As frontman of LCD Soundsystem and part of the production duo/label team DFA, James Murphy helped put New York back on the musical map. The sound he's most known for is dance-rock, a mangled tag that nonetheless gets at the fusion of styles too often thought to be mutually exclusive. Murphy loves punk and disco without apology, and he's equally liable to be found onstage thrashing his head or up on a riser spinning records for fans who drool over his DJ skills.
The Fall, "In The Park"
James Murphy: This has the best lyric in it: "You thought it'd be great / But a good mind does not a good fuck make." The whole song, I think, is just about having sex in a park or somewhere. Being retarded and trying to find a place to go. I love The Fall. To me, it's the best catalog in rock history. I'll take it over The Beatles or The Velvet Underground. It's really beautiful and broken, and it was the first thing I found that was completely unencumbered by bourgie tastes. Bands like Echo & The Bunnymen—when you're a teenager, that shit's great. You're like, "Oh, this is dark and mysterious and English." But it's really juvenile in terms of its aesthetic. The Fall was different. There's no candy. When you're a kid, you have this impression that things like respected literary novels are going to be like Merchant-Ivory movies, full of precious subtle things. But when you actually read books, you realize that shit's really fucked-up and dark and much more complex than your childish notion of what art is going to be like. The Fall is the first band that erased suburban-American concepts of what punk rock was going to be like for me. It's not heavy. It's not romantic. It's just broken up, and it really scared the shit out of me. It totally changed my life.
Devendra Banhart, "Poughkeepsie"
JM: In the beginning, I was kind of interested in Devendra, and then I wrote him off a bit, because it sounded so much like early Tyrannosaurus Rex. I wasn't against that; it was refreshing and it seemed kind of necessary. But I wasn't that engaged. Then I felt like it was silly that I didn't know all these things like Antony & The Johnsons and The Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. I was remiss in my duty of having some concept as to what was germane to the culture I live in. And then there is a ton of the San Francisco Cockettes in [Banhart]. I dislike hippies as a rule, but he's like a Cockettes hippie. He's the kind of hippie who could have gone to the [Andy Warhol] Factory, so I'm down. I think this is the New Yorker in me. I want a little more Leonard Cohen out of him, but I want a little more Leonard Cohen out of everybody.
The Velvet Underground, "Here She Comes Now"
JM: It's just insane how good this is. We don't have people like Lou Reed now. He was a huge pop songwriter, like: Work in a bubblegum factory where you write pop songs for cash. Bridge, verse, chorus, transition up a half-step—the whole shit. When people listen to The Velvet Underground, they think of them as this rabble of fucked-up dudes who are all high and can only sort of play and just stumbled on this amazing beginning of rock 'n' roll. You didn't have to be self-conscious to make good rock 'n' roll back then. It was such a fertile thing. You could just have a different pedal and make interesting rock music. They were as cool as it gets, which is why I think it's so amazing that Lou Reed walks around playing a headless Steinberger guitar with a mullet. That was another thing like The Fall that blew up my aesthetics. Lou Reed totally destroyed a lot of the solid footing that I had, because he doesn't give a shit. He's fucking Lou Reed. You're like, "You look like an idiot." And he's like, "All right, and you're not Lou Reed."
Can, "I Want More"
JM: One of the greatest songs ever. This is Can's closest thing to a disco song. I love Can. I don't know what else to say, other than I want to do an edit of them. But I have a hard time meeting people like that. It's too intense. I don't want to be goofy. I don't want to be cavalier. I don't know how to be in scenarios with people who have done things that are that important to me. And they're going to be goofy dudes. It was weird to watch the Can documentary, because it's so different than the image you get of them as so respectable and tasteful. You watch this footage, and Irmin Schmidt is wearing, like, chain-mail and faded sunglasses and doing all this Dr. John crazy action. Holger Czukay has no shirt on and white gloves. You're like, "What the fuck on Earth is going on?" That was really healthy to see—as part of the formula to always pursue tastes regardless of their tastefulness. Taste is something rich people have, whether rich with money or knowledge. It's irrelevant. It's not anything real. You can go get good taste. Hang out at record stores. It's not an accomplishment. But finding out what really moved you, in spite of taste, is. Giving your aesthetic a bit of complexity is great, like shaving the cheapness off without just relying on good taste. Good taste is what makes you end up with Tortoise. Spare me! I don't want to go there.
Reverso 68, "Tokyo Disco Dub"
JM: I think we were talking about doing some songs with them. Are they from Europe? Definitely Europe. They did a good song called "Pieced Together" that I played in a DJ set.
AVC: Do you react to songs differently as a DJ?
JM: I've always been obsessed with context. I've always wrestled with how music fits in and what the point of it is. Dance music made me happy because it really did have a point, different than, like, indie-rock. Indie-rock has no fucking point. That doesn't mean there was no good music there, but it wasn't workerly. When I got interested in workerly things, I quit making music and started designing sound-systems and doing technical jobs where there could be qualitative judgments on how good a job I did. There was a linear craftsman element to it that felt refreshing after being in indie-rock bands where every qualitative judgment was completely ephemeral. [Indie-rock] felt like high school, where people would laugh at what people say because of the status of that individual more so than if they were funny. Qualitative judgments were based on these non-musical criteria: Who did you record with? What label are you on? Who are you friends with? Did you use reverb? These were the ways things were judged. Building sound-systems and doing technical work was just like, "I reduced standing waves in this room! I paired speakers with an engineer appropriately!" It made more sense to me.
When I first found dance music that was not C&C Music Factory, which is what I imagined all dance music was, it was very workerly. I was like, "I want to make a good party. I know it's a good party because other people are having fun. I know I'm playing a good set because people are dancing." There's a real meat-and-potatoes element to it. So my criteria have changed, and my idea of music as contextual is much different now. I feel freer of miasmic indie-rock judgment.
Aphex Twin, "White Blur 2"
JM: It's only 11 minutes longer. I love Selected Ambient Works. I lived here [in the DFA office] for two and a half years, on a mattress right where this table is, and I would listen to Selected Ambient Works every night to knock myself out. It's about as good a sleeping record as you could get. You know what else is very good? Buy the DVD for Finding Nemo. In the menu, there's a fish tank, and it's got the sound of a fish tank—the bubbling, the fish swimming. I slept to that for a while on a loop. Awesome.
AVC: When can we expect the Finding Nemo disco edit?
JM: No edit. It's too good as it is. I wouldn't touch it.