His band had just transformed a grassy field into a rough ocean of 50,000 bouncing, bobbing bodies with their smile-widening single "Drunk Girls." If ever there was a moment for James Murphy to act like a rock star, it was this. Instead, the LCD Soundsystem frontman and unlikely king of dance-rock showed off his true character.
"I'm sorry for looking like a jerk and wearing these sunglasses," he told the crowd from behind a pair of regular-joe shades at the Austin City Limits Festival in Texas two weekends ago. Pointing toward a sunset that lit up the Austin skyline like orange Legos, he explained, "There's a midsize star [messing] up my vision."
After three consecutively better albums and tours that consistently made fans out of nonbelievers, Murphy's vision for LCD Soundsystem remains admirably, unnaturally intact. He still makes the kind of organic, punky, smart, danceable rock music that no one else was, or still is, making -- his reason for starting the band in 2001. He still crafts the albums mostly by himself and releases them on his own label. He still has one of the more enthralling live bands around (which makes the solo record-making thing sort of weird). And he still looks and dresses like a guy you wouldn't blink at if he were installing your cable TV or debugging your computer at work.
Despite this unusually high degree of freedom and low demand to be anything he's not, Murphy apparently isn't satisfied. Or perhaps he has reached the peak of satisfaction. Whatever, he says LCD's new album, "This Is Happening," is the band's final effort. Saturday's show at Roy Wilkins Auditorium also could be the last time LCD plays the Twin Cities.
"It's probably the last time you'll see LCD Soundsystem on a tour like this," keyboardist Nancy Whang clarified by phone this week. "You may see 12-inches [singles] come out every once in a while and stuff like that, but James wants to work with other bands, and we all have other interests."
An original member of the LCD live lineup along with drummer Pat Mahoney, Whang admitted, "The decision was primarily up to James, since the band is primarily him. But we're kind of all in the same place where it's been really fun and gratifying -- especially this year -- but we're all getting older and have lives, and some of us have kids."
Murphy, 40, explained the decision on NPR's "Fresh Air" in June, saying, "It feels like a good time to stop being a professional band.
"It's a wonderful life. I love being in this band. But to do a band properly does kind of mean you don't really get to do anything else. ... I would like to go back to being just a person who gets to decide what he likes to do and pursues something new once in a while."
Stripped to essentials
So what's with this guy, who at once appears laid-back and slacker-ish but also insatiably driven and idealistic?
"He's amazing," said Red Wing native Paul Sprangers, whose band Free Energy made its debut album with Murphy as producer.
Murphy seemed like an improbable mentor for Free Energy, a hippie-ish two-guitar rock band. However, they share a deep affinity for David Bowie, and connected over a classic, no-frills approach to writing and recording, which Sprangers believes is part of LCD's secret.
"His approach is to just distill everything down to its essence and remove anything extraneous," Sprangers recalled. "Make everything really clear and direct. That was a new thing for us, but I think you can hear [with LCD] how he really commits to the essence of what you want to say or play, and sticks to it."
Murphy's whittle-it-down approach and smart, smart-alecky lyrics fly in the face of all the frilly dance-punk that saturated New York when LCD started in 2001, and still floods across the pond from Europe. (He seems to be taking aim at European snobs in one of LCD's best new tracks, "Pow Pow," in which he sings, "We have a black president and you do not, so shut up.")
The quality that seems to endear him to audiences, though, is that average-guy, uninhibited demeanor.
"Obviously, he has complexities like all of us, but in general he's a very normal guy," Whang confirmed. "There's no guise with any of us ontage. We sort of look like a band of substitute teachers."
Onstage at the Austin City Limits Fest, Murphy looked absolutely liberated and anything but self-conscious, with an untucked plaid shirt and a scraggly half-beard that looked like he was headed to his corner cafe in Brooklyn for a hangover-curing breakfast. As the music built momentum, so did Murphy, but he never quite came off as a showman. Maybe he never will. What showman would pull the plug on his band when it's earning such an electrified reception?
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658