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James Murphy interview (October 2007)

April 5, 2010

The main reason this blog has been so quiet of late is that I’ve been pretty heavily consumed with work for AU. The new issue of the mag (the second this year) goes to print on Wednesday and it’s been hectic times with an office move and the fact that I didn’t start full-time until last Monday, leaving Jonny and Kim with a lot of slack to pick up on their own.

However, we’ve pretty much got there and it’ll feel great to get the mag out (hopefully at the weekend) and get cracking on the next one – the first I’ll be working on full-time. Yowza.

As a wee preview of the next issue, then (nudge nudge, wink wink), here’s an old interview with James Murphy that I did in the autumn of 2007. I’ve been a massive LCD fan since I heard Losing My Edge and Beat Connection back in about 2002, so it was pretty exciting to get the chance to speak to him, and he didn’t disappoint. Affable and chatty to a fault. Total man-crush material.

How have you spent the last couple of weeks since the Arcade Fire tour ended? Have you had any time off?
Well I had a bit of time at home, not so much time off. There was studio stuff that had to be done – I had to sit in the studio with Juan Maclean and go over stuff for his next album, and another band on DFA called The Hockey Night [who have since split and spawned Free Energy]. And I was working on an M.I.A. remix, for Paper Planes.

Is it good to be back in Ireland after only 6 weeks?
Yeah it’s funny, we played in Dublin once a long, long time ago and then we hadn’t come back. In a weird way it’s a tough place to get to because once you get there it’s a bus, not a flight. It’s always fallen through so I’m really glad it’s 2 out of the 5 gigs we’re playing here.

I was wondering because of your surname – are you Irish-American, is that your heritage?
Yeah, but for a long, long time – great grandparents and all that sort of shit. It was something I was very aware of growing up. My family’s from Boston so they’re all lunatics! Once I started travelling around it became less of a thing. Because it takes fuckin’ 15 minutes of being here to realise I’m American! You know, I’m from a farm town in New Jersey and my parents, my grandparents and all but one of my great-grandparents were born in America. Plus I’m not always super psyched on Americans who are super excited about being Irish – it always kind of weirded me out a bit.

It does us as well, to be honest with you.
Yeah it’s like ‘what are you talking about?!’ Y’know, some guy with a huge Celtic cross tattooed on his back or something, it just fucking weirds me out! [laughter] I’m like, I’m actually from New Jersey, you know?!

You get Americans that don’t say they’re Irish-American, they just say they’re Irish…
It’s like no…no…no man, you’re not – really! You don’t even need to modify the American part – you don’t even need to be Irish-American, you’re actually American. When I look at my family, my parents were very much Irish-American. My grandmother, who was born in America, had a fucking brogue! Because they ghettoed so hard – every one of my family, all the way back, is from fucking Cork. They’re not even mixing it up from counties – they lived in a Cork neighbourhood! I think for them it was a different thing – it actually was a thing. Half the people who lived in your neighbourhood were born in Ireland, you couldn’t get jobs because you were Irish and shit like that. But for me, to all intents and purposes I’m just white – [laughing] I’m a miscellaneous American dude!

The two recent signings – Shocking Pinks and Prinzhorn Dance School. They are essentially indie rock bands, and neither is American, never mind from New York. How did you come across them?
I’m on tour, so there’s so little I can do with the label, which really frustrates me. Jonathan Galkin found both of them through the mail. Prinzhorn just sent him a package, really old fashioned. So much for us is about meeting people, and we met them and loved them, and just felt interested enough to get involved in whatever they wanted to do. And just be a home for them, really.

What about Shocking Pinks?
Yeah, same thing. Jon just found their music and really liked it. It didn’t exist in the States. This is before we had Death From Abroad. They were on Flying Nun and we took them from there – not in an aggressive way! But we liked them, it started off that we wanted to take these old records that hadn’t been released in the States and release them. And then it just turned into more when we started talking to them. He wanted to come over and do a tour and stuff. In a weird way, especially the Shocking Pinks one, it was in the middle of Death From Abroad. Death From Abroad was really only supposed to be for 12”s – like when you hear a 12” in Belgium that doesn’t exist in the US, being able to licence it for our home market.

How do you see that they fit into the label. Is that even an important consideration? Is there any overall aesthetic?
I don’t think so, I hope not. In the beginning it was The Rapture, The Juan Maclean and Black Dice, and that was a really strange triumvirate. From the outside it always seemed like DFA had more of an aesthetic because Tim and I’s remixes were always considered to be part of it and there was a certain sound there, and because ‘Losing My Edge’ and House Of Jealous Lovers were two big 12”s in the beginning and they both seemed to be related. But we never wanted to be a ‘dance-punk’ label or anything like that. We just wanted to be a good label – as good as we could be. So much of it was, ‘do we want to be involved in these people’s careers? do we want to try and be a good conduit for them?’ And there was music we liked that we just didn’t feel like we’d be good for – music that’s more like our genre that we didn’t want to be involved with. It’s more about whether we want to be involved with these people and watch them grow, and be a part of their music.

Is Nick Harte working on new Shocking Pinks stuff?
Yes he is, I was in the office two days ago and totally heard some!

Are you working on it yourself?
No, no, I’m on tour. Hopefully I’m going to turn more so into a human really soon, once I’m done with this. I’m not a super huge fan of touring a lot. The last year has been gone. I don’t like it. I mean, I like touring, but I’m married and I like being with my wife – obviously, because I married her! – and I like being able to make decisions like ‘I’d like to produce this record.’ I’d like to be able to decide that and just do it – to work with my friends and have fun and throw DJ parties, but I don’t really get to do that so much.

Do you feel exhausted?
Yeah, I feel pretty tired. But if I was home, I’d be working just as much. I’d be just as tired – I’d be doing Brazilian ju-jitsu three or four times a week, working in the studio six days a week and DJing once a week. I miss my dog, I miss my wife, I miss my house. I miss being at a bar with a friend who’s like ‘Yeah we want to make a record’ and I’ll be like ‘Well I’ll do it! Let’s do it in a month’. And I can’t – not like ‘I’ll do it! Let’s do it in 2009,’ which is where it is now. It’s a little frustrating. It’s no problem touring, I actually enjoy it, but it’s so designed in the modern world to be all-encompassing. I don’t get to do what I like doing, which is to be pretty diverse and mix it up – do a little tour, a little production, a little this…

How did the FabricLive CD come about? Were you approached yourself or was it always a package of the two of you?
I’m not entirely sure. I think I was approached a long time ago and couldn’t do it. And then we went on this live tour and Pat and I had been DJing all the time, whenever we had nights off. I think we may have reached back out to them, to say, ‘When we’re done with this tour, do you still want to do the mix? Like a document of what we’ve been DJing on this tour.’ I could be dead wrong, but I think that’s how it went.

It would be hard to construct a DJ set in the studio – was it a set you’d been DJing out, so you knew what the reactions were?
We never have a set or anything planned, but there were core records that got played a lot. When we talked about doing it, we made a list of those records and sent it to them, and they cleared most of it, and then we had that list of what had been cleared and started coming over to my house and playing. It’s hard to play away from a crowd because you wonder what’s the point – it’s a bit masturbatory. Why play any record after any other record if you’re not reading the crowd? But we did a bunch of two hour sets at my house, just for fun, listened back and made decisions on what would make a good 74 minute mix. I think we did it in four chunks, like do five songs and let the fifth one play out and go back, so you don’t have the pressure of fucking it up on the last record! It’s no big deal doing the whole thing again, but if you keep doing it, whatever was fun and spontaneous about it would just be destroyed. So we wanted to keep it like live mixing – fun and not too stressed out.

How does DJing compare to playing live with the band?
[yawn] It’s apples and oranges. It’s so different. It’s hard to directly compare them. Live, you’re playing your own music and people are staring at you. It’s a lot more set-up, lugging gear and bullshit. But you’re playing your own music and when it’s great, it’s great. DJing is a delight. Theoretically, unless you’re in one of those weird celebrity DJ scenarios, which I’ve found myself in a couple of times, which I loathe, then people aren’t just staring at you. It feels a bit more like being a chef. You’re doing this rudimentary thing that’s theoretically designed to make people happy.

Do you prefer DJing?
I prefer DJing in the sense that I get to see cities more. It’s a lot less work. You don’t have to be there until midnight, so you have the whole day to go record shopping and you don’t need to carry anything other than your records. But live is obviously a bit more of a something, in a way.

So many different roles – how do you see yourself, first and foremost?
I make things. And whatever needs to be done to make things, I can usually figure out what to do. I’m better at some things than others – I’m a better drummer or bass player than I am a piano player, but I can play piano if it’s what I need to do to make something. It all seems to be about the same thing to me – just different aspects of the job. Again, it’s like cooking – sometimes you make a sauce, sometimes you’re timing the chicken

Whatever needs done to get the finished result?
Yeah, I’ve been an engineer – I’ve designed sound systems. I’ve done live sound, monitors, I’ve been a bouncer. I don’t see them as separate things at all.

And if you had to pick one, the only thing you could do?
If I had to pick one, I’d probably pick producing, just because it leaves me at home. But that’s just arbitrary. I’d get bored – if I just produced a bunch, I’d be like, ‘Fuck this, I need to make my own record!’ And if I just toured I’d be like, ‘Fuck this, I need to DJ!’ And if I just DJed I’d really want to play live again, you know? I like a balance.

It must make it more interesting for you as well, because there’s always something else you can do.
Yeah, I love that. It’s given me a lot of freedom. I don’t have to be as mercenary with any one single thing in my life. I don’t have to find that big record that will pay the bills, or take that really embarrassing DJ gig, or do that advertisement I don’t like. I feel lucky, like I’m in a good spot. I got sued a couple of years ago by a total crazy lunatic-

Was that the Death From Above thing?
No, no, not that at all. No, that was the funniest thing of all time! Jesse from Death From Above is a friend of mine! All of that was made to be a lot more than it was. This was their first experience of being on a major label, and they were learning how that works. We knew who they were, we knew about them long before but we never cared – it was always fine. But I know what it’s like when a major label sees something that could potentially be a lawsuit – they have to clear it before they put the record out. So they’re sending letters to DFA saying ‘We need you to back off the name,’ and I’m on tour so they’re not getting responses, so basically they’re being told, ‘this guy’s not even writing us back’. But I was on tour, I didn’t even know this was going on! So then I got home and I was like, ‘Well they can be DFA if they want, but we’re not going to NOT be Death From Above. We’re not going to NOT do it. These guys were telling us we can’t be DFA! Afterwards we had a good laugh about it cos it was just not the way it was supposed to be. But I wasn’t ever mad about it, even when they were really mad. They signed to Vice thinking it was an indie label, but it’s actually owned by Atlantic. They got the rude awakening to a certain degree and I can’t ever get mad at them. It was just a punk band, they were just a couple of punk dudes that were trying to do their thing and got hung up on shit that they didn’t think they’d get hung up on.

Sorry, you were saying…?
Sorry, yeah. I got sued by my old manager, who was just a piece of shit. And I got to go DJ to pay the bills! It was the best thing in the world – a lawyer would send me a bill and I’d go and do a bunch of DJ gigs to pay the bill off. And it was such a delight because I never had to worry about it. I was like, ‘I don’t mind DJing – if I’m DJing for no money, I’ve done that a million times!’ And to know that it’s fucking up somebody who’s trying to fuck with me, that’s great! Or just being able to say ‘I don’t want to produce that big, expensive record. Yeah maybe I’d make money, but it’d be really embarrassing, but I don’t have to because I’ll…..go on tour.’ There’s always some other way to do something that keeps you from having to compromise. If you only have one thing and you start getting panicky and thinking ‘this is our chance.’

That could be a lesson to a lot of people
I don’t blame them. People do embarrassing things, because it depends on who you’re surrounded by. It depends on who’s whispering in your ear all the time. I try to be careful to have good people whispering in my ear.

Can I ask you one last question?
Yes!

You were in bands for years – through your teens and your twenties. The success with LCD came when you were 32 – do you feel better equipped now to deal with everything that’s happened than if it had happened ten years ago?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Totally and absolutely, yes. If it has happened any other way, I’d be a really unhappy person.

You got married before all this, didn’t you?
No, I got married in the middle of it. But no, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Because like any 23 year old I was a self-involved idiot, and entitled and wondering when the world was going to send me my fucking cheque. And if the world had sent me a cheque I would’ve been like, ‘well there, everything’s right in the world!’ [laughing] And, you know, I’d just have been a baby. Failure is such a good and healthy thing. Prolonged failure is really good and healthy, and I’ve kind of mastered failure, dude! So having some success now, it’s far more surreal, absurdist and funny. And enjoyable, and it gives me better perspective in that when it’s not enjoyable, I can just say ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I don’t need to, I’ve lived for years without it.

And also in terms of music – if all this had happened 10 years before, your music would’ve sounded very different, and did.
Well I did make music ten years before and it sucked! To have been successful for that bad music would’ve been poisonous for life. [laughter]

OK that’s brilliant, I’ll let you go now. Good luck for tonight, and I’m going down to Dublin to see the show tomorrow, really looking forward to it.
Alright, sweet, see you then!

Thanks James, bye bye
Alright, see you.

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