|James Murphy: Disco Infiltrator
RA's Nick Sylvester chats to the LCD Soundsystem frontman and disco DJ in advance of his performance at this year's Electric Zoo festival.
In late May, I visited James Murphy in Los Angeles, where he had stationed himself, an assistant, two engineers, a chef, a videographer and several others in a secluded Hollywood mansion. Here he was producing the next LCD Soundsystem album, or a large part of it. The house was owned by Rick Rubin, and had the look of an Italian villa.
There were many stories about the house. The Mansion was haunted, apparently. The ghost, in his former career as sentient human being, may or may not have been homosexual. Genesis P-Orridge threw himself off one of the balconies, maybe, to finance the recording of some record no one could quite remember. Harry Houdini lived here, or it might have been his wife, and a series of tunnels connected Houdini's one mansion to his other mansion, which we were assured was somewhere in the distance.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded Blood Sugar Sex Magik at The Mansion, and left the drummer's carpet up in the bell tower, accessible only with strong arms and a stomach for odd insects. In the first floor bathroom, underneath the sink, were old surfing magazines that may have been flipped through by the members of the Maroon 5 as they sat on a toilet that was approximately four inches too close to the ground. While it wasn't a house rule, it was highly suggested by Murphy's assistant, the New York DJ Matt Cash, that I bring and wear only all-white clothing, so as not to disrupt the house's equilibrium.
The Friday night before I left, Murphy had a DJ set at Avalon, a large club in downtown LA. The night was sponsored by the beverage company Bacardi, and on the stage was a large backdrop made to resemble an old boombox. A stretch limousine picked up about thirteen of us, all dressed in all-white, and drove us to the club. Several hours earlier, I sat in Murphy's studio, reading a book as he pulled records for his set, from piles scattered around the room, resting on the legs of the folding tables where he placed his synthesizers.
"I'm sick of my records," he said. Murphy gave up on his scavenger hunt for the moment, got behind his computer, and threw together an extended edit of "I Can't Get Over You," a Jumbo song covered by Star City.
The night before, many of us had spun those very records, picking them at random and hoping to hear something fantastic, which was usually the case. We must have played Murphy's records for six straight hours. I couldn't understand how he hated them.
So when RA asked me to interview Murphy about his upcoming DJ appearance with Pat Mahoney at the Electric Zoo Festival, an open-air festival taking place in New York this coming Labor Day weekend, I was excited to ask him to clarify. It's not an unusual sentiment, for a DJ to be bored by the music he plays. But I wanted to hear Murphy explain how it happens. And I wanted to know how a man with mountains of sublime 12-inches—which he's accumulated over the last several years for Special Disco Version, his exclusively disco DJ sets—overcomes these pangs of the DJ's peculiar though very real Record Sickness.
The interview took place in late July, at Murphy's Brooklyn apartment. His assistant Cash sat on a couch close by, tending to the business of Murphy's return: There was an Izzo ALEX espresso machine that needed to be reinstalled; a baby grand piano, which Cash and Murphy and others had just carried up a flight of steps into the apartment, was due for a tuning.
You were in the studio and you said, "I'm sick of my records."
I very seldom get sick of a record. But sometimes I get tired of my records. Meaning, in general, there's a tilt that I want to do something different with. There are records I've had in my bag that I've had for years, that I don't take out and I still play and I never get tired of them. Sometimes I'll get into a type of vocal for a while, and then I'll be like, ugh, I don't want to keep playing this. In a record store, what I gravitate towards all the time doesn't really translate into what I want to DJ.
"If you kissed everybody,
then the kiss is meaningless."
Did your records have some specific vibe you felt wouldn't work in LA?
We went to a lot of Sunday pool things. And people would be playing what I think are pretty heavy records. I don't mean heavy like hard, but heavy like pretty deep or weird or unusual records. But [they would be playing them] sort of like, frivolously. The interesting thing about some of those records is trying to figure out how to get people to dance to them. But if people aren't dancing, just playing them seems very throwaway. Because if people aren't dancing, you can kinda play anything.
Sometimes it's nice to play just anonymous music, or music that's not mixed, or whatever. But OK. When Matt [Cash] played, [to Matt] Matt, you'll play these weird little gentle things, and you'll let it build. You'll always have an arc. You have an arc that doesn't require people dance. But it's an arc. It still feels like something is going on. And there will be a moment when a bunch of people get excited about one song which, played a different way, wouldn't have gotten them excited. But then there are people who play song after song with no story, and no arc—serious songs that I take really seriously. Something about that cheapens the songs in a weird way to me.
This all sounds very heady, but I mean it very lightly. It's just an intuition thing. If you kissed everybody—you say hi and you kiss everybody—then the kiss is meaningless. If you're excited to see everybody, then who cares. If you play these songs when it doesn't matter, it takes the weight away from them. So I didn't want to play those songs.
Do you prefer not to know the songs in other people's sets?
My favorite DJ sets are often filled with music I don't know and then suddenly one song I know and love, that's been earned. That's as good as it gets. When you're out dancing, and somebody's been playing music you just don't know at all, and then all the sudden something comes in that you know and love, right at a good moment, that's a little more open or energetic than the previous nine things...I prefer that.
Most people I know—non-club people—don't feel comfortable dancing to songs they don't know though.
I'm lazy about that. If my friend is DJing, and I'm not in the dance floor area, and I'm just kinda hanging out near them, drinking their rider, I might be like, ah fuck, what is that? If Marcus [Lambkin] is DJing, I'll be in the booth with him drinking, and if he plays something I'll like, I'll ask. But if I'm out, and Rub-N-Tug are playing, even if they're friends of mine, if I'm dancing I'm not going to run up and ask what something it is. Unless I know it and I can't place it. I would do that if I'm like, "Fuck, I have this. I know I own this. I never played it because I'm an idiot. What the fuck is this." I don't get worked up about knowing what everything is.
But that depends on what people are there for. Are they for dancing or are they there to socialize?
Is there a difference?
How do the people who go there know each other? People go to weddings, they want to dance, but they're there for the wedding. You have to play music they know. They don't get dressed up and go to dance. They go for another social impetus. Which is: to see their families, to watch somebody get married, get drunk and watch somebody do the electric slide.
Different types of parties have different types of tones. Old house parties, you go to dance. There is no other reason.
Then there are hipsters parties where you go to see people and get Cobrasnake'd. DFA—we were a hipster party that became about music. Which wasn't so much before that. Before that there were club kid parties, which were about club kids, and there were hipster parties which were about being at Max Fish and seeing or being a painter. It was about listening to The Stooges. That's kinda what I was used to. We got into dance music and we tried to push those two together.
Going to a hipster party now in America or the World contains a certain expectation that you're going to hear music that you don't know, and dance. That's a rare one. That's unusual. People aren't really going to dance, but because we've coopted their other impetus for getting together, it's expected that they should dance. People don't go to DFA party at APT to drink. You go to a fucking bar to drink. But of course you're gonna drink. But we've pushed that [i.e. dancing] into the culture. It's more expected. You get away with more leeway.
When you bring that friend who does not go to hipster parties but thinks he likes to dance, to a hipster party, and they're like, "What the fuck is this?" They don't know what to do with themselves. You can't really talk to people, it's kinda loud. They want to hear top 40, R&B. And yet you think this is all so natural.
But to an extent you have an obligation to those people too, right? The Top 40 friend, who wants to hear songs s/he recognizes. Aren't these the people you want to win over?
You still have to try and make them happy.
"Pat Mahoney and I started
playing disco as a way to make
people more uncomfortable."
Is it possible for you to resolve what you, as a DJ, consider to be a good set—anonymous music that builds to moments of recognition—with what you know could be a set that turns new people onto disco?
By making everybody else a little more uncomfortable. For me, playing real disco was a big deal because people talked about disco a few years ago but people didn't really play it. They played edits, or they played "disco-ish." Nobody played anything with really gay vocals or shit like that. That was like, that's too much. It was very much lip service. Even I, I played weird stuff, but not so much real disco. Pat [Mahoney] and I started playing disco as a way to make people more uncomfortable. Because it's more fun. Then people come out of their shells in different ways. Then that Top 40 guy doesn't feel out of place because then nobody feels that comfortable either.
I feel like it needs to be more...I don't like when there's a common agreement. It felt weird. There were people who don't really care about music comfortably listening to disco and tracks that were important to me and I found strange. People just passively absorbing that shit. Ugh, that's not what I wanted to. I don't want to generate passivity. The culture changes, and therefore music that used to be surprising becomes more passive. Because everybody plays it, it becomes cool to like disco. That changes what it sounds like and what it means to me.
Whereas it used to be very strange to sneak in disco. I'd play festivals with 2manyDJs and start sneak the Bee Gees in, sneaking disco in, and it was really fun. It was fun to earn and fun to know you were taking people out of their comfort zone and they were going for it, because you did a good enough job of playing things that made them trust you and feel comfortable and then they trusted you enough that they just came with you into a zone that if you were to just present it to them flatly, it would have been really boring. That to me is a good DJ set. That's a fun set. When you feel like you have dragged the room or the tone or the people along to an aesthetic that they might have otherwise been uncomfortable [with].
It's like being a con person. It's no big deal to con somebody out of a dollar for a candy bar. A candy bar costs a dollar. It's not a con. But to get somebody invested in your candy distribution operation... To keep the magical thread of belief going. It's obviously a gentle con. Or take somebody who's a real defeatist—talking them out of wrecking their own head. Bringing them out of their comfort zone. It's a positive thing. Not so much a con.
Are there kinds of disco tracks, within the larger realm of disco, that you won't play anymore, because too many other DJs are playing them?
James Murphy makes way for a Virgin DJ
The soulier stuff. It depends on the kind of crossover you're dealing with. People who like hip-hop, they like soulier disco. Things that don't necessarily have four on the floor, aren't so shiny, might be a little gritty or more funky. Like "Evil Vibrations" or something like that. Because you can see that being sampled. Turned into hip-hop. That [stuff] I had to get away from, for a while. And then the really Italo stuff. There are people who found that more comfortable.
It depends on the crowd really. For me it's like, I want to play, and I want to draw little connections. You like hip-hop? Here are five samples—the originals of things. Those were produced by this guy. That kind of sounds like this. And now we're over here in super-campy synth disco. We've been able to make a sonic justification for getting there. That's what's fun. Not being jarring in a negative way. Reinforce, then surprise.
Do you watch the crowd, to see if it's working? How do you know?
That's not how I get information. It's a feeling thing. Like, the same way I know when we're playing a good show. I'm not looking at the band, I'm not looking at the crowd. I can tell it just feels right. I trust my empathy, I guess. I trust my sense of the space. I don't look or try to judge, is this a good crowd? Is this a bad crowd? Whenever I do, there's just not enough information. Or sometimes you're having a bad night and you'll find a couple people who are psyched and you just say, I'll just play for them. But if you feel good, it works. Sometimes it's hard to feel good. One person who's psyched, that just spreads. If I'm feeling good, usually it's a good night. I've never had a great time DJing and not had it been a good night for the place. That's never happened.
Empathy for the space.
I trust that I know that it sounds right, that it's working. I feel particularly sensitive to sound and space. That's why I loved to mix bands. Something I feel really comfortable with. If I'm making it exciting for me, I can make compromises on sound and volume to make power feel exciting. DJing is a lot like that. In fact, it's so funny. People always ask, "What's the difference between DJing and performing live?" DJing has nothing to do with performing live for me. But DJing has a lot to do with mixing live bands, to me. Those are very similar, and I get amazing feelings from both.
Are you supposed to tip the sound guy?
Depends on the situation.
Matt Cash: I used to work four nights a week down in Miami DJing, always with the same individual doing sound. He always really liked that I didn't call him the sound guy; I called him the engineer. That went such a long way for him. Because sound engineers are so used to being shit on. You show them just the smallest bit of respect, they will take care of you.
Murphy: "So you're the house engineer..." Yeah, that's better than a tip.