It's on again for LCD Soundsystem

LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy performing in New York in August last year. The band will release their fourth album American Dream on Friday.
LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy performing in New York in August last year. The band will release their fourth album American Dream on Friday.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Defunct cult disco-punk band founder James Murphy is bringing them back five years after making a big deal of their demise

NEW YORK • Musician James Murphy is the kind of guy who can - and will - tell an intimate David Bowie story, while also making it clear that he knows it is embarrassing to be the kind of guy who might drop a two-ton name like that out of nowhere. He can tell what you're thinking and he's thinking it, too.

"I met with... David," Murphy said recently in a peak-gentrification Williamsburg hotel loft in Brooklyn, deploying a self-mocking tone that also conveyed reverence.

"It sounds absurd - there's no way you can say it: Mr Bowie," he riffed, with more incredulity at his own standing. (He said he worked on Blackstar, the final Bowie album, "a lot more than people realise".)

But the anecdote, like most of Murphy's, had a point, so he soldiered on explaining how Bowie, not long before his death, had convinced him that it was acceptable to bring back his cult disco-punk band LCD Soundsystem just five years after making a big deal of their demise.

"I was talking to him about it and I was like, this is a weird thing," Murphy said, slipping into a half-impression as he recalled Bowie's reply: "Does it make you uncomfortable?' And I was like, yeah. He said: 'Good. If you're not uncomfortable, then you're not doing anything.'"

Murphy had mostly made up his mind already: Despite what he called the "perfect swan dive" of a dramatic, blowout farewell that he designed for LCD Soundsystem in 2011 - which included a sold-out final show at Madison Square Garden, a subsequent documentary (Shut Up And Play The Hits) and a live album (The Long Goodbye) - he was making new music and involving the same cadre of friends and collaborators.

There was a moment when I was regretting it... But then, I was like, no, because now, if we're going to play again, we have to justify it.

MUSICIAN JAMES MURPHY on reuniting LCD Soundsystem

So, of course, it would be called LCD Soundsystem, which had always been synonymous with Murphy's piercing frontman persona and exacting, slow-build dance- rock compositions.

Beginning early last year, the band have come back bigger and more omnipresent than they ever were, headlining festivals such as Coachella, performing on Saturday Night Live and, on Sept 1, releasing American Dream, their fourth album and first for Columbia Records.

The challenge now for Murphy and his suddenly-more-famous band - which includes core members Pat Mahoney on drums and Nancy Whang on keyboards, along with guitarist Al Doyle - is to transcend the insta-nostalgia of a reunion tour while contending with those sceptical fans who felt betrayed by the Jay-Z-like retirement fakeout.

"There was a moment when I was regretting it," Murphy said of the temporary goodbye. "But then, I was like, no, because now if we're going to play again, we have to justify it. That's a new, exciting problem and far more interesting to me. We've got to do something good enough."

The rebirth also allowed Murphy, who did not approach rock-star status until his late 30s, to "shift eras" - here, again, he invoked Bowie, citing his chronic reinventing - in an organic way because his station in life had changed. "I'm 47 and I've got a two-year-old," Murphy said.

While LCD Soundsystem had always positioned themselves as "slightly superior and slightly scary - a snarky record-jerk band that could outsnark even the most curmudgeonly, hyper-knowledgeable record dork", he said, "that is not what we are now".

The broader universe had changed in the meantime as well. Although American Dream is "not overtly political", Mahoney said: "I think it contains some of the turmoil that the world is experiencing right now." Whang added of Murphy's songwriting: "It's much darker and much heavier", with "a bit more gravity".

Murphy said he had "quickly realised that a wry wit from a distance would, at this point, be self-parody and a crutch," adding: "To try to sing more and to let go, to a certain degree, of my ironic distance, was a terrifying thing and the best use of 'you should be uncomfortable' that I could make."

Born out of Murphy's DFA Records collective in 2002 with the era-defining single-slash-monologue Losing My Edge - "I'm losing my edge to the Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978" - LCD Soundsystem came to represent a certain elite, New York slice of the hipster aughts.

"A band about bands," as Murphy called it, the group was purposefully pretentious, but also dedicated to bodily movement.

Across a trilogy of albums, concluding with This Is Happening in 2010, LCD Soundsystem expanded their palette from brash and bratty to something approaching epic and sincere.

A furry, substantial teddy bear of a man with a never-ending string of opinions, Murphy has a reputation for being harsh and disagreeable.

But these days, his voluble rants, during which he can sound like an art-school Louis C.K., are generally good-natured and self-effacing.

And no one would accuse him of underanalysing things, which made the undoing of his grand pronouncements about shutting down the band all the more curious.

"It was sincere," he insisted. "It wasn't a ploy." But his reasons for doing so range from the conceptual to the pragmatic, none completely satisfying.

At first, "LCD was a project", while DFA was everything, Murphy explained - "throwing parties, doing sound design, producing, building a recording studio, label". As the work began to catch on in the worlds of fashion and art, he said "it felt like we were invading".

By 2010, LCD Soundsystem had cemented themselves as a reliable critical favourite and there was a growing sense among the band and their business partners that the next album was going to be huge.

"As things mature - whether they be real estate, rock 'n' roll, politics, festivals, radio - there's an efficiency that develops and, with it, often comes soul-crushing truths," Murphy said.

"If you keep doing it, you get bigger even if the records get worse," he continued, invoking U2, the Cure, Talking Heads, R.E.M. and the Pixies. "It was our turn," he said. "And something about that turned my stomach."

He certainly had no shortage of creative outlets during the hiatus.

In the past six years, he has opened a Williamsburg wine bar, created a sound system for a travelling dance club, produced an Arcade Fire album, developed a signature coffee, scored films and plays and attempted to make the subway turnstile beep more musical, among other things.

None of that was this. "I love rock. I love the music that was born out of the latter part of the 20th century," Murphy said. "It means a lot to me."

So, the wave of major musician deaths over the past few years - Lou Reed, Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Lemmy Kilmister - proved to be a major preoccupation for him on American Dream.

"It's like when all your light bulbs start going out at the same time because you put them all in at the same time," Murphy said. "And there's no one to replace them. That's dark."

Yet, when he addresses death directly, as on Tonite from the new album, he can't help but smirk. "Yeah, all the hits are saying the same thing," he sings.

"There's only tonite, man/life is finite/but it feels like forever."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2017, with the headline 'It's on again for LCD Soundsystem'. Print Edition | Subscribe