Before he was the bearded leader of LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy was just a hardcore kid kicking around the New York and New Jersey punk scene of the late 1980s. He was an ambitious connoisseur of eclectic music, a vinyl record collector, and an adaptable musician who hopped from band to band hoping for a spark or a gig. But Murphy also had a fascination with the production side of recording. There was only one problem: he had no experience with engineering or electronics.
So Murphy decided to turn to one of his heroes: Chicago-based engineer and musician Steve Albini, whose work in Big Black and Shellac made him an iconic punk icon while his productions with Nirvana, PJ Harvey, and the Pixies made him a legendary figure behind the mixing desk. “Steve Albini is one of the most important influences on me,” Murphy recalls in the Foo Fighters documentary series Sonic Highways.
Albini had been in a similar position to Murphy at the beginning of his career – he wanted to record bands and engineer records but had no experience. Albini managed to gain knowledge and eventually set up a recording space in his suburban Chicago house, but the demand quickly expanded to the point where Albini bought his own professional studio, Electrical Audio, in 1995.
With no expectation on whether Albini would respond, Murphy decided to write him a letter. “I was a punk rock kid. I went to one studio in Brooklyn where someone told me that the way we wanted to record wouldn’t work and that the way I was playing was wrong,” Murphy recalled. “I wrote Steve a letter from an address I got somewhere, and I said, ‘Hi, I want to build a recording studio and I don’t know how to do it.” Albini, who claims in the same documentary that he’s forced to book sessions “wall-to-wall” just to keep his own finances afloat, could have easily ignored the random request. Instead, he responded in a major way.
“He just proceeded to send me letters and drawings – facts, details, how to install the windows. He sent me designs on how to build a studio! I was a kid!” Murphy contrasts Albini’s generosity with his reputation for being, in his words, “a dick”, and insists that Albini’s guidance changed his life. “It’s actually since been a real guide to me of genuine generosity to other people, and that was the first of many studios I’ve built.”
The foundations that Murphy learned allowed him to eventually set up DFA Studios, which expanded into DFA Records during the New York indie-rock boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Murphy himself became an artist in the scene late in the game, when LCD Soundsystem eventually formed in 2002 and took off just as the scene was starting to fracture. Without Albini’s initial help, Murphy would likely have never gotten to that place.