Never say never: LCD Soundsystem’s Nancy Whang on pushing herself in new directions

Ahead of her Hong Kong appearance, Whang explains why she’s doing two things she previously said wouldn't happen: DJ, and get back together with the titans of the dance-punk scene

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 February, 2016, 5:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 February, 2016, 5:01am

If you’re a dance-punk band and you want vocals, Nancy Whang is who you ask. Best known as a permanent member of the legendary LCD Soundsystem, the Korean-American has also recorded and performed with most of the luminaries of the genre as a vocalist and keyboard player. Since LCD went on a supposedly permanent hiatus in 2011 – more of that later – she’s added an extra string to her bow: as a DJ, in which capacity she performs at Kee Club on February 26.

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Before she hit the turntables, Whang had always ruled out taking up DJing, reasoning that she considered so many of her friends to be great DJs that the prospect was just too intimidating. But the prospect of unemployment, it turns out, was worse.

“I changed my mind about DJing after LCD ended: I needed a job,” she says. “It was terrifying at first, and it still is most of the time. I get way more nervous about DJing than performing on stage. You have a different kind of relationship to the audience that I have less control over. It’s the difference between trying to manoeuvre a remote-controlled car and actually sitting behind the wheel. My DJ skills have vastly improved since my first gig, but I still have a long way to go before I nail it.”

This will be only Whang’s second trip to Hong Kong, the previous one lasting less than 24 hours, which she mostly spent shopping. She has a reputation as a foodie, and says she’s particularly looking forward to visiting Yardbird, which she already follows on Instagram, and likes the sound of Belon, the new SoHo restaurant of Australian chef James Henry.

Whang’s DJ sets lean heavily on the past, albeit parts of the past you might not be familiar with, focusing on sometimes obscure disco and New Wave releases from the 1970s and ’80s. It means that unlike most other DJs, she is under little pressure to listen to new music, and says she actually listens to less of it these days than in her pre-DJ days.

“Most of my set includes records from the past, and there are so many songs out there that I’ve still never heard, so to me any new discovery sounds fresh, even if [the song] was made over 30 years ago. There are some new tracks that are included in my set, but those usually are made or given to me by friends.”

Whang’s mixing-desk selections reflect her background in dance-punk, one of those crossover genres at the border of electronic music and rock that’s difficult to pin down. Emerging in the late ’70s as post-punk bands started to get funky and absorb influences from disco and synthpop, dance-punk underwent a major revival in the early 2000s, with LCD Soundsystem at its helm.

The brainchild of songwriter-musician-producer James Murphy, LCD were critical darlings from the outset for their distinctive blend of funky angular rock, wonky disco and the kind of intelligent, knowing, ironic wit that should be annoying but somehow isn’t. The band released three studio albums between 2005 and 2010 and became instantly recognisable for songs such as 2002’s hilariously deadpan hipster paranoia lament Losing My Edge and 2005’s cheekily allusive Daft Punk Is Playing at My House, as well as the bittersweet nostalgia of 2007’s All My Friends.

Sometimes resembling a conceptual art project as much as a band, LCD theatrically wound up in 2011 with a four-hour valedictory show at Madison Square Garden in New York, memorably recorded in the 2012 documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits.

The emerging dance-punk scene of the early 2000s coalesced around label DFA Records, co-owned by Murphy and, like LCD, strongly associated with New York. Whang, LCD’s most prominent other contributor, who moved to New York from her hometown of Portland, Oregon, in the 1990s, has also been heavily involved across the DFA catalogue: recording and performing with the likes of S*** Robot and Classixx, she also has a long-standing association with electronic producer The Juan MacLean.

“I’m pretty sure all of my collaborators are my friends,” she says. “That’s just how it started. Sometimes I get asked to write and sing vocals from other people, but it always feels awkward to me. With my friends, I already have a relationship. I know who they are and where they come from and we know how to speak each other’s language, which also makes it possible to understand each other without having to say anything. I do have a policy of not meeting my music idols. I prefer them to remain idols, idealised, rather than a normal human.”

She’s going to be doing a lot more work with her friends in the near future, after the previously unthinkable news seeped out late last year that LCD are reforming – like her DJing, something else Whang wasn’t ever supposed to do. The news was followed on Christmas Eve by the release of the band’s first single in five years, the rousing but comically negative Christmas Will Break Your Heart, and the band will headline California’s Coachella Festival in April. According to Whang, though, all the fervent denials that the band would ever reform might not have been as sincere as they seemed.

“There was always a possibility that we would play together again,” she says. “Of course all the pageantry of our last show made it seem like we closed the door completely, but it was always left open a crack. LCD is all-encompassing – there’s not room for much else when it’s active, and we all had other pursuits to follow. But eventually, inevitably, we’d find our way back to making this music again.

“And in reality, even though the band wasn’t together, we were all still a part of each other’s daily lives, making other music with each other. We are currently in the midst of practising to play live and recording new songs in the studio, both of which are works in progress.”

In other words, catch her DJing while you can – she probably won’t have time for a while.

Nancy Whang, Feb 26, 10pm, Kee Club, 6/F 32 Wellington St, Central, HK$200 (advance, www.ticketflap.com), HK$300 (door). Inquiries: 2810 9000