It's impossible not to feel cool when speaking with James Murphy and Noah Baumbach. It's as if you've been briefly granted access to an elite world, with visions of dinner parties filled with good music and perfectly paired food and drink dancing in your head. Murphy has taken on many roles since the dissolution of his band LCD Soundsystem, bowing out at the height of its success.
He's since focused his energy on film scoring and production, most notably co-producing Arcade Fire's 2013 release Reflektor. He's also actively DJing, retaining his love for live music on his own terms.
Murphy recently reunited with his filmmaker friend Noah Baumbach for While We're Young, out this weekend, Baumbach's latest tale of adult ennui and rejuvenation. In their second collaboration since 2010's Greenberg, Murphy adds a similar minimalist, wistful background to Baumbach's tale of a couple looking to recapture their youth through hipster culture.
We spoke to Murphy and Baumbach about their friendship, working relationship, and how each inspires one another.
What made you want to take a meeting with James Murphy for Greenberg?
Noah Baumbach: I had heard on satellite radio in my car "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down," and was totally thrown by it. I thought the whole thing was so great – the lyrics, the sound of it and everything. I had heard a couple of LCD songs before, but wasn't that educated on them. I bought the Sound of Silver record, and it was at a time when I was in L.A. and I was writing. I kind of had him in my head a lot while I was writing Greenberg, and so I reached out to him when I had a draft and we had coffee.
James Murphy: We met at a restaurant called Da Silvano on 6th Avenue. I had an intention of pretending like I didn't understand that he wanted me to do the music, that I misunderstood and he was asking me to play the Ben Stiller role. So I was gonna come in and talk about how I feel I could do the role and see how he reacted. That seemed a little cruel, and we ended up getting along really well and we've become good friends.
What was it about James that appealed to you personally, not professionally?
NB: There are many times when you meet people you admire where you don't necessarily bond with the person the way you bond with their work. When it does happen, there's something exciting about it, and that's how I felt with James. We got along immediately and had a shared sensibility. I work with friends, not exclusively, but I have a lot of friends who I've met through work or brought into my work.
That's not always the easiest thing to navigate, but it's something we navigated really well on Greenberg and subsequently While We're Young. I think we had a good friendship communication and work communication. There really didn't feel like there was much of a line. It was pretty fluid.
JM: I had kind of decided that I didn't want to do movie soundtracks. I had friends who do it, and it always seemed like it was more trouble than it was worth. You get different requests from different people for different goals, and it just seemed like not the kind of thing I'd like to do. But we got along so well that I was like, "Well, as long as I can just deal with him, and help him make the movie he wants to make, then I'm happy to do it."
Were you a fan of his previous films?
JM: Yes, I definitely was. We probably wouldn't have had the meeting otherwise if I wasn't.
Isn't there an inherent danger in working with friends?
NB: I'm looking for collaborators who work for the thing I'm working on. Part of that is a sensibility and a presence that I can work with. Sometimes that can mean they are people you also have dinner with and sometimes it doesn't. In terms of the work, it doesn't really matter. If it's a close enough friendship, you're just open with each other. If something isn't working, we can be honest with each other.
Were there nerves conducting Greenberg? It was your debut film score.
JM: Not at all. We talked about what we needed to do, and in my opinion, there's not a lot of pressure on me for a film score other than to do what my friend, the director, wants. I don't feel like it's supposed to represent me. But it's quite liberating.
My job with the film score isn't to say, "This is what I need to get across." It's not that at all. My job is to ask "What does the film need?" and do what's in my wheelhouse and within my abilities. If somebody wanted a really modern, techno-y score, I would say that you should just get somebody else. Noah and I talked about what we wanted to do, and what the character in the film was, and our conscious and unconscious connections to it.
NB: Obviously, James has strong opinions, and with his own work he's very controlled. It's not unlike the way I make my movies. He's a wonderful collaborator and he's also got a very strong voice. Once you've found a sound or a song that's starting to work, then, from my perspective, I'm giving guided notes because I can't do it. I don't have a great music vocabulary, but I listen to music all the time and it's a huge part of the work I do. He's there to interpret what I'm trying to articulate.
Essentially, he's right. That's what you do when you make a soundtrack. You're there to do what's right for the movie. I find that sometimes you try out a few things and they're not working, but then you start to find something. Once you find that something, then there's more he brings to it. It's why I work with someone like James. He both understands the movie so well, and knows what it needs on some level. He knows what his job is vis-à-vis the scene or the emotion of the movie. He's also going to bring something that only James Murphy can bring.
When did Noah first approach you about While We're Young?
JM: I don't remember. We're friends, so we'll hang out and have dinner and things just come up. He's working on a few things and I wanted to do both, but my schedule made the second one impossible. Which is fine, because I feel like it's pretty funny. He did Frances Ha, it was great, but I couldn't do it. It's nice, because half of the movies I get to just see as a fan when they come out. I don't get to see bits and parts and scenes that don't exist anymore.
What were some of the adjectives you threw around to James for While We're Young?
NB: On Greenberg, he was working outside his bread and butter. The songs in Greenberg were more inspired by Harry Nilsson or solo Paul McCartney. It was a different sound than what you get on an LCD record. With this one, I felt like it was an opportunity to go a bit closer to some of the sounds and feelings of the LCD records.
The major piece that he does during the confrontation between Ben Stiller and Adam Driver had an intensity to it, but it was an intensity that had a sense of humor, which I felt like the scene did. Somebody said to me after they saw the movie, and I think they meant this positively, that they suddenly felt like they were in a Michael Mann movie. James's music can relate to sounds from the '80s, and even have a Tangerine Dream vibe to it. That cue is both beautiful, intense, dramatic but also has humor. That's no easy task.
For the While We're Young soundtrack, was the trick figuring out what Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried would listen to, or was that the fun, easy part?
JM: We had a lot of discussions about that, and that was fun and easy. We spent a lot of time working on the Vivaldi stuff. I had made all these synth versions, but we wound up figuring that it was better to use the original pieces as they were. It was a lot of experimentation, and trial and error basically.
For the other stuff, I had a really simple setup. I made almost all of the music with this one setup and one synthesizer. It was quite rudimentary. I tend to find that's the most fun for a film because it means I can make all kinds of music, but it all sort of grooves together in some way.
I wasn't sure if you had any backing players, for instance with "Golden Years."
JM: That came from this baby music CD, which had weird, children's music versions of things. Some of it we really liked, and some we didn't. I forget who came up with the idea for "Golden Years," but obviously it makes a lot of sense, given the song title.
So I just made "Golden Years" with a glockenspiel. I think it was just a glockenspiel, but there might have been a celeste as well. I did a couple versions of it, like it was children's music. It's fun, because you have to break down a song with a lot of complexity going on, and make it into the most understandable, autoharp version.
Does Noah send you dailies, or give you musical hints as to what he's looking for in a scene?
JM: We just go have dinner, talk about the movie, and talk about the overall shape and tone. Then, I'll go into the editing room and watch what they have. We'll stop occasionally because things aren't totally assembled, and we'll talk.
Sometimes there's holder music. Sometimes there's holder music that's all wrong and sometimes it's right. I do one scene at a time. I'll bring a scene back to my studio and make music to that scene. I'll send it back to him, and in the meantime, people have adjusted the scene, so I'll have to go back and readjust the music around the scene. That's sort of how it goes, back and forth.
Do you and Noah butt heads at all?
JM: No, not really. We're both pretty amenable, and I don't see the point of butting heads. It's his movie, so from the beginning my goal is to make him happy, which is really a good relief. He's not a dummy who wants terrible things.
How did Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys come into While We're Young?
NB: I've known Adam and been friends with him for a while. I always thought he was really good when he acted years ago, and always hoped he would do it again. I just offered it to him, and I knew he'd be good in it. I felt like the character related more to the Adam I knew, more than the Ad-Rock perception of him. It has a kind of poignance to it, Ad-Rock being this harried, middle-aged dad.
The curated music runs the gamut from Lionel Richie to Survivor.
JM: I don't pick a lot of that stuff. A lot of that stuff is just Noah. We kind of half-and-half it, and he also has a music supervisor George Drakoulias. A lot of times it's George and I in a room, and we'll be bandying ideas around. For instance, there's a reggae song in the goat restaurant that I picked, but we'll just go back and forth about what we want and it's usually pretty simple.
How deep is Noah's musical knowledge? Are you able to constantly surprise him?
JM: It's very deep. We both surprise one another, which is quite rewarding. He's a real music guy, and that doesn't mean we all know the same things. We work in different worlds and have different influences. But it is pretty deep.
Both Stiller's characters, in Greenberg and While We're Young, are searching for lost time and lost youth. I was wondering if you related to those turning points in life?
JM: I think so. I guess I'm perpetually at turning points.
This was your second chance to work on a Bowie track, along with "Love Is Lost." Do you have a favorite Bowie song?
JM: It moves around a lot. Growing up, it was definitely "Heroes." But yeah, it moves around. It shifts around at times.
Along with The Comedy, this is the second film you've been involved with that skewers hipster culture. Do you have a more acerbic outlook like The Comedy, or do you view the scene with a more forgiving eye, like in While We're Young?
JM: Half and half. I can't get all that mad about it. Who am I going to blame? It's an inevitable, cultural turn based largely on the Internet, but it's not that weird to me.
Noah, can you imagine anyone else scoring your films? Did you miss him on Frances Ha?
NB: There wasn't really a place for him on Frances Ha. We had discussed him doing some things on it at one point, but I didn't have room for it. The score of that movie is really a collage of these old Georges Delerue scores, and it didn't really fit. If there had been room, I would have taken advantage of it.
Every movie has its own sound, and sometimes you discover that while you're putting it together. I'd love to keep working with James. He's a busy man, as you know.
James, where is your head at now? Is it focused on film scoring and producing, or are you itching to record a new album?
JM: I'm in the process of doing things that are available to me that weren't available to me when I was a touring machine. I'm doing as much as I can that was not possible before.
I assume Arcade Fire's Reflektor was an amazing experience.
JM: I had tried to record them at least two albums before that, but every single time they were recording an album, I was recording an album. It was like one of us had to stop for us to make it happen.
There's no LCD. Do you ever want to get the band back together and hit the road again?
JM: Not really. I still see the people, but I've got a cold now and it's days like this when it's like no worries. I also miss being a baseball player, but I'm not going to go out and play baseball.
How are you enjoying DJing?
JM: I like it a lot. It depends on the gig, as each gig is different. But I do like it a lot. That's my favorite thing to do really.
While We're Young is released on 3 April.
This article was originally published on esquire.com
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