The human condition
AMONG THE FIRST things you see in Shut Up and Play the Hits – a cinematic farewell to the much-admired LCD Soundsystem – is a pan across James Murphy’s bookshelf. The prime force in the electronic band turns out to be a huge fan of the postmodern deity that is Thomas Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow! Vineland! First editions! It makes sense. Murphy makes intelligent music for people who like to laugh. Pynchon writes smart books for similar folk.
“I think my work is easier to make than Pynchon’s though,” he says.
Well, maybe. Gravity’s Rainbow is the size of a paving stone. But both men enjoy making art of the absurd. “Yeah, I like Pynchon because it’s really funny and sad and erudite. It’s a complete world. I read Gravity’s Rainbow a lot and it gets funnier and funnier. That strikes me as a very good sign.”
The busy meta-work that is LCD Soundsystem has just ground to a halt. Now 42, grizzled and chunky, James created the group – or should we say “project”? – as long ago as 2001. But the band’s uncomplicated choruses and insidious electro-beats didn’t register outside specialist circles until the middle of the decade. James was suddenly in a weird place. Born in New Jersey, he had been churning out music since the late 1980s. Suddenly, with middle-age just over the horizon, he was able to hear his tunes booming from passing cars on their way back to suburbia.
“It was an advantage to be older,” he muses. “Well, in some ways it’s a disadvantage. But to me it’s an advantage. I had already learned that I am not particularly special and that is a good lesson. I learnt to be happy in spite of that. I had developed friendships already. Then, when I became successful, that hole was filled up with other stuff. I think if I was 18 or 19, I would have gone crazy.”
Yeah, maybe. But he doesn’t come across as the kind of guy who would ever be likely to drive cars into swimming pools or fling televisions through screen doors. Then again, with a name like Murphy, he must be all kinds of Irish. So you never know.
“My family are American for many generations. But we are ultimately from Cork. There wasn’t much need for investigation into my roots. They all got off the boat and went to live in Irish neighbourhoods.”
Mention is made of Ireland in Shut Up and Play the Hits. When considering regrets, James – who could hardly look more Irish – remembers missing dates in Dublin when that pesky Icelandic volcano caused all that disruption in 2010. It’s nice that he cares.
“I am very American,” he says. “All my grandparents were born in the US. But my grandmother still had a brogue, so we didn’t fall that far from the tree. We were at great pains to play Ireland first for that reason. We did that to show we cared. Look, we are coming there first, before we get to England. But we got stymied. It was a pretty funny set of circumstances.”
Anyway back to that delayed success. Murphy clearly has a keen eye for the musical zeitgeist. If prompted, he will speak with gravelly enthusiasm about his passion for David Bowie, The Fall and Talking Heads. But his crystalline electronica sounds proudly current. You can barely take a step in trendy downtown quarters of most cities without hearing tunes from albums such as Sound of Silver or This is Happening. So, how come none of his previous projects registered in the way LCD Soundsystem managed?
“The work was bad,” he says with a shrug. “It was not good music. It was shit. It was derivative and of a genre. It was music that was me trying to join a club. So, I gave up on music and started to have a life. I met some people who did music and I disagreed with their methods. But I admired the fact that they got things done. Why complain about it? Just do some songs the way I think they should be. I became very comfortable just being myself.”
With great record sales comes great responsibility. Murphy is not an obvious fashion idol: the film finds him padding about New York in pyjamas and non-designer stubble. But he nonetheless managed to become an anti-style guru for the new century. When LCD Soundsystem properly hit, every second pop star suddenly wanted a grain of his grubby stardust. The likes of Britney Spears and Janet Jackson phoned up to arrange remixes. But he remained uninterested. Was this a manifestation of his resistance to celebrity?
“No. I just don’t like shitty music,” he says. “In theory, I like pop music. I have no snobbery about that. But I don’t understand it. If you play me five songs, I will never be able to pick the single. I am no good at that. It’s not how I work. I always got the wrong song. I just don’t know if I am built for it.”
So there’s nothing in the charts that connects with him?
“In the pop sector? I am sure there is good stuff. But I don’t know it because I am 42. I am not the target audience. And I don’t pay enough attention shamefully.”
Shut Up and Play the Hits finds LCD Soundsystem playing a triumphant last gig at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The show is furiously tight and hectically energetic. But, as the emotions surge, one can’t help feel a little suspicious. We all remember the many retirements of Streisand, Sinatra and Bowie. To be fair, James is edging just one project towards the knacker’s yard. Can he, nonetheless, really say that LCD will never rise again?
“Not really. I don’t like saying ‘never’,” he says. “Because if, for example, somebody in the band got really sick and had no health insurance, then I might do it. That’s not the sort of thing you can plan. I have to keep an open mind.”
And he will continue to work the keyboards and bellow down the mike? “I will definitely continue to make music. It would be insane not to,” he says. “I needed a break. I needed it to just end. The thing is that this was supposed to be a temporary project. I asked everyone to play in the band for a weekend 10 years ago. And the weekend never stopped. People have lives. It just ended up being a full-time job and that was never supposed to happen.”
So, he’s not taking up golf?
“No. I am not actually crazy.”
The world’s Pynchon readers are happy to hear it.
* Shut Up and Play the Hits is at the Light House Cinema, Dublin, and the Kino, Galway