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Baumbach, Murphy, Greenberg, and Greenberg - Friends in Art


Herein lies select responses and some commentary following a roundtable interview with James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem frontman, and more importantly for the sake of this interview, the original score artist in writer/director Noah Baumbach's newest film.

Wantonly neurotic, fresh off of a mental breakdown, and finding himself once again in his family's Hollywood hills mansion after having a pre-mid-life in Brooklyn (or, because he has to be more specific: Bushwick) - Roger Greenberg, of Noah Baumbach's newest, Greenberg, rarely feels comfortable operating in the present tense, preferring instead to relish in the comfort of nostalgia. A similar sentimentality runs through many of the songs by James Murphy and his celebrated electro-rock outfit, LCD Soundsystem.

Baumbach, who got to know Murphy musically and emotively after he first heard “New York I Love You.” It isn't a stretch to imagine a character like Roger listening to a band like LCD Soundsystem. When the director started to consider what kind of soundtrack would be appropriate for Greenberg, he called up Murphy. What began as mutual respect and admiration between the two artists quickly became an amicable (and kind of adorable) professional relationship.

“I met with Noah before the shooting began and we would talk about music from the beginning. We were exchanging mix CDs of things, just music that we liked, that we thought would be relevant... even some of the most outrageous stuff that didn't seem appropriate at all wound up even in the movie. There's a Drunks With Guns song which I deeply love and I became obsessed with getting in the movie. And he let me get it in the party scene.”

The creative process behind Murphy and Baumbach's collaboration was unique, as far as scoring goes (at least, that's what a more experienced cinephile at the roundtable asserted).

"[Baumbach and I] would just go back and forth with things, and we would get scenes that we would need cues for … and what I started doing was quickly just making things... not for scenes. I would just start making stuff and bringing it over. And he is incredibly gracious and would just go, 'well let's just try it over there. Oh, I like that. That's good.' Ya know? And, then, only a few things were even made specifically for scenes. Almost everything else was made as, like, a song. Like, I would write a song. And I would write it very roughly and bring it over and then those roughs became what we became attached to and that's where that tone of those was. Like, we started talking about the first McCartney solo record, and some of the Harry Nelson recordings that were sometimes very high-fidelity, and sometimes, home recordings... That became a habit of working, like, I would make a song and then we would break it into score. So , there would be, here's a song I wrote, or I would play it on piano and sing it.

“If I were to sit with another scoring person I think they would come look at me like I was insane, I think that the whole thing, I mean Noah's first thing was, he said, 'Do you know anything about scoring?” And I said, 'No.' And he was like, 'Great.'

“The whole process was the only way I think I could have done it. Having direct access to Noah, working with him one on one, feeling like we're friends, being able to walk over to his editing studio which was across the street from my recording studio and just, like, hang out, and watch scenes, and then go and make music, and he would come over and listen to stuff, and I don't think I could have ever done it if it was, like, there's a person who got notes from the assistant of the director, who has sent them to me, and I have to go, kind of, wonder what these esoteric terms mean. 'Can it be more watery?' And make adjustments. And I don't think I would ever do that. But working like this just felt like working with a friend on something, which, in effect, it felt like that because it was. I think... by making movies that stand on their own, that work in a certain way, and by not having ten bazillion dollar budgets, [he] has earned the right to kind of do things in a more personal way, a home way, and I feel like I've done a similar thing. I'm not a wildly expensive dude. I don't hire producers, I play all the instruments. We both have these autonomous little worlds; it's very easy to be comfortable with each other like that."

“I only can do things if they feel right... I'm not, like, a songwriter. I don't, “oh, we need a song.” I don't know how to do that. Most of the lyrics I ever release are improvised or written the day that they get sung. It's easier for me, it makes sense to me. That said, working for somebody else's vision can be really taxing, but this was not. This was a delight... it was like decorating a house with somebody you have a similar tastes with; it's not that rocket science-y.”

The Greenberg soundtrack doesn't sound like an LCD Soundsytem record, and Murphy makes it clear that he doesn't consider the projects related.

“Noah [Baumbach] and I were laughing about this. He was like, 'well, [all] my friends [lol] who like your band are going to kind of roll their eyes at me and be like, so you had that LCD Soundsystem guy make you a record and it sounds like solo Paul McCartney from '73?' This, to me, is not an LCD Soundsystem record in any way, shape, or form. It's just me meeting someone and being able to get along with them and talking about music. … [Baumbach] typically doesn't use a ton of score. He uses more source music, and I prefer that in movies, so it was more about making music that would work like found music.”

I'll compare Greenberg's soundtrack to the typical Wes Anderson soundtrack template, but only as a contrast (and to presumptuously use Anderson as an anchor in the audience's indie director catalogue). Murphy's score has a familiar, retro sound that Anderson looks for in his source music, but Greenberg's is also entirely and refreshingly uncharming (not unlike Greenberg himself). And in the score, where Anderson would lean on the plucky, too-cute tinkering of Mark Mothersbaugh, Baumbach and Murphy weave in a simple, moving rock song. Murphy, in his songs with LCD Soundsystem, adeptly works with the same emotional palate as Greenberg, so when his score colors in the dialogue-free spaces in the movie with the motion of his songs, the expression feels effortless. As Murphy explains, “a lot of the songs I have [with LCD Soundsytem] are songs about things, and in the movie it's more just songs that do things, if that makes any sense.” Greenberg is constantly grappling with his own life passing by. When Roger is walking, pensive, and nervous as always in one sequence, Murphy's score comes in with starkly percussive and metronomic instrumentation which draws attention to the passing of time itself, and helps the audience share in Roger's anxiety.

The almost 17 minutes of new material in Greenberg shows what James Murphy is capable of when he actually tries to do things. The range of adjectives I could apply to various elements of his songs – sultry, restrained, tense, joyous - are wider than those that describe the characters in Greenberg itself. The voice he lends to Baumbach's narrative is thoughtful and moving. And if you needed any more proof that James Murphy was a straight up good at writing songs- here 'tis.

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