sundance 2012

James Murphy on His Sundance Documentary, Rock Star Retirement, and Coffee

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 23: Filmmaker Will Lovelace, musician James Murphy and filmmaker Dylan Southern pose for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival at the Getty Images Portrait Studio at T-Mobile Village at the Lift on January 23, 2012 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
Photo: Larry Busacca/2012 Getty Images

In watching Shut Up and Play the Hits, the documentary of LCD Soundsystem’s final show ever at Madison Square Garden, it is clear that James Murphy loves three things: music, his French bulldog, and coffee. He loves coffee with a passion unmatched by pretty much any somewhat famous person besides David Lynch — who has his own coffee line and has been known for putting rants about the virtues of coffee versus tea in movies like Inland Empire. When Stephen Colbert asked Murphy what he wanted to do now that he was retiring from rock stardom, he said, “I like to make coffee.” And much of the documentary’s footage of Murphy at home has him crouched by an espresso machine. 

The film’s British directors, Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, insist the portrayal is pretty accurate. “I make a lot of coffee,” Murphy told us in an interview at Bing Bar after the movie’s premiere. “For my birthday, my girlfriend got me a training course with the world champion. That’s what I’m going to do when I get back to London.” Not only that, Murphy is working on his own espresso blend. He plans to “just go to a roaster who lives near me and start tweaking beans and temperatures.” Why? “I thought it would be fun. I have beans that I like. I like this sometimes and that sometimes. Sometimes in the middle.” Murphy will only distribute this special blend at a single shop, but as for what shop and what particular beans, Murphy can’t say. “I can’t talk about that because I’m still in negotiations,” he said, laughing. “I love that we’re here and talking about a film, but I’m like, ‘I can’t really talk about the coffee.” (The other food-related thing Murphy loves, by the way: Marlow & Sons, where the band had their next-day, post-concert dinner.)

In the meantime, he and Southern and Lovelace are busy working on a separate full-length concert version of the documentary, which is good, because in its current state, the mixture of LCD dance songs and footage of Murphy in quiet moments at home or backstage wasn’t very conducive to aisle dancing. “People were certainly trying, weren’t they?” said Lovelace when I described my thwarted efforts to get my groove on. “We didn’t encourage it,” said Southern. Murphy liked the people dancing in the aisles and then being confounded by the long stretches with no music. “Then you can feel like we three people feel in general — you feel uncomfortable and then you have to sit down awkwardly.”

Just as he did for the documentary, Murphy will mix the sound for the four-hour concert film, which he hopes to show in more dance-friendly venues. “Nobody mixes us,” he said. As for what sound he was going for, which was very, very loud in a movie theater, Murphy said, “I wanted it to sound like what it sounds like to me. I wanted it to sound like somewhere between what it sounds like to me onstage and sounds like to an audience. Usually people tend to professionalize stuff, and I don’t think that’s what we sound like.” Loudness wasn’t as important to him as smoothness. “There are things that I care about in the songs that I feel like have an impact in a physical sense or an emotional sense that are what I find important, and that’s not necessarily what another mixer would do.” The challenge was to make the sound “not bad and not too quiet” coming out of movie theater speakers. “It’s more a removal of negation,” he said. “I wanted to make it immersive in the right ways and not be distracting. I don’t like it. There’s a curve with theaters that you have to fight. It’s a curve that’s designed to run dialogue, but music is just a very different animal.” Bass, on the other hand, is great in movie theaters. “The basses are designed for spaceships. I thought the basses were louder than the rest of the weight. It’s more trying to get it to not sound like a soundtrack, not to sound like a film, to sound like our band.”

Now that he’s retired from being a rock star, Murphy is just trying out this and that. He has a small part in a Sundance movie called The Comedy, with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tim & Eric. “So far, everything I’ve done that’s not LCD — and even the choice to end it — is about that I find things interesting,” said Murphy. “I did the soundtrack for Greenberg because I met Noah [Baumbach], I liked him, and we could talk about music so I was like, ‘kay, I’ll do that. So people were like, ‘So you’re gonna do soundtracks now?’ And I was like, ‘No, I just met this guy and he was nice.’” Same thing with The Comedy. “I liked Tim and Eric, and I was like, ‘It will take me four or five days to do something that will exist.’ I mean, if somebody told you that you could do something for four or five days and a movie would appear, you’d fucking do it. So I did it. And it was exciting. And doing the film, I’m not interested in a career path. I’m just interested in being like, ‘Okay, that’s an interesting project. I’ll do that.’”

In the movie, Murphy says something along the lines of wanting to retire in order not to get any more famous. He clarified: “I don’t consider myself to be particularly famous. I’m like a scientist. I’m known in my field. If you like science, you might have read my papers,” he said. “It was more what was next for that band. Being a career band, things go in these orders: You either succeed by getting bigger or fail by getting smaller. I wanted to just leave that, because what seemed next for the band — because I’m competitive and I want to be challenged, I don’t want to be just like, ‘Oh, we’ll play some independent shows’ — I wanted to compete! So what was next didn’t seem that interesting. Because I think being a very, very famous band seems like a quality of life issue.” That doesn’t mean that he was being presumptive enough to assume that LCD was going to get worldwide huge. “But, like, if I was going to compete and I wanted to win and do better, then that would be the natural result of playing for more people and being more successful. It would be that you would be more famous. And that might not be that desirable at fortysomething.” 

His French bulldog, on the other hand, does want fame, having experienced it as the second lead in the Shut Up documentary. “She’s taking a few auditions,” said Murphy. “She’s a good actress. She’s a prima donna and really difficult. She wouldn’t come out of her trailer but when she did, she really delivered.”

James Murphy on His Sundance Documentary, Rock Star Retirement, and Coffee