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Let's Dance, by Sasha Frere-Jones
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Let's DanceSasha Frere-Jones | The New Yorker | May 10, 2010 | 17 minutes (4,103 words)
For this week's Longreads Member pick, we're thrilled to share "Let's Dance," Sasha Frere-Jones
's 2010 New Yorker
profile of LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy.
"When you begin writing a profile, your first worry is access. Does the subject talk in soundbites? Will he or she let you see anything that hasn't been rehearsed? ('Accidental' meetings with famous friends, fans showing up en masse at coffee shops, etc.) Will you just get an hour in the hotel lobby? Will the publicist sit by your elbow as you talk for what ends up being less than an hour?
"James Murphy, as a subject, presented none of these problems. Over the course of eighteen months, he opened his home and his studio and his rehearsal space to me. The profile could have been almost any length. His monologue, in Laurel Canyon, on Louis CK's genius deserved a page-long block quote, and his stories about his family in New Jersey could have made for a complete, stand-alone piece. But what I wanted to focus on in The New Yorker piece was how functionally, logistically independent Murphy is—he can really execute any single part of the record-making process, from conception to fabrication of widgets. And he isn't just obsessive about detail but obsessive first about locating the important details, and then obsessive about attending to them thoroughly. I've spent my life playing with and observing musicians, and I've never seen a bandleader make so many small, ongoing demands of a band without alienating anyone. I did not expect all the hugging."
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Illustration by Sarah Merlin
A few weeks ago, LCD Soundsystem played a show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, in preparation for a tour that will last most of 2010. After six musicians took the stage, James Murphy, the band's forty-year-old leader and songwriter, appeared, and stood in front of a stand of timbales and cowbells, all jammed against the front of the drummer Pat Mahoney's set. Murphy, a thick-set man, was wearing a white T-shirt under a white button-down shirt, dark pants, and white Feiyue martial-arts sneakers. This is, roughly, what he wears every day, whether or not he is performing. He carried a Poland Spring bottle filled with a mixture of whiskey and champagne. "The good news is that we're here." Murphy said. "The bad news is that I'm wasted." But the drunk James Murphy wasn't much different from the Murphy I had seen recording "This Is Happening," LCD Soundsystem's new album, during the previous year. A drummer who worked for years as a sound engineer, Murphy has an uncanny ability to hear sonic detail, and that enables him to isolate the most notable parts of various songs—Robert Fripp's guitar sound on David Bowie's "Heroes," the opening sting of Gang of Four's "Not Great Men"—and then edit, enhance, and assemble those pieces into an easily felt, comprehensible new arrangement. "I'm a bit of a Zelig," he told the Guardian. "I've always been a good imitator. I love music. But I'm just not that original."
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After two songs, the band launched into "Drunk Girls," the album's lead single, a charging pop tune rooted in seventies rock. The song, which Murphy said feels to him like a revved-up version of Bowie's "Diamond Dogs," uses a wider melodic range than Murphy's preferred safe zone of three or four notes. The verses spin out a series of punch lines about drunk girls and boys—they "like to file complaints," they "wait an hour to pee," they're "boringly wild"—and then swerves from the sardonic to the confessional. "Oh, oh, oh," Murphy sang, in rich harmony with his band, "I believe in waking up together, so that means making eyes across the room." The band roared along, and Murphy was a combination of raconteur and wandering engineer. When not singing or talking, he often changed his bandmates' amp settings as they played. "Every person who plays their instrument is better at their instrument than I am," he explained later. "I happen to be better at being me. So I can take your instrument and play what I want better than you can."
At the end, a cluster of voices sang lush variations on "I believe in waking up together," and the Bowie guitar riff gently descended to a drone. As Murphy sang, he kept unplugging his mike and then forcefully plugging it back in. I couldn't tell if this was some kind of rock-and-roll tic—a nerdy variation on the windmill—or an expression of frustration. After the show, while a group of twenty-somethings posed on the dressing-room sofa for photographs and Murphy toweled off, I asked him what he had been doing. "Oh, it cuts down on the rumble when I'm not singing," he said. "I'm trying not to give the front of the house a headache."