LCD Soundsystem bring some edge to Fuji Rock Fest

by Shaun Curran

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If there was ever any lingering doubt the past decade belonged to James Murphy, leader of LCD Soundsystem and founder of DFA Records, it was surely distinguished in the widespread lament that greeted the news that “This is Happening,” LCD’s third opus of peerlessly chic, New-York-funneled floor-fillers, will be their last.

“It’s like our new motto at DFA,” Murphy says jovially. “Too old to be new; too new to be classic. It’s the same with the band. I don’t want to be a career rock guy. That’d suck.

“And anyway,” he continues, “I’m tired of being cool.”

Murphy has been the walking epitome of cool since LCD’s effortlessly stylish hybrid of postpunk and electronics shaped an entire generation who began selling their guitars for turntables and their turntables for guitars. But his desire to dissolve what is unquestionably the most influential band of its generation is not bound from ennui or indifference, but more artistic restlessness and integrity. “Bands go on too long, just for the sake of it,” he says, evident scorn in his voice. “I think that sucks.”

Yet before he exits stage left, Murphy has unfinished business and this weekend he’ll be back in Japan with his band members for the Fuji Rock Festival, where he’ll display his notable DJing prowess alongside an LCD live set that, on the basis of a euphoric Glastonbury showing, will be a sure-fire highlight.

The last time he was on Japanese shores — “always an amazing experience,” he says — Murphy was touring a DJ set that he referred to as “super fun,” but he hasn’t been back with his band in tow since plugging the dissipated pop edge of 2007′s exquisite “Sound of Silver,” which cemented his status as an epoch-defining presence over 21st-century dance-rock. The interim period only served to intensify his reputation, making “This is Happening” the most eagerly anticipated release of 2010.

Not that its conception wasn’t arduous; despite being recorded at Rick Rubin’s Los Angeles-based, self-created recording studio-cum-holiday-home affectionately referred to as “The Manshun,” Murphy’s perfectionist tendencies held back progress.

“I tried to let it flow as much as the son of Irish Catholic immigrants can,” he says, half-joking. “But I’m not that easy going. I’m pretty neurotic and self- questioning. I let it flow as much as I can.”

Murphy’s neurosis hardly meets Woody Allen standards, but it is evident, not only in conversation (“people say they like us, but people say sh-t’s great all the time, and then it sucks”), but also throughout his songs.

Relatively late to pop stardom (he was 32 when LCD’s debut single was released), Murphy articulates the relationship between hedonistic thrill- seeking, self-identity and the vagaries of being considered “cool” with a conversational elegance few can match. The central crux that he feels “too old for this sh-t” underpins it all, and was magnified by his recent 40th birthday.

“Turning 40 hasn’t sunk in yet. I’ve been saying I’m 40 for the last two years anyway. I’m trying to make it not a big deal.

“In fact,” he adds, “turning 31 was a bigger deal. I had these grandiose ideas that I’d be awesome by that age (he laughs heartily). There were 23-year-olds just doing the same stuff as me, but better. I was like, ‘Is this real life? Am I just a failed indie-rock musician?’ “

The epiphany for Murphy, after years of propping up desperate punk bands and fluffing the chance to write for U.S. TV show “Seinfeld” because he didn’t see potential in the show, came when he met future DFA Records cofounder Tim Goldsworthy, formerly of Unkle.

“I was a total geek,” he candidly admits. “I met Tim, and he was cool. I’d never hung with someone cool before. And we’d hang and watch bands and just think, ‘What are they doing?!’ “

Murphy admits he and Goldsworthy did a lot of bitching. But one day they decided to fight for the so-called scene and their own musical future.

“I got really fired up. We decided to walk the walk. I wanted to prove you could be a fat, middle-aged dude and do something good.”

He laughs, but the point is a serious one. Out of this newfound drive came Murphy’s 2002 signature tune “Losing My Edge,” an achingly hip track about the pitfalls of slowly realizing you’ve become uncool, mocking scenester conceit with a memorably sardonic narrative.

“I’ve never felt anything like the pressure I felt when I made ‘Losing My Edge.’ It was a song I’d made on my own, with a drum beat and some words and when I put it out I went from being an invisible 32-year-old loser to a semi-visible 32-year-old who people took an interest in. The pressure after that was incredible.”

Yet after that, Murphy was wired to the zeitgeist. “This is Happening” brilliantly thrusts forward his premise, brimming with the type of relentless, elongated, boundary-pushing, chemically enhanced euphoria in which LCD specializes. The album’s best tracks — “All I Want,” a fantastically woozy, guitar-led, “Heroes”-esque waltz; and the explosive, pulsating “Dance Yrself Clean” — tread even more new ground.

“I can take more chances now,” he emphasizes. “I don’t have to be cool anymore. At first, I was deeply embarrassed by (the song) ‘All My Friends.’ It had a melody. I thought it was a sellout. It’s the same with the new record, I was like, ‘Are these melodies OK? Is this OK from the band that did ‘Losing My Edge?’

“It’s like writing about love. I thought it was a terrible idea. So as soon as I thought that, I had to do it,” he laughs.

“But it was also because there are certain things I’ve dealt with I feel I don’t want to do again. I feel like I’ve written about some things as well as I’m ever going to. With New York, I felt repetition of that subject was very important. ‘Losing My Edge,’ I can’t say any more on that subject. ‘All My Friends,’ I’ll never write a song as good on that subject.”

Murphy’s voice becomes stern. “You can’t do the same thing again and again. What’s the point in that?”

LCD Soundsystem play the White Stage at the Fuji Rock Festival in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, on Aug. 1. James Murphy will also DJ at the Red Marquee’s Sunday Session on the same day. For more information, visit www.fujirockfestival.com or www.lcdsoundsystem.com

A British music fan’s guide to Fuji Rock

So — who to watch at Fuji Rock? Do yourself a favor and, the three reliably absorbing headliners apart, avoid the main Green Stage. Ocean Colour Scene? Kula Shaker? Ash? It’s like some sort of nightmarish Britpop parallel universe. While the bands have maintained their popularity in Japan, as a Brit it’s still too soon to get nostalgic.

A notable exception on the Green Stage is Chris Cunningham. The music-video director (check the clips he did for Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy,” “Windowlicker” and Bjork’s “All is Full of Love”) debuted his hardcore, avant-garde electronic multimedia extravaganza in Manchester in April. I’m still recovering from the sight of a naked couple “sex-wrestling” their way through the universe. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it, I promise.

The smaller stages are where the gold is. Farcically, LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip go on at the same time on Sunday, an indie-rock “Sophie’s Choice” moment if there ever was one, but either way you can’t lose; I saw both put on stunning shows at Glastonbury last month.

Foals and The xx are headline news in Britain, having been deservedly nominated for the Mercury Prize; similarly, Yeasayer are pushing ever over-ground; I bet all three will be twice as popular this time next year.

Finally, make time Friday afternoon for folk-rockers Local Natives; swiping the melodies, emotional breadth and facial hair from Fleet Foxes, Arcade Fire and Band of Horses, they’ll be a cherished discovery.