Music

LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy On ‘Not Breaking Up With New York,’ His Inspiration, And Latest Project

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Since LCD Soundsystem’s final show in April 2011, James Murphy has been incredibly busy. The New York native released his own coffee, opened a wine bar, set tennis’ U.S. Open to music using an algorithm, scored a film, and has tried to make the subway experience more pleasant.

With no shortage of interests, Murphy has had time to explore things that matter to him. And that’s led to some pretty cool – and out there – projects.

As part of the promotion for his Subway Symphony campaign (which unfortunately can’t be implemented at this time), in which Murphy would replace the abrasive beep of the subway turnstile with music, Uproxx Music had the chance to speak with Murphy about his city, what drives him, other things he’s fascinated by, and more.

What was your inspiration for the subway project in general, and what was your motivation behind wanting to do something like that?

I’ve lived in New York for my entire adult life. I love the subway system. I’ve traveled a lot around the world, and it’s only made me like the subway even more. Twenty-four hours a day, and it’s really cheap, and there’s no zones. You can kind of go wherever you want. I took a trip to Japan when I was 29 or 30, and I took the subway, and I heard the sounds of their subway system. All the sounds are really gentle in Japan. They have these nice little beeps and tones. People definitely had an experience, a different kind of experience. I definitely had a different kind of experience stepping in. I had never really thought about the sounds of the subway. Then I was like, ‘how amazing?’ We can do something different. We can have friendly sounds when you swipe your card, when you tap your card in the future, which is going to be the change I guess.

So it got me thinking about the subway, but very loosely. Just like, wouldn’t it be nice if there were just notes? What if it wasn’t just one note? What if it was a couple of different notes? Going through the subways, each time you swiped, you had one note, and it was a different note from the next guy. But they were all harmonic, so you’d be making music as you went through. And then, a couple years later I was in an airport in Barcelona, and they were doing their announcements like – “So and so has to get to Gate 14, the plane’s going to leave” – and they have this little three-note sequence that they do before announcements, and it made me super nostalgic because it reminded me of a song that I didn’t listen to anymore, but I heard a lot as a kid on the radio.

Then I started realizing, these couple-note sequences can indicate melodies that will remind you of something when you grow up. What if every station had, before you announced it, a slightly different note sequence that would say that’s this station coming. Then when you grew up, you’d be going station to station, and you’d hear different note sequences, where you went to grammar school as a little kid, you’d remember that sequence really deeply. So would everybody else who went to your school, so you’d have this shared memory, a kind of musical map of the city. Which got me thinking about, OK, well this whole thing could be kind of a complete – each station along the line could have a different sequence that could be part of a larger piece of music. It just felt like a fun idea that if it was able to be technologically handled in a way that wasn’t expensive and wasn’t complicated, that it was basically a why not? moment for me.

With your relationship to technology in general, and science, this isn’t the first time you’ve attacked something like this. That IBM experience obviously showed that as well. You’ve always had a strong relationship with science and technology, it seems like. 

Well, I’m a musician, and kind of like an experiencer. I’m a person who loves music and a person who loves sound and spaces. A lot of my science, a lot of the learning I’ve done on the technological side of it has always been in the service of, how do I make a better experience for myself and for other people? I’m not like a scientist at all, but I’ve been solving problems for a long time and I’ve gotten to be good at certain things because it’s a necessity to get to the job I want to do. I’m excited about things that make different experiences, that make experiences that could be a little mediocre or bad or not that exciting, suddenly become something beautiful. To me, that’s always a goal, whether that’s going out at night or eating dinner at a restaurant. The sound can totally change your experience of a space and of a moment. So that’s been a big part of my life.

Diving into experiences and trying to make experiences better, that’s something that’s been really intriguing about your career for me in this post-LCD era. You’re trying all these new things. You scored a movie recently, and you opened a wine bar. What has been the inspiration behind those? Are these things you’ve always wanted to do? Or things you’re stumbling upon?

I think most people, there’s a lot that they want to do, if they really asked themselves. There’s things you wanted to do, whatever the dreams were. Mine tend to, I have like an almost infinity of things I’d like to do, and the world sometimes creates opportunities for you. Opening a little restaurant, my next-door neighbor had a restaurant that was going out of business, and we were going to take over the lease. It was like an opportunity that happened. The subway thing was because they’re going to change the tap and ride, and Heineken found the project through the Wall Street Journal, and decided they wanted to help get behind it. Now I just take that – I always have a bunch of things I want to do, and I just usually jump on the thing that seems like it has a path towards hope I guess.

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Is there anything else that’s been eating away at you that you really want to get done?

I’d love to learn a lot more about how infrastructure works in the city because I love my city, and I got to meet a lot of the people who work on bridges and tunnels and highways and train lines, and they kind of blow my mind, so I’d love to learn more about that. Not that I have things I want to do so much, there are things I’d love to do, but I’d really love to learn more about how they work, so I can understand the difficult jobs that the people that make our city run do.

That relationship with your city, with New York, is something you’ve explored before. How are you feeling about it now? Because New York is constantly changing and constantly evolving, and as a person you’re constantly changing and constantly evolving, and sometimes those two things aren’t intersecting at the nexus, but if you wait a little bit, sometimes you come back around to it.

Well I’m not breaking up with New York. [Laughs.] It’s changing. I think the best time for me in New York in a way was one of the worst times in New York. When I started my record company was a boring time in New York. I think boring and difficult times are sometimes the most exciting in cities because there’s a time for everything to grow and change.

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