King of Disco-Punk
The King of Disco-Punk. The Godfather of the Remix. The Supreme Eminent Archon of Dance. I don’t know who any of these people are actually, but I bet they would all agree DFA Records’ James Murphy is some pretty hot shit. That’s right: if there’s one thing you need to know upfront, it’s that James Murphy is possibly the most beautiful man to have ever lived.
But how does such a beautiful man become a musical genius on par with Beethoven, Bach, and early Jethro Tull? Well, just like these famous musicians, James was born in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, a city whose residents have historically all scored an 8 or higher on the Hot-or-Not website. Murphy’s musical journey began when he started teaching himself piano at age 4. By age 6 he was giving lessons, and by age 19 he had finally learned how to plug in his keyboard without getting electrocuted. At his first shows James covered “Janie Jones” and “I Ran (So Far Away)” with a bunch of kiddie punk and new wave bands until he moved to New York City in 1989, and soon added to his repertoire an ironic cover of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The first record Murphy ever bought was a seven-inch of Bowie’s “Fame”; the second record Murphy ever bought is pretty embarrassing, and I have been instructed not to tell you what it was.
I know what you’re thinking now. Wasn’t James a punk rock drummer at some point? Didn’t he form Pony in 1992 or so? Didn’t he release a ton of Pony records on Homestead, break up the band in 1995, then form Speedking like, immediately? Wasn’t James the first musician ever to switch from playing guitar and singing lead vocals to playing drums and just being a solid dude? Of course all of this true – but why are you asking me? Clearly you already know all this from Google-ing “James Murphy” on the web, or from Google-ing “J-Dawg Ladyface”, Murphy’s secret hip-hop alias.
This is what Google forgot to tell you: Speedking ran out of steam by 1996 or 1997, so Murphy pulled its plug, put down his drumsticks, and picked up a bass guitar. Then things started to get crazy, because right around then Murphy teamed up with drummer friend Pat Mahoney, who had just finished his stint with Les Savy Fav. In the tradition of Kid-n-Play, Baby MC & Father MC, and those art installations in SoHo where two identical holograms of George Plimpton perform magic tricks, Murphy and Mahoney played house parties under the name “LCD” wherever and whenever someone was throwing down. Interestingly, LCD never played any LSD parties, but the two did play the annual LED party at Alpha Iota Rhobot, an electronics fraternity at Caltech.
You can see that I am leading up to that critical moment when James decides to found Death From Above Records – the DFA – the greatest production company in the history of Western music. Before we get to that though, James had to learn how to be a producer. You wouldn’t believe it from his dark sunglasses and five-day stubble, but James Murphy can be a recluse sometimes. In 1985 he got his hands on a four-track recorder, some mics and a drum machine, and began producing himself at home, as a way to avoid people. When he moved to NYC, he used the same equipment to record bands in their own practice spaces, this time as a way to avoid hunger. James realized after a visit to a “professional studio” with Pony in 1993 that he hated professional studios. Luckily, two men named Weston and Albini, the Penn and Teller of Rock Production, were happy to teach James how to set up his own studio and how to record, and in 1993, Brooklyn’s Plantain Studios was born.
After his studio got booted out of its building by an Israeli mafia landlord in 1995, Plantain went on hiatus, and James honed his knobbery with producer Nicolas Vernhes at the Rare Book Room (later to produce Black Dice, Fischerspooner and the Fiery Furnaces). James left all his gear at Parlour Studios in Providence where he had recorded Six Finger Satellite’s swansong Law Of Ruins, but by the time Tim Goldsworthy came over the pond with David Holmes to make “Bow Down To The Exit Sign” in 1999, he got it all back and rebuilt the studio in Manhattan’s West Village, where a good friend had just bought a building.