james murphy

April 26, 2010

Pitchfork: You talked a lot about bands starting young, kids moving to Brooklyn and buying broken records, doing virtual covers, and copping the attitude. Are these just necessary growing pains?

James: Oh God, yeah. I’d be such a jerk otherwise. The main problems I’m having are radio and television. Those are the main things I think are wrong. And everything else people do I think is fine. Like, there’s good radio, but even bad radio should be better. Thing is, mass culture is just so tremendously bad, and underground culture is so tremendously underground, that it’s very hard for bands to be really good. There’s just so much more to know. Like when I was a kid, there wasn’t that much to know. 1985. You had 60s rock, whatever. Easy to get your head around, unless you really wanted to get into, like, Gong. But there were fewer avant-60s bands than there are noise bands now.

There were fewer records to buy. If I wanted to, I could buy anything from the Beatles to, fucking, the Deviants. If you wanted to do that now, you’d get sunk. You get lucky. You get David Bowie, you get T. Rex, you get Suicide. Probably the cream of the crop of rock with very little work. And if you had six friends and they were all kind of into the same music, some of them had older brothers and sisters, you could get a good handle on what music was. I knew who Iggy Pop was as a kid, I was a big Iggy Pop fan, run around singing “Dog Food” when I was eight years old. Like, this is what we listened to. And I also listened to 10cc and Sweet and Journey, you know what I mean? It wasn’t all good, but it was well-rounded. Now if you just wanna get your head around hip-hop, you spend your whole life chasing. I think it’s difficult, I think it’s a lot more music and people forget that.

I remember taking a good class in English, with a good professor, and he said, “I can’t imagine being you.” What do you mean? He said, “Well, I went to college in the 50s. You could count all the books you needed to read on two hands.” You read your Shakespeare, your Chaucer, read the moderns, maybe you read a couple Russians, couple French, couple translated Germans, you know. And by the time you were 20 you had a good sense of literature. And by the time you’re 21 you can read contemporary, 22, contemporary, 23, contemporary, and you’re riding the wave. Now, I’m 35, I’m an avid reader, I’m still reading backwards, still getting my groundwork to get on top of the wave. Still too many books come out every week to pay attention to. If the fat TV lady doesn’t recommend it who knows if it’s even gonna get sent to the book store.

The same thing goes for music. There’s so much more work [involved] to pay attention to what’s new. It becomes really hard for a band to have a good sense of its history. Doesn’t mean that’s bad. Just means, I don’t know. I think there’s a reason why good bands were 19 and 20 in the 70s, and in 1966, they were 17. And that’s very hard right now. New bands that are very young, they’re not as good, they’re not as new. Because they inevitably sound like the Who or, you know, AC/DC. They sound like something else. And it’s very hard for them to crawl out from that and do something unusual. Or they’re forced to be like, quirky individuals. It’s very hard to find your own thing right now. I mean actually it took me till I was 29, 30 years old, to have any sense that I was doing anything my own. Any sense at all. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m just a hack, but it just took a long, long time to swim my way out of history, swim my way out of indie rock. Swim my way out of everything. I don’t really know what could possibly be the solution to it. There are just so many tripping points into ego, so many tripping points into compromise. I don’t know how people do it. I don’t know how bands do it. Everything feels very very compromised.

At the same time, I get really angry when people get angry about there being a canon. White Male Canon thing. I always thought a canon’s a great way to start cause then we can argue against it. The internet, I read a story on the internet– “Fuck Shakespeare.” What? That’s an interesting argument only because you have Shakespeare. If you don’t have that canon, there’s nothing to talk about, there’s total chaos. For me, the canon of rock when I was young wasn’t that important. The Cure were important, the Minutemen were important. But being past all of that, I had to find what I loved about music, I had to dig farther. And luckily, like certain things, the Violent Femmes were a big question mark in there, and Jonathan Richman was a very good question mark in there for me that led me to other things being more interesting.

I think a canon is important, but you have to grow into it. That stuff can overwhelm you. You’re 24 years old, you’re in a band, and suddenly people are saying, “Hey, you guys sound a lot like Chrome. You should check out Chrome,” or “You guys sound a lot like Roxy Music,” and you’re like, “I’ve never heard them,” and you go find it and it can just overwhelm you. It can destroy a band. Because it’s powerful stuff. I mean, the Strokes are swimming up some incredibly serious stuff: Velvet Underground. Television. It’s kinda soul-crushing in a way to go listen to “Perfect Day” and say, “I’m gonna go write a song like that,” and it’ll be fucking horrible by comparison. I don’t know, it’s– I have no insight into what people are gonna do. I guess for advice, not to be Alcoholics Anonymous about this, but just try to make one song at a time. Try to make the songs actually really good. It’s a really funny testament– I’m 35, an artist with a debut record. I feel like a grandfather.

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