James Murphy on 'Little Duck' and Producing Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor'

'I'm not excited about it for being different. I'm just excited about it for being a good record,' he says

James Murphy performs in New York City.
Andrew H. Walker/WireImage
James Murphy performs in New York City.
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Three years after since saying goodbye to LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy is busier than ever. He just released Little Duck – a short film he directed for Canon’s Project Imaginat1on. Mentored by Ron Howard, Murphy picked ten photos out of thousands submitted on the internet to inspire scenes from the film, filming with three actors over about a month in Japan. In this exclusive Q&A, Murphy discusses making the film while co-producing Arcade Fire’s Reflektor. "I was writing the script in Montreal working on the Arcade Fire record. I would wake up, like, at 6 a.m., get on conference calls, write the script, go to Arcade Fire, come home at night, more conference calls and then go get a fucking glass of wine and go to sleep and start all over again," Murphy says. "There was such a good wine bar in Montreal that I felt okay."

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What's it like working with Ron Howard on the first film you've ever directed?
He’s incredibly sweet. Really not scary. Not scary is a weird description. He’s just super polite and sweet and nice. I guess it isn’t that surprising, because he seems super nice. I'm always surprised by how optimistic and open sometimes people who are very successful are. I think sometimes people like that are successful because they are optimistic. I think sometimes a certain level of optimism is essential.

The first time we met was in Los Angeles. He’d done his homework. I was stunned. I’m much more lazy. I don’t prepare very well. I’m always sort of wrapped up in what I’m supposed to be doing in the moment and then I suddenly appear some place and I’m really not prepared. But he was really prepared.

You had thousands of photos to choose from. How did you pick them?
I decided not to think of any kind of story before picking them. I didn’t think about anything until I sat down at the pictures. So I guess images and stories emerged from certain pictures. So I had to pick things that started helping me get ideas for a story, as well as pictures that I liked aesthetically. I wanted photos as close to snapshots as I possibly could, as simple as I could. Because I feel like with the advent of computers, that's a missing element to photography, even just amateur photography, taking a picture. Aiming a camera at something and pressing snap and that being the end of it, you know? So I don't know. I just sort of took that seriously and I went through it. Everything had some sort of a story and I went from there.

Is directing anything like producing records?
Well, making films is a lot easier than my other job, I've found. As a director, people ask you questions all the time, like, "Which socks?" And that's kind of the way everything is. In my band, nobody asks me anything. You've got a producer or somebody's going, like, "9 o'clock, we gotta know this, because the lights are going." If I don't do something with the band, literally nothing happens. Which is half the battle, I think.  I've found answering questions is great. "What do you think about over here?" I'd be like "No, over here" and nobody argued with me. I really liked it.

I recently interviewed Win Butler and he had a lot of great things to say about what you contributed to Reflektor.
We'd been talking about working together since their second record. I remember when Neon Bible was getting made, I went up to visit them when they were at the church and I was trying. But by the time they got around to getting going, I was gonna make a record. After that, I took a year off but then they did as well, which is infuriating. So they went back and made The Suburbs when I went and made Sound of Silver. So it was like the same timing problem again. 

We’re in regular communication, so it’s not like one day I got a call out of the blue from Win Butler. Initially, we both felt that the best thing to do was to be like, "Work on a couple of songs, see what happens?" Because you never know. It could be like we could spend months on me planning, get there and figure out this is a terrible mistake. Yeah, it can be. It’s like a marriage, man. I have a process for working that I think was just not that intrusive. It wasn't a hugely creative role in my mind.

This is a nice situation where they have tended to say very nice things about the work I did and I have tended to say that I didn’t do that much. All I needed to do was just help provide clarity in a different way, so it was pretty fun and nice and everyone was remarkably respectful of one another.

He told me that by the the time the band left Jamaica at the beginning of the process, they had 50-60 songs. 
Yeah, they had a ton of songs. But they were mostly whittled down. By the time I came in, they were down to, I think, focusing on the 20 or 25 songs. In the end, though, a couple songs that were not on their list, got pulled out. Like, there was one that got pulled out 'cause I loved it, that kind of everyone had forgotten about for a while. [Laughs.] 

What surprised you about the songs when Win played them for you?
I mean, crap. I’m so inside it that it’s hard to remember what I felt when I heard them. Everything I feel is pretty workmanly. Like, when we get to listening to things, I’m like, "Oh, well, the drums need to get recorded more dryly" or "That's too cloudy." Regine’s super focused on rhythm and that’s something I tend to be really focused on. I kind of had these times where I worked with one person at a time. I'd have, like, a Regine day, I'd have a Win day, a Jeremy day, a Tim day, you know. To me, it always seems like, with a band, it's always a continuum and it doesn’t seem that crazy to me. It just seems like a good record. But then again I always feel that way about my own music, too, So. Someone will be like, "This is crazy!" and I’ll be like, "It doesn't seem crazy to me."

A lot of songs, like "Reflektor" or “You Already Know,” sound influenced by disco and dance music.  Were you guys playing that stuff in the studio or listening to some of your favorite records?
Not too much. I mean a little tiny bit for background sounds but not disco and stuff really. "You Already Know" just sounds like a really, like a happy/sad pop song of my own youth. We honestly barely had time to listen to anything really. What did we listen to? I was pretty conscious not to bring too much in to listen to unless it was basic piano loops, super ambient techno sounds and stuff like that, super ambient works that they could channel, and hear the way white noise works.

Which Arcade Fire song took the longest to perfect? 
The song that I worked the hardest on was "Awful Sound." It's three different songs in one. You're kind of working on them in pieces and it's the song that I you know that I feel like the most labor and attachment in some ways. There was a lot of different textures on it and you know big stuff and small stuff that was all happening at different times. There was something quite Seventies about it, which was nice.

As a fan, why are you excited about Reflektor?
I'm not excited about it for being different. I'm just excited about it for being a good record.  I'm excited and proud because I worked on it so I feel connected to it in a different way.  I grew up in the cassette times, I put one record on one side of the cassette and another record on the other side of the cassette by one band and when I bought the second record I always feel it sounds so crazily different from the first record, and then years later I wouldn't know which record I was listening to. They just kind of merge and make sense.