I write this, appropriately, still basking in the afterglow of a very special meal at Brawn on Columbia Road—special because it was playing host to The Four Horsemen, the Brooklyn wine bar-cum-restaurant co-owned by James Murphy, a.k.a. LCD Soundsystem. The meal had twists and turns and surprises aplenty, the greatest of them all arguably being that the night before, Murphy’s band had made their debut on Saturday Night Live, playing two new songs. Continue reading Dancing in the light
Master of None, the Aziz Ansari vehicle which returns for a second season on May 12th, exquisitely describes the predicament faced by any creative, stereotype-defying millennial, surviving but not quite thriving in the West. Continue reading Jack, or master?
The premise of Gorillaz, André 3000 and James Murphy’s 2012 collaboration, “DoYaThing“, was based on a thirty-second encounter Damon Albarn had with Brian Eno. Somehow, this is stretched to fill a thirteen-minute wig-out in which André 3000 repeatedly yells, “I’m the shit!” in tones alternating between satisfaction, hyperactivity, frustration, and incredulity. The encounter in question (Albarn asked Eno, “How’s it going Brian?”; the professorial Eno replied, “Everything I’m working on is coming out great,” with a surprising amount of hubris and breeziness) is a stand-in for the wider social trends of self-publicising, self-aggrandising, and under-thinking. Continue reading The cruel wisdom of Steve Albini
Arcade Fire didn’t really used to sound like any other band. But 2010’s The Suburbs set them off on a journey of mainstreaming which Reflektor, their fourth album, refashions into a sprawling quest to pay homage to their influences whilst hinting at bigger truths. Like The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin before it, Reflektor is a concept-album about not having a concept. Continue reading Living with Black Orpheus
It starts with the crowd showing their appreciation. Slowly, a rhythm settles in. Then, a gut-churning bass line and a central instrumental motif guaranteed to make bodies writhe. It’s The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers”—the first DFA single, with James Murphy behind the boards.
And it’s pretty much David Bowie’s “Love Is Lost”, too, albeit spun out over a ten-minute remix masterminded by, yes, James Murphy. Continue reading James Murphy’s Law
Over breakfast, reading Giles Coren and Matthew Parris in The Times, I was forced to conclude that schooling kills creativity, and economists’ predictions are not so much dismal science as abysmal science. I suppose I am doubly screwed, then. Continue reading Unfriends like these
When you turn twelve, that’s the last time you’ll be excused from something on the grounds of youth. Adolescence, moody and laden with growing pains, beckons. Having fun isn’t just an end within itself anymore. You at least think you have to stand for something more.
It’s startling how one record label has come to define and inform so much of my record collection. DFA. New Yorkers at the turn of the twenty-first century: whisper those three letters in hushed tones of awe. Teenagers across the Atlantic, breaking free of the moribund: if you can’t party like your idols, at least make your bedroom hi-fi sound like you can. For me, it wasn’t “House of Jealous Lovers”, the first time. It couldn’t have been—I would have been a couple of years too young. It was “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”, raucous and clattering and just startlingly good fun. From there on in, it was about every single and album the label released.
If there was a peak, it was 2007: the year Sound Of Silver broke a thousand people’s hearts and then reassembled them with the science of dance; the year those first house throwbacks from Still Going and Hercules And Love Affair made us take note of an alternate history that isn’t taught in school. That year, James Murphy and his label were prolific and untouchable. The Fabriclive.36 mix, jointly helmed by Murphy and LCD Soundsystem’s sweaty, machine-like drummer Pat Mahoney (who professed a love of “gay-ass disco”) was spun out through a vintage Bozak mixer.
If there was a peak, there was a trough. At LCD Soundsystem’s farewell concert in 2011, Murphy is said to have anointed Janine Rostron as the successor to the throne of DFA. Rostron, who performs under the nom de plume of Planningtorock, is an artist to admire more than one to truly love. Her music is androgynous, dark and scary, from the world of art where people still decamp to Berlin to experience isolation. In my books, that makes her the antithesis of what DFA is about. Artists on the label’s roster have challenged listeners in the past (the various outfits Gavin Russom performs in, for example), but at its heart, I’ve always thought Liv Spencer of Still Going summed up DFA’s idée fixe best: “It’s about people going to clubs, forgetting their shitty week—or their great week—and just kind of like, dancing until the sun comes up.”
Rewind to 2008 and there were two pretty apposite acts on the label poised to offer just such fun. That was the year Hercules And Love Affair released their eponymous debut: a giddy survey of forty-odd years of disco, tinged with regret and higher thoughts, but located firmly on the dancefloor. That was also the year Maurice Fulton hid behind a fictitious Finnish trio called Syclops to release a full-length called I’ve Got My Eye On You. Uninhibited by definitions of genre, the album pitted jazzy live drumming against obnoxious synths and fretless basses, managing to sound fairly timeless and geographically nonspecific, and also like a lot of fun. Reading reviews of the album from the time, you’d think DFA were serving up the hipster’s answer to Jamiroquai. For Brandon Bussolini of Prefix, “Syclops’ main points of reference center less on the dance floor than the heavier end of the jazz-fusion spectrum […] churning, cosmic disco-funk that make up this album—a high point for dance music in 2008 and yet another feather in DFA’s cap”.
Here were two exciting visions of the DFA code, backed by a label with seemingly limitless reserves of cool, and handily positioned in the penumbra of the band, LCD Soundsystem, that was helping everything make sense. (For one publication’s take on just what an important family the label had become, see this.) At one point, Murphy’s vision, to break down the barrier between dance and punk, looked poised to crossover into the mainstream: the label was courted by representatives of Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, and was invited to remix Justin Timberlake’s “My Love”. The first two avenues led nowhere; the third resulted in a subtle reinvention of a stone-cold modern classic that ought to now be seen as a pure statement of the DFA sound. Cowbells, handclaps, Simmons pads and acoustically-dead live drums (Murphy’s trick was to dampen the sound of the drums by affixing neoprene mouse pads to them) provide a thudding, dancefloor-ready rhythm. Filtered Rhodes and fluttering, pulsing synths are the vertebrae to which Timberlake’s vocal theatrics are pinned. The final few minutes ride a gloriously soulful, lightly-distorted bass guitar line. These were much the same components that made LCD Soundsystem songs snap, crackle and pop.
But then LCD Soundsystem closed shop. Suddenly, because DFA had been mes que una compañía discográfica, we had to start looking for a new totem. DFA couldn’t be just a label—it needed a new icon for other artists to rally around. The Rapture had been, gone, and come back in an altered form. Hot Chip had achieved universal acclaim for their universal pop music. Murphy’s heiress, Planningtorock, didn’t really cut the mustard.
DFA has lately been responsible for a splurge of releases. The quality is more variable than in those golden years, when a monthly trip to the label’s MySpace page seemed to yield some new, strange fruit. But there are nuggets of excitement. Factory Floor are a London trio on the label who make pretty industrial (look at their name—is it really a surprise?) long-format bangers. They don’t have an album out yet—though it’s in the works—but what they’ve released to date is brutal, exciting stuff.
Listening to something like “Fall Back” (see above), they’re not a million miles away from the frantic, relentlessly locked-in Nisennenmondai. Could this be where the DFA vision is headed—or is there no longer such a thing? In their 2008 feature on the label, The Fader interviewed Jonathan Galkin, the ‘ears’ and also the ‘Jewish mother’ of DFA. “At the same time, I feel like we’re at the top of our game. It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Galkin.
Watching Red Bull’s recent documentary about DFA, “Too Old To Be New, Too New To Be Classic” (one of several mantras the label has), my heart was pierced by the inescapable feeling that the trifecta at the core of the label has drifted apart. Murphy, having disbanded the outfit that accidentally took over his life for eight years, is busy doing the things he missed out on—marathon DJ sets; production-work for friends of his like Arcade Fire; considering branching out into coffee. Tim Goldsworthy, the Brit production whizz-kid who co-founded the label, disappeared in the middle of the night and wound up mixing albums for Archie Bronson Outfit, The Maccabees and Little Boots; the label is currently suing him for close to $100,000. Which leaves Galkin, stuck in that West Village office, choosing which 12” singles to put out, packing vinyl and merchandise for dispatching to the forever faithful (myself included), and generally handling the day-to-day commercial realities of a record label. In the film, at one point he turns to look at the neighbouring swivel-chair Murphy used to sit on, now vacant much of the time. It’s hard not to feel a little pang of remorse akin to Murphy’s, in “Shut Up And Play The Hits”, upon inspecting a room full of his band’s gear, waiting to be sold or boxed away.
While the mousepads are still firmly on the drums and the analogue synths are still being lovingly restored, I’ll continue to believe there can be life from above. But while there’s still a DFA family, it’s getting harder to see where it’s heading. And soon they won’t have pre-teen youthfulness on their side.
Barely a week after I wrote about Pulp‘s fruitful collaboration with an icon of music (Scott Walker, on We Love Life), we’re treated to a thrilling Christmas present from the Sheffield band, this time in collaboration with yet another godfather-figure.
James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem, DFA Records etc. etc.) lends a hand on “After You“, which was originally written during the We Love Life sessions but was soon abandoned. This revised version is, by common consensus, over a minute longer than the old one, which Nick Banks described as “an absolute lost classic”. And unsurprisingly, given the star producer and all the plaudits Pulp’s live comeback has garnered, it’s immense.
With a galloping beat, twittering and bleeping synths, and some incendiary guitar-work, it’s a typically sleazy and nocturnal affair—and that means they might well have been right to scrap its inclusion on We Love Life. True to form, there are some gems in the lyrics (“From disco to disco / From Safeway to Tesco / We’re shopping around from the cradle till death row”). In an alluring teaser for Murphy’s other rumoured production work soon to be forthcoming (Arcade Fire! Yeah Yeah Yeahs!), it doesn’t just sound like LCD Soundsystem-meets-Pulp.
I was going to suggest I write about Shut Up And Play The Hits, the documentary chronicling LCD Soundsystem‘s final days of existence, from a dispassionate perspective. Then, I realised that was an impossible task. Then, I realised that was a pointless exercise. I don’t know what it would be like to watch this film without even a shred of knowledge about this band, and its big greying human centre James Murphy, and I don’t want to know. You might be able to appreciate it for its cinematography, borne of several celebrated visual artists; you might admire the way it cuts between thrilling in-concert footage and a snarky, nasal interview between Murphy and the critic Chuck Klosterman. But you couldn’t feel the darling buds of tears form in your mind’s eye. At least, I doubt it. In any case, no-one deserves to not have LCD Soundsystem in their lives. If you learn of this film but know nothing about the band behind it, for goodness sake make amends.
Typically, in this age, films about bands and musicians are vanity projects or cash-cows. Shut Up… is not such a film. Its directors, Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, came to Murphy with an idea and, together, they developed that idea into a better one.
So we get an incredibly human character-study of Murphy, the morning after the night before, trimming his inimitable beard and cleaning out his coffee machine. These subtly deflate the viewer’s perception of him: just as Murphy worshipped David Bowie as an alien from Mars who couldn’t possibly wake up with a pain in his foot, so do fans of LCD Soundsystem believe their hero to be superhuman in his accomplishments and traits.
And in lockstep with this touching portrait come exhilarating chunks of performance from their last ever concert, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The songs they play have never sounded better: they have the punkish energy fans loved, but are mixed retrospectively by Murphy, also a distinguished recording engineer, himself. The camera flits between overhead shots of fans partying like they know it’s the last time—one repeated, lingering close-up of a teenager, bawling his eyes out, elicited laughter from the audience—and extended shots of members of the extended live band, fiddling with synthesizers and scraping the guts of electric guitars. Pat Mahoney’s drumming, always metronomic, always spirited, is not foregrounded but plays a crucial role from the sidelines, keeping everyone else from freaking out and imploding. At certain moments, the visuals are so sympathetic to the lyrical content of Murphy’s songs, you realise what an obvious candidate for a film his band is. The clearest example is during “All My Friends”: when Murphy asks, “Where are your friends tonight?”, the camera responds by shifting its gaze from the stage to the adoring crowd, one seething mass of togetherness.
If you thought LCD Soundsystem were all about partying, you haven’t spent much time studying James Murphy. A self-confessed failure till he was thirty, he struggled through suburbia, punk bands, lucrative DJ sets, always yearning to step out from the shadows and do something memorable in his own right. The original incarnation of LCD Soundsystem took the form of “Losing My Edge”, a painfully tragic account of younger people being painfully hip. Soon after, Murphy assembled a band of friends to play his music at parties—the best LCD Soundsystem covers band, if you will.
His is a band that never set out to start somewhere, but which wrapped up in concrete the place they would end. In one of the more bearable fragments of the Chuck Klosterman interview, Murphy is pressed to suggest what will be remembered as his band’s defining failure. After a few false starts, he delivers his answer: ending the band—maybe. Murphy feared his own justification for drawing the curtains on LCD Soundsystem would objectively be deemed inadequate. After all, he had previously said a purpose of the band was to show young people how live music could still excite, and here he was, in 2011, still showing those upstarts who was boss. In making young listeners bow down to him, Murphy failed to inspire them to ape his own act. In this context, retirement might be seen as failing to take the greatest risks imaginable.
“I was 38 and I decided to make another record. I blinked, and I was 41…if I blink again, I’ll be 50.”
I wish I could remember more of the clever things Murphy says, whether to friends on the phone, or to Klosterman, sat in an Italian restaurant. Maybe this is Klosterman’s fault: he is the kind of pretentious critic who asks questions and then, as if grabbing the microphone from his interviewee, proceeds to answer them himself. This might make for good written interviews, but it makes for pretty aggravating cinema. However, I recognise that, on occasion, Klosterman’s questions prompt Murphy to make a perceptive, insightful remark that perfectly ushers in the next segment of the film. For example, near the end, Murphy says he likes songs “that come from a particular place”—an ideal introduction to the haunting “Someone Great”, which ends with…no, I won’t spoil it.
Another theme close to Murphy’s heart which gets a fair airing during the film is that of family. We see Murphy addressing his brother, sister and nephews from on stage. We see him greet musical acolytes (Arcade Fire join the band to sing backing vocals on “North American Scum”; the comedian and a cappella musician Reggie Watts skits through “45:33 (II)”) like soulmates. During the many songs which are shown almost in entirety, there is much embracing and unity. It’s another sign Lovelace and Southern, who also made No Distance Left To Run, the film about Blur’s fleeting rebirth, have done their homework. In conception, the film’s strands seem irreconcilable—shoehorning a four-hour concert into a documentary about the end of a band. In execution, the way the film pulls back from the humdrum and then lurches us in media res works well.
Prior to watching Shut Up…, the only comparable film I had seen was Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, which follows Talking Heads at their peak over a three-night residency of the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. There are numerous similarities, from the chiaroscuro shots of the bands’ frontmen, to the obsessive highlighting of complementary percussion and amp- and keyboard-fiddling. And, of course, Talking Heads are one of the clear antecedents to LCD Soundsystem.
But Shut Up… is its own kind of film, with its nonlinear narrative (the film starts amidst a sheet of gravelly white noise, which, any dedicated fan will know, is the ‘musical’ cover for the transition between two closing-stages songs, “Yeah” and “Someone Great”) and emphasis on the pedestrian parts of so-called rock stars’ lives (making coffee, taking the dog Petunia for walks). The best way of describing it is to say it is a very LCD Soundsystem film, so in keeping with the spirit of the band and the artist that, as I suggested earlier, watching it without having heard any of their music is pointless and indefensible. The fact the music in it is so impeccably mixed and really benefits from being blasted out of a cinema is significant, if only because you will want to get out of your seat and dance.
Shut Up And Play The Hits, by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, is produced by Pulse Films and distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and will be released in the summer of 2012.
Picture credits: Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace.
Some songs unknowingly link to numerous trends in music. From “Pull Up The Roots” we get James Murphy’s cowbell frenzy, the slinky bass of Quincy Jones’s productions for Michael Jackson, and the strangled, hothouse sax* that marks early TV On The Radio. There is a punkish energy to the song that also looks back to Talking Heads’ CBGB days, as well as prophetically forward to the rise of evangelical churches, with their rousing call-and-response chants. And, if you listen closely, the subtly finger-picked guitar-work around the three-minute mark became a mantra for The Durutti Column and, later, “The French Open” by Foals.
I wrote a bit about this album here; this song is an under-appreciated gem near its end, which ushers in the simple masterpiece “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”.
* The saxophone is actually a treated guitar part. I guess they learnt more than a few production tricks from Brian Eno.
Taken from Speaking In Tongues (Sire Records, 1983).