Nancy Whang is at a loose end. One of the central figures in LCD Soundsystem has just about concluded a year of reunion touring. Now, sitting in the courtyard of a cafe-bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, drinking lemonade and listening to the sound of a table tennis ball being padded back and forth in the background, she's wondering what to do with her time.
Start on a new The Juan Maclean record? Give herself an assignment? Learn to play the trumpet? Nothing?
LCD Soundsystem occupies a peculiar space: hugely influential yet hard to replicate, mythologised yet ongoing. The band has crossed and merged genres, and their tracks are central to so many end-of-the-night dancefloors. Although founded in dance music and punk, they have a lyrical prowess that traverses social commentary and introspection.
Whang, LCD’s vocalist, keyboardist and synth player, had walked into the bar unrecognised, even though the sound system had been playing an LCD track just moments earlier. There’s a sense of access that you don’t get with many headline acts.
Like their indie rock counterpoint The National, LCD arrived grown up. Much of their mythology revolves around the band's totem, James Murphy, solidified by the film Shut Up and Play the Hits, which documented LCD's "final" show at Madison Square Garden in April 2011. The subsequent reunion has been divisive; plenty gobbled up tickets for festivals featuring LCD, but there was some cynicism about the group touring again with no new material.
Still, the reunion shows were excellent. the band's slot at this year's Electric Picnic is among our critics' gigs of the year in the Ticket Awards 2016. LCD's music has always had a gathering effect, and these gigs became forums for friends, a coming-together. "It was warm and fun and exciting and all the shows had been really good," Whang says. "The audiences have been super-generous and perceptive. That's made playing really enjoyable."
Period of decompression
“When we played the ostensible last show, there was a pretty long period of decompression that happened,” she says. “For so long it was so much part of my identity, and then all of a sudden I had to figure out who I was outside of the band. That took a minute.”
Post-LCD, Murphy opened a restaurant and wine bar in Brooklyn (The Four Horsemen – excellent orange wine, great fried potatoes) and toured his Despacio project with 2ManyDJs. Whang went to a lot of therapy, tried to figure out what made her happy creatively, and attempted to find her footing.
Her journey into music was almost unintentional. “I was missing out on a lot of life. So, I was like, ‘I’m just going to say yes to everything’. And one of those things was LCD. I had no intention of having anything to do with music at all.”
She describes the period when LCD were gaining traction as “weekend warrior stuff”. Most of her bandmates had day jobs, and LCD was “this band on the side, like a hobby. Then it became this thing that took over our lives.”
It was only in LCD's last couple of years that it occurred to Whang: she could actually make a living as a musician.
“It’s something that appeared in front of me and I accepted without really thinking about what that meant,” she says. “It was just a very temporary thing that sounded like fun. And then over the years I just did fewer and fewer things outside of music, until music was the only thing that I did.”
Whang intended to be a visual artist, but that “quickly dissolved as soon as I got out of [art] school”. A series of jobs in the art world followed in various institutions and galleries. They were “heartbreaking, and I was just like, f*** it, I can’t, I don’t have the mettle to exist in the art world”. The decision to get out of that game coincided with LCD. She’d leave real life behind to tour, then get home, confront real life, freak out a bit – and then it would be time to go back on the road.
“I think, at least from my own personal experience and from people I know who are creative people, we are all very good at procrastinating. And it’s sort of part of the process: you just don’t want to deal with it. You can’t face the blank canvas, and so you just find other things to do to distract you from it. When time runs out, and you’re just in this panic, you’re forced into making a decision, coming up with something, whatever it is, to answer that question or fill that void.
“It’s also this endless cycle of satisfaction and fulfilment and self-doubt and wondering what you’re doing and feeling like you’re a charlatan and when is somebody going to discover you’re full of s**t.”
As open as Whang is, it must be odd to be part of such a mythologised band. “It is, because I just know what the reality is,” she says, laughing. “It’s pretty straightforward. Even I look back on the beginning, the origins of the band and how we got together . . . with this nostalgic view. It’s even a little bit mythologised in our own remembrance of it.
“I don’t really know how to explain it other than being lucky, but also being part of something that’s really good. Like, James makes really good music. I’m lucky; he’s talented. I’m lucky to be able to be a part of this thing that’s good and that people like.”
Does she have any issues with underplaying her own talents and creativity?
“I’m self-effacing, I guess. Yeah, maybe, I don’t know. There are things that I’m very proud of that are accomplishments for me and that I think are good, or things that I am good at doing . . . It may seem like I’m underplaying my abilities or accomplishments, but I just try to keep reality in check.”
The open attitude that began Whang’s career is admirable, but it’s also harder for artists now to open themselves up to chance and opportunity in cities such as New York, which have become increasingly hostile towards people on lower or sporadic incomes.
“It’s hard to live here,” Whang agrees. “It’s always been hard to live here, but this is a particular kind of difficulty. It’s just so expensive. There’s really nothing to be done about that. The pockets of affordable neighbourhoods are dwindling, and even beyond that, it used to be easy to live cheaply.
“New York is an expensive city, but it was easy to get by without spending a lot of money. It’s a lot more difficult to do that now. Because it’s spread out so much, there’s just this homogenisation of New York that has happened, which just seems so antithetical to New York.”
The city, she says, increasingly caters to millionaires. “With New York, it’s gotten so thoroughly beyond deep into that world that there’s not any coming back unless something really f***ed-up happens and we get scary again; then it’s another 20 years of rebuilding the city again so people will come. I don’t really want that to happen.”
I mention seeing baseball caps for sale in Manhattan with the slogan "Make New York unsafe again". "Ha ha. It's true. It's safe in the sense that you're secure and you don't have to worry about being the victim of a violent crime as much as you would have 30 or 40 years ago. But it's also safe in being not adventurous or exciting.
“It’s sad. A lot of our people moved away, moved to LA, moved upstate. I don’t really plan on going anywhere, so you just kind of have to live with it.”
As we wrap up, Whang chats about politics, climate change and the ascension of Donald Trump. The next morning, as I stand on the balcony of the New Museum in lower Manhattan, a group of friends are clearly still going from the night before on a balcony below.
They haul out an an impressive sound system and Dance Yrself Clean kicks in, the beat caught on the chilly New York air.
The city might change, but there is something of a certainty that some pals, somewhere, are bound to be listening to LCD.