LCD Soundsystem's best laid plans
LCD Soundsystem’s new – and final – album, This is Happening, was a labour of love that brings the curtain down on a decade of disco-punk
LCD Soundsystem performs at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Photograph: Theo Wargo/WireImage
Even the best laid plans and carefully drawn-up schedules for a high-profile album release are no match for a cranky Icelandic volcano. James Murphy is at a truck-stop in the middle of Spain waiting to get something to eat before driving on to France. He sounds a little bewildered by how his week has turned out. After all, Spain was not on the agenda for this week.
Today, he should be in Dublin to play two sold-out LCD Soundsystem shows to promote new album This Is Happening and talk to a bunch of Irish journalists. But that pesky ash-cloud from Eyjafjallajökull meant those shows were cancelled. Instead, Murphy and the LCD entourage found themselves flying to Spain and then hottailing it up the continent to make London shows. At least, his phone is still working.
This Is Happening is the third album from LCD Soundsystem. In some ways, the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it mantra applies, as the album contains more Sound Of Silver-like euphoric grooves about life and living with side-helpings of sardonic snarl (no one in modern pop does sardonic snarls like Murphy). The overall mood, though, is deeper than that of its predecessor, as Murphy peers towards the horizon and begins to think about the future.
Maybe this has something to do with the fact that This Is Happening came to life in a mansion in Los Angeles.
“It seemed funny to do it in LA,” reasons Murphy about the location. “I think LA is funny anyway. The studio I normally go to in Massachusetts was closed so I couldn’t go there, and I was scrambling to find a new place to go. I don’t like change, I don’t like new places, and I especially don’t like new studios because everything is not exactly how I want it to be, so I decided to go west.”
Initially, Murphy thought he’d save money by moving to California – “I mean, things are supposed to be cheaper out there, right?” – but that didn’t quite work out. “It turns out that it’s not cheap when you go off and rent a mansion and have 20 people working with you. I’ll know better if I do that again.”
But if this was going to be his LA phase and his LA album, he wasn’t going to hold back. “I wanted to have a 1974 Hollywood rock’n’roll experience. I had this great image in my head of me wearing a white suit and wandering around this beat-up, ramshackle mansion high up over the city.
“Yeah, everybody who was working in the house had to wear all-white. If you had come out to do an interview, I’d have made you wear all-white. We had 10 or 20 people wandering around all the time dressed in white. People passing by probably thought we were a cult.”
At first, Murphy had no idea what he and the other musicians would produce out in LA. “I went out there with an open mind,” he says. “For me, the environment comes first. I’m not a very spontaneous person so I need to create the space which helps me be creative. I was totally happy to be working in that mansion.”
A change of scene, though, didn’t mean that Murphy was going to lie back and let it all hang out. He brought the same tensions and anxieties that have been a part of his musical life in his baggage to La-La-Land.
“I’m not a laid-back person at all,” he says. “I’m very tense, but I was trying to let myself do stuff and see where it would take me. I’ve got to a point in my life and career where I’ve learned how to calm down a little about stuff. I’ve begun to trust my instincts a little more, so this record may be a little calmer – a little – than previous ones.”
Murphy, who almost became a writer on the TV show Seinfeld after he left university, says he was always like this –“even before this music stuff started taking over”.
“I’ve always worried about doing a bad job. The fact that this success happened after so many years is actually a blessing. If all this had happened when I was younger, I don’t know how I’d have reacted. I’d have freaked out, I suppose. But I had already lived a pretty complete life before music came along and took over, so I wasn’t relying on it.”
Murphy took a hiatus from the recording sessions for the new album when film director Noah Baumbach asked him to do the soundtrack for his upcoming film, Greenberg.
“I certainly was not in the market for soundtracks,” he stresses. “I met Noah and I like his movies and he asked me to do the soundtrack. It sounded like fun so I went off and worked on Greenberg.
“Noah didn’t want a score and I was down with that. I hate all that moody, spacey surround-sound shit. I wrote a bunch of little songs that are not directly about the movie, and Noah liked them and they made sense with the movie.”
This wasn’t the first time that Murphy found himself working on two projects at once. “Halfway through recording Sound of Silver, I went off and did the 45:33 mix album for Nike, which helped me with recording Sound of Silver. I’d hit a few problems, and I found that going off to do something else was a really good way of working that out.
“I thought doing the Greenberg soundtrack would have the same effect, but it didn’t really because it was so unrelated musically. I thought it wouldn’t take that long to do a movie soundtrack, but if the editing takes months, the soundtrack takes months.
“It wasn’t a hindrance, but it wasn’t a help either. I thought I needed a break, but when I got back to working on This Is Happening, I realised I hadn’t needed one at all. It was just a weird twist, and I ended up with two albums yet again and a lot of frustrated and pissed-off people at my label.”
Murphy is adamant that this will be the last outing for LCD Soundsystem. The problem for him is that being in a band who adhere to a rigid album-and-tour cycle is just not what he wants to do.
“I want to retire the band,” he says. “I don’t want to become just another band and I want to stop being a professional musician in the way I am now. Right now, it’s make an album, make a single, make a single, go on tour. I don’t want to do that.
“When I was 30, I promised myself that I’d be out by 40, and I’m 40 now. I don’t want to repeat myself, I don’t think being bigger is that interesting and I don’t want to make more money. I still want to make music, but not that record that I don’t want to make that people think I should be making.
“OK, I’m having the best time of my life, and I’m the happiest that I’ve ever been because I’m in this band, but it means I can’t do things like producing and DJ mixes and working on other records. For instance, I really want to do more with the DFA label, but I can’t.
“It’s nearly impossible for me to do any day-to-day work on the label because of the band. There’s so much I can’t do because it takes so much time to do the LCD thing. It’s just time-intensive for me so I want to stop.”