MUSIC, MEMORY, & WHAT MOVES YOU
A Conversation with JAMES MURPHY
IN INTRODUCING THIS CONVERSATION WITH JAMES MURPHY, I wanted to say a few words about music and my pictures. Music has always been a big part of my life, since the time I was a teenager and was in The Speedies. I listen to music constantly, all types. I also read about music, follow music podcasts, and watch almost every music documentary that comes out. It’s interesting, then, that one of the things I love about photography is that still images are silent. The one time I actually don’t have any music playing is when I’m making pictures. My set is always quiet when we’re shooting. Still, once the pictures are made, I love the idea of finding music to pair with the images, and that music becomes a sort of soundtrack for the series.
When I finished work on the Eveningside pictures, I thought of James Murphy. James and I have known each other for a long time, but I know he’s always busy and rarely has time to take on extra projects. Still, I decided to reach out to him, and showed him the new pictures, really without much expectation one way or another. He got right back to me, within minutes, and said he thought he had the perfect music for these pictures, something he was just finishing up with the amazing instrumentalist/composer Stuart Bogie. James proceeded to send me two haunting and beautiful approximately-20-minute pieces of music which I listened to immediately in my car. I remember it well, as I was driving from New York to Massachusetts, and I had to pull over just to lose myself in them. The music couldn’t have felt more perfectly evocative of the Eveningside pictures, their themes, atmosphere, and hushed tone. One piece, which James and Stuart later titled “Eveningside,” ultimately became the inspiration and driving force for Harper’s meditative behind the scenes film Making Eveningside (which we’ll be releasing in its entirety here on Substack very soon.) The other, “Morningside,” we used in a details video exploring the pictures themselves, edited by our studio assistant Christian Badach.
The music, which you’ve already heard clips of in previous posts, came as a surprise to me. It’s quiet, lyrical, stream-of-consciousness almost; very original. Stuart has told me that the two pieces grew out of the pandemic lockdown — the isolation nudged him to pick up his clarinet and do musical meditations to find order and a sense of calm. I couldn’t help but think back to an interview I did with James for Yale in 2020. James talked about how spending so much time alone in his studio pushed him to get back to musical experimentation; he also talked about early memories from childhood, music that shaped him as he was coming of age, and what songs make him cry (among other things.) Unbenownst to either of us at the time, the Eveningside music was being created right at that moment (I hadn’t even shot the pictures yet.) I am sharing a short excerpt from that interview below, with a link to it in its entirety at the end.
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(excerpted and edited from a public conversation conducted via Zoom on May 9, 2020.)
GREGORY: What is your most vivid memory from childhood?
JAMES: Childhood's pretty broad, where are we looking? Early childhood?
GREGORY: However you'd like to answer that question.
JAMES: I have always, since I was little — maybe because I was the last of four children and I was a Catholic surprise — like, there was a big gap, and then like, "Oh, shit, they got another kid!;” I think I was left in my crib a lot, on my back. So, like looking up is a thing that really does it for me. Always has. If I found myself lying outside under a tree looking up, it was the only kind of pure peace. So, I have all these visual memories of looking up. In another one, I was lying on my back in snow that was just deep enough to kind of cut off my peripheral and just frame the sky. And those are like an emotional kind of deep-seated memory rather than like, "Oh, when this happened." As far as memories of things that “happened,” well I try to go back as early as I can, because I think that's the most interesting, because then your brain is so different. I remember being at my aunt's house and my mother, and whoever else was with her, might have been some siblings or whatever, were going to go to this model airplane show and in the logic of a four year old, or whatever age I was, I suddenly decided I didn't want to go. I was like, "I don't want to go." And instead of like, cajoling me or saying to me like, "Come on, I think you'll enjoy it, there'll be airplanes," my mother was just like, "If you don't want to go, then you don't have to go." Like she was just sort of annoyed with me. I remember standing on the front steps of my aunt's house like "Am I really going with this? I'm sticking with this." And she left, I went back in the house, and I turned around and realized, what I had wanted was a continuation of what was happening, which was my family around me, my mother there, my siblings there playing, and so I was refusing to go because I wanted the continuation, but of course, in their absence, that continuation was impossible, but I wasn't old enough to think that through. So what I wound up with, was a bunch of strangers, my aunt's friends, who were just sitting around as adults, smoking and drinking and talking, and I just hid in a in a room for like, an hour and a half, until my family came back. Which is, be careful what you wish for, I guess.
GREGORY: So, who were some of your early influences, when you were coming of age?
JAMES: As a human being or as a musician or as an artist?
GREGORY: I think as a musician. Maybe the intersection of both.
JAMES: I would say, first it would be my brother. I have an older brother. He's about 10 years older than me and because he's a 10-year-older-than-me-brother, he was the coolest person in the world. He was not the coolest person in the world, I've come to realize. He's great. But he wasn't particularly cool. He really liked prog rock and, he had a bunch of records that I memorized. I wasn't allowed to touch them, but I would when he wasn't there. I would go look at them and he had David Live, the David Bowie record recorded in Philadelphia, in like 74.
JAMES: And it was terrifying to look at. David Bowie was in like his full cocaine zombie phase, like super gaunt.
JAMES: Like bright orange dyed hair and I remember it just being a really scary cover and I remember my brother saying "When people talk about punk rocking, that's the first punk rocker." And I didn't know what punk rock was, but I just knew that, "Okay, this is something for me."
GREGORY: Is there a song or album that changed your life? Was it that Bowie album, or is there another one?
JAMES: I mean, many. I know that sounds like a really empty answer, but it's not like that. It's a really like …
GREGORY: Huge list.
JAMES: … all the time, over and over, songs and albums changed my life in a variety of different ways. Let me see, probably the first record I ever bought was, Fame by Bowie and Gilbert O'Sullivan, Alone Again Naturally. At seven, I bought them together. I do think that indicates the kind of human being; what my life was going to be about. Self pity and a desire and fear of my own success.
GREGORY: Yeah [laughter.]
JAMES: Another weird influence that was important to me was seeing The Who on TV in their early incarnations. Like wild Keith Moon, and being like, "I love this" and then going up to my brother's room and putting The Who record on and saying, "I hate this." And the dichotomy between, I guess, the crazy animal energy of what they were as a live band and then the sort of like, thoughtful studying. I remember just hearing See Me, Feel Me and I hated it. I was like, "I hate this. There's something about this I hate. There's some posturing in here." It was like, I loved the animal, primitive and bodily nature of them as a live band. Watching it. And I disliked the arch sort of pretentious construction that I felt I heard in the songs. And I think that's been a key thing for me with every artist, with everything I listen to. Like, I still want the artifice or like the pretentiousness for lack, but if it's missing the gut — it's just something about the gut that I became very married to very early.
GREGORY: It's actually interesting, because my next question is, what is the difference for you between the recording process and playing live to an audience?
JAMES: It's everything. I mean, it's an enormous difference. I mean, technically, there are differences that are obvious like, but they don't have to be. I mean, you can be a live rock-and-roll band and go into the studio and play all at once together and record it or go onto stage and play all at once, together in front of people. I don't do that, but I don't think that's the key difference. For me, recording in a recording studio is about making an object and making that object is about moments. It's about finding moments, but it's like there's a permanence to it. Like, I want that moment to be looked at. Like, one’s like having a conversation and one’s like writing a novel. In a conversation, you can backtrack and pause your sentences. If you reveal the way human beings talk, they're constantly cutting off your sentence and are interjecting and you're getting something from the other person and there's just all these ideas floating around and, like, you're getting to it. When you're writing a novel, you'd like to distill all that. You'd like to boil that down, so that it has the maximum impact in the way you want it to come across. But I think playing live, it has a more conversational nature to it. I don't care if there are mistakes as long as the point is across. As long as I look at your face and you understand me and we're having an understanding between us and we're two people having a glass of wine and we're talking and we're having a good time. That's what matters to me. Whether I contradicted myself from an hour ago. As long as we're having this time, I'm happy. I don't feel the need to be like, "Well, let me present my case in this dialogue." But in a record, I want to present my case. I'm obsessed with very different things in performance than I am in recording.
GREGORY: Do you have a favorite part, the part you like best in the entire creative process?
JAMES: Finishing. I mean making recordings, to be finishing and looking back, and being like, somehow I got through experimenting. I realize now that I've gotten away from experimenting. This whole global collapse and mixed with me having a studio under construction, which had to stop. So, we were kind of like, what are we going to do? And one of the things we started doing, was like, I have these wish list projects that are really unexciting. Like backing up all of my DATs, my digital audio tapes from the 90s, late 80s into the computer because the DATs are a really faulty medium, and just backing up all this stuff we found all this old music. It's old music that was not really meant to be released and a lot of it is just experiments with equipment, or just experiments with techniques.
JAMES: I recorded really intensely for a long time in the 90s. I learned how to be recording engineer, a technical person, and then I hit a maturation level where it wasn't exciting to learn anymore. And in that maturation process, I stopped experimenting in raw form. It's sort of like, if you do science, if you do like chemistry or there's just like raw experimentation. There's just fundamental research, where you're like, how do molecules work? Not like, how do we make a new fabric that's anti microbial? Like, not looking for a product, but when you're just literally just looking at molecules and seeing what they do. And I stopped doing fundamental research somewhere along the lines with sound. And hearing my old things that I was doing, I was really inspired by it. And then I was remembering, "Oh, that's how I got that song, and that's how I got that song." And so it's been really nice to have this kind of moment and to start experimenting again. And that's been a really fun way to go about making music again. When I find something to make it into music, it's a nice thing to kind of go out trusting my instincts rather than trusting my technique and that's exciting right now.
I mean, I could be totally wrong, but I also love being wrong. The internet has destroyed the beautiful mythology of being wrong … Maybe economics and politics, it's really good to know you're talking about, but with art it is sometimes I believe, good to be wrong.
- James Murphy
GREGORY: Is there a movie or song that makes you cry?
JAMES: There's an infinity of movies and songs that make me cry. Yeah, watch me. I'll just pick up on things that don't make any sense to anybody. There's a song. The label that I founded, DFA, [works with] a band called Prinzhorn [Dance School] and they did a song called Let Me Go. When I first heard it, I listened to it like 12 times in a row and it just made me weep, but that's because I know something. I know something about the person singing. I know something about who I presume, that person is singing it to. It's embedded in the record in a way that is really beautiful and I don't know how it would land on other people.
On the opposite of the spectrum, the Roches, the sisters that made Hammond Song; I had been listening to Hammond Song, we were on tour and we were playing it backstage all time. It was always like on somebody's phone, plugged into a shitty speaker in a backstage dressing room and I love it. I loved that we played it before we went on. It was such a weird energy to play out of a vibe so gentle. But then I got the vinyl. When I got home, I got a really nice vinyl. I sat down, threw it on, and I just wept.
JAMES: Part of it was the story. If anyone doesn't know the song, I encourage everyone to both hear the song as it is recorded, Robert Fripp producing and playing all the extra guitar, and then go watch them do a concert and you'll be like, "Oh, the production's amazing." Then you watch them do it live and you're like, “Their voices are insane.” I mean, I have like all the hair standing up on my arms now, thinking about it. And from what I understand, it's the story of these three sisters. There's an older one, middle one, younger one and they were also being used as backup singers. They're amazing singers. Hammond, Louisiana is a town which had a recording studio and someone working on that record and the youngest of the sisters started an affair, and when they came back to New Jersey, the younger sister was missing this guy, and was going to go back. And apparently this song was [written as a response to that.] I mean, I could be totally wrong, but I also love being wrong. The internet has destroyed the beautiful mythology of being wrong.
JAMES: Which is important. It is not always important to research and be right about art. It is very important to research and be right about medicine. Maybe economics and politics, it's really good to know you're talking about, but with art it is sometimes I believe, good to be wrong. It allows you into things in a different way. I could be wrong and just shut up if I'm wrong, because I am going to die one day and this wrong will go away and I'm happily holding on to it enjoying it in the meantime. So, I am under the impression that, this is the song written by the oldest sister to the youngest sister, where she sings the whole thing, “If you go down to Hammond, you'll never come back. As far as I'm concerned, you're on the wrong track." It's just this beautiful, scolding older sister song to the younger sister and then the younger sister has her verse. "Well, I went down to Hammond. I did what I pleased. I'm not the only one who has this disease." Meaning like, you guys have all done it. And it's just this beautiful thing of, sisters looking after each other and also defining themselves against one other. It's just a beautiful, beautiful song and I just sat there weeping for this song, but I wasn't weeping because the song was sad, I think I was grateful that it existed and I would think that I was grateful, that right or wrong, these people had made something that exposed them, even if it's not true or whatever, that exposed them to me in some way, the way that a great acting performance or any piece of art is. Exposed something about themselves to me that was so naked and moving and that I could just go play it. It was beautiful. It had some of the best Robert Fripp guitar playing. He does these things where he sits at the wrong note and then slides in a half step into it and there's this beautiful, delicate stuff, and it's like a kind of a perfect song. So that song.
Laurie Anderson’s O Superman is another one that gets me. Semi nonsensical, but incredibly beautiful. And also both Hammond Song and O Superman, have something in common, in that just the sound of them, in an instrumental, lyrical way, are really moving and beautiful.
GREGORY: So true.
JAMES: They're gentle and they're unaggressive and you’re allowed to kind of go into them in which then they’ve got you. Those are good.
GREGORY: That's amazing and now I'm going to go back and re-listen to that. I always loved that song.
Watch the full conversation here:
Editorial note: Gregory’s words on Crewdson Trail Log are written by Juliane Hiam, based on a combination of dictation, conversations, and interviews with Gregory.
“Eveningside” and “Morningside” will appear on Stuart Bogie’s “Clarinets and Delays,” forthcoming from DFA Records.