7:30 p.m., backstage at Terminal 5 James Murphy is hunched forward on a black leather sofa, focusing, as usual, on logistics. His full head of graying, punk-coiffed hair is tilted down, his eyebrows form a mournful pyramid, and his blue eyes scan texts on a tiny Ericsson cellphone as he attempts the impossible: guest-listing his friends without exceeding the venue’s limit.
“I don’t like to promise something and then fail,” says Murphy, a tall, bloke-ish 40 whose doughy, stubbled face somehow looks older and younger than he is. In an hour and a half, his band, LCD Soundsystem, will play the first of four sold-out nights in New York, where Murphy, to say the least, has many friends.
LCD keyboardist Nancy Whang stands next to him, applying makeup in the mirror of this second-floor dressing room in Manhattan’s multitiered Terminal 5. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling, bottles of whiskey and vodka stand ready on a shelf, and a posted memo bears today’s wireless-access password: “davidbowie,”
Murphy is suited for game time: black early-Eighties YSL blazer (“10 bucks on eBay,” he says), black YSL trousers (“free”for doing live runway music for the line’s show in Paris), white YSL tee (XXL) and Chinese-made Feiyue kung-fu sneakers (“10 bucks in Chinatown”).
This stylishly DIY activewear updates last tour’s white linen suits, of which Murphy bought five sets in Spain for $60 apiece, then wore through a grueling circuit of summer festivals. By the end, they were filthy.
“I was horrifying when I got on the plane,” Murphy says, recalling the common two-part reaction: “First, [brightly] ‘Oh, dude in a white suit!’ Then, ‘Whoa…homeless dude in a white suit.’”
LCD posse members begin trickling in. “Aaayy, Babaganoush!” calls Murphy as he engulfs pal Justin Chearno in a bear-hug. “Now it’s a party!”
The 40-ish Chearno, a guitarist who played on LCD’s Sound of Silver, helps run Brooklyn’s Uva Wines and was among the crew at Murphy’s apartment last night for the usual: listening to old disco records and sampling varietals—this time a Massa Vecchia Vermentino and a Chilean organic that “showed well,” says Murphy, but was “like a triple-A team coming up against the Yankees.”
Murphy hears some aggro techno pounding over the club’s PA and sends an assistant to change the pre-show music. “Something more upbeat,” he says. “More sauvignon blanc, not so chardonnay.”
Murphy is sipping a red plastic cup of Veuve Clicquot but says he doesn’t drink much before concerts. Comparatively, at least. A few weeks ago, LCD played their first concert in two years, and Murphy “can’t remember any of it.” He attributes this to an ill-advised return to a beverage from a decade ago, when he first began performing live: a whiskey-champagne cocktail invented in Dublin and known as “an Irish cunt.”
Art, for Murphy isn’t always pretty “I don’t have a direct line to my own well of craziness,” he says. “My father was born in 1931, and I’m the last son of an older man from a totally different era. So that feely, Seventies, get-your-creativity-on shit makes me insane. I was a very good engineer — I could take your guitar, take it apart and put it back together like a rifle in the rain and then play it. And that’s where I get my self-worth. But that other little voice that says, [peeping] ‘Try this’ – that’s very, very quiet. Most are like, [loudly] ‘This is embarrassing, don’t do this!’”
Lately, this affliction has required ever-more-radical strategies: flying equipment and friends out to an L.A. mansion last year, installing a high-end recording studio himself, instituting an all-white dress code and recording LCD’s new This Is Happening! surrounded by buddies, D.Is, artists and chefs, while playing most of the instruments himself “He was in his own world in L.A.,” says Pat Mahoney, LCD’s drummer and Murphy’s chief collaborator. “Which he needed to create for himself.”
8:30 p.m., just before showtime. The dressing-room lights are dimmed, and the disco ball spins slowly Mahoney falls into a chair, his chest heaving after the stress of a circuitous subway ride from Brooklyn. “I got all the way into Manhattan before I realized I forgot my show clothes and had to go back,” he says. Asked where the clothes are now, he says, “Right there,” and points to a pair of swim trunks. Mahoney sits for a minute with eyes closed, soaking up the room’s ambience. “It’s amazing,” someone says. “It’s so quiet.”
“Yeah, well, big guy left the room,” says Whang.
11:15 p.m., backstage, moments after the show. LCD’s extended family is staging a 2010 update of the zany, overcrowded party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Latino skaters, Welsh ravers, chubby bearded hipsters, could-be American Apparel models, Katy Perry, Murphy’s teenage niece and every other form of human overflows from the dressing rooms and into the hall, as Murphy balances a red plastic cup, pulled this way and that by the scrum.
Soon he’s in a loud téte-a-téte with a black, mohawked guy named Ahmad, whom Murphy first spotted years ago in a D.C. club crowd. “He was way heavy then, and he goes up front, and he’s just dancing crazy, and we were like, ‘Holy shit, this dude rules,’” says Murphy “We brought him backstage, fell in love, and he’s been with us ever since.”
11:30 p.m., backstage. Murphy paces down a quiet corridor. He isn’t feeling so great, he says — had a bad monitor mix, couldn’t hear himself, sang himself hoarse, may be getting sick. A friend tries to cajole him to the West Village afterparty._“There’s no way,” Murphy says. “I really need to get my voice back.”
11:45 p.m., yellow cab. “West Street and Jane,” Murphy says as he and Mahoney fall into the taxi and head downtown. Within 10 blocks, the Romanian driver has a question for Murphy: “Can you explain, please, the meaning of the phrase ‘Holy shit?’”
Yelling from the windy back seat, Murphy begins a long, dubious, largely improvised etymology that ends, “But all our curses are stolen from other languages, so it really doesn’t mean anything.” He asks for the Romanian version: “Like, what would you say if you dropped something on your foot?”
“Satan eat shit!” “‘Satan eat shit’ doesn’t make any sense, dude!” yells Murphy. “When we’re surprised, We’ll say, ‘Holy shit,’ but when you drop something on your foot, you gotta say, ‘Fuck!’ ‘Cause it’s the perfect expression ’cause it starts with a faaaa–.”
“Hi,” calls a female voice, jerking all heads rightward. A lithe, young-Virginia-Madsen-looking blonde is in the open window of a passing taxi. “Where’re you guys going?” she says, having recognized Murphy from the show.
Murphy thinks as the other cab drifts ahead. “Jane! ” he says at last. “Jane Hotel!”
“Jane Hotel?” says the girl. “Fuck, yeah!”
“Fuck, yeah,” Murphy softly repeats as the other cab pulls ahead, as if parsing this American idiom.
At 21, Murphy, then a Pynchon-obsessed fiction writer, was approached to write for a new sitcom called Seinfeld. “I smoked pot instead,” he says. Ten years later, Murphy’s first LCD song was an extended comedic monologue called “Losing My Edge” — a paranoid rant by a preposterously well-credentialed hipster who was at every seminal musical event from Captain Beefheart’s first rehearsal to the opening of legendary New York gay disco the Paradise Garage.
“He’s not short on words,” says Mahoney. “One of the reasons that we work well together is I know what he means by ‘wonky,’ ‘ascot’ or ‘tough.’”
“Ascot,” per Mahoney, is “a sustain-y lord-of-the-manor sound” like that associated with late-Seventies Robert Fripp. “Wonky” signifies a simple, powerful kind of rhythm played beneath a drummer’s technical abilities.
“That’s the gayest disco sound in the world,” says Mahoney. “A sound that’s so gay and over-the-top, it’s tough. Like [Hot Chip’s] ‘Over and Over’ – it’s sung in falsetto and it’s tough as nails. Or Soft Cell, anything off of Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.” “
“Then there’s ‘good-bad-good,’” adds Murphy. “That’s an important one. It’s a complex way of liking something that’s really wrong. For us, being hyper-self-conscious, media-savvy fuckwads, we have to go with the first instinct even if we have all sorts of voices saying, ‘Uh, noooo.’ That’s when you go to ‘good-bad-good.’ For instance, the falsetto bit on ‘I Can Change’ was wrong-y wrong. And it took Pat being like, ‘No, leave it in.”
“I had the hair standing up on the back of my neck,” says Mahoney. “So I said, ‘That’s probably good.’”
12:30 a.m., Jane Hotel. After loping up the stairs to the private bar area, Murphy kicks in with a bottle of high-end champagne called Ruinart. “Ruin art!” Murphy says, pleased. “Like, ‘Fuck art, let’s dance!”’
Which was more or less Murphy’s motto 12 years ago. He had been a sound engineer, working mostly on indie-rock albums, but then he had a revelation: making obscure guitar-band records was no way to go through life. “It felt like indie rock had become the Ford Taurus of music,” he says. “Where everyone was like, ‘We’re not going to stick our neck out, we’re going to be solid and real and have a shitty band.”’ Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O, standing three feet away, nods and laughs. “I remember what you used to yell,” she says. “‘Who wants to flick this band?’ ‘Nobody! Nobody! Nobody wants to fuck this band!’
In 2001, after some late-night epiphanies involving Ecstasy, Murphy cofounded the New York disco-punk label DFA, releasing discs by the Rapture, Hot Chip and other leaders of the movement. But Murphy himself didn’t become an artist until after 30, like music’s version ofthe critic-turned-director Jean-Luc Godard. Unlike Godard, Murphy made the jump the same year both of his parents died and an event befell his city that made his label’s original name, Death From Above, untenable. “When [9/11] happened, it was right after my dad had just died,” he says. “And I remember thinking” – he shrugs and raises his palms — “‘Of course.”’
Among the happier events of the period was Murphy’s first Yeah Yeah Yeahs show. “It was maybe five songs,” he says. “And I was like, ‘Dude, this rules!’” After a few more exuberant compliments, he looks at Karen O more seriously. “But the first time I heard you play…the sadder songs? That was a real turning point for me,” Murphy says. “It was like ….” He searches for the right word and then says, almost with surprise, “Beautiful! And it was a time when the audience was not looking for beautiful. The audience was looking for the next big thing. It was, like, you can choose to be a casualty of your own hipness, or you can choose to be this beautiful thing.”
1:30 a.m., VIP room. One of Murphy’s inner circle stands at the bar. “The new [LCD] record is about recovering from a terrible year,” says Jayson Green, singer of the Brooklyn band Panthers, mentioning lyrics like those in “Home” that long to “shut the door on terrible times.”
Last year, Murphy’s friend, drummer Jerry Fuchs, fell to his death in an elevator shaft while Murphy was recording This Is Happening!, which is dedicated to him. “But now, even earlier lines like ‘Where are your friends tonight,’ ” says Green, quoting LCD’s “All My Friends.” “I mean, Jerry was alive when that song was written, but when James soundchecked with it at Webster Hall, he had to walk offstage.
2 a.m., VIP room. The blonde from tonight’s passing cab has arrived and buttonholed Murphy, fingering the strap on his shoulder bag. For his entire career, Murphy has written deeply ambivalent songs about love, life, friendship, music and the nature of New York hipsterdom, the last inspiring his transcendent lament, “New York, I Love You (But You’re Bringing Me Down).”
A month ago, Murphy performed for 70,000 people in a Coachella slot right before Jay-Z, who came up afterward to give him props in a conversation Murphy can’t quite remember. But tonight, as the band finished this New York non-anthem, Murphy’s trademark ambivalence—part of what helped this “hyper-self-conscious, media-savvy fuckwad”’s albums render New York life better than any single novel of the decade—crossfaded into something else. A piano nocturne introduced the chorus of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” which Murphy and Co. sang as lights flashed, confetti exploded, and thousands of completely unironic white balloons tumbled onto the crowd.
Now Murphy has extricated himself from the blonde’s heart-to-heart and is back in his circle of friends. Mahoney and Whang dance in a peaceful circle to the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”: “Home/Is where I want to be/ But I guess I’m already there.” Murphy, surrounded by his posse in a banquette, is beaming. “New York is better than France and London. It is, isn’t it?” he says, looking from friend to friend, as if it’s dawning on him at last. “It is better.”
© 2010 by Chris Norris