Putting the American Dream under the lens on a new album of dance-punk anthems, James Murphy discusses his band’s politically-charged resurrection – and decking Nazis
Rather than listen to music on his commute from Williamsburg to his office in the West Village, James Murphy prefers the sound of the city. His music as LCD Soundsystem has for 15 years acted as a sounding board for much of New York’s noise – from the beat-intoxicated club kids in “Drunk Girls” to the post-9/11 malaise of “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down”.
In January 2016, five years after dissolving his band with a blockbuster show at Madison Square Garden, Murphy took to Facebook to announce the surprise return of LCD Soundsystem. Written in all lower-case – perhaps to indicate shame, or maybe typed at speed in the dead of night – the post explained Murphy’s big about-turn, so as to cut the rumour-mill dead in its tracks.
“Early in 2015, I realised I had more (songs) than I’d ever had in my life,” the statement read. “Should I make up a band name, or make a ‘James Murphy’ record, or should it be LCD?” Really, though, listening to the dance-punk polemics of the band’s fourth LP American Dream, it’s clear Murphy has a lot to say about his city as it is today. Far too much to keep to himself.
Written shortly after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration last year, lead single “Call the Police” is Murphy watching the streets catch fire with rage around him. “There’s a fullblown rebellion… by triggered kids and fakers and some questionable views,” he warbles about the rise of western reactionism in the shadow of the US election. Its buzzsaw bassline is pure fire, too, Fugazi or Gang of Four-esque in its relentless circular ferocity.
American Dream isn’t all Dylanesque, street-level reportage, though. LCD’s 2002 breakout single “Losing My Edge” – Murphy’s timeless ode to ageing as the world gets younger around him – proved the singer was equally adept at turning the mirror on himself as he was showing it to society. He nods again to relevance giving way to age on American Dream’s title track, choking out the line “Find the place where you can be boring” over melting arcade synths.
In the flesh, 47-year-old Murphy is much less melancholic about the passing of time than you might think. American Dream was the last piece of music to be recorded at DFA HQ, the record label complex he helped hand-build two decades ago this year. A hub for 00s alt outfits like Hercules and Love Affair, Hot Chip and The Rapture, the West Village townhouse – sold this year – stands as a monument to an electric time in New York’s musical history.
Meeting me in an upmarket east London restaurant not unlike the wine bar he now owns with his wife in Brooklyn, Murphy is too busy focusing on his band’s punky reignition to dwell on what is lost, stoked on the songs he debuted at last night’s rammed album listening party. The confidence Murphy exudes in person seems justified by the primacy of American Dream – the muscular return of one of indie’s most necessary acts, who deliver era-defining music when the world needs it most. Something about the fire in James Murphy’s eyes tells me he knows it, too.
“The revolution was here, that would set you free from those bourgeoisie”
– “American Dream”, American Dream
So much has happened to the world since the band’s third LP, 2010’s This Is Happening, that it might have been funny to call this one (I Can’t Believe) This Is Happening. How much of the west’s recent political rumblings found their way on to American Dream?
James Murphy: We watched Brexit happen, which didn’t seem possible, then (Trump’s election), which didn’t seem possible – it’s like there was some sort of land-war that stopped in France. It really felt like the First World War or something, a bunch of bodies piled up in France where Le Pen was stopped. Imagine if Le Pen had won. Imagine. It feels a bit insane – and sad and weird.
Trump being elected feels like a natural consequence of the paradigm shift of 9/11, which happened shortly before LCD started.
James Murphy: 9/11 felt quite sane compared to this. I’m looking back on George W Bush like, ‘What a statesman!’ The thing I hated about him was more to do with the fact he seemed like a weak figurehead for dark people – (Donald) Rumsfeld, (Dick) Cheney… Now, Rumsfeld and Cheney are the people coming out against Trump. Trump’s so fucked up that Rumsfeld and Cheney – the fucking dark princes of American modern politics – are like, ‘He needs to be stopped, Steve Bannon’s dark.’ That’s like Hitler pointing at someone and being like, ‘This guy is fucked up!’
“Trump’s so fucked up that Rumsfeld and Cheney – the fucking dark princes of American modern politics – are like, ‘He needs to be stopped’” – James Murphy
People compare him to Reagan, the actor-turned-president.
James Murphy: Reagan also believed in some pretty crazy, dark shit and in playing games with the world. People are like, ‘Oh, he destroyed the Soviet Union’ and you’re like, ‘It doesn’t feel like it at the moment.’ If you shoot a bear you’d better fucking kill it, you know? They come back. He laid the scene for the changing of western economics, which said, ‘I’m gonna give you $5 and you’re gonna love it, meanwhile I’m going to take $5 billion dollars. The price you’ve paid is horrible and I’ve made billions on it – but my stock went up and aren’t we all part of the American dream?’
So is American Dream a nod to neoliberal politics, or something far scarier?
James Murphy: I tend to title things with a little bit of magical thinking – like soft logic. I don’t ever think through the meanings. I like things that have a density of meaning, which means I don’t like them to be wholly reducible. I did an interview in France and they were like, ‘Is it ironic?’ and I was like ‘Well, it’s both.’ I’m the son of a pretty working-class Irish-American guy who put me in college to study English and become kind of a snob. Now, I’m an artist. You know what I mean? It’s kind of the ideal American dream. I’m a well-read guy who went to a decent school for literature – and now I’m a musician. Even saying the words ‘American dream’ right now seems fucking insane, which I liked. It felt strong.
Tell me about the ‘triggered kids’ you talk about in ‘Call the Police’.
James Murphy: At the beginning of (LCD Soundsystem), my position as a human being commenting on other human beings was pretty snarky. I was taking shots at my own group, to a degree. I didn’t complain that much about suburban ding-dongs, it didn’t seem fucking relevant. Now, with the way that the world has gotten with this alt-right attack on liberals as ‘snowflakes’ – first of all, I can make fun of my mother, but you can’t. These are my people, you don’t get to fucking take shots at my people. It changed the place from which I started working on lyrics for this record. It didn’t feel germane or satisfying to feel smart, it just made me sadder. I was already too old to be snarky about culture when I was snarky, but this feels like a different time from then – a different time for the world. I’d rather be a little bit kinder. It’s pretty corny, but it makes sense to me.
“Don’t forget the things that we laughed about”
– “Home”, This Is Happening
One thing I’ve always loved about your work is the humour in it. Did you feel guilty about being funny, given much of American Dream’s subject matter?
James Murphy: Yeah, I understand (the kind of guilt you mean). I’ve worked on this record since 2015. That makes it sound like I’ve spent a lot of hours on it, which is not the case – I have a two-year-old, I’m on tour, we opened a restaurant, there’s a lot of shit going on. Halfway through the record, when shit started going down I was like, ‘Do I really need to make a song, does it make sense to be funny?’ But I don’t think funny and serious are opposites.
Not at all.
James Murphy: I think back about songs – ‘Losing My Edge’ is reportedly a funny song. To me, it’s fucking deadly serious. It’s a sad, sad portrait, a sad song. Funny makes it survivable. I feel like there’s always room for the mundane, the normal. Funny is normal. I think people think they’re making art so it has to be something other than mundane, but then you go see really good art and it’s usually got a certain amount of mundane shit in it. Mundane and magical at the same time.
‘Emotional Haircut’ is the funniest track on the album – it makes me laugh, even though I’m not sure what it’s about.
James Murphy: I cut my own hair and I tend to do it in hotel rooms, like, when we’re checking out. I’ve saved tens of thousands of dollars on haircuts – no one’s cut my hair since the 80s. I don’t like that being somebody else’s responsibility; I’d rather have a shit haircut that’s my fault.
“‘Losing My Edge’ is reportedly a funny song. To me, it’s fucking deadly serious” – James Murphy
Your haircut is the band’s calling card these days – like the Batman symbol, but it’s the silhouette of a guy with rubbish hair...
James Murphy: One day on tour, I came outside and I suddenly had short hair in the middle of the night. Clearly, I hadn’t been able to go to a salon to have my hair cut, so my bandmate goes, ‘Oh my God, James, did you give yourself an emotional haircut?’ It became a thing that I thought about a lot. I had an assistant when I was making the last record who was having a bad time, and one day he came downstairs and he’d shaved his head. I was like, ‘OK, that’s an emotional haircut.’ Like when you have those movies where a girl’s crying and cutting off her hair. It’s like you’re trimming your emotions...
American Dream has a vintage feel at times. The glam rock of ‘Change Yr Mind’ made me think of Bowie’s ‘Fame’. Where were you when you found out Bowie had died?
James Murphy: Yeah, or ‘Fashion’… I think I found out just through the media, then I got a note – I spoke to (Bowie’s regular producer) Tony Visconti shortly after. That was very, very weird. Well, it wasn’t weird. I knew he wasn’t well. But it still didn’t seem like he wouldn’t be here. Very surreal. And terrible. I miss him very much.
“Take me off your mailing list, for kids who think it still exists”
– “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”, Sound of Silver
You explained your reasons for bringing LCD Soundsystem back to life on Facebook, where you’ve often replied to fans’ queries in the past. Why did you feel the need to go into such detail about the band?
James Murphy: I don’t have to be political, it’s my choice. I have no boss. I felt like it was the right thing to do because if not, someone else is gonna tell that story. So it seemed more logical to be like, ‘Here it is’! You don’t have to be theoretical (about why the band came back) – you can literally just go read about it and if you disagree, if you think I’m lying, that’s fine. I find it funny when someone will go on and be like, ‘I just found your band, you guys suck’! I always reply with, ‘Thanks, you should see us live, we’re even worse.’ If someone has a grievance – and I think it’s a valid grievance – I’ll sincerely apologise or remedy it if I can. Human interactions are valuable, even through social media. Actually being human about stuff and not being political is kind of nice.
A favourite fanbase conversation is which of the LCD albums is the best. What’s your opinion on this?
James Murphy: I think, of the previous records, Sound of Silver is the best work. I feel like the first record was not really, fully a record, it was just songs – which is what happens a lot of the time when people make a first record. Sound of Silver was a really hard record to make, and it kinda came out more cohesively as an album, and the third record was me trying to figure out what had worked. I don’t think this one’s a part of those three. I have no idea how it is as an album yet – that takes time, it has to live in the world, like a person. It’s a communication device – it depends on how it communicates. When I made Sound of Silver, I wouldn’t have said that ‘All My Friends’ was (the big hit on it). I would never have predicted that our most downloaded song by far would be ‘Dance Yrself Clean’. There’s nothing even close to it.
“Even with Britney, I was like, ‘Why do I wanna be prejudiced, why don’t I just get in a room with her and be like, ‘Have you heard Suicide?’” – James Murphy
James Murphy: Nothing close. It’s, like, double the next. A nine-minute song with a three-minute quiet intro.
But it’s got a drop.
James Murphy: Yeah – but at the time, that wasn’t even called a drop. It just got loud. The terminology came after.
It’s one of those songs you stream off of YouTube at a party.
James Murphy: And one guy’s like, ‘Wait for it!’
I’ve done it.
James Murphy: (laughs) You’ve been that guy saying wait for it?
“Throw a party till the cops come in and bust it up”
– “North American Scum”, Sound of Silver
As a DJ through the 90s, you relied on nightlife to make a living. It’s now a bit of a cliche in the UK to talk about nightlife as ‘under attack’ – but, sadly, it is slightly harder for people to access live or club music now.
James Murphy: In New York, I feel like something shifted. The position that dance music is taking has changed in that it’s more normalised via pop. (Clubbing) is now a thing that you do ’cos it’s night-time and you’re young – which is fine, but (clubs) don’t feel like places that you find yourself in because you don’t fit in at other places. There’s a normal version of everything, (including) nightclubs. There are still things going on, but they seem detached from one another.
As a teen in New Jersey, you were a bouncer at a punk club. Tell me about that!
James Murphy: It was in Trenton, New Jersey, at – apparently – one of the most notorious and dangerous punk clubs in the world. I did not know that at the time. I knew it was sketchy, but it was the punk club that was near my town – it was the nearest place you went to go see shows. That’s where I watched my first show, (which was) the Ramones in, like, 1983 or ’84, then Iggy Pop. I was like, ‘This is where I belong.’ You knew you didn’t go in the parking lot by yourself, which seemed logical. There’s a documentary about the place called Riot on the Dance Floor – you have seriously hardcore bands being like, ‘That fucking place was insane.’ I mean, I was a bouncer and you had to knock people unconscious, you had to throw them in the street.
Did you have to do that?
James Murphy: Oh yeah. I punched people in the sternum. That was the move. You weren’t allowed to hit them in the face, but there’s a thing you’d do when you’re reaching someone and you’re going, ‘Hey buddy’ and you’d find their sternum with your fingertips. Once you’d found it, you made a fist really quickly, dropped your elbow and punched right up. Nobody sees you. I had to do it to a huge skinhead dude – this was the era of skinheads, white supremacists.
“And so you wanted a hit – well, this is how we do hits”
– “You Wanted a Hit”, This Is Happening
How do you feel about the trend in pop where underground musicians are shipped in to produce songs to add to a star’s credibility?
James Murphy: I feel like it started with Madonna... but she also came from the New York City dance underground. That’s kind of her background, so that was her going back to that. I think ‘Vogue’ was a deeply cynical gesture, but I don’t think it necessarily came from a cynical place. It was her trying to go home – but for a lot of people it’s become a bit of a blueprint. Whatever people do in high-level manufactured pop – and I mean that without any disdain – it’s fine. It’s never meant anything to me in my life.
It happened to you in the 00s, with the likes of Britney Spears and Janet Jackson wanting to work with you.
James Murphy: It only happened a bit. I’m not that easy to work with for anybody, so that was never gonna work for me. I’m not that relaxed. Plus, I was already not that young (when I started out), so it was easier for me to be like, ‘This is not how I work.’ I found this through trial and error, especially with people who want something very different to me. But I’m always optimistic. Even with Britney, I was like, ‘Why do I wanna be prejudiced, why don’t I just get in a room with her and be like, ‘Have you heard Suicide?’ Because you never know, I could play her Suicide and she could be like, ‘This is fucking unbelievable – how do I not know this?’ I think Kanye West is really talented – probably a little crazy too, but it doesn’t faze me. It’s more of-the-time than I am – it’s gonna connect with more people. It’s more akin to a gallerist’s show, you know?
Sure, it’s all very postmodern. So, how will you spend the rest of today, James? How do you like to wind down in London?
James Murphy: There’s a pub here, the Carpenter’s Arms, that I like. That’s the only place I drink beer in the world. I don’t drink beer any more, so I’ll just go there and have a pint and a scotch egg. It makes me feel like I’ve really arrived.
American Dream is out September 1 via DFA