Over spectacular dishes at London restaurant Brawn, musician James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem talks about his passion for natural wines and his un-ironic interest in making Pennsylvania Pineau d'Aunis.
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Musician James Murphy. © John Kernick
"I've never been good at just being a fan—I've always gone straight to being a participant." James Murphy, the co-founder of DFA Records and the former front man of dance-rock ensemble LCD Soundsystem, taught himself to play drums, guitar, keyboards and a mean cowbell on his way to becoming one of the most influential producers and musicians of the 2000s. Since disbanding the group two years ago, he has thrown himself with the same participatory fervor into the world of food and drink. Murphy, who still travels the world DJing and producing, has cooked at events alongside rising-star chefs Iñaki Aizpitarte and Kris Yenbamroong. He hosted a wine-tasting seminar on the indie-rock Coachella cruise and is currently collaborating with Blue Bottle Coffee founder James Freeman on a signature roast. Food & Wine dispatched writer Jon Fine to London, where Murphy spends a lot of time, and the two met at Brawn (brawn.co). The East End wine bar is one of Murphy's favorites, both for its "evangelical" list of natural wines and its delicious menu of updated French-focused dishes from chef Owen Kenworthy. Over hand-chopped steak tartare and cauliflower-and-fava-bean risotto, Fine talked to Murphy about his conversion to wine-and-food geekdom.
Jon Fine: I heard that Christina [Murphy's girlfriend, Christina Topsøe] called Brawn the world's most dangerous restaurant. You could lose a day and a night here.
James Murphy: Christina and I came at four in the afternoon one Sunday. We thought, We'll have one glass of wine and a little charcuterie. I texted a friend to tell him and he wrote back, "We're on our way." They came, and we thought, So now there's four of us. We might as well get a bottle.
JF: And cut to eight hours later.
JM: To 2 a.m. Some friends were eating three tables over, so they joined us. A couple of guys we knew from France came over. It became a rotating table.
JF: Why do you like Brawn so much?
JM: It has a really good, evangelical wine list, priced for people to try things. I think some restaurants are trying to prove they know everything, and some are hoping to get people to try something new. I firmly prefer the latter camp. Brawn does this in a lot of ways—they have a really interesting selection of wines by the glass, the wines are not too expensive, and the restaurant carries plenty of choices for people who might not be into some of the more out-there natural wines. If you are used to big, commercial wines, Brawn won't offend your sensibility.
JF: How has the way you eat and drink on the road changed over the 20 years you've been touring?
JM: It just sucked early on. We were broke, the food was terrible and the information was pretty limited. Also, restaurants like Brawn, Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn and Le Chateaubriand [Iñaki Aizpitarte's restaurant] in Paris didn't exist yet. There were places where you could get good wine and food, but they were very expensive and designed for fancy people—I didn't feel welcome there. But now I know lots of chefs, and they have restaurants I love.
JF: Is there a restaurant that really blew your mind the first time you visited?
JM: I was in Paris in 2007 and went to [wine bar] Racines. Totally revelatory. I had this salad that smelled so good, when it hit the table, my mouth started watering. We also had an elevated version of chicken under a brick. It was a game-changing dish for me, because I thought only people who didn't like food ordered chicken. And [owner] Pierre Jancou brought us a wine that was just crazy and interesting. It was like saying, "I like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Echo & the Bunnymen," and then your friend says, "Oh, have you heard Suicide?" And you're like, "Whoaaa! There's a whole other level!"
JF: Is that how you like your wine—"crazy and interesting"?
JM: I like delicious wine, and I just tend to find natural wines more interesting. "Good" is a bit boring. In the same way, I've never been that drawn to bands that write "pretty" songs. I've always liked bands that write complicated songs.
JF: Do you remember what wine you drank that night at Racines?
JM: We had Cornelissen's MunJebel [a Sicilian wine fermented and then aged in clay amphorae with the skins and seeds].
JF: If you've never had a wine like that, it's a shock.
JM: Yes, but I wasn't a classicist. I didn't know that much about wine. My entry into wine was very similar to my entry into music: Instead of starting with the Beach Boys, I went right into punk rock. I've been getting more into classic bottles as time goes on, but when I tasted the MunJebel, it was exciting. My first thought was, This barely tastes like wine. It tasted like apple cider and apricots, and it felt very rough and very un-fancy. It was raw—which I liked.
JF: MunJebel is considered an orange wine [it's made from white grapes, but has some of the tannins and savory elements of red wine]. Do you like wines in that style?
JM: I do. They push a bunch of new buttons for me. Some of the wines aren't very good, but over time, they will get better, and there will be more range.
JF: Are there any varietals or kinds of wine you don't like?
JM: I don't gravitate toward Syrah: To me, it tastes fat, lazy, heavy, too much licorice, a bit plodding. But I'm sure there are lovely ones. Same with Zinfandel: I'm sure there are amazing ones, but I've yet to have any. I admit: It is fully from my lack of trying.
JF: One of the first things I learned was to avoid California Chardonnay.
JM: I have to have a pretty serious rapport with a sommelier before I'll take a recommendation for a California Chardonnay. The job of the sommelier was all-important for a while, until people tried to democratize it into extinction. It's such an important job, though it's different than it once was. Sommeliers used to be gatekeepers, and now they're gate openers.
JF: I guess it goes back to evangelism.
JM: Yeah. Good somms, like the ones here at Brawn, are not trying to check out where you're from to see if you deserve something good. Well, maybe some of them are, but then they're just like record-store jerks.
JF: You collaborated on a dinner with Kris Yenbamroong in New York City recently, and a Le Fooding party with Iñaki Aizpitarte. Is working with star chefs intimidating?
JM: No, because I have nothing to prove. I would be intimidated if it were something I was supposed to be good at. But I'm just purely subservient. I want to learn. I used to do martial arts, so I'm very comfortable with knowing what my role is, knowing to put my ego aside. I do what I'm told. I like that.
JF: How did you learn how to cook?
JM: I've never been good at just being a fan—I've always gone straight to being a participant, even if I didn't really know anything about it. When I was a kid, I even built a drum set out of coffee cans; the snare drum had rocks in it to make it rattle. It's the same with food; I liked food, so I started making sauces. This chopped beef we're eating—the first time I had it at Brawn, I went home and tried to make it. I just faked it—threw the beef in the freezer and hand-chopped it.
JF: Any interest in making wine?
JM: Of course.
JM: Northeastern Pennsylvania. The climate is very similar to northern Burgundy and the eastern Loire. But I don't want to be the guy who invests millions and names a wine after his daughter's horse. It would just be fun to have a house, and some grapes, and roll the dice. I would be most interested in [Loire varietal] Pineau d'Aunis. And creating a place to meet winemakers, if they think I'm worth talking to. I have no expectation that it would be profitable. Music is so enriching when you go down the rabbit hole. Wine is such a rabbit hole. People have made it forever, though the whole industry almost died in the 1800s. Something similar is going to happen in California. If it gets just a few degrees warmer, we're going to kill wine.
JF: We won't be buying Burgundy forever.
JM: Yeah, we'll be drinking wine from northern England.
JF: Or northeastern Pennsylvania.
James Murphy's London Wine Bar Picks
40 Maltby Street
Located inside a wine warehouse, with a great natural-wine selection and hyper-seasonal dishes. 40maltbystreet.com
The Clove Club
Sitting at the bar here, drinking wine and eating chef Isaac McHale's fried chicken, is a pleasure. thecloveclub.com
The basement bar at this theater-district spot is a terrific place to have wine, cheese and charcuterie before a show. terroirswinebar.com