James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem performs at Sonar Festival 2018
Photo: Xavi Torrent/WireImage
'LCD Soundsystem' At 15: How James Murphy Created His Singular Vision
To understand James Murphy's headspace during LCD Soundsystem's breakthrough year, track down a copy of DFA Records: Radio Mixes 2005. (Beyond the occasional copy that surfaces on eBay, it won't be easy.)
The three-CD set, marked "for promotional use only," features two CDs mixed by "James Murphy aka LCD Soundsystem" and one by labelmate The Juan MacLean.
Murphy's discs are a preserved-in-amber snapshot of peak-era DFA Records, his hipster-cool label, complete with in-house edits of Hot Chip, Soulwax and Gavin & Delia. However, the mixes also illustrate something that's as true of Murphy today as it was in 2005. In short, he stays restless.
CD One luxuriates in the past, swerving from Francine McGee's obscure disco to The Bee Gees and on to the spiky distortion of Six Finger Satellite, the band for which Murphy once served as live sound engineer. CD Two is ostensibly clubbier, despite bearing little resemblance to the fluid mix CDs celebrated in the mid-2000s. In Murphy's world, a club set means mixing '70s prog rock band Atomic Rooster into French techno don Laurent Garnier. The dissonance is the point.
LCD Soundsystem's self-titled debut album, which dropped on DFA in January 2005, wasn't exactly an introduction to a bright-eyed newcomer.
Then-34-year-old James Murphy was already a reluctant indie hero. He had the trendy record label, founded with U.K. transplant Tim Goldsworthy after the two met working on David Holmes' 2000 electronica album, Bow Down To The Exit Sign. Unlike most DJs, Murphy was a reliable source for smart, curmudgeonly quotes. Best of all, he'd already made a handful of tunes, notably "Losing My Edge" (2002) and "Yeah" (2004), that pitched LCD Soundsystem as the dance band rock kids could like.
The Y2K era was instrumental in Murphy's dance music conversion. In the days before DFA, he knocked around New York City, seeing bands in the East Village and Lower East Side. "I drank bourbon and I ate garbage," he told the Taste podcast in 2019. (These days, Murphy sticks to natural wines, which star at his Williamsburg wine bar/restaurant, The Four Horsemen.)
Murphy's first night out on ecstasy, with David Holmes DJing, was life-changing. "I was dancing and I was happy and I had a revelation: this is actually me," he recalls in Lizzy Goodman's book, Meet Me In The Bathroom. House music now made sense to him, but not just anything with a kick drum would do. A punk kid at heart, he wanted analog and imperfect over synthetic and streamlined. "After that moment, I danced to what I cared about," Murphy told Goodman.
He learned to DJ from Marcus Lambkin, aka Shit Robot, an Irish expat in New York. Lambkin introduced Murphy to Plant Bar in the East Village, where DFA established a renegade residency throughout then-Mayor Bloomberg's club crackdown. (At the first sight of cops, the door person would flick on a light in the DJ booth, signaling them to stop the music.) Murphy often mixed his newfound passions for DJing and altered states. "I used to take two ecstasy pills, break them into quarters, and put them on the corners of the two turntables, and work my way through them as a DJ set went on," he told New York Magazine in 2007.
But for every high, there's a comedown. By the early 2000s, Murphy was bristling at other DJs aping his anything-goes style. He went from mad at New York's would-be hipsters to "horrified at my own silliness," as he put it to journalist John Doran. Out of that malaise came "Losing My Edge," a prickly, self-lacerating and still-funny rant with a danceable beat. In both its theme and scuffed lo-fi sound, it set a template for future LCD Soundsystem. Among the song's many quotable lines about "the kids," one gets to the cold heart of it: "I can hear their footsteps every night on the decks."
In tandem with losing his edge, Murphy began work on Echoes, the breakout debut album from fellow NYC dance-punk outfit, The Rapture. Throughout 2003, Murphy and Goldsworthy, who together formed the production team The DFA, named after their label, joined the band at Plantain Recording House, the producers' own West Village studio. Released that September, Echoes hit big. At the height of the site's tastemaking power, Pitchfork rated it 9.0, officially coronating The Rapture as the new faces of the post-punk revival of the early 2000s.
However, the band had left DFA for a lucrative contract with Universal. Murphy was furious at the betrayal. In 2004, The Rapture played the Outdoor Theatre stage on day one of Coachella. Further down the poster, two font sizes smaller, was LCD Soundsystem.
Murphy worked on his own debut album around the Echoes sessions. When everyone went out, he'd stay back and tinker late into the night. "For about two and a half years, I didn't have a home, so I lived in the studio," he told XLR8R in 2005. Despite his punk rock pose, Murphy obsessed over the fine details. He finally had a set of songs worthy of showing up The Rapture.
LCD Soundsystem properly introduced the two definitions of LCD Soundsystem. First, the name belonged to one guy alone in the studio, channeling his influences, and his spite, into a singular vision.
Second, it was the name of a band with serious live clout. Murphy's bandmates, including Nancy Whang, Pat Mahoney, Tyler Pope and the late Jerry Fuchs, were all prodigious musicians. The power of their combined sound cemented LCD Soundsystem as one of the most exciting live acts on the circuit—in any genre. In 2005, Murphy and co. played Glastonbury for the first time and joined M.I.A. on her Arular Tour. Members came and went, but LCD Soundsystem stayed a band you need to see live.
LCD Soundsystem perform live in 2017 | Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Even 15 years on, LCD Soundsystem oscillates between the solo visionary and the pumped-up live unit. The image of Murphy up late with his machines is still vivid on quieter cuts like "Never As Tired As When I'm Waking Up" and "Great Release." Murphy finessed the former after-hours during the Echoes sessions, playing piano in the building's elevator shaft to get the right sound. By contrast, the rowdier LCD standards "Daft Punk Is Playing At My House" and "Tribulations" have come to feel inseparable from their live incarnations. However the songs were first conceived, they now belong to LCD Soundsystem, the band.
The in-between songs on LCD Soundsystem reward revisits. There's the louche "Too Much Love," peppered by cowbell and Murphy's ambling vocals, and the nasally sneer of "On Repeat," which struts and stumbles past eight minutes. Meanwhile, "Thrills" channels Timbaland's beats on Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," while "Movement" is one of the punkiest curios in the LCD canon.
LCD's debut included a bonus disc with previously released songs like "Losing My Edge," "Yr City's A Sucker" and the "Pretentious" and "Crass" versions of "Yeah." All the hits were there, but the deep cuts made it an undeniable album.
Elsewhere, 2005 was big for bands making dance music with guitars. From the synthy stomp of Franz Ferdinand's You Could Have It So Much Better to Bloc Party's exhilarating debut Silent Alarm, LCD Soundsystem fit the zeitgeist. M.I.A.'s Arular and Kanye West's Late Registration also shared James Murphy's maverick spirit. It was a good time for talented control freaks.
LCD Soundsystem brought Murphy his critical validation, in addition to two GRAMMY nominations in 2006, including Best Electronic/Dance Album and Best Dance Recording for album single "Daft Punk Is Playing At My House." But its creator didn't settle. He continued to DJ and give opinionated interviews, directing the sharpest barbs at himself. Then, as the era's "blog house" DJs rinsed their favorite LCD remixes, Murphy went to work on a new album.
Released in 2007, LCD Soundsystem's Sound Of Silver was an instant classic. (Not for nothing, it one-upped The Rapture with a 9.2 rating from Pitchfork.) Songs like "All My Friends" and "North American Scum" made good on the scrappy promise of LCD's debut.
"Great Release," the final song on LCD Soundsystem, fades out to a gentle fuzz. We hear a creak, then a sound like a door closing after a studio all-nighter. The early days ended there, but LCD Soundsystem had only just begun.