"When we started the band, suddenly we were, like, New York famous. We could get into anyplace, but you know — I was never recognized on a plane."
James Murphy, former frontman of self-reflexive postpunk dance band LCD Soundsystem, has called to talk about Shut Up and Play the Hits, a new film documenting LCD's sold-out April 2011 farewell concert at Madison Square Garden. He's attempting to explain why he chose to call it quits on a band that, 10 years after the landmark first single "Losing My Edge," was indisputably at the peak of its success. In addition to the predictable ubiquity in Silver Lake and Williamsburg, LCD's third and final full-length, This Is Happening, had debuted in the Billboard Top 10 and displaced Lady Gaga from the top of the dance chart. Anna Kendrick starred in one video; Spike Jonze directed another.
The higher profile was part of the problem.
"I felt the band getting bigger, but I was always like, well, it doesn't matter when I can come back to New York, where nobody gives a shit. And then I came back to New York, and people started giving more of a shit, so I was at the beginning of me not wanting, um ... "
Murphy, chatting while en route to his home in Brooklyn, interrupts himself. "I'm looking out of my car, up at Terry Richardson having an animated conversation through a window," he marvels. "He's flailing his arms a lot. He's looking at me." The controversial photographer, Murphy suggests, is the epitome of "New York famous" — a household name in enough households to improve his standard of living without impinging on his actual life. "I wasn't that interested in actual famous-people fame, you know what I mean?"
Murphy has never been a typical rock star, and Shut Up is by no means a conventional rock doc. Co-directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace condense the four-hour, 29-song Madison Square Garden show into a few full performances of "hits" like "North American Scum," "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down" and "I Can Change" interwoven with excerpts from an interview with Murphy conducted a week before the show by pop-culture pundit Chuck Klosterman and vérité footage of Murphy shot the morning after the concert, tracing his first day as a 41-year-old rock & roll "retiree."
Moments of onstage transcendence are sandwiched between Murphy's preshow contemplations of pretension and rock-star mythology, and postshow evidence of life going on at its most mundane. Talking to Klosterman, Murphy marvels that even the most superhuman pop star "is just a dude. He has to check his email." The morning after his triumphant goodbye show, Murphy still has to get out of bed to walk the dog.
"We were very deliberate about the day after being the perspective from which we view the story," Southern says. "You have this huge show at this iconic venue, and it's a kind of euphoric event. And the best position to look at some of the reasons why you would end the band and what that would feel like the day after — the sobriety of the next morning and the fact that nothing really happens."
"I wanted it to be about what it's like when you make things," Murphy says. "The band, the movie — everything in some way is always about what it feels like to make something, the actualities. Not the myth of being a maker."
Lovelace and Southern's approach allows them to expose the psyche of a man walking away from fame, while contextualizing how that move fits into Murphy's ongoing personal conflict between his interest in highbrow and/or obscure art, music and literature and his compulsion to make music that makes people want to dance. The coexistence of serious ideas and genuine emotion in party songs with often hilarious lyrics — that's LCD Soundsystem in a nutshell.
Lovelace and Southern use the phrase "end of an era" to describe the significance of LCD's demise, which Murphy rejects — "I can't pinpoint what the era is." Whatever it is, Murphy seems to have been pointing to the end all along. In a reflection of the times that spawned it, LCD earned its stripes in hipster culture in part by brilliantly, affectionately skewering that culture, through songs like "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House" and "Losing My Edge."
In Shut Up, Klosterman begins to suggest that "Edge," a spoken-word dance track in the voice of an aging scenester, is essentially a novelty song. "That song's serious as a heart attack," Murphy argues, likening the experiences that inspired it to "a sad, hipster-DJ Revolutionary Road."
"Audiences had changed, the way people consume music had changed, and I think James was kind of one of the first people to catch on to that," Southern says. " 'Losing My Edge' is the song I think they'll be remembered for. I think it must be a strange thing to have done that in your first record. That's a hard one to follow up."
Eleven years after first forecasting his own obsolescence, those changes in cultural consumption are still on Murphy's mind. Record stores, he says, were replaced with online affinity groups amounting to "People Who Agree With Me dot com. A record store, you go in and you're faced with, like, the gauntlet. There [were] defining queries that you put yourself through, which are missing now. Now you just get told you're awesome all the time, and if someone tells you you're not awesome, you just unfriend them."
In the film and in conversation, Murphy is ever aware of his comparatively advanced age. At its most basic level, his rejection of the rock & roll lifestyle is a question of self-preservation. Every time he tours, Murphy says in the film, he returns with markedly more gray hair. "That's the visible sign," he says. "What's going on inside? I don't want to, like, die." He pauses a beat, then says more firmly, "I don't want to die!"
"Health is a big reason [to end LCD]," Murphy says today. "Life is a big reason. I didn't live a normal life for a long time. I toured and made records and toured and made records. I didn't want to be stuck being in a professional band and not having a life."
Not that he has exactly been a homebody since the days chronicled in the film. He went to Sundance to promote this movie and another, The Comedy, in which he acts. He went to London to work on the Shut Up sound mix. He has myriad projects in some state of development, including a boutique in Brooklyn and a disco-themed exhibit at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary, scheduled to open in fall 2013. "I don't know quite what my role is," Murphy admits. He adds dryly, "I can't compare it to my previous curatorial work."
In Shut Up's morning after, Murphy notes that he feels "disturbingly normal" — he hasn't had time to process. And now that he has had a year?
"Nothing is out of whack from my experience of being in LCD Soundsystem," Murphy says. "Yet, when I go make a record that's not an LCD Soundsystem record, that's gonna be weird."
Shut Up and Play the Hits (Oscilloscope Pictures) is now playing.