James Murphy: 'I Think About Sound a Lot'

Former frontman for LCD Soundsystem hears the world differently than the rest of us.

James Murphy
James Murphy© Dan Wilton/Red Bull Media House

James Murphy had a cold. The former frontman for LCD Soundsystem was at the tail end of a four-day stretch of parties, lectures and interviews -- endless interviews. It was the 12th anniversary of DFA Records, the label he co-founded, hence the celebration, the committments and ultimately, the cold.

Murphy sat on a couch on the seventh floor of Red Bull Music Academy, warned of his germs (bumping elbows instead of shaking hands) and after touching on a variety of topics -- for example, he has a bruise on his calf from sitting cross-legged -- we settled on sound, something that Murphy, who started recording songs when he was 8 or 9 years old, thinks about every day and in ways the normal human being doesn't.

© Hisham Akira Bharoocha

Do you think about sound a lot?

I think about sound a lot.

Do you read books about sound?

They always leave me cold. I sometimes read stuff about like a little bit about old speaker design. But it always leaves me a little bit cold.

Is it too scientific?

Yeah, sometimes it’s just doesn’t communicate what I want it to communicate. But I think about it a lot. I think about remembering PA systems that I love, PA systems that I didn’t think worked and why. And spaces that I loved and spaces that I think didn’t worked and why.

Can you hear those systems and the distinctions between them?

Absolutely. I can usually visualize what’s wrong with them. I can often look at PA systems and tell you what’s not going to work. I’m very rarely surprised by them. Some will puzzle me for a while, I’ll muddle in my head what I don’t like about them, till I finally discover it.

I think you’re living in a different world than the rest of us. Are you constantly judging every sound entering your ears?

I didn’t think that for most of my life, and in the last 10 years I think I do listen with a different language. So I do listen with a different language than most people.

Are you constantly editing the sounds around you?

I’m constantly trying to think about them. I walk into stores and their speakers’ are out of phase and my eyes water and I want to go change them. I’ve rewired speakers in bars before. I’ve been like, “I can’t do this, you guys. I have to flip the phase on that speaker because it’s out with the other three. And it’s making me crazy.” I kind of think about it all the time.

Do you think about how you can use different sounds?

Yeah. It’s just, sound to me is a big, big deal. The sound of my house. Sound proofness. Sound transparency. Sound space resonant panels, resonant floors. Gatherings of frequencies in boxy spaces. This is the kind of stuff that I think about all the time. I went and saw my girlfriend’s grandfather’s office, and he had difficulty hearing, and I wanted to redesign his office. I was like, “You need to push the ceiling down by his desk and put absorbers behind him so he hears direct sound and not bouncing sound, so it’s clearer.” Stuff like that I think about all the time.

Tokyo sound inspires me. The subway system is really beautiful sounding. And American machines make me happy. But I want to design a new sound system for the New York subway system.

What do you think about this space right now?

This is terrible. Because there’s all the whoosh there. These are all hard surfaces with resonant metal boxes so there’s a constant gathering of about 600 Hz above us. I mean, that’s a part of life. Normally you tune that stuff out to a certain degree, and I can tune it out. But I think about it a lot. High-pitched whining drives me crazy.

Where is your favorite place for sound?

A beach. The beach is my favorite sound. Always. Like small wooden house beach would be my favorite sound.

What is that sound – the openness?

There’s a dispersion and there’s always a low level of noise from the water that covers annoying ambient sounds.

I was just watching the Ryuichi Sakamoto lecture and they were discussing the sounds of New York City. Do you have a favorite city?

Yes. Tokyo sound inspires me. The subway system is really beautiful sounding. And American machines make me happy. But I want to design a new sound system for the New York subway system.

What would that be?

I’ve been working on it for years. It’s trying to get someone to let me do it. It would be that each tone at every turnstile – every one you swipe your card or tap, instead of being like [sharp beep], it would be like a [chime], so it’s like a note and it would have a little decay. And all of them would have a little chip that generates a note that would have a logarithm that would kick out semi-random based on a key and a chord and a progression, so at rush hour when you went through, it would make music that would be in a relative key that would have passing notes that would make it active and suspended and stuff.

It doesn’t seem like it would cost anything.

It would cost shit. I want to do it desperately, desperately, desperately.

It’s built-in.

Yeah, it’s built-in. And I would want each subway station to have a different key, so kids who grew up in the city, they’d hear pieces of music and say, “This reminds me of Times Square.”

Or you’d just go to a different station to hear the music.

Yeah. And I’d want to put it online so you could hear the music actively. You could just pass your mouse around the city and hear different music. Or have your iPhone and be able to play your music based on where you are and on your proximity to what station.

I’ve rewired speakers in bars before. I’ve been like, “I can’t do this, you guys. I have to flip the phase on that speaker because it’s out with the other three. And it’s making me crazy.”

So what’s the next step?

Don’t know. Find somebody that will get me into an office with somebody who will let me do it. You could also think about pieces of music in terms of rides from station to station, so they would actually go transitionally, where you would have things like at really complicated stations, you’d have to think about… You would think about what does the bottom of the 6 train to the top of the 6 train sound like in sequence. And what happens when the 6 train meets the F train. What happens there? What happens at the station?

You could also program them seasonally.

I think just getting them to work at the stations kind of blew my mind. But it would be a constant living piece of music.

And it’s something you’re serious about?

Yes. I’ve been trying to do it since 1999, so 14 years.

Where is it at now?

I’ve tried a couple of channels. I’m a little stumped.

Sounds amazing. I’m down. Any way I can help?

Sing it from the rooftops.

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