Just days after LCD Soundsystem‘s new single, “Drunk Girls,” leaked online, a companion video of sorts hit YouTube. As the first taste of the band’s third album, the song had already set tongues wagging, from Pitchfork awarding it a “Best New Music” tag to Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield hailing it as an early contender for single of the year.
Clocking in at an uncharacteristically short 3:44, “Drunk Girls” is LCD’s most straightforward rock song yet, with an unembarrassed “Heroes”-era Bowie guitar line, “Pump It Up” drums and a perfectly catchy low-brow refrain. Some longtime fans heard it as an unbecoming grab for jock-jam status. And the video, a conspicuously well-produced compilation of Facebook-profile-pilfered photos and camera phone videos of the extremely inebriated, seemed to reinforce those fears, especially given the clip’s professional-level edits. Was this LCD mastermind James Murphy’s meta-version of viral marketing?
“That repulsive video of throwing-up college girls gone wild?” Murphy asks the next week, emphatically denying his team’s involvement. “No. That’s kind of everything I loathe.”
While he recognizes that the song could become a misogynistic frat-boy cheer, he remains unapologetic when it comes to his original intent. “I just wanted something dumb,” he says. “I like dumb, short stuff.”
No one can accuse Murphy of being dumb. In the 10 years since he founded DFA Records and formed LCD Soundsystem as a one-off Williamsburg, Brooklyn, party band, he’s created the most compelling and witty rock’n’roll dance music to come out of New York since David Byrne put the big suit in mothballs. And without meeting any of the benchmarks bands once used to gauge success-LCD has only average record sales and negligible airplay-the group is in a powerful position heading into the May 18 release of “This Is Happening” and the start of a year-plus touring cycle, including a plum spot at last week’s Coachella and top billing at many summer festivals in Europe.
Commercially, the fist-pumping “Drunk Girls” may prove to be the song that threads the needle, bringing Murphy’s hipster piss-take to the masses with its official, hilariously chaotic one-take Spike Jonze-directed video and a serious push for new fans by EMI.
Norm Winer, PD of Chicago’s venerated triple A WXRT and a staunch supporter of LCD Soundsystem, added the track out of the box. “LCD’s music, their energy…they’re just magnetic and automatic,” he says. “They connect to our audience. The decision to put this song on the radio was reflexive.”
“This Is Happening” is an album lover’s album, its nine songs running nearly 70 minutes long. Other than the rollicking “Drunk Girls,” its tracks hew closely to the signature LCD sound: analog synthesizers, processed guitars, expertly programmed beats and layers of live drums and percussion. But Murphy’s songwriting and singing have matured in the three years since the “Sound of Silver” album was released. And while “Happening” feels, at times, like an extended homage to Brian Eno’s greatest production hits, it showcases Murphy’s studio perfectionism that has kept LCD’s sound so consistent through the years.
“It’s mood-altering,” says Rob Stevenson, president of Virgin Records in the United States and Murphy’s point man at EMI. “It gives the feeling of the records that got me into this business in the first place, like the Pixies’ ‘Doolittle’ or R.E.M.’s ‘Fables of the Reconstruction.’ I would listen to those from start to finish, and they didn’t sound like anything else; you just felt cool listening to it. And that’s what this record does.”
But more than anything, it’s LCD’s live show that keeps the people coming back for more. Now touring as a seven-piece, the band has added an official new member-Gavin Russom, who built the two synth rigs that anchor the tours-and a new guitarist, the Melvins’ David Scott Stone, has been added into a rotation that includes Hot Chip’s Al Doyle and !!! guitarist/bassist Tyler Pope (who recently rejoined the band after a three-year absence). They augment longtime percussionist Matt Thornley, keyboardist/vocalist Nancy Whang and LCD’s secret weapon, drummer Pat Mahoney.
Goldenvoice president Paul Tollett began thinking about a prime-time, main-stage slot for LCD as soon as the band appeared at Coachella (which Goldenvoice promotes) in 2008. “It’s exciting to see how huge this band is without hits on the radio,” he says. “They are the perfect Coachella band for that reason. Luckily, nowadays there are so many different types of success; it shows that you can fully do it with or without mainstream radio airplay. You can decide not to do that and be playing the tops of festivals too.”
Onstage at Coachella 2010, dressed in a white suit under a giant spinning disco ball in front of a polo field teeming with hands-in-the-air dancing fans, Murphy proved to be as compelling a frontman as any of the rock stars whose oeuvre he both studies and mocks. Generous to his band and self-deprecating to a fault, onstage he plays the role of a jaded hipster with a heart of gold, your all-knowing best friend from high school done good. He takes on songs from all eras of the LCD songbook, from new tunes like “I Can Change” and “Pow” to a recharged “Losing My Edge,” with the confidence of a man fronting a band firing on all cylinders.
“This is the pinnacle of what this band is going to be,” Murphy says. “By the end of this touring cycle, I think we’ll be as good as we get. I don’t see us getting better.”
But just as LCD is a top-tier act, and a serious draw, for mainstream festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, the band is equally revered and courted at more specialized events, from the indie-rock epicenter of Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival to the day-glo, jamtronica weekender Camp Bisco in upstate New York.
“There aren’t going to be a lot of people there who don’t know who LCD Soundsystem is,” Pitchfork editor in chief Scott Plagenhoef says in anticipation of LCD’s set closing Saturday night of this year’s Pitchfork. “A lot of the in-jokes, and a lot of the communal aspects of the songs, will be shared in an environment like that. I can’t imagine a better moment than hearing ‘All My Friends’ at the closing on Saturday after spending the whole day drinking with all your friends.”
Disco Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein, who recruited Murphy to DJ and curate an all-night dance tent at last year’s festival, sees this year’s live LCD show as a chance to expand the musical horizons of his younger fans. “LCD is one of the biggest bands in America, in terms of what they can accomplish going out on tour,” Brownstein says. “It’s a major, major dance party. It’s fun, upbeat and high energy. It’s going to work really well at Camp Bisco.”
But just as LCD seems poised to break through to a wider audience, Murphy has already set the countdown to the end of the line. As he first announced during a BBC interview last month, he fully intends to wind down the band at the end of this touring cycle, which will run a minimum of 18 months.
“I love this band,” Murphy says. “I love what we do, I love everything about it. But at a certain point the only reason to repeat yourself instead of trying something new is money. And that’s just not a good enough reason. There are other things that are important to me, like the label and production and working with my friends.
“I’m 40,” he concludes. “I like doing other stuff too.”