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Interview with James Murphy

Had the incredible honor of interviewing another hero of mine. Below, some questions with legend and fellow synth enthusiast James Murphy.

Synth History: What are a few of your all-time favorite synths? James: I go through phases in some ways, but there are a few that have been long standing essentials for me. First has to be the EMS Synthi A.

I got one of these back in '98 on the recommendation of either Tim Goldsworthy or Jagz Kooner to use on a David Holmes record. It was a baffling machine at first. Tim showed me the basics, which kind of exploded my mind (thanks, Tim) and since then I’ve just gone deeper and deeper with it. I love the output filters, which people seem to ignore. They’re just a fixed Q hi/lo tilt, but they’re critical to the sound, in my opinion. The interface is really intuitive and has pretty limitless potential routings, which makes this thing much more powerful than almost any other hardware synth. And its capacity for musicality and melody are often overlooked. After years of using it for sound treatments and crazy effects, I started using it for core musical elements and melodies, which was a revelation. The swooping chords in the LCD song “Someone Great” are the EMS.

I programmed the corners of the ranges for the joystick to control osc1 (x axis pitch) and osc2 (y axis pitch) to make up the various chords, while using the volume out of osc3 manually to blend in a fixed, lower note. The ability to flux the notes into freeform chaos during the transitions and then snap them into the next chord was really only possible with the joystick.  

I’ve also used it to filter just about everything I could run through it. It still goes with me whenever I’m asked to show up and “produce” someone, etc. It’s a magical beast with beautiful possibilities, and I’m glad I spent the time to understand it over the past 20 years. A few years ago I was working on a funny track with Dave and Steph Dewaele, and we talked about making some animal noises for it, a la Cerrone’s “Supernature”, and I was quickly able to make monkeys, birds, roaring big cats, etc. It’s just such a versatile thing, which is fun to be “adept” with. Makes me feel like a weird old watchmaker.

For sheer beauty and the ability to pull on my heart I’m going to also say the Roland Jupiter 4. Nothing sounds as soft and lush. It has a very distinct color, but can do a pretty wide variety of things, but each of those things have this lovely, gentle harmoniousness, which can only come from the 4. I’ve recently had one of mine MIDI’d up, but I’m desperate to get this other specific MIDI mod which is eluding me. Apparently someone came up with a way to control every parameter in greater detail (as well as generate a far greater number of user memory presets) with an i/o, but that hardware has been harder to come by. I’ve been looking for years. There’s not much to say about it other than it sounds better to my ears to almost any other synth.

There are a few weird machines that I love, which I’m looking for, also. I used a Powertran Polysynth on the last LCD LP. It’s a funny 4 osc synth with a simple interface which is different from most synths. More independent control of the oscillators. Really unstable and wonderful. Instant Chris and Cosey sounds. And a Maplin matrixsynth, which is a big dumb box with a Synthi style patchbay. Used that also, but I don’t own it, which makes me jealous.

I guess, lastly, I use the shit out of my Roland System 100M, mixed with a few SH-101s. It’s a bassline killer. Wait—there’s more. I’m being stupid here. The Yamaha CS-60 has been the staple of early DFA mixes since the beginning.

Rayna Russom modded ours to take audio in the back and turn it into useable voltages, which is pretty useful. And the Oberheim OB-8…  there’s a lot of synths I really love, frankly.

The outlier is the Korg microKORG. We use that live for almost everything, and I can program that idiot box like nobody’s business. Honestly, I can get nearly any sound out of it that I need. I make sounds on the grip of powerful vintage synths in the studio, then copy them—remarkably effectively—on the Korg for live. It’s an amazing machine. I’ve NEVER “generated” a sound on it. I don’t like it for that at all. But as a clinical tool for copying live sounds, there’s never been anything like it. I just wish there was a 16 voice version...

Synth History: Is the gear you use constantly changing, or do you stick with your go-tos? James: A little bit of both. I try to lose a little gear and gain a little gear each year, so that I can experience new things, but there are certainly things I never want to part with and keep going back to (see above).

Synth History: Do you remember the first live show you ever played?

James: Well, the very first live show I ever played would probably be in my high school friend and bandmate Paul’s basement, which we called the “happy buddha club”, because this local Chinese restaurant (called “happy buddha”) redecorated and his brother grabbed a couple of their old booths and took them home in a pick up truck for the basement. I’m guessing 1984? 1985?  Which means that I’m old enough to have unironically been in a New Wave band, and it was called “new wave” because it was… well, “new”.

Synth History: Can you recount one of your favorite memories from performing live? James: It’s mostly been a drunken blur, like a 35 year psychedelic episode, where everything runs together in a stream of color and light and friendship and fear and appreciation. Playing live has been so many different things for me over the years—being a kid singer guitarist in a goth band, being a drummer in a touring indie rock band or two, then being in LCD. It’s all so different. But in some ways i’m not “experiencing” it. There’s something wrong with me that won’t let me be there to a certain degree. I’m always 3 steps removed, worrying about some technical thing or other. I’m just singing now. Remembering the words. In the studio it’s different. I’m alone, and generating music, and it kind of comes through me like a wave, and i’m there—really there—being exposed to it and irradiated by whatever it is that’s happening. But onstage, i’m not playing any instruments, which is harder for my brain. I’m there, but it’s more like i’m in the audience.

Synth History: New York City was probably a much different place when you first moved here. What are some of the things you miss about that era? James: I miss the affordability of it. I miss the hope. I miss the accessibility of cheap space to do weird shit. Mixed with the limitless possibility. It wasn’t perfect by any means. Many things really, really sucked. But there were both the biggest art galleries and museums in the same city as cheap artist studio space… Madison Square Garden and major label home offices in the same are as crummy rooms under a deli for bands to practice. I had a big studio in Dumbo for $350/month, which I could afford as an occasional live sound man. I think those inefficiencies in the real estate market, as they’re now called, were where the margins and creative people lived, and I miss them. I don’t really like the new, maxed out economy, which I think breeds a sort of suburban expectation of comfort and predictability, at the expense of dynamic energy, diversity, and opportunity. Though, I think a lot of the new wave of New Yorkers (those who believe 100% in their superior taste, have some money, want it all, have little interest in any pre-existing culture of a city or neighborhood vs. their own culture, which they believe is the rightful inheritor of any world they land in and deserving of “making a place better”-- and they also really, really want to be fit and in shape and good looking) will start leaving now that Covid-19 has made New York less of a playground/post-college-campus/updated family farm for them. Sadly, we’ve already lost a lot of artists to LA (“hey man! I have a little separate studio in my YARD!”) and the Berlin/Lisbon/Europe promise of cheap rent and not-having-to-learn-another-language-regardless-of-the-county freedom. But New York abides. I hope.

Synth History: If you could pick one album in all of music history that you think everyone should listen to at least once, what would it be? James: That’s a nearly impossible question for me. For a long time I would have said Suicide’s first record, for its sheer singularity of vision and generosity wrapped up in terror. And because I’ve seen that record turn more people inside out than any other. Maybe I’ll still say that.

Synth History: Not exactly synth-related, but I've been to your restaurant in Brooklyn - The Four Horsemen - and it was delicious. Did being a musician play a role in opening up the world of food and wine for you (i.e. touring in different countries with different cuisines) or was it always something you'd been interested in? To follow up this question - what is your absolute favorite thing to eat? James: Being a musician 100% changed everything about what I eat and drink I grew up in rural/suburban New Jersey eating mediocre American food cooked by an Irish lady for an Irish man who didn’t eat onions or garlic. Or rice. Really bland white people food. Not even mayonnaise… miracle whip. Maxwell house coffee in the enormous can which is almost instantly stale. I never went anywhere as a kid except Massachusetts to visit my extended family. So being a musician was my way to see the world. I first toured around the US in punk bands in the early to mid '90s, and started getting obsessed with coffee after getting to the West Coast. I just thought “why can’t I drink this coffee in NYC?”

  Later I went to Japan and Europe as a live sound engineer for Le Tigre and BS2000 back in, maybe, 2001? It was pretty amazing, frankly. Adam Horovitz in particular knew whatever there was to know about Tokyo, so I had my mind blown and never went back. From then on I tried to find locals who could take me to restaurants (and record stores, and weird clothing places, synth shops, etc.). I made friends, went to dinners, drank wine, and made terrible errors in judgement which turned out to be really fun.

My favorite thing to eat is a hard one.  It fluctuates, but Shanghai-style pork soup dumplings might be the winner.

Synth History: You majored in English in college (even got asked to write for Seinfeld!) but chose to pursue music. What advice would you give to someone who isn't sure what their path is? James: Ruthlessly expand yourself culturally. Read everything you can. Go to the bookstore at a good university where you aren’t a student and look at the course assigned readings. Read some shit you’ve never heard of. Listen to people who know better than you. Trust your taste. Find people who make you feel like you’re alive. This way, no matter what happens, you haven’t wasted your life.

Synth History Exclusive. Photo by Ruvan Wijesooriya.


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