That's How it Starts: James Murphy's Journey from Producer to Artist

FilmInFocus' Scott Macaulay profiles James Murphy, the composer of the Greenberg soundtrack and the musical brains behind buzz band LCD Soundsystem.

The history of recorded music is the history of recorded sound. In the 20th century, with first rhythm and blues and then rock, dance, electronica, and today’s millions of musical micro-niches, the composition is only half the song. There are the notes and chords, and then there is the sound — the sound caused by the particularly human touch of a finger on a string, or a breath in a valve, but also by the particular twist of a high-pass filter or the precisely calibrated setting of a Pro-Tools effects board. And with all of these actions come meanings. Writes composer and musicologist David Toop in his Ocean of Sound, “The sound object, represented most dramatically by the romantic symphonies of the nineteenth century, has been fractured and remade into a shifting, open lattice on which new ideas can hang, or through which they can pass and interweave.”

Working mostly within the genres of contemporary dance music, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem makes music that is sublimely aware of the meanings that drip off the sounds of a simple pop song. Through a series of singles, albums and remixes, Murphy’s music wittily takes account the associations — personal, emotional, but also cultural and political — these sounds provoke for us. An LCD Soundsystem song can be both an infectious and sleazy piece of dance punk as well as a mysteriously knowing commentary on music-defined moments in our lives. Unified by Murphy’s witty and pleasantly sarcastic attitude, expressed through vocals that turn from world-weary to urgent on a dime, and finished by his unfailingly au courant touch as a producer, Murphy’s work with LCD Soundsystem has both moved young clubgoers on the dancefloor as well as iPod-plugged thirty- and forty-somethings who hear in it a history of their own aural lives.

Murphy was born in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, in 1970. He played in punk bands in his early-to-mid-‘20s, and in 1993, around the time he played in the groups Pony and Speed King, he built a studio. He also made a crucial move from in front of an audience to behind the boards, working as a sound engineer for the synth rock band Six Finger Satellite. As he told the New York Times in 2007, “It seems silly now, but bringing synthesizers onstage as an indie-rock band was absolutely sacrilegious then. People would either laugh at us or be in utter disbelief."

In 2001, Murphy along with partners Tim Goldsworthy, the U.K. producer, and Jonathan Galkin, a former child actor turned label manager, started the record label DFA (standing originally for “Death from Above”). They scored an early hit with Rapture’s “The House of Jealous Lovers,” a single that burst through boundaries separating opposing musical factions. Pitchfork’s Ryan Schreiber described the song’s importance like this: “Here were the dance and rock undergrounds finally uniting, indie rock cultivating a new loathing and defiance for tired hipster poses and demanding the chaos of which safety and careerism had stripped it.” After producing a single by the Juan Maclean, a band headed by Six Finger Satellite’s John Maclean, LCD Soundsystem (at this point, just Murphy) debuted with a 12”, “Losing My Edge,” a knowing ode to aging hipsterdom that wound up being the coolest song in the club. Over a hesitantly funky lo-fi beat, Murphy sighed, “I’m losing my edge… I’m losing my edge… the kids are coming up from behind. But I was there in 1968 at the first Can show in Cologne…” As the song goes on, additional synth lines appear, the song goes from a kind of fake funk to being genuinely funky, and Murphy’s boasts become a history of all that’s been important in rock and dance during the last 30 years. “But have you seen my records?” Murphy asks. “This Heat, Pere Ubu, Outsiders, Nation of Ulysses, Mars, The Trojans, The Black Dice, Todd Terry, the Germs, Section 25, Althea and Donna, Sexual Harrassment, a-ha, Pere Ubu, Dorothy Ashby, PiL, the Fania All-Stars, the Bar-Kays, the Human League, the Normal, Lou Reed, Scott Walker, Monks, Niagra, Joy Division, Lower 48, the Association, Sun Ra, Scientists, Royal Trux, 10cc, Eric B. and Rakim, Index, Basic Channel, Soulsonic Force (‘just hit me’!), Juan Atkins, David Axelrod, Electric Prunes, Gil! Scott! Heron!, the Slits, Faust, Mantronix, Pharaoh Sanders and the Fire Engines, the Swans, the Soft Cell, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics!” Other singles followed, including one, “Yeah,” which countered the verbosity of “Losing My Edge” by Murphy repeating the one-word title over and over again.

By the time of LCD Soundsystem’s first self-titled album in 2005, Murphy’s savvy, infectious grooves coupled with his pop cultural erudition became recognized as not just a batch of influences but as an aesthetic all its own. As Dominique Leone wrote in Pitchfork, “James Murphy makes great tracks. He isolates cowbells and places the microphone at just the right distance from the hi-hat so you get the analog-crisp sound post-punk bands took for granted because they didn't know how good they had it with engineers like Paul Hardiman and Rick Walton. Murphy, obsessed with Can and Liquid Liquid, has the right influences at the right time in the right city-- which is to say, if he couldn't be French, New York is the best place for LCD Soundsystem. Like Parisian duo Daft Punk (who get their second Murphy shout-out on this album), LCD makes substance from style, content from form, something from nothing."

That Daft Punk shout-out took the form of Murphy’s next major single, “Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” a raucous punk-funk stomper in which Murphy channeled the manic enthusiasm of a kid who had somehow managed to stage the world’s best house party. “Daft Punk is playing at my house — my house!” Murphy exclaimed at the song’s start. “I used to play house parties in punk rock bands,” Murphy said in an interview. “You don't really get paid, but what you do is sell a ton of merchandise, and get a place to sleep. When I got into dancing, taking E and being optimistic, I thought; wouldn't it be great if some kid wanted Daft Punk to play at his house? So he rings the agent who says they'll cost $40,000 and he saves for seven years and finally gets enough money and flies Daft Punk over. And, of course, they'd have no idea where they would be landing, 'cos the rider includes two first-class tickets on Air France. And the kids would be earnestly trying to meet all the rider requirements, but Daft Punk would still end up playing in the basement next to the washing machine, which we all did. A local hardcore band is supporting, and the PA consists of all the local kids' amps and stereos taped together. I thought that would be like the best show that anyone would ever see.”

LCD Soundsystem’s debut album was followed by 45:33, one long track commissioned by Nike and intended as workout music. Then, in 2007, LCD Soundsystem, which had expanded to include Pat Mahoney (drums), Nancy Whang (keyboards) and Tyler Pope (bass), released their second album, Sound of Silver. Murphy’s influences this time — Detroit house, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Soft Cell, Steve Reich, the Fall, among many others — were as cleverly inserted as always, but there was also on the album a new emotional depth. Yes, there was a follow-up to “Daft Punk,” a rude dance-floor hit titled “North American Scum,” but there were also songs like “All My Friends,” a nearly eight-minute song that begins with a minimalist piano figure, adds a dance-floor pulse, and then kicks into a nakedly emotional self-examination about growing old, keeping and losing friends, and not doing the same things later in life that you did earlier. “You spend the first five years trying to get with the plans and the next five years trying to be with your friends again,” Murphy sang. “… I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life.” The song ends with Murphy crying, “Where are your friends tonight? If I could see all my friends tonight, if I could see all my friends tonight…” It was this newfound emotion on Sound of Silver that resonated with Noah Baumbach, director of Greenberg. “James Murphy’s observations of New York City and about getting older felt to me like another version of Greenberg,” Baumbach says, “and I listened to it a lot while I was writing. I made a mental note at the time to look into this band when I start thinking about the score for the movie.”

2010 promises to be a busy year for Murphy and LCD Soundsystem. There is that score for Greenberg — Murphy’s first — as well as a new album and tour. In mid-January, LCD’s official Facebook page updated fans: “LCD Soundsystem is glad that the studio is getting better which is making the record better which is making the life better which is making us glad that the stu.....”