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Rock Musician James Murphy Knows the Score

Dennis King Modified: May 15, 2013 at 11:45 am •  Published: March 23, 2010
James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem


NEW YORK – James Murphy knows what it’s like being a struggling musician finally breaking out of underground obscurity to find mainstream success.

Long a fixture on the downtown Manhattan music scene, Murphy and his band, LCD Soundsystem, have grown to international acclaim and Grammy recognition with such underground hits as “Losing My Edge” and “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” from their 2005 debut album.

These days, Murphy finds himself breaking into a new musical fraternity – an elite one that’s welcomed other pop music stars such as Elton John, Phil Collins, Danny Elfman, Randy Newman and Mark Knopfler. Murphy’s first foray into film scoring is now on display in “Greenberg,” a new comedy-drama from filmmaker Noah Baumbach.

Murphy, an unassuming guy with a blue-collar attitude, said during a recent round of press interviews for the film that he knew nothing about movie scoring when he and Baumbach first met.

“I had no preconceptions,” he said. “But early on Noah asked, ‘do you know anything about scoring,’ and I said, ‘no.’ And he said, ‘great.’ And as it turned out, the way we did it was the only way I think I could have done it”.

And the way they did it was decidedly unconventional.

“Noah and I talked and he said was interested in not making a score but in just having me write songs,” Murphy said. “I tend not to like scores. I do like old scores that are very specific, but usually contemporary scores drive me crazy. They tend to be like the musical equivalent of a poetry slam, just mood tones and spacey surround-sound stuff.

“So I wrote a bunch of songs that are not directly about the movie but are like songs that we would pick out of our record collections to illustrate the movie,” he said. “We would just go back and forth and I would get scenes that Noah needed cues for – these are new words I’ve learned, ‘cues’ – and what I started doing was quickly making things that felt, like, not for scenes. I would just start making stuff and bringing it over. And he was incredibly gracious and would go, ‘oh, we’ll just try that there. Oh, I like that.’ Only a few songs were written specifically for scenes. Almost everything else was made as, like, a song. Like I would write a song. I would write it very roughly and bring it over, and then those roughs became what we became attached to.

“That became a habit of working,” Murphy explained. “Like I would make a song and then we would break it into score. So, like here’s the song, I would play it on piano and sing it. Then we’d do an acoustic guitar version. Somehow it worked, and that’s the only way I think I could have done it.”

“Greenberg” features seven new James Murphy songs, with vocals – many of which range far afield from the sound familiar to fans of LCD Soundsystem. The film’s soundtrack is due for release on Tuesday.

Murphy’s unconventional approach to film scoring earned a nod of approval from one particular cast member who knows a thing or two about movies and music. Actor Rhys Ifans, who appears in the film as a former rock guitarist, is in his offscreen time a working musician, once with the Super Furry Animals and now with a Welsh band called The Peth.

“I think James’ work here is fantastic,” Ifans said. “I don’t really like soundtrack movies. It really depresses me when a film company will just hook up with a record company and say, ‘hey, what’s new. Let’s throw it in, and let’s make some money on the CD sales.’ I think (the ‘Greenberg’ score) is very sensitively done. What it does is supply a heartbeat which is at once Greenberg’s but is also Los Angeles. There’s a hum that seems to go through the film via the music that becomes mantric almost.”