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Cover Story

Artist of the Year: LCD Soundsystem

How do you follow up the most successful, rewarding year of your career? If you’re James Murphy, and his “band of substitute teachers,” you don’t. [Magazine Excerpt]

“Dance Yrself Clean,” the nine-minute slow-burn that opens LCD Soundsystem’s third album, This Is Happening, features the line, “It’s the end of an era, it’s true.” Which is a fair tone to set for an album that James Murphy touted on its release in May as being the last he would make in this incarnation. Not that he was retiring from music, not that the name LCD Soundsystem would never again appear on a record, not that his band would never grace a stage again, just that this, this thing that is only starting to reach the level of popular and critical adulation that bands work their entire lives to achieve, would soon no longer be happening.

But it’s still happening right now. Murphy is back in his cozy Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment for four days, a rare break between the end of a U.S. tour leg with Hot Chip and the beginning of a three-week European jaunt in early November. The place is as you’d expect from New York’s preeminent gearhead and patron saint of scenesters transitioning into their homebody phase: a grand piano that serves as a resting spot for mixing boards and turntables and cables; two stocked wine refrigerators; some 7,000 LPs and singles, alphabetized and categorized; a needlepoint AQUARIUS throw pillow; four bikes and a treadmill in the corner of the front hallway; an Indian blanket adorned with stick-figure aliens and anarchy symbols draped over a black leather couch Murphy rescued from the sidewalk in the early ’90s.

Absent: his French bulldog Petunia, off at work with Murphy’s fashion-designer wife.

“I just hung up two pictures,” Murphy says proudly, gesturing to a painting of a dog done by his friend Mary. “That’s exciting to me.” He’s wearing a black sports jacket, white shirt, black tie, and black jeans, gray stubble accentuated by silver glitter residue from a photo shoot; he looks like he just got out of a business meeting with Rip Taylor.

Whatever changes lie ahead for Murphy once LCD Soundsystem play their final show next year — he doesn’t know when or where this will be, or to what degree, if any, the Last Waltzness of it all will be marked — this scenery won’t be among them. “I love watching TV, then putting my pants on and going food shopping at four in the morning,” he says. “This city is a remarkable place to accomplish stuff. I ran a jujitsu studio out of my office a couple years ago, got Adidas to sponsor it, and had a bunch of scrawny, weirdo musicians showing up to choke each other. It’s New York, and it rules.”

February 4: Life Begins at 40
By this logic, then, Los Angeles does not rule, yet that is where LCD Soundsystem decamped to make their third album in April 2009. (While there’s a widespread perception that James Murphy is to LCD Soundsystem what Chan Marshall is to Cat Power, the core support staff of Nancy Whang, Tyler Pope, Pat Mahoney, and Gavin Russom has been intact throughout the band’s run, and he takes pains in conversation and onstage banter to give them their due.) The transplanted New Yorkers set up in the spooky-chic Laurel Canyon mansion owned by Rick Rubin, previously home to Errol Flynn and birthplace of many successful albums, beginning with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991. One ground rule that was established early: Anyone working on the record in the mansion must wear white at all times — not just as a way of adapting to any of Rubin’s residual hoodoo-guru vibes, but as a way of setting standards.

“I have to do things to make me feel creative, I don’t consider myself a creative person,” Murphy says. “It’s more my nature to work on the espresso machine. Being in the mansion felt wrong and hilarious, and that’s where we’re comfortable. This felt like a good pressure, like I should make an album worthy of a bunch of people wearing white suits.”

Less of a driving factor was the specter of his 40th birthday on February 4, the age at which Mick Jagger famously said he’d kill himself if he was still singing “Satisfaction.” Murphy spent his twenties playing with punk bands in a New York indie scene that he found stifling before founding, in 2001, DFA Records with Tim Goldsworthy of British trip-hop outfit U.N.K.L.E. in 2001. The first LCD Soundsystem single, the jaded-hipster lament “Losing My Edge,” came out in 2002, and the first LCD album in 2005, when James Murphy was 35 years old. Sound of Silver‘s “All My Friends” was an instant classic, turning the realization that one can’t party the way one used to into a poignant, existential touchstone for cool kids of a certain age.

“I was a complete flop in my twenties, but I think that was a healthy thing,” he says. “It wasn’t that bad living on an inflatable mattress in my studio; it was fun. And rock has become an older person’s game — in 1967, if you were over 21, you weren’t starting a band. Turning 40 didn’t bother me; 38 felt like 40. It’s like 200 pounds — 190, 210, it’s the same thing.”

Two weeks and one poorly timed bout of laryngitis later, This Is Happening was finally completed. Thanks in part to riotous lead single “Drunk Girls” and its Spike Jonze–codirected romp of a video, the album debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard chart in May (and has so far sold 100,000 copies in the U.S.). “I found that funny, but not momentous,” Murphy says. “Finishing the record was momentous. The best part was, when people asked me what kind of music I made, I got to say, ‘You know, Top 40.’?”[Excerpt]

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