Tuesday 23 January 2018

Release the pandas

Ed Power

Ed Power

If you're the guy who leaked LCD Soundsystem's new album all over the internet, you might want to look away now. "When I find the person who did it, I will literally hospitalise them," says frontman James Murphy, in a tone that makes it clear he isn't joking. "It's like you broke into my house, stole my diary and published it. It's not yours. I think it's really fucked up."

It's not about the money, Murphy insists, though the leak will surely eat into LCD Soundsystem's bottom line. He just doesn't appreciate someone purloining his art before he's ready to put it out there.

"I've made music my whole life for no money," he says. "People who are whining there's no money to be made in music can go fuck themselves. I don't care if people share the record. But to upload something that hasn't been released. Now that takes a special kind of arrogance."

The album in question is a glittering neo-disco epic entitled This Is Happening. Led by the bearish, permastubbled Murphy, LCD Soundsystem have been honing their melancholic electronica for nearly a decade now. This Is Happening is the point at which they approach true greatness (even if Murphy's idea of greatness owes a lot to David Bowie's late Berlin period).

Laced with a heady air of bittersweet, the record is also likely to be their last. Murphy plans on pulling the plug on LCD Soundsystem once the summer touring season is over (one of the group's final shows will be a headliner at Electric Picnic). Having recently turned 40, he's concluded he has better things to do with his life than thwacking a cow-bell on stage.

"When I started the band I promised myself that when I was 40 I wouldn't keep doing it. I have goals, there are things I want to do. We didn't expect the band to be a band really. It would be undignified of me to forget that and not to get on with the other things I want to do in my life."

Besides, it's wiser to go out on a high. A veteran of the Lower East Side music scene in Manhattan, Murphy has watched too many bands stay in the game longer than they ought to and turn into flabby caricatures (cough, Strokes, cough).

"I always feel there are not that many people who make a good fourth record," he says. "I think it's a little bit undignified to be a career musician. Maybe if I had started out younger... I just feel this is my time."

He's certainly exiting on an interesting note. If you have a moment, check out the video accompanying new single Drunk Girls. Shot on grainy camcorder, it features Murphy and the rest of LCD Soundsystem being subjected to a ritualistic beating by men dressed as feral pandas. It's trippy, surreal and a little bit scary: the violence is real and Murphy sustained a cut lip during the shoot. Exactly what you'd would expect, really, from the director, hipster darling Spike Jonze.

"We were having breakfast and wound up talking for three hours about stuff that had nothing to do with records or videos or anything," says Murphy. "And as we were leaving the restaurant Spike said we should figure out a way of doing something together. I told him I was shooting a video at the weekend and had no ideas. He said, 'okay let's do something'. It was pretty spontaneous. We got some friends of mine to dress in panda suits and to basically hit us. Fun and all as it was, I had no idea how aggressive people were going to be."

Unshaven and bedraggled, Murphy is a rather unlikely pop star. Having spent his 20s knocking around in go-nowhere garage bands, he was eye-balling middle age by the time fame came knocking. His ticket to the inner sanctum was the hilarious yet haunting Losing My Edge. Chronicling an ageing hipster's struggle to stay relevant, the single both poked fun at and displayed a sly fondness for those who believe it is their mission in life to permanently surf the zeitgeist. Released with absolutely no promotion, Losing became a club smash. Within a few months, major labels were pounding at his door.

Ever since, he's worked hard at making up for lost time. In addition to fronting LCD Soundsystem, Murphy runs DFA ('death from above') Records, a collective of beat-oriented New Yorkers whose music is as ridiculously cool as it is dance-floor slick. As DFA boss, Murphy's biggest discovery was The Rapture, though he got a taste of the ugly side of the business when the band jumped ship from DFA to sign with Universal.

He soon had bigger things on his mind, however. In 2004 Murphy was approached by Britney Spears' management with a proposal. Would he and his DFA partner Tim Goldsworthy like to "write" with the diva, then in her pre-bonkers, chart-slaying days? Murphy agreed to meet Spears, out of curiosity as much as anything else.

"I was curious about it because I don't like to write people off. You never know how somebody is going to be. You might play them Suicide or ESG and maybe they'll freak out. I don't like to judge people in advance. It was a potentially interesting thing to deal with."

So, did Britney get her freak on upon being introduced to the joys of '70s New York electronica? He smiles. "It was weird. She came over to the studio. Tim and I were working with her for an afternoon. And that was it. It was a strange experience. That was the last we saw of her."

Though Britney never called again, Murphy remains sought after in his capacity as studio miracle-worker. He was on the verge of producing the last Arcade Fire album, Neon Bible, and was in talks to work on their current record, due for release by year's end. In both cases, scheduling clashes threw a spanner in the works.

"We talked about doing something together. For Neon Bible, it wouldn't work because I was making my record. And on this new album it was the same thing. We were trying to get together to do something. We're friends. We'd like to work together. That's another reason why it would be great not to be in a band any more because I would be able to do stuff like that."

Sitting up straight, he elaborates: "It's frustrating. People who multi-task, a lot of the time they farm stuff out to other people. I'm no good at that. I don't want to produce a record simply by showing up. I want do everything. It's the same with the band. I don't have somebody else do the artwork or the videos. It's very, very time-consuming -- to the extent where no internet posts go out that I don't write. No emails go out to mailing lists that I didn't write. I basically do everything."

Still, that's not to say there haven't been opportunities for the occasional extra-curricular dalliance. Swapping his vintage synths and cowbell for an acoustic guitar, Murphy composed the soundtrack to the new Noah Baumbach dark comedy, Greenberg, starring a woolly-headed Ben Stiller as a self-loathing 40-something. Does a glorious career in cinema beckon?

"Not really, no. I did it because I'm friends with Noah. I don't like the movie business. It's one of the only businesses that is worse than the record business. I got to do this without having to deal with any of the assholes. It was purely between me and Noah. I was involved from the start and was on set and met Ben. So there was a real sense of ownership. I dealt with Noah and never had to interact with the studios. I don't know if I could do it if I had to deal with studios."

Post-LCD Soundsystem, one of the avenues he's eager to explore is writing. Were he to make his name as a man of letters it would bring symmetry to his story. In his youth Murphy was approached by the producers of a new sitcom, who were looking for promising scriptwriters. Figuring the show would go nowhere, he passed on the offer. Years later, he discovered the programme in question was, in fact, Seinfeld, the biggest sitcom of the '90s. Had things panned out a little differently, he might be a millionaire by now.

"I was in a school for writing and it was this weird happenstance. A friend of a friend was looking for a writer in New York. He recommended me and I gave them some samples. They were curious to see if I would write a script. I never did it -- 'cos I was stupid."

Was he haunted by the missed opportunity? "Not really. At the time I didn't even know which show it was. I put all of that shit in a box and into my parents' basement. I forgot about it until 2001 when my parents passed away.

"I was cleaning stuff out from the house and found the box. I looked at the letter and realised, 'oh, it was Seinfeld'. I had not realised for 10 years. It was a funny experience because at the time I was homeless. Ultimately, it would have been a bad choice for me. I would have been an unhappy person."

This Is Happening is out now

Irish Independent

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