Photography by Elinor Jones
PROUD TO KNOW WHAT THE HELL THEY ARE DOING
There’s the sharp tang of cloudy, super-strength cider as the tantalising scent of grilled meat wafts through the air and happy families enjoy the surprising, balmy, summer delights of early August. On blankets and picnic hampers, exhausted by the day’s sunny excerptions, kids are slumped and sleeping, but the ones still fighting bedtime, they stare wide-eyed and open mouthed into the smoke and shadows as two hunched figures manically grapple with a machine that has a thousand red, angry eyes.
Back in 2008, Simian Mobile Disco played the ever-pleasant Summer Sundae festival armed with the dark, danceable live show that’s been their hallmark for the last four years. At that point James Ford and Jas Shaw were busy inducing robotic nightmares within the innocent festival youth and doing a noisy electronic line convincing indie kids that dance didn’t have to mean Creamfields or Ministry of Sound. But where the all-consuming ‘We Are You Friends’ grabbed mainstream imagination, it was the success of debut album ‘Attack Decay Sustain Release’ that marked the crystallisation of Simian Mobile Disco’s crossover acceptance.
“We were playing electronic stuff in indie clubs simply because we couldn’t get a gig in techno clubs,” explains Jas. “We were just being belligerent and then it all kicked off and it happened to fit with what we liked and were playing. It wasn’t us being smart, it was total luck.”
Music history is littered with the “right time, right place” anecdote, but where so many are happy to accept and exploit that as their only qualifying contribution, Simian Mobile Disco have never been prepared to stand still and wait for the circus to come their way. After splintering from their former band, Simian, Jas and James quickly built a formidable reputation as producers with SMD, another spoke in a seemingly endless cycle of touring, writing, recording, DJing and producing.
Thrown in with the electro class of 2007, they quickly hit the forefront of the crossover wave that the likes of Erol Alkan and 2ManyDJs et al. had been fostering since early 2000. Buoyed by the collective momentum of LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, Digitalism, Justice and MSTRKRFT, it was a period that changed the wider music landscape and one James looks back on with mixed emotions.
“I enjoyed that period of time but I don’t have any nostalgia for it at all. We did get lumped in with a lot of bands and some of it went on to be ok, but some, especially when it crossed over to America and they took those rock aspects and ran with it, the end result of that is Skrillex. In a way, we’ve spent these last few years trying to get as far away from that as possible. We don’t really play electro and haven’t done for years and it’s been a struggle for us to try and redefine ourselves against that. It was our kick-start but it’s not something we ever want to rehash.”
Determined not to take a backwards step, follow up album ‘Temporary Pleasures’ seemed to do just that with its vocal-heavy tracklisting neither appeasing the old fans or appealing to the new breed. Jas and James reaction was ‘Delicacies’ – their label and club night project providing a firm commitment to a year of no vocals and heavy, minimal techno. After the tribulations of the second album, ‘Delicacies’ took SMD back to the context of the club and allowed them to re-focus for new album ‘Unpatterns’ with a brutal honesty.
“We’ve changed pretty steadily and been led by what’s interested us,” says Jas. “It’s probably been bad for our popularity and steadily pissed off everybody who liked us at the start, but then all the people who didn’t like us at the start had written us off anyway. We made ‘Hustler’ and then we’d made all this mean, minimal techno music and people would still be like, ‘Na, they make pop music’.”
“I think we’ve dug our own hole in that respect,” says James. “We’re quite keen to not repeat ourselves, but on the flipside of that is that people often don’t know what they’re going to get. ‘Delicacies’ was a label for us to put out more techno stuff, but I suppose it was a reaction, in our heads, against the amount of vocals we used on ‘Temporary Pleasure’.”
“Before ‘Temporary Pleasure’ we met loads of people on the road and got loads of emails from people in bands we really liked,” Jas continues, “then we sent them instrumentals thinking no-one would get back to us but they all did. So we had all these good vocals in these song structures, because they were in bands, so we thought we’d put the vocals in the centre and rearrange the music we created around it, which was quite naive. It would have been smarter, and probably the decision we would have made if we’d sat back on it for a few months, to mix up the instrumental balance on the album a bit more and put some vocal tracks on an EP.”
It’s a lesson learned and one that fundamentally changed the way they approached the writing and recording process for ‘Unpatterns’. Cutting down on production commitments and scaling down the frequency of their DJ sets enabled them to make the time to record instead of trying to find it in a hectic schedule. According to James, the decision was ultimately one of the best they’ve made.
“I feel the most confident and happy with it of all the albums we’ve done,” he enthuses. “I definitely feel it’s the most representative of what we are. We decided to just block out a good few months here and there, in chunks, so that we could properly concentrate on it. The way we work is to create a lot then pick the best bits. Often that’s coloured by the excitement of just making something, but if you leave it and come back and still like it, then hopefully it’s a sign it’s probably alright,” he laughs.
“We probably could have made an entirely different record from the tracks we didn’t choose, but we try to choose tracks that work as a whole. I think we felt that on ‘Temporary Pleasure’ we made some mistakes in the tracks we chose for that. We were very careful this time to try and get that balance right.”
“We’re never really looking for perfection,” Jas picks up, “but for this record we spent longer on it largely because we felt we could have chosen different tracks on ‘Temporary Pleasure’ and we rushed it. We were doing production for loads of other bands and we’d spread ourselves quite thin and we had this idea we could fit SMD sessions in between everything else and we’d be fine. I think we both felt the record suffered for it. There’s definitely a danger you can spend too long on something and over-think it, but having a period to choose the tracks, to finish everything off, it does give you a measure of objectivity. We make music very quickly and having that time to hold back is important.
I’m the most happy with this record than I’ve been with any but I’m already looking at it and eager to go forwards. Certainly we’ve learnt stuff on every album and if you can’t admit you were wrong, you’ve probably already done your best record.”
Their excitement around the new album is palpable. Energised by the timescale and hardened by previous mistakes, there’s a confidence and conviction around ‘Unpatterns’. It leads us onto whether the modified approach to creating the album extended beyond tweaking a few schedules.
“Weirdly, the instruments we’ve been using have been pretty much the same throughout,” James explains. “On the first album we ended up getting a live show together and that ended up forming the basis of the way we write. Generally, it’s pretty much all old machinery ticking along at the same time, but we’ll record onto a computer or onto a tape. We’re not analogue snobs; it’s just the way we’ve got used to doing it. Loads of brilliant records are made on laptops, but it’s the process and something about being limited by a particular machine and only being able to do certain things and program certain ways. That physicality and that limitation are helpful because I think you can get lost in a blizzard of choice.”
The clean, brutal hallmark of SMD’s tech-heavy output often belies the trial and error approach in the studio. Advocates of both analogue and digital recording, James and Jas aren’t afraid to invest and investigate to get what they need.
“The process for us is we plug in machines and make them talk to each other and fuck around with them for a while until something interesting happens,” James laughs, “so yeah, there’s plenty of soldering irons and half-built bits floating around…lots of old effects pedals and eBay nonsense. We’re actually trying to scale it down a little bit really, because there’s only so much stuff you really need. Some people can get so obsessed with the gear that they actually stop making music.”
“People have referred to us as nerds and for a while I was really touchy about it,” Jas adds. “The word nerd or geek contains in it the idea that knowing about something is bad. If you actually know what you’re doing, it’s a bad thing. I think it’s a really dangerous idea in culture, a really stupid idea in culture that the sense of caring about something enough to learn more about it can be negative. A lot of the synth stuff we do, you need to learn about it. That idea that you vilify someone who dares to learn something more than other people just seems intrinsically shit. Broadly speaking, we aren’t cool guys and don’t mug up for the camera, so in that sense, it’s absolutely true.”
Finding the balance between analogue and digital is a battle for any DJ to shed the perception that they’re only as good as their laptop or elaborate Guetta-esque mouse click. Committed to keeping a live connection between studio and set, Jas and James aren’t afraid to keep challenging themselves.
“We wanted a live show that represented how we made the music, so it didn’t make sense to go out with a choir and a live drummer,” James explains. “We wanted it to be a live, live show that could evolve and change and things could go wrong. That’s what makes it human. I don’t like the ‘press spacebar, hands in the air’ shows and this is what one of the challenges with ‘Unpatterns’ is going to be. It’s going to be a lot harder for us to make it translate as a live show.”
“It totally wins my respect,” Jas affirms. “All you want from a live show is for it to be a unique thing that you’ve participated in. There’s something a bit wrong about pre-programming that and I think you can get bored of it quite quickly because those are the moments you strive for and the ones you work towards making happen.
“We’re asked quite a lot whether we miss playing in Simian. It’s weird because it sounds like nonsense but our current live set up is more live than the band set up was. Watching a great live performance is a wonderful thing but there’s a rigidity to it. The variation you get in a DJ set to have to adapt to your surroundings is really appealing and the sense that some nights you’re going to have no idea what songs you’re going to play.”
Whether they’re DJs with a producer’s nous, a band with a DJ’s free spirit or producers with the conviction to command their vision through, however you spin Simian Mobile Disco’s sensibility, they’re a victory for trial and error. The honesty and modesty is a welcome bonus.
By Reef Younis
Originally published in issue 37 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. April 2012