrically references "versions of selves that we thought were the best ones."
The record's nine-minute centrepiece, "How Do You Sleep?," is a two-part epic that begins with ominous, pounding toms and ends in a patchwork of tangled synth blasts. "[Guitarist] Al [Doyle] said to me, he's like, 'It's like "Dance Yrself Clean" for the worst year ever,'" relays Murphy. "There's lots of dark shit in 'Dance Yrself Clean,' but it's easy to feel uplifted, whereas 'How Do You Sleep?' is just fucking relentless."
Like all of LCD Soundsystem's albums, American Dream feels like a natural evolution from the last. It takes a look back — to doo-wop, moody post-punk, even drone — while striding forward, making it feel both classic and futuristic. It's also unmistakeably LCD: They've established such an inimitable sound that it's instantly recognizable from the opening synth burble of "Oh Baby."
"Coming back," Murphy says, "I knew that I just had to do the best record I could — and that was it. It was like, 'I know I know how to do this. If I work and I focus, and I don't compromise and I don't give up, it'll be a good record by my standards. I'm not so singular of a person that what I like will connect with nobody because I'm so unique.' I'm pretty un-unique, so I figure if I like it, other people will like it."
Now refreshed both mentally and creatively, Murphy says American Dream isn't an addendum, but a new chapter for the band. He's embracing being a musician, and he's looking forward eagerly, not anxiously.
"Now, it's just the beginning. I have so much music, more music than I put on the record. I have to be really cautious, because I want to do everything, and I tend to say yes to everything because I'm excited. But I want to make sure I don't tour so much that it takes me two-and-a-half years to get back in the studio. I kind of want to be already working on another record."