James Murphy on the long LCD comedown

More than a year on from LCD Soundsystem’s last ever gig, the electro heroes’ main man James Murphy is still twiddling the knobs on the film of their, and his, life. Is it time to roll credits at last? Matt Hill finds out…

[Originally published in INDUSTRIA Issue 4, September 2012]

“It’s the project that won’t die.”

James Murphy, NYC’s adoptive son, electro-pop hipster, DFA Records founder, former LCD Soundsystem head honcho, is chuckling to himself.

“IT. WON’T. DIE,” he intones in a purposefully slow, robotic drawl. The 42-year-old has been in the studio for weeks mixing the soundtrack to the album of his new film, Shut Up and Play the Hits, part introspective rockumentary, part dancing-in-the-aisles gig flick.

By directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, the film follows the 48 hours surrounding the cult New York band’s last ever show at their home-town Madison Square Garden. It was also supposed to mark the official full stop on the band’s 10-year career as self-confessed workaholic Murphy went in search of a normal, non-famous life.

Yet here is, still not letting the former day job go. Still tweaking and twiddling meticulously. Still ensuring the synth crescendo of ‘All My Friends’ peaks at just right the time. “I’ve already mixed this show four times,” he laughs. Murphy has another full day of knob turning planned, but first: a morning coffee with us…

How does it feel to be revisiting your “final” gig for the best part of a year?

I’m not even revisiting, it’s like I’m constantly visiting. I’m just living in that town. It’s a little annoying as in it’s something I know I have to get myself excited about. I’m like, “Look, you know you have to do a good job on this.”

Because I don’t really want to work on it any more, y’know? The movie’s out [it debuted at Sundance in February], I want to be moved on and doing other things, but I have to do this. The final mix for the film is probably my favourite, but now I’ve got to do it for the concert record, then hopefully that will be.

Does mixing for stereo differ drastically from the film process?

They have different requirements in my book. For film, I start by mixing with my ears and you have to kind of look at the screen and think, “Oh, it doesn’t sound right for that.” For some reason when I look at it I want it to sound differently – plus it’s in 5.1. But when I’m mixing a record I’m not looking at a screen at all, I’m just listening, I have to just make it sound like I want.

Do you tire of listening to yourself over and over again?

I’m used to producing myself. I’ve produced myself more than anybody else because it’s much easier – you get less personality clashes. Though you still get some.

Why did you make a concert film as a full stop to a primarily musical creation?

It was supposed to be a BBC, “behind the band”-style piece, I think – about the band, but also about me. It was like a programme that Will and Dylan were doing about people. We weren’t that excited about it, though, but we did get along, so we kept talking about doing a film together.

This was before I’d announced or even decided that the Madison Square Garden gig would be our last show. So when I told them it was, they were like, “Well, we’ll just make a film about that.” So it was really sloppy but organic…

Fluid.

Yeah, another way of saying “not really planned or professional”.

It seems pretty well organised to us, it has that Stop Making Sense-style grandeur. Do you typically like music films?

I guess. I mean, I like Stop Making Sense, but then I like Talking Heads. I’m terrible at thinking of my favourite things – usually I hang up the phone and go, “Oh shit, THAT.”

I liked The Fearless Freaks, which was about the Flaming Lips. I like the contexualising. You’re like, “Oh right, that’s where these guys come from, and that’s what they’re about.”

While it’s celebratory in parts, you certainly run the gamut of emotions in Shut Up and Play the Hits, what with it being an end to such a major part of your life. Are you able to watch it and enjoy it?

It’s difficult. I’d find it cathartic if I hadn’t worked on it so much. But every time I see it in the theatre, I’m oscillating between being embarrassed, because I hate seeing myself with loads of other people around, or worrying about the sound or projection.

“Does it look a bit dark? The subwoofer’s compressing, we need to go talk to the projector.” I’m just kind of in that world all that time. It’s not that much different watching the film than being in the band.

Around a third of the film is you conducting a very revealing interview with US music journalist Chuck Klosterman in which you restate that you don’t really like doing interviews. So why include it?

We had done an interview the year before and it was really good, so when we were talking about the film we were like, “Well, I don’t want to do a voiceover and I don’t want to do those interviews to camera, so why don’t we have an actual journalist do whatever interview they want? Why don’t we get Chuck?”

He had access for about four or five hours, it was an assignment, as if he was writing a book. I feel like it was stilted in a good way. Two awkward people trying to talk comfortably. It’s kind of funny. I consider myself a little awkward, I always have been, maybe a little less so now I get a little older. I am still… pretty… uncomfortable.

You say in the film the whole reason you ended the band was to try and have a break from the madness and not get too famous. How are those goals coming on?

As far as not being too famous, that’s totally worked. As far as having a break, no. I’m hoping that at the end of the film’s life I get a little bit of a vacation-type thing. I’m hoping to do something that doesn’t require me to get up at 7 o’clock in the morning to make coffee so that I can do interviews, so that it doesn’t conflict with a full, 14-hour studio day. That’s a goal. It’s a goal I’m pretty convinced about, actually.

That call for calm doesn’t seem to fit with your newfound film-industry status, having not one but two films at this year’s Sundance with The Comedy? 

Yes, I’m a movie star now [laughs]. It’s weird, Canon has got me to direct a short film, which I got really excited about as I get to learn about cameras and I get to do something that someone else is paying for, which never happens as I’m always paying for it.

[Apollo 13 director] Ron Howard was the key organiser the previous time they did it, so he’s the mentor. I guess I’ll have Ron Howard’s phone number, which will be weird. “HEY RON, HOW’S IT GOING?!”

So will it be directing over acting, do you think?

Acting doesn’t appeal to me particularly for lots and lots of reasons. The primary one is that I don’t feel I’m very good at it. It’s not something I even feel I could be good at. I’m not that connected to myself, I don’t have access to myself in that special, irrational way that actors do, and I say that with a lot of respect.

It’s also not that compelling – I like making things. I really loved doing The Comedy because I knew the directors. They said, “It’s a couple of days and you’re going to be the guy whose friends are kind of jerks, and you’re a jerk.” I was like, “What? That sounds awesome.” My main thing was that I was going to work on something for three or four days, and then A THING. WILL EXIST. Like a piece of work will exist.

Whereas my normal life is like, “I’m going to work on something for nine months, and then something is going to exist.” Which is heartbreaking, as I was like, “I can go and do this and walk away, and someone else finishes it?” That was actually pretty exciting.

Has that made you reassess what projects you take on?

Yes, I want different projects. I want projects that I can knock out in six months and be like, “Now I’m going to move on.” The problem with the band was that everything, even an album, was an 18-month project. That’s discounting the whole band itself, which was a 10-year project.

We hear you’re working on a novel.

Hmm, that’s an overstatement. I’m always working – the list of things I’m working on is grotesque – but I’m not active. You can’t say you’re working on a novel unless that’s what you’re doing.

I take notes and I write, and I have an overall arc of something I really want to make. I’ve written scenes and a lot of character drafts, but I don’t know that I can say that I’m working on a novel. I have a lot of friends that are writers and they’re like, “No, you’re not.”

After you’ve learned how to use film camera, perhaps it could become a script?

No, I already have a film script, which I’ve got pretty fully formed, but I don’t know how to write a screenplay, so I’ve got to learn to do that, too. I love learning things, that’s the beauty of it, that’s what’s exciting. Why wouldn’t that be awesome? Like, I’d love to learn to bake really good bread, that’d be great. I can’t imagine not being excited by something like that.

As you finish off the film, are all these projects bubbling away in your brain, jockeying for priority?

Yeah they are, and usually the thing that wins is the one that somebody else wants me to do, not the thing that I want to do. I never keep calling myself up, bugging me to do things, but everybody else does. I overcommit and I want to do things for people.

If my friend says, “Oh, would you like to produce my 12”?” I’m like, “Of course I’d like to do that.” But I never have time, so I’ll say yes, and then a bigger more important thing that I want to do for myself just falls by the wayside.

Like producing a record for some hot young thing, perhaps?

I don’t even know what people do now, to be honest. I’m writing, in the usual way I always do, but I’m not making music. When I do, I mix to tape and stuff, I’m a pretty big Luddite. I don’t know how people make records now. And by the sound of the records, I don’t want to know.

Shut Up and Play the Hits is on DVD and Blu-ray now. For the original article, with additional picture galleries and video content, download INDUSTRIA

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