Inside LCD Soundsystem With Frontman James Murphy The pop-dance-electronic group's founder tells Terry Gross why he stopped complaining about other bands and decided to start making his own music instead. LCD Soundsystem's latest album is called This Is Happening.
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Inside LCD Soundsystem With Frontman James Murphy

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Inside LCD Soundsystem With Frontman James Murphy

Inside LCD Soundsystem With Frontman James Murphy

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This is FRESH AIR.

Let's continue our end of the year series featuring some of our most entertaining interviews from 2010 with James Murphy, the leader of the band LCD Soundsystem, a band which sometimes is really just Murphy using instruments, electronics and overdubbing.

LCD Soundsystem plays dance music and Murphy used to be a club DJ. But the lyrics of his songs are often ironic and funny, and the music that inspires him goes way beyond dance music.

In the New Yorker profile of Murphy, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote quote, "LCD Soundsystem helped reintroduce dance music into indie rock, blurring the lines effectively enough to bridge the divide between fans who probably don't otherwise like dance music, and those who put on LCD records only to dance to," unquote.

The group's 2007 album, "Sound Of Silver," was on NPR's list of the top albums of the decade. LCD Soundsystem's last album, "This is Happening," was on the 10 best list of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.

Murphy says it will be his final album under the name LCD Soundsystem. Here's a track from that album called "Drunk Girls," co-written by Murphy and featuring him on vocals, drums, synthesizers, guitar, bass, Wurlitzer, tambourine and claps.

(Soundbite of song, "Drunk Girls")

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM (Music group): (Singing) Drunk girls, drunk girls, drunk girls, drunk girls. Drunk girls cause a couple of heart attacks. Drunk girls are unusually mild. Drunk boys keep in pace with the pedophiles. Drunk girls are boringly wild.

Drunk girls get invitations from nations. They got the patience of a million of saints. Drunk boys, they steal, they steal from the cupboards. Drunk girls like to file complaints.

Drunk girls are like a night of simplicity. They need a lover who is smarter than me. Drunk boys, we walk like pedestrians. Drunk girls wait an hour to pee.

Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut. It comes back, but it's never the same. Drunk boys, drunk boys, drunk boys, drunk boys. Drunk girls can be just as insane.

Oh, oh, oh, I believe in waking up together. So, oh, oh, that means making eyes across the room.

GROSS: That's "Drunk Girls" from LCD Soundsystem's new album "This is Happening." My guest is James Murphy, who is not only the founder of the band, he is most of the band. James Murphy, welcome to FRESH AIR.

So the band is called LCD Soundsystem, and you used to create sound systems.

Mr. JAMES MURPHY (Musician): Mm-hmm. Yes.

GROSS: And your record label was called, or is still called was called, is called, DFA.

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah. DFA Records.

GROSS: Which stands for Death From Above, which is also what you called your sound system because it was all about loud.

Mr. MURPHY: Yes. Really loud.

GROSS: Really loud. And why does really loud appeal to you, and how loud are we talking?

Mr. MURPHY: OK. I don't like hurting ears. I don't like hurting people's ears. I don't like hurting my own ears. And there are frequencies that I find that I am hypersensitized to, and I think that people normally are.

The human voice, like, likes to hover around 1,000 hertz. And, you know, you can go up to 20,000 and go down to 20 hertz and, you know, that's the kind of the range of human that's kind of the area where we listen.

So I like to make sure we're not punishing anybody on these frequencies that hurt your ears, but I do like the visceral, physical experience of bass when it's attached to the rest of the sounds. The first shows I saw were really bodily loud, and it was a really incredible experience for me.

Like, your adrenaline goes up. You kind of have a fight or flight experience that can be maintained in a nice way by volume. And I think, like, a certain type of airy treble, a certain type of airy space, that doesn't hurt your ears again, is kind of wonderful and magical and for lack of a less hackneyed and overused term, psychedelic. Volume is a big part of that.

I think people have a lot of people have lost the art of using volume in a way that isn't just harsh and painful, but it's something that I'm really into.

GROSS: And you don't think you're hurting your ears?

Mr. MURPHY: I still test better than average. I still test really high frequency. I mean, it can be fatiguing. You know, we shouldn't do more than five shows in a row. But if it doesn't feel right physically, I would just be thinking constantly on stage.

GROSS: You'd be thinking, oh, it's not loud enough, it's not loud enough or?

Mr. MURPHY: I would just be thinking. I would just turn my brain back on. I need the...

GROSS: Oh, I see. So you...

Mr. MURPHY: For me, I need a certain amount of volume to turn the brain off.

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. MURPHY: Turn the rattling monkey in my head off.

GROSS: You worked as a DJ for how long?

Mr. MURPHY: I guess I started DJing, worked as, you know, I started DJing for, you know, no money when I was 29 and around the same time as starting DFA Records in New York. So DFA was a party, and I started DJing just at my own party. And I didn't do it at other places. Nobody hired me. I hired myself.

GROSS: So how did DJing at your own parties contribute to your approach as a composer because certainly when you're DJing, you're looking for a groove also.

Mr. MURPHY: Well, yeah, I mean, I think there's a - after being in, self-involved punk bands my whole life, you were thinking about what it is you want to make, who it is you want to be.

But DJing and finding dance music was much more about it was much more of a communication device. It was, like, very blatant. It's like, if people aren't dancing, you're not doing a good job. You can't make any other argument about it.

And it changed making music for me because suddenly I wanted to make music. I wanted to make songs after having given up. I stopped being in bands when I was 26, so I took three years off and I wanted to do it again because suddenly there was an actual quantifiable way of measuring if you were doing your job. People danced or they didn't. And if they did, you know, you're doing your job. And if you like it and they did, then you're doing your job in an uncompromised way, which was a really nice thing to finally be able to learn.

GROSS: Well, I thought we'd hear another LCD Soundsystem recording, and this is from earlier. This is called "Losing my Edge," and it's one of the most famous things that you've done.

Mr. MURPHY: It's the first one.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, and let's hear it. I think it's like a really funny song, and I'll just say it's about somebody who thinks he's losing his edge to the kids who are coming up behind him. And so let's hear it, and then we'll talk about it. So this is LCD Soundsystem.

(Soundbite of song, "Losing My Edge")

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM: (Singing) I'm losing my edge. I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody, every great song by the Beach Boys, all the underground hits, all the Modern Lovers tracks. I heard you have a vinyl of every Niagra record on German import. I heard that you have a white label of every seminal Detroit techno hit, 1985, '86, '87. I heard that you have a CD compilation of every good '60s cut and another box set from the '70s.

I hear you're buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and are throwing your computer out the window because you want to make something real. You want to make a Yaz record.

I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables. I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars. I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know. But have you seen my records?

GROSS: So that's the first single by LCD...

Mr. MURPHY: That's the first single.

GROSS: ...Soundsystem, and my guest, James Murphy, is the creator of LCD Soundsystem. And I think that's just so funny. And when I listen to it, I can't help but wonder how much of this is about you and how much of it is older people who you met coming up through the ranks who were afraid that they were losing their edge to people like you.

Mr. MURPHY: It's a little bit both. It's really from a specific position and time in my life more than it is about it, where I had started DJing, and I hadn't released any music yet. We had DFA Records, and I started having - there was parties that I was throwing, and I was DJing, and for the first time in my life, I was almost cool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But not quite?

Mr. MURPHY: At almost, like, 29 years old, I had my first taste of, like, wait, people want me to come to this party and DJ. This is very exciting for me.

And then I went to - I remember I went to a punk show, and between the bands somebody was DJing. Now, that wasn't done. And I was like, wait, that's my thing. Like, I play records, you know.

And they were playing some of the records I played, and I got really upset. I looked, and they were like 24, 23, and I was really mad. And then I started getting very embarrassed that I was getting mad because I remembered being in a young band when I was 23 or 24 and talking to this guy who was like ancient - I think he may have been 28 or 29, and he was talking about how kids now, they don't know, you know, the guitar sounds aren't good and things like that. And I remember just being, like, oh man, you never say that. That's just, that's such a lame thing to say.

And then I caught myself doing it, and I'm, like, oh, I'm saying it, but at the same time, it's true, but it's so pathetic. And it made for the easiest song I've ever written. It was the easiest song to write.

The whole lyric with a couple of - I punched it in a couple of times, but I played drums and sang that song in just one take, just without writing anything beforehand. The only thing that I wrote was the list of songs that I yell at the end, I mean the list of artists I yell at the end. The whole thing was just made up because it was such a fertile and embarrassing and circular set of feelings.

Like, it was so easy to know what I was mad about and so easy to be embarrassed by it, and so, you know, it was just, like, endlessly, oh-but, oh-but, oh-but, you know, type of emotion that I had. So it was a really - and after that, I was overconfident. I was like, I can write songs all the time. This is easy. Just have an experience that typifies your life at that moment and then go yell about it.

GROSS: It's funny because I kind of half-imagined you taking like, having this secret notebook in which you wrote down all the things that people said to you about why they were worried about younger people coming up and replacing them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: No. It's...

GROSS: And why they were losing their edge because it's all so perfect.

Mr. MURPHY: It was so simple to me. It like seemed like such a good - and at the end, the reason I yell all the band names was I suddenly realized, like, I'm one of these - I suddenly realized, I was, like, this is what you do when you know things. Knowing things, knowledge, or like your attachment to them or your self-association with other bands or with books or whatever is usually like this, often this weird amulet that protects you. Like, you're, like, no, I am serious. Look at my library. Listen to this. Like, I'm going to list all the books I've read, and now you know I'm a serious person.

And so it was just supposed to be like this amulet swinging around me to protect me from being seen as anything that I didn't want to be seen as.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you've mentioned several times that you like really physical music. You like to feel it in your body. So I guess it's no surprise that your first instrument was drums.

Mr. MURPHY: My first instrument was guitar.

GROSS: Oh. So it is a surprise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah. No. But I learn - yeah, I was a singer-guitar player as a kid. AKA, I was a self-important pretentious jerk as a kid and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: ...a controlling, you know, teenager. I started playing guitar when I was - I started my first band when I was 12, 13, all through high school I played guitar. And I moved to New York when I was 19 and started feeling like maybe the guitar wasn't for me. I met a guy who was a really great guitar player. He was a natural guitar player. This guy name Yotaka Yokoyama(ph) who was a violinist, who picked up guitar and we liked a lot of the same music. And we played together.

And watching him play guitar made me realize that maybe I'm not playing the right instrument for me because he was just so natural and physical. And I was always trying to struggle to get the guitar to give me more of something. And then I started playing drums. I was like oh, these are great. You hit them harder and they get louder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: This is all - this all really makes sense. And so I started being drummer in bands. I think now I've settled on that the instrument that's most appropriate for me is the bass guitar, because it's somewhere between the two. It's like the workhorse and you can play it very physically and it delivers a lot more like punch in the stomach. But it also can drive the song around. It's a rhythmic instrument, but it's also a melodic instrument or at least a tonal instrument.

GROSS: My guest is James Murphy, founder of the band LCD Soundsystem. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "All My Friends")

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with James Murphy, founder of the band LCD Soundsystem.

I want to play another song. And this is also an earlier LCD Soundsystem track, and it's the title track of your album "Sound Of Silver." And I just think the lyric's really interesting about being nostalgic for being a teenager until you remember what it was really like to be a teenager. So why don't we hear it and then we'll talk about it.

(Soundbite of song, "Sound Of Silver")

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM: (Singing) Sound of silver talk to me. Makes you want to feel like a teenager. Until you remember the feelings of a real live emotional teenager. Then you think again.

Sound of silver talk to me. Makes you want to feel like a teenager. Until you remember the feelings of a real live emotional teenager. Then you think again.

Sound of silver talk to me. Makes you want to feel like a teenager. Until you remember the feelings of a real live emotional teenager. Then you think again.

Sound of silver talk to me. Makes you want to feel like a teenager. Until you remember the feelings of a real live emotional teenager. Then you think again.

Sound of silver talk to me. Makes you want to feel like a teenager. Until you remember the feelings of a real live emotional teenager. Then you think again.

GROSS: That's LCD Soundsystem. My guest is James Murphy, who's the creator of the band and plays most of the instruments on the records and does the vocals and writes the songs.

So is this a kind of personal song for you?

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah. But in more ways than one, possibly. The type of singing is the most personal and embarrassing part of that song. I was really into Heaven 17 as a kid too, like new wave stuff and the singing is kind of like arch. People don't sing like that anymore, kind of this kind of like '80s new romantic baritone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: And I really love it. And I'd been on a quest for almost the length of this band to just trust my taste even when it's pretty embarrassing, because embarrassments kind of are an untapped rock emotion, usually. People don't get too into embarrassment. They get into heartbreak and cool but they don't get in too much into just being embarrassing. So yeah, I just wanted to belt it out in this kind of weird way.

GROSS: And what was your real live emotional life as a teenager?

Mr. MURPHY: I led a pretty OK school time. I was just a - I kind of made things difficult for myself. Like when I was younger I fit in a lot better. I was an athletic kid and I was a pretty big kid. But then when we got about 13, certain types of - I had much older brothers and sisters and certain types of like hyper self-aware stuff happened to me pretty young. My voice changed when I was in fourth grade. I was 10. I looked bigger. You know, and something happened where I was not kind of on the same page as a lot of my peers. And watching the cruelty develop around 12, 13 was super psychically like traumatic for me.

Of course, now it's like oh yeah, people are kind of crappy to each other sometimes. You can live with that. It's OK. But at that time I had no experience of this. So watching suddenly two friends that were best friends the year before turn into cliques and, you know, the more popular of those two would be taunting the less popular of his ex-best friend and just - all that stuff was just like, you know, I felt like I was in some sort of horrifying, you know, psychedelic nightmare that I couldn't wake up from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: And it really, really traumatized me in a way that I find kind of embarrassing. But, of course, it's all just predictable stuff that everybody goes through. But I think you're supposed to be - I think the blessing is at that age you're pretty oblivious to a lot of it and so wrapped up in it that you don't, you know, like you're kind of missing the horror. And I didn't have that luxury and it was not nice to watch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: James Murphy is the founder of the band LCD Soundsystem. His latest album is called "This is Happening." Our interview was recorded in June.

We'll close today with music by pianist, composer and educator Billy Taylor. He died Tuesday at the age of 89. He not only played good music, he introduced many people to jazz through his Jazzmobile, his teaching and his radio shows. He hosted a jazz show at WLIB in New York in the '60s. On NPR, he hosted the concert series "Jazz Alive" and "Jazz the Kennedy Center."

This is a 1996 recording of his best known composition "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free."

(Soundbite of song, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free")

I'm Terry Gross.

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