INTERVIEW

In the dying moments of Unknown Croatia, Sam Walton took a moonlit stroll with James Ford and Jas Shaw to discuss ‘Whorl’, their new, live, improvised album, recorded in the California desert

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At 3am on a Friday morning, at the end of a mud-spattered pathway fifty yards into a forest in rural Croatia and behind a blinking festival site, the sound of three different DJs, all audibly building up and tearing down their own respective patrons, is drifting across the air at once. Due shortly on one of these stages are James Ford and Jas Shaw – Simian Mobile Disco to their bookers – who will perform a headlining sunrise DJ set in front of hundreds of boggle-eyed Brits abroad.

The pair, once drummer and keys player in middling indie outfit Simian, now five albums into an increasingly well-regarded electronic career and starting to take on the mantle of scene veterans, are ostensibly here to give the kids what they want – filth house, spine-jacking techno and, as Ford has it, to “get fucked up and dick about”. However, SMD’s most recent record suggests that Big Dumb Bangers might no longer their sole output: an hour of gossamer, widescreen daydream music that recalls The Orb and Boards of Canada more than the standard touchstones of Kitsune and Chemical Brothers, ‘Whorl’ is a diaphanous, ethereal and captivating listen – and, for a band still readily associated with big-room techno, a brave one too.

Before the pair embark on their two hours of rave-facilitating music that starts with make-the-face electro and ends with wig-out comedown washes as dawn breaks over inky Adriatic, they took a stroll with me to discuss how exactly they came to make an entire record on just two synths, in three days, in the Californian desert, and what exactly that means for the future of their act.

Sam Walton: ‘Whorl’ is a pretty big step forward from your last album ‘Unpatterns’. What was it about that record that made you want to make ‘Whorl’?

James Ford: It was less about the record actually, and more about the live show. We’d done the live show so much that we almost felt like we were starting to get a bit too good at it, so when we came to the end of a natural cycle, we decided to change it up: we used to run everything through Ableton, which is really powerful and you can do a lot with it, but you could almost do too much, so even before we thought about making any new music we started looking into the idea of how we could do something without a computer, to get rid of all the safety nets and backups. So we threw out the computer, and found this sequencer called the Cirklon, which became the centre of what we were doing, made the decision to have one box of synth modules each, and from there we just decided to make the whole album from what was in these particular boxes, and push the boundaries of this closed system.

Jas Shaw: I think we wanted the live show to be an even more validly live thing from our point of view, just so that we still wanted to do it. I mean, we’ve played a lot of festivals and gigs, and we didn’t want to keep doing them just for the sake of it – we wanted them to be satisfying for us as well as for the crowd.

JF: We basically wanted to feel like we were authentically creating something as opposed to trotting out the same old shit.

SW: How did you end up in the Californian desert?

JF: A friend of ours puts on gigs at a bar called Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown, a town which was originally a live-in movie set for a Roy Rogers film in the 50s but now has weirdly turned into an actual town where normal people live. We got offered a gig there before we’d even starting thinking about making this album, and once we realised our new system was portable enough to not have to stay in our studio in London, suddenly that gig seemed like a good idea to use as a fixed end point, like something to aim for: we had two or three months to build the new system, learn how to use it, write an album, rehearse it and learn to play it, and then we went out there for just under a week and played under the stars.

SW: That must’ve been quite freeing…

JS: It was, but it was also pretty hair-raising at times:  we had to call up the guy who made the sequencer – it’s all made by this one guy in Scotland – to fix particular things that weren’t working, update the software and what have you, and all the while we had this gig booked, so it was a real time pressure and a real deadline. But once we’d settled the system and got into it, the actual music-making was really fun and easy – we were basically messing around and seeing how it worked, and we took the best instances of each performance out in the desert and assembled them into the album.

SW: How are you getting on with the live show now with all the new gear?

JF: I think the thing we like about it is that because we wrote the album on exactly the same equipment as the stuff we’re using when we’re touring, the live show becomes an instance of the record rather than a replica – in the same way that a normal drums-bass-guitar band might essentially be a live act, and then their record is just a capturing of that live experience. But because nothing is saveable or repeatable in our live show, each performance evokes the record’s sense of being a one-off piece of music, the record’s liveness.

JS: Yeah that’s definitely a nice thing about this whole process – the moment you go to a specific place and record at a specific time, you’re documenting a one-off event, rather than making a definitive repeatable statement. Often, when you watch someone’s live show, you get the feeling you’re eating a McDonalds – it’s the same every time, everywhere you go, and totally franchised. But with our new live set-up, there’s a definite relinquishing of control. I mean, we’ve always been at the whim of weird machines – we’ve always used modular synths, and some we’ve got at the moment are same one that we made ‘Attack Decay Sustain Release’ on – but now there’s nothing to keep us safe.

SW: ‘Whorl’ feels like your most home-listening friendly record yet. How did you imagine it being heard?

JF: Well we played the whole album at the Union Chapel the other day and that was a great setting. Obviously we’re used to playing in far more clubby environments, but at the Union Chapel everyone was sitting down, and we could play a lot more spaced out and mellow stuff. I think the droney stuff worked the best, and in fact when we first started making Whorl, we were thinking there probably weren’t going to be any beats at all, and we were going to go further left!

SW: Is that ethereal side an indication of your general direction? With ‘Whorl’, have you given up on club-centred music?

JF: Well we still have our Delicacies label, which is there for putting out club music, so we can make bangers for that label if the urge takes us. At this point though we’re literally doing what we want, which is lovely – we’ve definitely got more ‘Whorl’-style stuff in us, and the thing about this new system is that it’s compact but also super-flexible, and it feels like we’ve only just really scratched the surface of what it can do. Every time we play, we learn something new about the way it works, and in that respect it’s really exciting.

SW: And what about the DJing side of things? How do you put together a set for a 3:30am festival slot when your headspace has been in cloudy/ambient mode while making the new record?

JF: Well despite making ‘Whorl’, we still like bumpy house music! And although the live stuff is more hard work, and more rewarding, the DJing is kind of more fun because it’s just a laugh and you get to get fucked up and dick about. The exciting part about DJing is adapting and generating a give and take between you and the audience, about finding a good balance and treading a line in a way that’s exciting, and that liveness is there in Whorl too. But if the process of doing Whorl and getting a bit more ethereal has taught us anything, it’s having the confidence to let a DJ set dip. When you first start out DJing, you think you gotta keep it going all the time, but having the confidence to let it dip so far that people start to wonder what the fuck’s going on is all part of developing a trust and relationship with a crowd.

JS: Plus, when we DJ we always just go back to back, so there can never be any pre-planning, because I don’t know what James is going to play next. If I did, I think DJing would be a deeply boring thing to do, because while the record’s playing there’s not much to do. You can fiddle around with the effects, but that all feels all a bit like crèche for DJs – it’s what keeps them occupied while they’re waiting for the next mix. In fact I think a really good feature on the next Pioneer would be if all those effects things only went to the monitor! But DJing is still loads of fun – a really good DJ set does feel like a collision of lots of wonderful things – where you feel like you’re taking tips off the crowd for where to go.

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