Shut Up and Play the Hits: Soundsystem goes quiet

By Jake Coyle

The final bow of James Murphy's LCD Soundsystem has become an era-defining concert film.

James Murphy. Photo / Supplied
James Murphy. Photo / Supplied

Asked to characterise Shut Up and Play the Hits, a concert film that documents LCD Soundsystem's final, oft-mythologised show at Madison Square Garden in April last year, James Murphy deadpans a television promo. "Middle-age guy stops band. Pictures at 11."

The film, which is screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, is a kind of The Last Waltz for a new generation: an adored band going out with a self-induced, possibly premature bang. But it's also, as the film-makers Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace say, "a character study" of Murphy, whose decision to end LCD Soundsystem is as curious to the man who made it as it is to anybody.

"I still don't know if it's the right decision," says Murphy. "I felt like it was the right decision for the moment and you only have that. And I'm okay with that. I regret it sometimes. I don't know if I regret it, but I'm sad sometimes. I'm like, 'Oh, it would be fun to play with those guys.' Or I see a band that stinks and I'm like, 'Let's go wipe them off, stop them from playing'."

The movie is an occasion not only to lead new ears to LCD Soundsystem and let their fans relive a concert that seemed to define an era of New York music, but a chance to unpack LCD Soundsystem, an alternatively ironic and sincere groove-based outfit that made cerebral electronic dance music with pristine production and propulsive rhythms.

"We did a bunch of things that I'm only figuring out now," Murphy says. "We were cooler than I thought we were. But we didn't rest on it because I didn't think we were cool. So I don't feel like we sold out too bad."

In a recent interview at his newly purchased Williamsburg loft, Murphy, a kickboxing enthusiast, had the restlessness of a fighter without a bout on the horizon. "I'm not retired," he says, feigning a golf swing. But a kind of post-LCD limbo has taken hold. Recalling the day's decisions, he says, "I forgot to eat. Should I make a juice or should I fry an egg? I don't have eggs. Should I rent a Zip car?"

"That's kind of what's going on now," says Murphy, laughing.

The thinly-bearded, outwardly-placid 42-year-old's colorful conversation often resembles his lyrics: layers of self-deprecation, self-aware analysis and musical references that dot from Harry Nilsson to the Smiths to OutKast.

But, like a bank robber turned clean, he's missing the juice, the thrill of pushing further, sounding better and rocking harder than the band next door.

LCD Soundsystem, he says, was motivated to improve by great live bands like Arcade Fire and the Flaming Lips, and, alternatively, would relish blowing away weaker, less-driven competition. "Have some pride, man," he says, disgusted. "Go fight."

Yet stopping LCD Soundsystem was partly a gesture of surrender. After three acclaimed albums that concluded with 2010's This Is Happening, the band was only gaining in popularity and had built a crystal-clear, pulsating live act on par with Stop Making Sense-era Talking Heads.

When Murphy, a punk band veteran and co-founder of DFA Records who was already 35 when the group debuted, gazed at his future he saw never-ending three-year cycles of writing, recording and touring. He feared a continual life on the road would carry him through middle age and propel him into a more public lifestyle.

"I don't want to be a famous person," he says. "That's what's next. That's the next step, especially with an American band. Just make the same record seven times and then you're huge."

But the recalibration hasn't worked the way he'd hoped. He still doesn't want to reconstitute the band, but his plan for leisure and professional freedom has been bedeviled by other encroachments.

Murphy, a detail-oriented obsessive (he's shown in the film managing the backstage wristbands at MSG), became heavily involved in the post-production of the documentary, particularly the audio mix for concert footage. He also helped cut a three-hour music-only version.

Murphy has also spent a lot of time DJing around the world and seen his calendar constantly fill up.

Though he wanted to return to producing, his work with other acts (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Klaxons, Julie Ruin) has been limited to short sessions of a track or two.

"I'm not doing different things yet," says Murphy. "Making a movie takes forever. Making two movies takes double forever."

Shut Up and Play the Hits is punctuated by an interview of Murphy by author and music journalist Chuck Klosterman. The film-makers turned to Klosterman, who had previously profiled Murphy for British newspaper The Guardian, to essentially replicate the experience, which Klosterman says was "sort of like acting but the character was myself".

And, certainly, hyper self-consciousness is pervasive in Shut Up and Play the Hits.

"If [Murphy] has a problem that's also a strength, it is the intensity of his self-awareness to the point where it's almost paralysing for him," says Klosterman. "It's very difficult for him to make any decision without sort of pre-imagining how that decision will be perceived or how it will make him feel later."

Murphy has continued to write music on a daily basis, but he hasn't been putting tracks to tape. Though doctor visits are another thing he hasn't had time for yet, he says he permanently stripped his voice during one of the shows leading up to the MSG concert (which sold out in under an hour).

"I'm excited to do some stuff," he says, mentioning a desire to do another uninterrupted album like LCD Soundsystem's 45:33 and an impulse to make "more synthy stuff" like the band's I Can Change. "I'm terrified in a lot of ways. I don't know if anyone's going to care. I don't know what's going to happen, which is kind of exciting."

But as what? Murphy was always the sole creative force and songwriter of LCD Soundsystem, which toured as a seven-piece. He's unsure if his next album will simply be as himself: "It just seems kind of arbitrary to be like: This is a James Murphy record, not an LCD Soundsystem record."

He's planning to open a store below his apartment, make his own espresso blend (coffee is one of his greatest passions), and set up a studio at his home, since the DFA studio is now often rented to other bands.

Meanwhile, the post-LCD Soundsystem life Murphy envisioned awaits.

"I don't see that happening for a little while, at least through the summer," he says.

"Then I'm going to Asia in September. So ... next year."

What: Shut Up and Play the Hits, the film of the final concert by LCD Soundsystem, the band led by James Murphy
When: Screening Civic Theatre, Saturday July 28, 9.30pm; Tuesday July 31, 4.30pm

- TimeOut / AP

- NZ Herald

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