Interview: James Murphy and 2manydjs

Photographer Rod Lewis
August 01, 2013

Three of earth's greatest DJs on playing a sound system of their own design.

All decked out in white shirts and fresh-faced from a surprisingly decent night’s sleep, James Murphy, Stephen Dewaele and his brother, David, are in high spirits. Eleven hours earlier, the trio had been playing records in the ballroom-style surroundings of New Century House, a high-rise tower on Manchester’s Balloon Street that in the distant past hosted the likes of The Bee Gees and Jimi Hendrix. It was the first night of Despacio, a four-night DJ residency with a custom sound system, thee vent originally conceived as a dream party in Ibiza but brought over to the UK for Manchester International Festival.

Despacio was just one of the many projects Murphy has completed since he brought the curtain down on LCD Soundsystem, and it was an event that he, Stephen and David—known for their roles in Soulwax and as 2manydjs—have been dreaming of for years. Seeing the plan come to fruition after all this time, it’s no wonder they’re so excitable, bouncing off one another, finishing each other’s sentences and frequently going off on conversational tangents.

At the centre of Despacio was a sound system designed by Murphy, DFA engineer John Klett and sound veterans McIntosh (the company responsible for The Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound), a company David Dewaele describes as “the Rolls-Royce” of sound. The dance floor was surrounded by seven 50,000-watt, 11-foot tall speakers that brought out the absolute best in the records being played over them. It was a bafflingly technical system, not to mention an exceedingly expensive one.

The party was all vinyl (not for elitist reasons, but simply because that’s what the system was designed to play) and saw the three playing back-to-back-to-back all night. The audio quality was sublime, and musically, anything was fair game—from Deee-Lite to Belgian new beat to Aphex Twin. The night built slowly—“despacio” means “gradually"—but there was no predictable trajectory, moving in numerous peaks and troughs rather than building to one crescendo according to the tired cliché of the DJ-set-as-journey. Beyond the fancy setup, it was, all in all, simply some friends playing records on their own terms, on a great system, to a receptive crowd. I spoke to all three DJs before the second night of Despacio.

Do you guys have nightmares of the record running out before you’ve cued up the next one? MURPHY: [holds up hands] Had ‘em a million times. S. DEWAELE: We have a friend of ours who plays in clubs and takes a lot of drugs. He’s a well-known DJ. And one time I went to the club and it’s the end of the song. It’s the vinyl, I know there’s like another 50 seconds left, and he sees me in the crowd and goes “Steph!” And he walks up to me, and while he’s walking I’m like, “Dude, that record’s gonna be ending by the time you get to me.” And he goes up to me and hugs me. It gets to the end of the record and he keeps talking to me! The whole club is looking at him, but he’s just like—“Wait.” He talks to me, goes back, puts the record back, and comes back. You know what? That takes a lot of balls. MURPHY: But I think people are alright with that! S. DEWAELE: People were just like, Okay! You just wanna talk to him!” MURPHY: I got a friend who picks up the record and goes… [mimes blowing dust off a record] D. DEWAELE: We used to do that all the time! It’s a good one. S. DEWAELE: It’s a good once because people are like, “Ahhh.” And you just put it back. MURPHY: People don’t mind, if you’re calm.

S. DEWAELE: We had a limiter and had to stay under 100db by law [last night]. There was a part where we were going over, and James just put on this string song and started explaining to people “look, we have to take it down for like five minutes”. And people were still going for it. MURPHY: If you’re about to talk into your microphone, people think you’re gonna go [fist pump] “Hell! Fucking! Yeah!” But then you go, “well, actually, uhm, there’s a law, and, uhm, we have to turn it down, and, uhm…” I much prefer that. You might as well explain it to people. S. DEWAELE: That was one of my favourite moments last night.

How long has building your own system been a plan? S. DEWAELE: I remember we were travelling with James and I was sitting on the plane with him, and we had talks about building a tour bus. There were also plans to build our own record boxes—but I’m not just talking a box, they were bags that became boxes. D. DEWAELE: I remember having a conversation where James invented the iPhone. MURPHY: In the late ’90s! It was all screen, but I wanted it raised, so that you could feel the buttons. S. DEWAELE: These kinds of conversations are what we used to do whenever we travelled together and played together. With the sound system, we’d already talked about it a long, long time ago. Nothing like the one we built now, but that was the seed.

D. DEWAELE: Ending LCD, it basically meant that you started a new chapter in your life where shit got done, where those ideas that never came to fruition just seem to actually happen. S. DEWAELE: We were really angry when he stopped, because we thought those gigs were some of the best that we’d seen—and we’d seen a lot of LCD gigs. The day after, we met up and were like “James, fuck you. That was the best we’ve seen you guys, how can you end it?” But it was a month later that we bumped into him in London, and I’ve never seen him more happy. MURPHY: Well, you guys were the ones that warned me when I started LCD and made the album. I was like, “I’ll never tour." And you guys heard the record and were like, “You’re gonna tour. You’re fucked, you’re gonna tour.” I was like, “No, no, no, I’m never gonna do it.” And then cut to, like, bleeding ulcers and stomach problems… D. DEWAELE: So one of the things that’s amazing about post-LCD is that something like this actually happens.

MURPHY: And I think a lot of it came down to you being in Ibiza so much. That was a huge part of it. S. DEWAELE: We set up a studio in Ibiza and James came by and we just started making some music. And I remember all three of us…the sun was coming up, and we were outside… MURPHY: We were like: we need a night here. We wanted a billboard which didn’t look like any of the other shitty billboards. Something that was just a different thing. We were like, “Let’s have a party, it’ll be regular, I’ll build a sound system…”

Did you ever think anyone would actually be able to bankroll that idea? MURPHY: Well, that’s my fault. I didn’t think it was gonna be so expensive, for starters. D. DEWAELE: I remember you going, “For this money, we can make TWO systems!” MURPHY: [laughs] If I had built it, we’d have had two that wouldn’t be nearly as good. But they’d still be pretty good.

Were you inspired by any particular systems? MURPHY: I love all the Klipsch Short Horn systems, but I never felt they had enough weight. I’d always add subs so that you’d have a little bit more modern bottom. And I always liked old sound systems, and I liked designing speaker boxes. But really, the club was Precious Hall in Hokkaido, in Japan. I realised how good a sound system could sound. It was sort of like a validation. I looked at it—old boxes, sitting on the floor, spaced around the room, not flown. I was like, this is the right way to do this, this is a very handmade way to do this, and I felt like we can do a big thing like this.

S. DEWAELE: Also, I think we’re a bit frustrated with where we play nowadays. Most of the sound systems, they’re not really built for the kind of music that we play. MURPHY: Even though they all say they can play any sort of music… S. DEWAELE: …and even though they all say they’re the best system in the world. It’s us doing this thing for us, not saying to people like, “Hey, we’ve got the best system.” Nothing to do with that—we just wanted to play this, and it doesn’t exist for what we wanted to do.

Were you excited to hear what your own music would sound like over it? D. DEWAELE: To me, that was one of the highlights. We made a record, another project called Die Verboten which we recorded in Ibiza… MURPHY: One of my favourite things you guys have done. D. DEWAELE: …and we played the entire thing last night, 19 minutes. S. DEWAELE: But that was before we opened the doors.

And you’ve not wanted to sneak anything else in? D. DEWAELE: Well, last night was the first night, but I’m quite tempted to play some DFA stuff. S. DEWAELE: Tonight we can do it. MURPHY: It depends on what it is. I wouldn’t really wanna hear my voice. S. DEWAELE: But there’s “House of Jealous Lovers,” which we can do. MURPHY: That is also such a flag-waving thing. But I love it. I’ve brought a couple of things. I’ve brought our remix of Gavin & Delia. S. DEWAELE: “Relevee”? Or “Rise” even? MURPHY: Oh, we’ve gotta play the fucking Carl Craig remix! Oh man. S. DEWAELE: Up until the doors opened we really hadn’t talked about what we were gonna play, which is kind of cool. MURPHY: We brought so much stuff, we had to cull it for the night.

Along those lines, how long did it take you to prepare all the records to play? S. DEWAELE: I think Dave’s been in panic mode for the past few days, but for three weeks I’ve been putting things aside because I knew the day was gonna come. MURPHY: I was working on music, so I couldn’t do anything. I moved house, so all my records are kind of in chaos. My rock records are all in order by band, but a lot of my DJ records are in their rolling racks and they’re kind of chaotic and I’d been meaning to go through them because they drive me a little bit crazy because I can’t find anything, and I’ve spent, like, two and a half days going through them. It was the happiest I’ve been. Part of my job is to fucking stay in my house and listen to records, that’s actually a really critical part of my fucking job! D. DEWAELE: And you feel really guilty about that! Like, “that’s not a job.” MURPHY: You do feel guilty. But you think about why we have jobs as DJs, it’s not because we were the best looking people at the right time in the right moment, it’s because we knew a bunch of music. We’re not those guys with like, our fingers on the pulse—I mean I have my finger on the pulse of like 1972—but it meant that we have background and that’s part of what we do.

With it being all vinyl, did you have to cut any records yourself? D. DEWAELE: Yeah, we got a lot of stuff cut. That’s what’s cool—we’ve got three nights to do that, and we only played maybe six of the things we made last night. MURPHY: How many cuts did you make? S. DEWAELE: We’ve got a lot. Me and Dave made a lot of edits for small parties. And we have them and were like, "Let’s just press them up now so that we have a lot to choose from." MURPHY: [guiltily] I didn’t get anything done…

What’s your favourite time of the night to be playing? D. DEWAELE: 1AM. I don’t know why. No explanation. My instinct is saying 1AM. MURPHY: I like playing the whole night. D. DEWAELE: I like doing the whole night, but there’s something about 1AM which is just like…something’s happening. S. DEWAELE: I like the last 20 minutes. Where just anything goes.

Do you have plans to take Despacio further afield? Would you think about doing residencies elsewhere? S. DEWAELE: There’s talk about it, but we haven’t even finished here yet. I think we wanna try and get through the first three nights and see what happens. Last night was amazing, but, as you can tell, we haven’t planned anything. It has to involve record shopping and good food. I mean, any place that wants us—we’re talking to you, Tokyo… D. DEWAELE: As a set up, it’s a known situation for us. We can hang out with our friends, eat good food, see people, play on an amazing sound system. We got to play James Holden! When do we ever get to do that? MURPHY: It was also so good looking up and not feeling like you had to chase impatient people. Like people had long attention spans.

Will the collaboration you three have been working on ever see the light of day? MURPHY: We’re not trying to be mysterious or coy, we’re just making stuff and not worrying about it. S. DEWAELE: It’ll come out some time. We’ll do something with it, but it’s just about having fun.

Interview: James Murphy and 2manydjs