James Murphy

Grammy-winning LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy chats with PRIOR about snorkeling for oysters in Sweden, the Paris bistro that sparked a natural-wine obsession, and the lessons learned in running The Four Horsemen bar in Brooklyn.

Melon and prosciutto at The Four Horsemen. Credit: David Malosh

Having toured the globe many times over as the frontman of LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy not only soldered a status as a sort of dance-punk poet laureate, he also steadily cultivated an impressively rounded palate for food, wine and travel.

It was an incremental education for the singer, songwriter, founder of the seminal DFA Records and, in more recent times, the part-owner of Brooklyn wine bar and restaurant The Four Horsemen. Until adulthood, he had barely flown in a plane. In fact, his broader explorations would not begin in earnest until his thirties in the mid-2000s when LCD Soundsystem graduated from New York’s downtown to worldwide repute.

“I went from not traveling apart from in punk bands driving in vans around the US to perpetually being in airports,” Murphy explains from New York City. “Suddenly I was living a lot of my life in Europe and Japan and South America—it was a remarkable, life-changing thing.”

Between music commitments, he immersed himself in culinary scenes at home and afar, befriending chefs like David Chang and René Redzepi and becoming a genuine gastronome with an attendant obsession with natural wines.

After LCD Soundsystem disbanded in 2011 (although they have since reformed), he channeled his energies into various ventures, including co-opening The Four Horsemen in 2015 with his Danish wife Christina Topsøe and two others. A homely space whose white walls and blonde wood lend it a Nordic-meets-Japanese vibe, its menu places a heavy emphasis on natural wines.

Beyond the bar, Murphy tends to a panoply of interests, having scored films, acquiring a Grammy last year with the newly active LCD Soundsystem, and traveling for select music projects, as well as with Topsøe and their son on vacation. “Although my wife is more adventurous,” he notes of their contrary preferences. “She wants to go to Sri Lanka to see elephants, she’s trekked through Bhutan and backpacked through Russia and China. My job, which takes me from city to city, means I’m sort of like a perpetual urbanist.”

Are there any places that frequently appear on your itinerary? I like traveling to places where I can ski. I used to snowboard when I was young and I learned to ski not that long ago, so I feel like a kid again. Like, it’s good to suck at something. I still enjoy going to Copenhagen, which I do a lot, and London and Japan. I have friends in different cities from my work and that draws me to places a lot.

Chinatown in Flushing, Queens: "The food is insane, and it really feels like you’re on another continent."

Do you have a favorite hotel from touring with LCD Soundsystem? It’s since changed names, but the Great Eastern Hotel in London. The first show we ever played over there was at some party in their ballroom. I think it was the first fancy hotel any of us had ever stayed in and it blew our minds. We were like, “Look at these towels, look at this robe.” I always had the same room with a corner bathroom where you could take a bath and look out at East London. We became friends with them, so I would leave a box that had socks, toiletries, a turntable and a speaker, so that when I came to stay, they would have already set up everything I needed in the room like it was my apartment.

You are famously evangelic about natural wines. Was there a particular experience that ignited the obsession? Yes, I was with Justin Chearno, who’s one of the partners and the wine director at The Four Horsemen. He worked at Uva [in New York] in the early, early days, and he was turning me onto wine. One time we were both in Paris—I was DJing or something—and a couple of our friends said, “Let’s go to Racines in Passage de Panoramas.” Pierre Jancou was the guy who ran it and he just had charcuterie, cheese, coffee, bread, small plates and natural wine. I think it was the first time I had a Frank Cornelissen MunJebel or a macerated white wine—I may have even had a Massa Vecchia—but it just tore my head off. I didn’t really care about wine when I was younger—I thought it was fancy, and I’m from a pretty shitty suburban background where wine seemed like a feat. That wine in that particular space with those people was a big a-ha moment for me.

Has it been a steep learning curve opening The Four Horsemen? Yes, I learned that it’s wise to stay out of the fray to a certain degree and to make sure you have people that you know you can trust to run it. We have a professional manager, we have a professional chef, we have a good accountant, and it allows me and the other partners to do our different specialties of thinking with some abstraction and distance.

Do you have any ambitions to do something else like that? I mean, yes and no. The Four Horsemen is such a personal place that I don’t know that we would love doing a lot of them, but we’re looking to expand behind the Horsemen and have a little sneaky bar perhaps. That would be pretty great.

What are your favorite wine bars around the world? Oh, there are a ton of them. I love Verre Volé in Paris. Ved Stranden 10 in Copenhagen. The Ahiru Store over in Tokyo. And I love Brawn and the Laughing Heart in London.

Where was your last vacation? Pantelleria, Italy.

Where will your next vacation be? We don’t know yet. Maybe skiing, if my ankle heals. Otherwise, sitting by water somewhere.

The thing you can’t travel without? A book. Maybe two books.

Plane, train or automobile? I like boats, if they’re possible. They’re nice and they’re slow. but in reality, I wind up in planes a lot, because they get me to places more quickly. Don’t get me wrong—I like trains for the peace, and I love a tour bus.

The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? My family. I don’t like making new friends all that much. Does that make me sound like a dick? That probably makes me sound like a dick. Maybe I’m a dick.

What is your in-flight ritual? I change my wallet over to whatever currency my destination uses, as well as any other ancillary wallet stuff. Like, when I go to London, I pull out all my flotsam, like my MetroCard, and put in my Oyster card, coffee loyalty cards for London places, and stuff like that.

The language you wish you spoke? Danish, but for boring reasons. My wife is Danish, and my son speaks Danish…come to think of it, maybe it’s better that I don’t. Otherwise maybe it would be Japanese, since I really like traveling there outside Shibuya.

When were you happiest while traveling? Probably on a sailboat outside Sweden, snorkeling in the very cold water for wild oysters. It’s kind of mind-blowing to grab oysters from the sea that you know would set you back $5 a piece at any restaurant. We grabbed dozens of them and hung them in nets off the back of the boat. We ate like kings for days for free. And I liked getting better at shucking them; I like acquiring skills.

Desert island or downtown? Downtown because I like bathrooms. That said, I did hang out on a pretty deserted place with friends in New Zealand, and my wife remarked that I became kind of happily feral. At one point I had soft loamy mud caked on the bottoms of my feet, and I was happy about it because it was “like protective shoes”. I also like making fires.

If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? I once did live at the Tribeca Grand Hotel for a while in exchange for DJing New Year’s Eve, and that was great. But if I had to live at a hotel now…that’s tough. I’m tempted to say I’d like to live at the Waldorf Astoria, or some weird eastside place which has lost its original glamour, mainly for the doormen and the awesome people-watching.

What is your room service indulgence? Breakfast breakfast breakfast. I love it when someone brings me breakfast. I use it as an alarm clock. I don’t set an alarm, but I order breakfast the night before, and then wake up when they come with the food. It’s magical.

The strangest place you’ve spent a night? Well, I slept in vans a lot on tour in the ’90s when I was on shitty indie rock tours. But then, on tour as the soundman for Adam Horovitz’s band BS 2000 and Le Tigre, we had a gig in Hawaii. We stayed in a hotel which was essentially a weird series of huts along Turtle Bay, where people would shoot porn, and in the morning I woke up on the couch in the front room (it had better ocean sound than the bed) to a giant sea turtle pushing open the screen door on the porch and coming into my room. I was so out of it that I saw him and said “I’m in here!” as if he was housekeeping.

What is your favorite market? The food-market street in Kyoto.

If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? I’m pretty obsessed with ancient Greece, so I’d probably like to wander around there for a while.

What are the show-off spots in your hometown? Where I grew up, in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, there are none. Other than the fact that it’s where the Martians landed in War of the Worlds. In New York, I think it’s Flushing Chinatown, because the food is insane, and it really feels like you’re on another continent.

Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year? A weekend in Oslo.
A week in Japan.
A month in Venice.
A year in London.

Your biggest extravagance on the road? Probably the flights. I work really hard to get the best possible flight with my preferred carrier, so I can upgrade to the big-boy chair and sleep.

Describe a memorable meal from your travels. Eating parrot fish and coconut crab on the beach in the Tuamotus Islands.

Travel hell is? Food poisoning anywhere that isn’t your house.

Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? Africa.

Three favorite stores on earth? Illums Bolighus in Copenhagen. Phonica Records in London. Tokyu Hands in Shibuya.

Most treasured travel memento? I have a sweater I bought in a coastal town in Sweden because all of our luggage was delayed on the flight and we had to sail with what we were wearing, and it’s the best sweater I’ve ever owned. It’s now full of holes, but I try to wear it anyway.

Why do you travel? Almost always it’s for work. I never traveled anywhere as a kid, as this wasn’t my family’s way. We drove twice a year to Massachusetts to be with family for the holidays, and that was it. A station wagon full of smoke for six hours. But when I started traveling for work, I got pretty addicted. Now I like to travel to feel like some other version of myself, to get away from myself for a minute.

Christine Muhlke has over two decades of experience and connections in the food, travel, fashion, culture, and design worlds. The founder of Bureau X food consultancy, she has been an editor at Bon Appétit, T Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine.

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