Without James Murphy, New York might still be a musical museum. That’s what it was like when he rose up alongside the “New York rock renaissance”—the tag applied, around 2000, to the surge of young bands like the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol. The story then was that New York had reemerged with a sound and a style to call its own. The city was back on the map. Downtown was cool again. But was it?
The problem with the rock renaissance was that it played out like a Renaissance fair—with rockers in skinny ties and black leather preening like jesters and old- master painters at a living-history festival. It was an exercise in pure nostalgia.
James Murphy was nostalgic, too, but he yearned for a New York where sounds collided and styles followed suit, as outgrowths of creative chaos rather than traditions to fall back on. The only way to serve such a legacy was to reinvent it, so Murphy did what all restless scenemakers do—he started throwing parties.
Set in the empty lobby of a West Village office building, these affairs were legendarily wild, unhinged from any one scene. “We had some of the original graffiti writers, Zulu Nation kids, guys who worked in movies, smelly Brooklyn punks, old dance-music people, Rosie Perez on crutches—it was the weirdest mix of people you could ever see,” Murphy says. “I used to take two ecstasy pills, break them into quarters, and put them on the corners of the two turntables, and work my way through them as a D.J. set went on. I played Donna Summer, Kraftwerk, Public Image Ltd., the Beatles, the Stooges—anything. It really felt like something was happening.”
What was happening was a desegregation of sounds that made Murphy one of the city’s most celebrated musical characters. The disco-rock style he championed managed to stick, and he’s since plied it in a number of different guises: as a globe-trotting D.J., as a producer volleying ideas in his studio with the likes of Britney Spears, and as the leader of one of New York’s most exciting bands, LCD Soundsystem. All of Murphy’s work draws on an idea he proposed in his role as accidental impresario—that rock and disco could be reacquainted and could make a city move.
Murphy has never been mistaken for the disco type. “I remember him as a kid who always wanted to talk about Beowulf,” says Rob Reynolds, who met Murphy in the early nineties and later worked with him. “He was like an accountant in a Division III tight end’s body with an artist’s heart and soul.”
Murphy grew up a suburban punk-rocker in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, where he stayed for a year after high school to train as a competitive kickboxer (he still speaks with pride about his reputation as the weird kid who never lost a fight). In the late eighties, he moved to New York to attend NYU and immersed himself in the music scene, with dispiriting results. “So much of the New York rock scene then was like high school, just perpetual reaffirmations of social standing,” says Murphy, who is now 37. “I hate adults who fall prey to the same shit that children fall prey to.”
Murphy stumbled across one band that had the same feelings about the scene he did—they called themselves Dungbeetle, and their ranks included Reynolds (now a painter in Los Angeles), Nicholas Butterworth (who figured prominently in the dot-com boom), and a singer who wore capes onstage and answered to the name Sam Shit (he is now the celebrated novelist Sam Lipsyte). “Dungbeetle were like Andy Kaufman,” says Murphy. “When Andy Kaufman performed, he was not just trying to be funny. He was playing with the notion of what it means to try to be funny, of what it means to be an audience expecting somebody to be funny. He was doing a dance and playing a game. Watching Dungbeetle was like being involved in that game.”
Murphy signed on as a sound mixer for Dungbeetle’s “art-punk theatrical” stage shows, and built his first real recording studio with them on a desolate block in Dumbo. The neighborhood was then full of empty warehouses and characters like a Serbian truck driver who fought their studio noise with his own. “He would write pseudo-profound graffiti on the door when he got drunk or angry,” Lipsyte remembers. “Stuff like, NO ABILITY TO LOVE, NO CAPACITY TO FORGIVE—TAKE IT! There was always a danger when we were playing that this guy would burst through from the next room with a sledgehammer.”
Dungbeetle never amounted to much—they put out just one vinyl single—but it’s hard to imagine New York looking and sounding the way it does now without the ideas the group seeded in James Murphy. All involved in the game remember him as a meticulous sound engineer with much invested in the grand gestures the band aspired to. “James was the person turning up the volume on it all, literally and figuratively,” says Juan Maclean, a current disco-rock artist who ran in the same circles with a band called Six Finger Satellite. “He was the guy who was like, ‘Oh, you’re confused by this? This rubs you the wrong way? Well, here it is 100 times louder.’ ”
“We all had roughly the same worldview,” says Lipsyte. “But James was actually going to do something with it.”