In 2011, James Murphy did something almost unheard of in the music industry: He walked away from stardom. Tired of the taxing cycle of writing, recording and promoting albums as leader of LCD Soundsystem — and not wanting to become so famous he could no longer ride the New York subway — Murphy pulled the plug on the influential dance-rock group as it began to find a wider audience. (The final, four-hour concert was captured in the 2011 doc, Shut Up and Play the Hits.)
Murphy has since taken on countless projects, from producing an Arcade Fire album to creating his own blend of espresso beans. Now he’s focusing on film scoring, having composed the music for Noah Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young, their second collaboration (2010’s Greenberg was the first). The film tells the story of what happens when a couple in their 40s (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) befriend two young, adventurous Brooklynites (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) — a plot tailor-fit for the guy who wrote “Losing My Edge” and played the “Aging Hipster” in the Rick Alverson indie The Comedy.
Murphy opened up to The Hollywood Reporter about his new creative freedoms — and yes, some lingering regrets — since saying “no thanks” to rock-stardom.
What is it specifically about Noah Baumbach as a filmmaker that makes him a good fit for you as a collaborator?
The main thing is we’re friends. We became friends through Greenberg. Before that, I’d made it clear to my management that I didn’t want to make soundtracks. If you think the record business is silly and overbearing, then try the film business. I’d had friends who’d done a lot of scoring and I think very often you are dealing with the producer [who] wants one thing, the director [who wants] a different thing and the music supervisor [who] wants a third thing – and that’s really not interesting to me.
I met Noah and we immediately hit it off as people and then I was like, “If I can just work for you and make your music for you and that’s my filter, then I’m happy.” I did this deal 100 percent with him. We have each other’s phone numbers, we have dinner, I go over while he’s editing. It feels a little bit like I’m in college and I’m an English major who makes music and he’s a film major and I’m helping him with his film. And then it helps that he’s a very good filmmaker.
Many of your LCD Soundsystem songs have a preoccupation with age. Thematically, did this particular script hit home for you?
Sure, there’s a connection, but it’s a funny one because I’m in the middle. A lot of the lines that are attributed to Adam Driver’s character kind of came out of my mouth. I could be both guys in some ways. I’m DJing and doing ridiculous stuff that’s much more in the kid world.
On Greenberg, you said you liked this idea of making lots of little songs and not a score. Is that how things worked with this film?
Yeah. In some circumstances I like score, but I don’t like scores that dogmatically reproduce the emotional feeling someone is trying to get across. Like, I don’t like sad songs for sad moments, typically, because I feel like they often tend to be saccharin and overshoot the mark and undercut the acting. I like songs because they create a totally different set of references that can enrich the acting and make it complex.
What were the mechanics of the collaboration on this film?
We’d talk about what we want. Then I created this set-up where I can make music quickly, which I like to do. It’s this old string synthesizer and a series of delays — a really minimal rig that I could quickly make music with every day and send him little bits and bobs. Sometimes it’s better for me to make a bunch of music and see where he sees it fitting. Then I’d tailor it for the scene.
Your glockenspiel cover of David Bowie‘s “Golden Years” plays a significant role in Young. What led to that?
I actually don’t know how that came about. Noah had some children’s music we were talking about and something about it was interesting, but something wasn’t quite working. I don’t remember which of us said, “Golden Years.” It was fun to break down the song. “Golden Years” is quite complicated. It’s got that great, important guitar intro, but that doesn’t work as a glockenspiel thing, so I tried to figure out how to represent the song really simply that’s like children’s music. It was fun. I think the title of the song is very funny considering the nature of the film.
Is there something freeing in your collaborations with Baumbach or say Arcade Fire, in the sense you are serving their visions?
Yeah, they’re great because I get to make music without the existential angst of [thinking about] the next thing I should be making. In some ways I miss that kind of pressure. That’s a fun game to play. It’s a brutal game and a difficult, quite painful one for me, but I [do miss it]. Yeah, whatever you do, you miss the other thing.
Is it a happier, more healthy lifestyle?
Everything is healthier than being on tour.
In Shut Up and Play the Hits, author Chuck Klosterman asked you what the defining failure of your career has been. Your answer was revealing: You said you didn’t know because it was too soon, but you worried it might be ending LCD Soundsystem. It’s four years later: Do you have any more clarity on this? Any regrets?
I have no clarity. I’m way too inside. I also don’t know what else I’m going to do. It all depends on what else I do. Some of those things are personal things, like having a life, which I enjoy. But I also tend to really admire people who scuttle themselves and their lives for something they like doing. But I’ve also always known that I’m not that guy necessarily. I’m not that guy when people ask, “What would you be doing if you weren’t in the band?” [who says] “Nothing, man. I’m not suited for anything else.” I’m totally suited for other things. I’m fine.
I could probably have a job working for a company. I’m pretty even-tempered at times. While I admire those people, I can’t pretend to be someone who burns themselves at the alter of rock. [Pause] But I am also kind of that person. I did it for 10 years and smashed myself, my body and my life, and for a while the results were better than I thought they would have been. They surprised me. So I actually don’t know, I don’t know the answer.
While We’re Young is in theaters now. The soundtrack is available now for download, the vinyl will be available on May 19. You can watch the trailer below:
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.