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James Murphy talks Little Duck, Arcade Fire, Bowie, and the art of vinyl

on October 15, 2013, 1:00pm

James Murphy 2

Aside from being the frontman for one of the most integral acts in recent years (see: LCD Soundsystem), James Murphy has had his fingers in many proverbial pies: running his label DFA Records, building his own studio, opening a coffee shop, and DJing festivals, parties, cruises, etc. Now, with his recent participation in a project helmed by Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard, he can add film director to his CV.

Murphy’s directorial debut, Little Duck, is a short film for Canon’s Project Imaginat10n and is developed out of photographs submitted by people of all walks of life. Under the mentorship of Ron Howard, Murphy worked alongside a few other celebrity non-directors, including Jamie Foxx, Eva Longoria, Biz Stone, and Georgina Chapman. Helming the director’s chair, Murphy traded in many of his typical DIY approaches for straight up teamwork, something the venerable musician admits was not easy for him.

In anticipation of the film’s October 24th premiere in New York City, Consequence of Sound caught up with Murphy to discuss the project, his recent work on Arcade Fire’s forthcoming Reflektor, remixing the Thin White Duke, and the art of DJing vinyl.

So, we’re talking today because of your directorial debut with Little Duck. I remember seeing commercials for this [project] with Ron Howard asking for people to submit photographs, but I didn’t realize they were actually getting celebrities to do these films. I thought he was doing an actual movie. How did you get involved with this?

Somebody calls my manager and then they call me. But, it sounded really exciting. I had an opportunity to learn how to make a film. What could be better? I’ve never done it before, and I don’t have to come up with an idea, because the idea is supposed to come from the pictures, so I don’t have to have an existential crisis about “What should my movie be about?” I can literally just relax and see what happens from the pictures and do my best to interpret them. And learn from good people, learn how to build a team, get a good cinematographer, and all that kind of stuff.

So, did you just get a handful of photographs from Ron Howard and you had to pick through them? How did the photographs become the film?

We got a ton of pictures that got sent in and they got, I guess, pre-vetted. Some of them got vetted, but I wound up being able to look at even stuff that was kind of a raw, big pile of photos. Then they got wheedled down and printed, and then I would sit with a big pile of photographs and pick the ones – the 10 pictures for the 10 different categories, like story, conflict, character, back story, and try and make a film from them.

This isn’t the first time you’ve been a team leader. You’re a label head, a bandleader, a producer. How was being a director different, or the same?

I think wildly different. Because, for me, doing the band, when it comes to recording, I just do it myself, because actually I’m not good at collaborating, sometimes. I just want things exactly the way I want them, and then I get frustrated and I feel like I’m hurting people’s feelings, so I just do it myself. Film, you can’t do that. I realized that I had to find the right team and make sure I had a good aesthetic, a co-understanding. I started with this cinematographer. My friend had worked with this cinematographer before, so I got his number and called him, this guy, Manuel Claro, Manuel Alberto Claro, who did Melancholia with Lars von Trier. So, that was the first member of the team, calling him and being like, “Do you want to make this movie? Can we talk about movies and talk about films?” And, we kind of saw eye-to-eye, and he was really sweet. So, we started there and just kept building the team from that idea of trying to find people that you could deal with.

Was it all you, or with each time you found somebody else, did they help you acquire the next step? Or was it all an adventure on your own – picking this team?

I think, with film, it’s never an adventure on your own, unless you’re a lone guy with a camera. The beauty of it is is that people ask you questions. You have producers. I wrote a script by myself in the extra time I had while away from home, working. From then on, it was, “How do we get the script down to the right amount of minutes?” And then, “How do we want to do it?” I get asked questions. At first they were like, “Do you want to do it in LA?” and I was, “No, it’s in Japan. It has to be in Japan.” So, that was a bit of a battle. And, once we did it, everyone was really happy we did it in Japan, because it’s a big part of the character of it.

How long was the process making this film?

I’m really bad with time. I was in Montreal, I want to say, January…January, February, starting, kicking the writing process. A dozen meetings at the end of the year before, and then I guess I shot it in March. So, it was several months from writing, yeah, and we shot it in March, and did post work up until June, I think.

Was editing it down to a short time the hardest part?

It was the hardest part. Because, there were scenes in New York that we had to cut. Trying to tell the whole story chopped down wasn’t as good in the end as telling one part of the story patiently. So, somewhere there’s a director’s cut. I’m not done with it.

Nice. Did you soundtrack it yourself?

Well, I didn’t really soundtrack much. There’s a scene with a song that plays in the background that a friend of mine’s band plays. It’s like a punk song that two characters are listening to. That’s just played through a boombox in the scene. And then there’s a song at the end that a guy riding his bike is listening to in headphones, and I made that with some friends. But that’s it. There was no sweeping soundtrack. Ironically, I am not that crazy about soundtracks in movies.

Is that because of your experience on Greenberg? You once described it as brutal.

No. Greenberg is probably the easiest soundtrack anybody’s ever made. It was probably the least brutal of all, but still it’s terrifying to be making something for somebody else. I just don’t like…sometimes I feel…I think a lot of soundtracks are redundant and almost insulting to the actors. Like, “Oh, everybody has to be sad now.” Let the actors do the job. If they’re doing their job, you’ll be sad.

Well, then how come you started soundtracking, or scoring, the Broadway version of Betrayal?

[That] is just music for transitions, it’s not music under the acting. I’m not saying it’s always bad, I’m just saying a lot of the times what I feel soundtracks do is flatten emotions, sometimes. Like something could be complex and it becomes just sad or just scary.

A lot of times it can be used such that it ruins the scene, entirely. I’ve seen many films that were just destroyed by the choice of music they use. Mostly it’s the big action films with the commercial insertion of bands like Nickelback.

Yeah. It’s just a nightmare. You’re being alienated or drawn in in a weird way. I like source material music in mood films a lot. It’s not that I think soundtracks are bad in any way, shape or form. Some things are great. I just think I don’t by default think that a film has to have music going on all the time. It doesn’t have to have a big pop song, it doesn’t have to have a very emotive score. It doesn’t have to.

Speaking to the “rare pop song,” I saw that you and Will Eastman were spinning a set at the 9:30 Club, and I recently heard an anecdote about the two of you spinning a party in Minnesota. You were spinning and told Will to grab a record. When he pulled out an early Ministry 12”, you made the comment of not having heard or played that particular one before, and when you put it on the crowd just lost it.

That was one of my favorite records. I bought that record when it came out. I carried it all the time and very seldom got to play it. I hadn’t played it in years. But, it was like an early DFA staple. It was probably…I want to think of which track off of that it would have been. It might have been…it was probably “Cold Life”. That was really fun, but yeah, I had clearly heard it. That was one of my favorite records when I was 13.

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You still spin vinyl right? I remember reading an interview years ago where you said, “I can’t imagine mixing a set just by picking files.” But that was maybe 10 years ago. Do you still spin vinyl entirely?

Not entirely. I had to do this cruise ship. I always carried…I would typically have a couple of songs on CD, but like three songs. I’d have a CD with three songs on it, which was for when I played festivals and they’d have to move the band off, and they’d be stomping around and skipping the records. If that was going to happen, sometimes I’d play a CD in the beginning. Or they’d sometimes even have to move the DJ booth once you’ve started. So I always had a couple of songs on CD. Maybe I had two copies of the same three-song CD. But, I had to do this cruise ship, the Coachella Cruise, and you couldn’t play records, so I had to digitize a bunch of records. But, I have the, whatever, little SD card with a bunch of music on it, which is sort of like my backup. But, typically I play mostly vinyl, unless there’s something wrong. I do soundchecks.

At festivals, I can’t do soundchecks, so sometimes, like, I went and played a festival and they didn’t have turntables, even though I had it all in my rider. They ignored that. I was like, “You guys are so fucking lucky that I have anything at all, because this is not okay.” There are times you go in and the turntables are broken. I had to start doing it for backup because the less other people play vinyl, the more rare it is, the lower the chance that I’m going to get gear that works. The club situation, I go and do soundchecks now, which has really changed my life. I go early and spend several hours talking to the engineers, and setting up the lights, and changing the sound, and balancing the turntables, and getting concrete slabs on squash balls, and that sort of stuff, so that I can actually play records. But, at festivals, I’m still thrown to the wolves and it’s just up to whether or not someone’s prepared or not.

When you’re doing a DJ set, do you plan what you’re going to play, or do you just go with the flow?

There’s always a limit because it’s what’s in the bag, but I typically don’t pay that much attention to what I put in my bag before I go. I like to keep [it that way], because otherwise you get into a rut and you play the same things. I still play some of the same things for 10 years, just because other people don’t play them, and I don’t DJ that often that it becomes a problem, and sometimes they’re fun. But I also have no interest, no obsession with what came out this week. I’m not in an arms race for the most…I still think that only a tiny percent of music is good, and I try to just play music that I think is really good. I only have a couple thousand records that are in the potential DJ records. I just kind of grab a bunch and throw them in a bag, and I see what happens when I get there. And since I tend to play almost the entirety of a song, if I play a track I don’t play just two bits of it and jump out. I’ll play the whole thing. I can play two, three hours with a small bag of records. For me, part of the challenge for myself is how do I make a set work out of whatever’s in this bag?

arcade fire reflektor

Here’s the obligatory Arcade Fire question: You’ve already mentioned how they kind of produce themselves, but you were there, providing ideas. There’s an obvious dance theme to what they’ve released so far. Did they come to you with those themes, or was that your influence?

No, they came to me. I mean, whether it’s my influence or not is something you’d have to ask them, but they came to me with them. That was in the songs, like “Reflektor” being heard the most. The structure of that song and its danciness was there before I ever got there. Absolutely. It’s just that’s what they want to do. My job was kind of like to just help in whatever way possible, even if that means making coffee.

Did the David Bowie collaboration come out of working with Arcade Fire?

I don’t know. All these things, they happen in such obscure reaches of the mind. I get a call, “Oh we’ve got an awesome thing. Can you do this? Can we make this work?” And my managers and I go, “Let me look at the calendar. I really want to do this, but I’m also scared.” It did come up right before I worked with him, actually, if I’m not mistaken. I could be wrong on the chronology. I think it came up around the same time. When I recorded him for the Arcade Fire, I did not, we didn’t talk about it. At least I don’t think we did.

What was behind calling it the “Hello Steve Reich” mix?

I was obsessed with Steve Reich’s clapping music, so I opened it with a phasing clapping piece. I had a couple people. I had Hisham Bharoocha, who’s this percussionist-artist. He used to be in Black Dice, and he’s done stuff with the Boredoms, and he’s a friend of mine. So, he was in town and I hadn’t seen him. He was doing this [piece] over at the Gallery where he was smashing up a room with some other percussionist-artists, and I hadn’t seen him in a long time, so I literally just wanted an opportunity to hang out with my friend and work on something [laughs] since I’m always working, and they’re always working. Sometimes you just have to be, “let’s do this thing together,” so I had him come over and we just made this little clapping, phasing clapping piece, that began the track. It was originally going to be the whole remix, just clapping.

When I saw the title of the remix, I just thought remixing Electric Counterpoint.

[Laughs] No, a lot of his phase pieces I really like. I think they just do something quite physical, and they do something that everybody who works with a computer, making music on a grid, knows by accident. But here’s someone doing it. It is almost like it’s a piece of music based on how technology will wind up working. Something is shifted, something is misaligned. I find it really quite magical. For something quite technical, it’s quite magical.

Photography by Ben Kaye.

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