That's How it Starts: James Murphy's Journey from Producer to Artist
FilmInFocus' Scott Macaulay profiles James Murphy, the composer of the Greenberg soundtrack and the musical brains behind buzz band LCD Soundsystem.
The history of recorded music is the history of recorded sound. In the 20th century, with first rhythm and blues and then rock, dance, electronica, and today’s millions of musical micro-niches, the composition is only half the song. There are the notes and chords, and then there is the sound — the sound caused by the particularly human touch of a finger on a string, or a breath in a valve, but also by the particular twist of a high-pass filter or the precisely calibrated setting of a Pro-Tools effects board. And with all of these actions come meanings. Writes composer and musicologist David Toop in his Ocean of Sound, “The sound object, represented most dramatically by the romantic symphonies of the nineteenth century, has been fractured and remade into a shifting, open lattice on which new ideas can hang, or through which they can pass and interweave.”
Working mostly within the genres of contemporary dance music, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem makes music that is sublimely aware of the meanings that drip off the sounds of a simple pop song. Through a series of singles, albums and remixes, Murphy’s music wittily takes account the associations — personal, emotional, but also cultural and political — these sounds provoke for us. An LCD Soundsystem song can be both an infectious and sleazy piece of dance punk as well as a mysteriously knowing commentary on music-defined moments in our lives. Unified by Murphy’s witty and pleasantly sarcastic attitude, expressed through vocals that turn from world-weary to urgent on a dime, and finished by his unfailingly au courant touch as a producer, Murphy’s work with LCD Soundsystem has both moved young clubgoers on the dancefloor as well as iPod-plugged thirty- and forty-somethings who hear in it a history of their own aural lives.
Murphy was born in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, in 1970. He played in punk bands in his early-to-mid-‘20s, and in 1993, around the time he played in the groups Pony and Speed King, he built a studio. He also made a crucial move from in front of an audience to behind the boards, working as a sound engineer for the synth rock band Six Finger Satellite. As he told the New York Times in 2007, “It seems silly now, but bringing synthesizers onstage as an indie-rock band was absolutely sacrilegious then. People would either laugh at us or be in utter disbelief."
In 2001, Murphy along with partners Tim Goldsworthy, the U.K. producer, and Jonathan Galkin, a former child actor turned label manager, started the record label DFA (standing originally for “Death from Above”). They scored an early hit with Rapture’s “The House of Jealous Lovers,” a single that burst through boundaries separating opposing musical factions. Pitchfork’s Ryan Schreiber described the song’s importance like this: “Here were the dance and rock undergrounds finally uniting, indie rock cultivating a new loathing and defiance for tired hipster poses and demanding the chaos of which safety and careerism had stripped it.” After producing a single by the Juan Maclean, a band headed by Six Finger Satellite’s John Maclean, LCD Soundsystem (at this point, just Murphy) debuted with a 12”, “Losing My Edge,” a knowing ode to aging hipsterdom that wound up being the coolest song in the club. Over a hesitantly funky lo-fi beat, Murphy sighed, “I’m losing my edge… I’m losing my edge… the kids are coming up from behind. But I was there in 1968 at the first Can show in Cologne…” As the song goes on, additional synth lines appear, the song goes from a kind of fake funk to being genuinely funky, and Murphy’s boasts become a history of all that’s been important in rock and dance during the last 30 years. “But have you seen my records?” Murphy asks. “This Heat, Pere Ubu, Outsiders, Nation of Ulysses, Mars, The Trojans, The Black Dice, Todd Terry, the Germs, Section 25, Althea and Donna, Sexual Harrassment, a-ha, Pere Ubu, Dorothy Ashby, PiL, the Fania All-Stars, the Bar-Kays, the Human League, the Normal, Lou Reed, Scott Walker, Monks, Niagra, Joy Division, Lower 48, the Association, Sun Ra, Scientists, Royal Trux, 10cc, Eric B. and Rakim, Index, Basic Channel, Soulsonic Force (‘just hit me’!), Juan Atkins, David Axelrod, Electric Prunes, Gil! Scott! Heron!, the Slits, Faust, Mantronix, Pharaoh Sanders and the Fire Engines, the Swans, the Soft Cell, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics!” Other singles followed, including one, “Yeah,” which countered the verbosity of “Losing My Edge” by Murphy repeating the one-word title over and over again.