LCD SOUNDSYSTEM with HOLY GHOST at Kool Haus (132 Queens Quay East), Tuesday (May 25), 7 pm. $35. rotate.com.
Talk to LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy and you get the distinct impression that he wishes he weren't so clever.
His go-to answer when asked to explain creative decisions is to blame his affection for all things stupid. After the umpteenth time he mentions it, he interrupts himself to admit, "You're probably noticing a bit of a recurring theme here. I like funny, dumb things."
Despite his best intentions, his critically acclaimed dance punk band crafts some of the most thought-provoking pop music of the last decade.
The best example of this paradox on LCD Soundsystem's triumphant third (and possibly final) album, This Is Happening (DFA/EMI), is the divisive lead single, Drunk Girls.
"That was the last song I made, and I just felt like the record needed something stupid," a relaxed and cheerful Murphy explains from his European tour bus. "I always feel like it needs something dumb."
Except that it's not quite as vacant as it sounds. Yes, there's a good chance it will be misappropriated by frat boys as a drinking anthem, but it does serve as an uncharacteristically concise example - it's the only track under four minutes on a disc of seven-minute epics - of the unique trick that Murphy pulls off better than anyone else writing songs today.
During the verses, you get a vision of Murphy sitting in the corner of some after-party packed with kids half his age, grumbling about the messy mating rituals of the young and inebriated. Basically, it's a tiny notch above novelty-song territory. But then the chorus kicks in, shifting the perspective to reveal a startlingly vulnerable side of the narrator.
Suddenly, he's not just an curmudgeon complaining about the youth of today, but a human who wants to be loved and wants something real, and knows he's probably looking for it in the wrong places. Nobody else better captures that peculiar moment of realization that you're the one being the asshole. Then again, not many other songwriters are trying.
Of course, the problem with writing joke songs that aren't actually jokes is that not everyone gets the joke.
"That's the biggest joke of all. Um, just kidding. People want to make meaning where there isn't, or want to make things more serious than they are, or sometimes less serious than they are. That's to be expected. You make things and you have a certain point of view, but people aren't going to hear what's in your brain."
So many of his songs appear to be reflections on the absurdity of the pudgy 30-something music nerd ex-sound-technician becoming the singer in one of the hippest rock bands on the planet. So are we deluded in imagining that LCD Soundsystem songs are essentially songs about being LCD Soundsystem?
"Actually, they usually are. I make music about music to a large degree. Music about being me."
That's what makes LCD Soundsystem special, yet unlikely candidates for success. "Music about music" is a pretty idiosyncratic niche, one that doesn't seem conducive to emotionally resonant songwriting. Somehow, though, their songs, from first single Losing My Edge to their current album's, do touch both the heart and the brain.
Losing My Edge shouldn't have worked. It has no chorus, has 90 per cent more talking than singing, is almost eight minutes long and doesn't have a single chord change. Its lyrics make it even more of a long shot for a club hit.
It's about Murphy coming to the realization that all the cool points he accumulated through decades of record collecting were meaningless to the kids who could achieve the same thing in a few weeks of downloading. It not only captures the fear of growing old and irrelevant, but also zeroes in on the self-loathing he felt when it dawned on him how silly and infantile it is to care if you have records no one else does. As vicious as he is to the young posers coming up behind him, he saves the real venom for himself.
Rock singers of prior eras have embodied cool, but Murphy is more interested in deconstructing what cool actually means, forcing us to ask ourselves why we would want to be hip in the first place. Studying Losing My Edge is a highly effective vaccine against becoming a douchebag music critic. I've personally made it a habit to revisit the track whenever my inner pop culture snob begins to rear its ugly head.
This Is Happening ends with Home, a track that borrows the signature bass riff from Losing My Edge, which is also revisited on Get Innocuous! on LCD's second album, Sound Of Silver. Way before that, though, you can hear traces of the lick on an old Killing Joke B-side called Changes, just one example of how Murphy uses musical references much the same way an academic uses footnotes. This method of sonic quotation is much more evident on This Is Happening than ever before, with obvious nods to David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno sprinkled throughout.
"Those influences have never not been there," Murphy insists. "For this album I drew the road map from trying to get the Carlos Alomar guitar sound from David Bowie's Heroes.[Ironically, we think the self-confessed music geek is mistaken and is actually referencing Robert Fripp's feedback-drenched lead tone.] It's basically my favourite guitar sound ever.
"People have a funny relationship to my relationship to music. I don't feel the need to hide things I like or that influence me. I'm not a particularly original dude and don't feel the need to be. I just try to make things I like, and that usually involves a certain number of references, because, you know, it's music about music."
So does that mean his imitation of Mark E. Smith's (of post-punk legends the Fall) trademark laconic slur on Losing My Edge was intentional?
"That was actually an accident that I then went along with. I was singing and playing the drums at the same time, the mic was right in my face, and I was making up the lyrics on the spot. It sounded like the Fall, but that was okay because they're my favourite band in the world. Is there some kind of a problem with that?"
If this does indeed end up being the last LCD Soundsystem album, it feels fitting that it ends with a nod to their beginnings.
"I definitely feel like this is the end of LCD Soundsystem as the kind of thing it is now. I'm not going to start some new band or come out with a new name or anything like that. I just want to go back to LCD being a part of my life rather than the entirety of it.
"It's been an amazing 10 years, and I'm excited about the record and the tour, but I just turned 40, and I think I should go back to working on the label and producing other people.
"Originally, we were just going to do singles and didn't even want to tour. We were just planning to play a few shows here and there, and then somehow it turned into a band. It got away from me for a minute, but we'll wrangle it back into its little bag."
Before we give up completely on future LCD Soundsystem recordings, it's worth noting that Murphy sees a lot of similarities between the current cultural zeitgeist and the circumstances that inspired him to start the band almost a decade ago.
"Everything is so boring right now that you'd have to be brain dead to not want to do something interesting. I like that."
James Murphy responds to reports that Tim Goldsworthy has left the DFA label that he founded with DFA.
Murphy explains the story behind the reference to Michael Musto on the new album, and Musto's response.