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Shut Up and Dance

Murphy performing in London, 2005.  

In 1999, a 26-year-old English rave veteran named Tim Goldsworthy came to New York from London to produce a dance-music album; Murphy was tapped as studio engineer, though he cared nothing for dance music. “Our relationship was very sitcom-esque,” Goldsworthy says. “He was the big loud American who played the drums and everything else, and I was the quiet English guy who couldn’t play anything and sat in front of a computer.”

The duo bonded over boredom with New York, which they agreed was in a dire musical and cultural state with nothing but a legacy to trade on. “This is where all the music I’d always referenced comes from,” says Goldsworthy. “I expected break dancing on every corner. But then I came here and there was nothing going on whatsoever, just boring clubs and expensive bottle-service places.”

Gradually, Goldsworthy brought Murphy around to the pleasures of dance music. Drugs helped. Goldsworthy remembers the first time Murphy took ecstasy: “The D.J. put on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ ”—the Beatles song with booming drums on Revolver—“and James was there dancing with his eyes closed. Everybody formed a ring around him and started chanting his name. James looked out and was like, ‘Yeah!!!!!’ ”

It was with Goldsworthy that Murphy threw his early parties and started working as a D.J., with an unusual participatory style—rather than stay hidden behind his turntables, he would jump out on the dance floor and throw his fists in the air. He took to his role as a cult hero and devoured anything that would keep him charged. “My 30th-birthday cake,” he says, laughing, “was 30 lines of coke on a Roxy Music record.”

With a scene catching on around them, Murphy and Goldsworthy started their own music production team and record label, both of which are known as DFA, short for Death From Above. Among the DFA roster of dance-rock acts is Murphy’s own LCD Soundsystem, which started as a “theoretical band.” Murphy positioned himself as dual figure—part rock star, part traitorous D.J. The LCD sound melded the synthetic rhythms of disco with rock’s cocksure vocals and loud guitars. The lyrics were pointed and off the cuff in the classic punk style. Murphy loved to rant against snobbery in all its incarnations.

The first LCD Soundsystem album sold 235,000 copies worldwide, and in the wake of it, Murphy toured the world and became something of an ambassador for a new kind of downtown New York. He also landed remix commissions for big acts like the Chemical Brothers, Nine Inch Nails, Gorillaz, and Justin Timberlake as well as a 45-minute exercise track contracted by Nike. The legendary Britney session, however, was a bust. “It was very strange —we were both lying on the floor, head-to-head, working on lyrics in a notepad,” says Murphy. “She seemed eager to please, but it went nowhere. She went to dinner and just never came back.”

LCD’s new Sound of Silver is warmer and more personal than the first album, the product of an artist aging along with his own scene. Murphy still does plenty of hilarious sneering; on “North American Scum,” behind a bashing beat, he pokes fun at Europeans’ condescension (and condescends right back, describing a European city as “where the buildings are old and you might find lots of mimes”). Other songs cast Murphy as more roundly human, vulnerable, even sentimental. In “All My Friends,” he longs for youthful nights spent simply hanging out, and on the last song, “New York I Love You (But You’re Bringing Me Down),” he unburdens himself of his still-conflicted feelings about the city. Crooning unevenly over plaintive piano chords, Murphy rips into those he deems responsible for sterilizing New York, like the “cops who were bored once they’d run out of crime” and the “billionaire mayor who’s now convinced he’s a king.” The new record, says Murphy, is about being “honorable to perspectives that really come from me. Because that’s the way I think I should do things now.”

I t’s early on a Saturday, and Murphy is stumbling around his apartment with his wife, a model turned designer named Mandy Coon. They live in Williamsburg, in a refurbished building next to a garage adorned with orangutan graffiti. Murphy has work to do in the city, and Coon is eager for him to leave so she can finish embroidering an astronaut on a shirt for his birthday. Before he makes his exit, Murphy says good-bye to the other recent love of his life: Petunia, a French bulldog with an unflappable mug.

It’s here that Murphy has settled, comparatively speaking. There are bits of gray showing in his stubble. He doesn’t do drugs like he used to, and he’d sooner stay home with his wife and his dog than be out dancing past dawn. Coon sits on the couch, next to a Bauhaus chair with a homey afghan spilling over chrome bars. She remembers how crazy Murphy used to be when he was in his partygoing prime, how wasted he had to get just to get onstage with LCD Soundsystem. “He’s an intense guy,” she says with a laugh. “But he’s a lot calmer now.”