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Q&A: James Murphy on LCD Soundsystem's long goodbye

Q&A: James Murphy on LCD Soundsystem's long goodbye
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Having called time on LCD Soundsystem in 2011, main man James Murphy has been enjoying his retirement… as long as your definition of retirement includes producing Arcade Fire and Pulp, remixing David Bowie, building unique, vinyl-only Despacio Soundsystem with Soulwax, contributing music for films and Broadway plays, running the DFA label and a whole lot more. This month he finally puts a full stop on LCD Soundsystem releasing a live album version of the band’s final ever gig at Madison Square Garden – immortalised in the film/doc Shut Up And Play The Hits – called The Long Goodbye (out on vinyl for Record Store Day (19 April), with other formats following on 20 May), but he’s also launching his own blend of coffee and scheming to soundtrack the New York Subway (!). On a recent visit to London, Q joined Murphy for a Soho coffee (of course) to examine his take on twiddling your thumbs…

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How the devil are you?

I’m… well. I feel good. I feel a little wonky because I drank red wine and took a sleeping pill on the plane, so I’m a little wobbly but I’m ok. I feel sane, which is handy.

We’re in a coffee shop, so lets start with coffee. Brooklyn shop Blue Bottle are bringing out a James Murphy signature blend. How do you put together a coffee?

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time because I love coffee and I like learning. I like to be a novice. I’ve been learning for over 20 years but in the last few years, since my retirement, I’ve had time to really get into it. I read an interview with James Freeman, the owner of Blue Bottle, where he was similarly as strangely uncompromising as me. He refused to sell t-shirts in his shops because he doesn’t wear them, so he sells pajamas instead! They’re really nice and expensive and nobody buys of them of course and I thought: “This is my kind of guy!” So we met a couple of years ago and I’ve been working on my coffee.

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How did it turn out?

There’s a traditional Italian espresso which is quite dark. Being dark means it’s quite roasted which can mask not such great beans. There’s less pressure on the beans being perfect, and then you’re tasting a lot of char which is the process. There’s this new Nordic wave of coffee which is quite lightly roasted. There’s no margin for error, it’s like sushi. I like that attention to detail but I’m not necessarily that obsessed – I drink coffee with milk often, but heavier roasts can go sour with milk. So I wanted to make a really nice coffee that was a little bit more traditional but was also hyper-attentive. It’s a nerdy answer, but you asked! [laughs]

Is this all you’re going to drink from now on?

Well it’s in the DFA office, at the studio and in my house! It’s in a couple of shops and there’s a few restaurants that will take it. It’s just going to be a normal coffee they’re going to offer. It’s called House Of Good, which is theoretically the name of a store that should already have opened but construction in New York being what it is, will probably be another year.

You mentioned retirement. You’re releasing the final LCD Soundsystem show as a live album this month… er, the gig was on 2 April 2011

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Yeah a really long time… er, I’ve been busy! I know! The film took a year to complete. It’s been far more grueling than I ever expected. In my mind I thought we’d play the last show, a month of editing, cleaning up the audio and then I’m off! It turned out to be a year of editing, then doing the concert and mixing that, and then having to do a different vinyl mix because I didn’t think it worked for a record. I mixed it to tape rather than computer. To be fair that’s been done for a while, but then the artwork took a long time. Then figuring out which label it would go on because EMI and Parlophone got brought and sold and moved! It’s just been slow, man. I don’t know what to say.

Is it strange because the film felt like quite an emotional full stop to LCD Soundsystem, yet here you are still involved with it?

It’s not the only thing I did. I’ve been on it and off it. It felt strange at first but then it just became part of what I was doing. I got used to it. It’s weird talking about this now as I finished mixing it eight months ago. Things take time, so yeah, it’s strange, but…

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Blockquote open

“I don’t want to do anything because it’s a good career move, man.”

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Has it changed how you perceive that time now? It was quite a pivotal moment in your career…

I think it’s been nice. I get all the benefits of it going away without many of the losses. Loss of income for starters! It’s nice. It feels like I’m cleaning house. You know when you have all those pictures and you think “I want to put them in an album”, but you never do? Well it feels like that. I’m putting all the pictures I really like into my photo album. I don’t have it hanging over me unfinished.

Did mixing the album, The Long Goodbye, make you realise anything new about LCD?

It’s stripped to what I think we sound like in my head. The film is more an experience of us in a room, the album is how I hear us, if that makes any sense? Not that one’s better than the other. It’s me trying to make each song sound as good as it possibly can, given the fact it’s a live recording.

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So are you enjoying retirement? No regrets?

If I had a regret I’d just go “Hey guys let’s go play some shows”. I miss it at times, mostly when I see a band that’s doing well who I don’t think are very good, I think “Let’s go and kick these guys asses!” So I miss it a little bit, it would be insane for me not to miss it, but just because you miss something doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing that you don’t do it any more. You miss your parents when you move away, but get the hell out of there! [laughs]

How important do you think it is that your success came in your 30s rather than your 20s? Did it make it easier to walk away because you had some perspective on life beyond the group?

I definitely think so. I had a definition of myself before the band. I had this job once, I worked at computer company, and I’d never really had a job like that before. I’d wake up as late as I could, splash water in my face and jump on the Subway. When the work day was over I’d be a little aimless. I’d go get drinks with people I worked with, didn’t know what to do with myself when I got home. After a week of that I felt terrible, so I deliberately woke up at 5am and read. Then went to work and at lunch I read. At the end of the day I’d get the fuck out of there and go home and read because I realised: “Oh I’m a person who reads and I do this work to pay the bills”. Whereas before I was just a guy who worked because I didn’t do anything else. I think it’s the same thing with the band. Because there was a life before it I didn’t feel like I was a guy in a band. It was a project, it was a thing that I was doing and even though it was ten years, I’m 44, so what? When you’re 20 ten years is half your life. Ten years when you’re over 40 is only a quarter of your life. It’s half as important. Big deal!

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Do you think you were unlucky that LCD Soundsystem existed in an era where you had to be a live band to earn a living? It couldn’t just be a studio project.

Oh yeah. It used to be you have go play to sell records, now it’s you have go play to make a living. It’s too bad, because maybe I would have just kept making records, I still make music. I just don’t want to be on a treadmill. It’s funny, if we’d existed earlier a band who played Madison Square Garden would just be rolling in money from record sales. We’d be going “Which car should I drive into a wall today?!” Now you’re like, “an Uber is more expensive then a regular cab, but I can’t find one…” It’s a different rock star life!”

Blockquote open

“The LCD Soundsystem live album feels like cleaning house. You know when you have all those pictures and you think I want to put them in an album, but you never do? Well I’m putting all the pictures I really like into my photo album…”

- Blockquote close
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Talking of transport, you’ve launched an online petition to be allowed to soundtrack the New York Subway that will mean passengers will hear a unique series of notes for each station on the network. It feels like a 21st century public work. Rather than build a huge building you’re trying to change the fabric of the city?

That’s my goal. A lot of the approaches I got are people saying “Why don’t you do it at one station as art project?” I don’t want to make an art project, I’m not an artist in that way. I don’t want ‘James Murphy’s art sculpture’. I want a civic good. This would be civically good for the city that I live in and the thing I like the most about, the Subway. It’s my favourite thing about New York! That can only be done if it’s a thing that gets implemented and I’m forgotten about. It’s not mine, I just want it to fucking happen. I’ll be proud with myself every time I take the train – “that’s me!” – but it’s a civic good I would like to see happen.

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How is the online petition going?

Really well! We got thousands of names on the first day but I don’t know how effective that will be because so many of them won’t be from New York and I don’t know if the MTA will care: “Oh you got a whole bunch of names from Lisbon!” But we’ll see. I just want to gain enough momentum that someone will take a meeting. I don’t care how cynical that person is. I don’t care if they just want to do it so they can take credit and get elected as the Assistant Dignong To The Jerk. I don’t care, just fucking doing it. Going for people’s altruism is what I always try to do and they look at you going “I don’t see it”. You’re like “But it will be great! It won’t cost you any money! Just do it!” and they don’t get it. So instead I’m saying you can tell people it was your idea, I don’t fucking care! I feel like I have to go in laterally some how and hopefully somebody in a position who can get things to work a little bit will be excited enough to make a meeting for me.

Isn’t there a danger with each station have its own series of notes that passengers will keeping hearing at the turnstiles and on announcements that you’ll irritate the hell out of everyone using the subway?

You tune them out if you want. All it will be is if you’re reading, you hear it and think, “oh I’m home!” your brain won’t have to hear the words. Given the sounds in New York I think they’ll be the least irritating!

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You really have gone for a Jay Z-style retirement, you’re busier than when you were in the band. What’s next? You produced Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, more of that?

Not too much of that. I’m doing a couple of soundtracks for my friend Noah Baumbach, the director. It will be quite different to Greenberg, the movies are different so the music will be different. Doing stuff for him I try to carry in so little of myself. Not in a negative way, but it’s not my job. We’re friends, he’s making a movie and he needs music so I want to make the music that suits the film in his eyes. The Greenberg stuff was made to suit that film and this stuff is totally different. I’ve got more Despacio Soundsystem, some DJ gigs, building a couple of other weird little things that I’m not sure about yet. Yeah, there’s a lot of shit going on, it’s a funny retirement.

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“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time because I love coffee and I like learning…”

- Blockquote close
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Before you released This Is Happening you told me one of the reasons you wanted to retire is that you wanted to make a book. Any progress?

I’m working on it… I carry a notebook but I think there’s a difference between working on a book and writing a book! To do that I’ll have to stop doing everything for a period of time, which I’d love to do at some point but at the moment there’s too much going on. Also I can still be a young writer.

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Is there any scope for you to do a record with your own name on it at some point?

At the moment, no. There’s a desire to make music but I have no career desire really. I don’t have a need to be a pop singer or anything like that. I’ll make music but what I do with it, I don’t know. Which is kind of refreshing and kind of fun to not really know what I’m supposed to be doing. Probably at some point, but I don’t know, I’m still not doing that.

Looking at everything you are doing – and what you’ve done before, band, production, remixing – is there a philosophy that drives what you do or what you chose to get involved in?

Probably. I don’t know what it is. It’s like finding out what the rules for the English language are. You just know when it’s wrong. When stuff seems like fucking bullshit I don’t want to do it. If it’s unnecessary I won’t do it. I don’t want to do things just to be something. I don’t want to write a book so I can be a writer, I want to write a book because I feel there’s a couple things I want to write about. I think that’s primary thing: is it bullshit? If it’s not bullshit then is it necessary? I like doing things that feel a little bit missing, things I can be honest about and feel good about. That can be coffee! I like to do things I learn from, that’s fun. I did music for a play, Betrayal, I never done that before. Classical music. The cellist forced me to play piano on it. I’m not a pianist! He was a first chair cellist at the Metropolitan Opera for 14 years! He was a heavyweight, a serious cello player. I was working with him, plinking away because I’m writing so I said “let’s get a proper piano player” and he said “no it’s better if you do it”. That was terrifying to me. I had to perform with a guy where if I fucked it up we have to do it again! It was just two people in a room playing music and it was super enjoyable and super fun to do something like that. I’m open to do new stuff that’s exciting to me. At some point making a record and making that record public might be something that I find exciting. At the moment on the list it’s not the most exciting thing. I don’t want to do anything because it’s a good career move, man.

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[Pauses, thinks, grins]

It was funny after Betrayal, the concert film, Bowie mix, the Arcade Fire record, last year felt like a really big year. My manager joked to me and said: “If only you had a record out in the spring…” It would have been a killer set up! I could have done press at the end of the year, a single over Christmas, another one in February, Coachella… I did think: “Wow, that would have been a really good launch! I guess your right…” Meh! I fucked up worse things than that, that’s for sure! [laughs]

Paul Stokes@Stokesie

For more head to Lcdsoundsystem.com.


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