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James Murphy on Despacio, LCD Soundsystem's Live Album and New Music

'The goal is for me to make music when I have my new studio,' he says

December 11, 2013 10:55 AM ET
James Murphy
James Murphy performs in New York City.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for WIRED

Since disbanding LCD Soundsystem in 2011, James Murphy has busied himself with all kinds of exciting new projects – from producing Arcade Fire to remixing David Bowie to filmmaking with Ron Howard to perfecting a signature espresso blend. Now, in a perhaps inevitable step, the former Soundsystem frontman has created a custom soundsystem.

See Where LCD Soundsystem's 'Sound of Silver' Ranks on Our 500 Greatest Artists of All Time List

Despacio is a circular array of eight 11-foot McIntosh speaker stacks that Murphy designed with David and Stephen Dewaele of 2ManyDJs and engineer John Klett. They debuted it over the summer at a series of vinyl-only DJ sets at England's Manchester International Festival. Later this month, they will showcase Despacio once more over three club nights in London.

Murphy called Rolling Stone to talk about Despacio and drop a few hints about his future plans – including an LCD Soundsystem live album and the brand-new studio he's building in New York, where he will eventually work on new original music.  

I hear that Despacio is “a revolutionary sound system experience."
Oh, boy. Who said that?

That’s what it says in the press materials I got. It sounds exciting!
Oh, goodness. I don’t know if it’s revolutionary. I think it’s fairly simple, but it just doesn’t exist. I mean, it’s not rocket science – it's doing things simply and loudly. It's just  a big, modular speaker box system that’s designed for really immersive listening. And because of the music we're playing, there will be dancing. We hope!

How far back does this idea go for you?
I used to be a system designer – it's one of the jobs I did before the band. I did dance clubs and rock clubs and stuff like that in the Nineties, and I built the speaker monitors that we use in DFA Studios. So it's sort of a permanent state of discussion that I've been having forever. And as I did more and more DJing in the past 15 years, watching the sound systems evolve, watching DJ culture evolve into this sort of show-spectacle-type scenario, where DJs now play on stages with systems that are aimed at the audience from where the DJ is, so everyone naturally turns and looks and there’s a lot of lights on them and they wave their arms – for me, that's not that exciting. I kept getting thrown on these stages, you know, DJing with the same sound systems, and it was just really disheartening.

Dave and Steph and I have been friends for a long time. I mean, at the first LCD show, we played with 2ManyDJs. So we've come through these processes together, and we just started complaining. We'd go to Ibiza and DJ there and be a little disappointed with what Ibiza has become, and talk a lot about the history of dance music and my history with New York. You know, we used to throw these little DFA parties – which weren't thatlittle – but they were old-fashioned dance parties, where people would dance and it’s dark and you’re not looking at the DJ. We were missing that, and realizing that there just weren’t that many venues in the world that did it. Everyone’s getting the same kind of sound systems, which, I don’t know, I haven’t drank the Kool-Aid, I’m not crazy about.

Is the idea that once other clubs see how cool this is, they’ll be inspired to create their own better sound systems?
I hope so. I mean, I don’t know how the economics in clubs work, because I don’t own a club. But the design of the speakers is quite simple. I'm hoping you can just build a smaller version of a Despacio in your club, and it can be quite reasonable. But first we have to show them. We have to drag this behemoth around and play it in places.

Do you think it's still possible for DJ culture to move back from that spectacle approach toward something immersive?
I think it’s always doing that. As much as I like to bitch and moan about that stuff, it’s got nothing to do with underground DJing. There’s still clubs where people just play music – and the more this stuff gets big and dumb, the more people want to go underground. It’s like, the more pompous music got, the more you wound up with punk rock. The bigger hair metal got, the more you wind up with grunge. It’s just part of the way the – for lack of a better word – yin and yang move. I’ve always felt that I’m not that unusual of a person. If I’m bored of something and want something else, then so does a certain percentage of the human race. Probably enough to fill a small club. I’m sure that you’ll never see, like, festivals built around this. But there were never festivals built around that anyway.

Do you see signs anywhere that other people are feeling the same way as you do on this?
Not really, but then again, I’m 43 years old and I don’t go out that much. It’s like, it’d be weird if I had my finger on the pulse. You know what I mean?

What makes you want to spend your time working on something like this? Is designing a really awesome sound system more fun than, let's say, fronting a band?
It’s different. If I’m fronting a band, I can’t do this or any of the other things that I do. Can’t do this. Can’t do music for a play. Can’t do edits for Despacio. Can’t build a sound system. Can’t design a new studio. Can’t produce Arcade Fire. Can’t do a Bowie mix. You know, the summation of all those parts at the moment is far more interesting than another year of being a professional rock musician.

That's interesting. There's an assumption for people that fronting a band is pretty much the coolest thing you can do.
Well, fronting my band, in particular – I can only speak to that – was super fun. It’s amazing. Like, these are my best friends, and people liked our band, and we got to be uncompromising. It’s incredible. But it’s still being a professional rock musician, which is a little boring, because there’s so many expectations that I do take seriously. In other words, you make record. You finish record. You make video. You pick single. You go on tour, which takes a really long time. You do interviews. It’s basically a two-year process to do an album, within which you have very little life. And it was the best job imaginable, but as soon as I started to complain about it, there’s nothing worse than a person in a position that other people envy, complaining. When someone says, “Why don’t you just quit if you don’t like it?” that’s a fair enough thing to say, and I’m one of those people that always said that when rock stars bitched. So, take my own advice, you know? [Laughs] It’s like, if you get tired of it, just quit. So this becomes possible, which is incredible. I get to do all this crazy shit – and if I ever wanted to be in a band again, I can  probably figure that out.

I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to get that going if you wanted to. So would you say 2013 has been a good year for you?
It’s been incredible. I mean, I was feeling irrelevant in not a bad way at all – I was like, “Oh, I’m just a guy on the sidelines now, which is great.” I did the Arcade Fire record. I did a song with Kathleen Hanna. I did a song with Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In fact, I didn’t have time to do their album – I was supposed to do that, but the Arcade Fire work I had already committed to. I did a song with Pulp. You know, I got to just fuck around and do the stuff I never could do. Then I got an offer to do a David Bowie remix. I hadn’t done a remix in five years, so that was really scary – it would have been scary if it was a remix for somebody I had never even heard of, but it was super scary to do that. [Laughs] So I did that, and I started doing music for a play, which was super weird, playing and writing classical piano and cello. I directed and wrote a film in Japanese and shot it in Japan. It was really quiet. I was working away in a little factory. And then, all of a sudden, towards the end of the year, everything started coming out. The play premiered. The film came out. The Arcade Fire record came out. The Bowie mix came out. And it was really funny – my managers were, like, “If you had a record coming out in April, it would be so perfect.” [Laughs] I’m like, “That’s the point! I wouldn’t have a record coming out in April if I had done all this shit. It’s impossible. And if I had a record coming out in April, I would have been fucking invisible for two years.” And finally, Jesus, the fucking live album. It’s killing me. That’s been just murder.

That's from LCD Soundsystem's farewell show?
It’s just the full Madison Square Garden concert. I mixed it significantly differently than the film [Shut Up and Play the Hits], because the film is mixed for your eye and the record is mixed for your ears. The film is mixed digitally, because you have to watch it in a theater and make little adjustments all through for a four-hour film, whereas the record is just mixed analog to tape, the way I normally do. But it took forever, because I’m not really on a label anymore. We had to do artwork, and I was away, and I had to get clearances for everything. It was a real comedy of errors. I finished mixing it over a year ago, so I’ve been like [whistles].

How did it feel to look back on that night from a little bit of a remove?
It was weird. It was like the concert happened, and then I spent the next year and a half fucking with it. I was like, “I’m done! Ah, shit. I gotta go deal with the fucking movie.” I had to do Shut Up and Play the Hits, and dealing with the live footage, and mixing all the sound for the live footage, and then I had to do the whole four-hour concert and edit all that footage and mix everything. It was great, but also, like, shitting hell. It really just refused to die. I guess somebody else would just have someone else deal with the movie, but I’m an idiot and wanted to mix all that audio. I thought it was going to come out in March, but now I don’t think it’s going to make it for this year. It’s probably going to be beginning of next year. It’s infuriating.

Are you getting any closer to a time where you might be interested in either making solo material or getting the band back together?
Yeah, I mean, I’m building a studio. And the goal is for me to make music when I have my new studio. That’s what I want to do. I’m working on other things – I’m doing edits and mixing other people’s music – but I'll work on original music that isn’t classical music for a play. That’s the idea. I’ve always gone to a new space to make a record, so this is like a new space. 

Is that something you think would happen in the next year, or is that a longer term plan?Well, the studio won’t be done until at least June, so it’s gonna be a minute. And I've also got projects that I’m working on through this spring – a couple film things, and I’m trying to do the subway turnstile thing, which is a really big project. 

What's the craziest LCD Soundsystem reunion offer you've gotten in the past two years?
I don’t know. They get shot down before it ever gets to me.

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