Interview: Simian Mobile Disco

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 05.29.12 in Interviews

If you’re making a list of side projects that have gone on to become more successful than their original lineups, save room at the top for Simian Mobile Disco. The duo’s James Ford and Jas Shaw used to play in the British indie quartet Simian, appending the droll “Mobile Disco” as a differentiator for their singles, mixtapes and DJ appearances; after the band’s demise, in 2006, Ford and Shaw turned their attentions wholeheartedly to electronic dance music, and Simian Mobile Disco became their primary gig.

Since then, they’ve become fixtures on the indie scene, compared to acts like Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem, but they’ve also kept a foothold in a more purist corner of the dance music world, DJing techno to crowds in Ibiza and releasing a string of forbidding, instrumental club tracks on their own Delicacies label, which they eventually compiled on an eponymous album. While the duo might best be known for vocal hits like “Hustler” and “Cruel Intentions,” projects like the 2010 mix CD Is Fixed have taken SMD far in the other direction, delving into dark, sweaty machine funk from Bam Bam, Paul Woolford and Clement Meyer. (Full disclosure: they also included one of my own tracks on Is Fixed.)

On their new album, Unpatterns, the duo leaves the basement rave in favor of a warmer, more welcoming sound. A few of the vocal tracks, like “Put Your Hands Together” and “Seraphim,” find common cause with the acid-house revivalism that’s overtaken the dance music scene in 2012; others, like “Cerulean” and “Interference,” wrestle with adapting classic analog gear to more idiosyncratic ends. It’s a surprising record, deeper and more focused than anything they’ve done before. I spoke with Ford and Shaw about making the album, their mercurial tastes, and why mainstream electronic dance music reminds them of Mrs. Doubtfire.

The new album is great — it’s very consistent, sonically, but there’s a lot of stylistic range. What were your intentions going into it?

James Ford: We often don’t really have that many intentions, if you know what I mean. We tend to sort of jam, really, and see what happens. We plug in the machines and play around, and not try and think too much about it. Obviously, in the back of our heads, we knew we wanted to make something a bit more psychedelic and deeper, try and find a balance somewhere in between the Delicacies stuff and some of our older stuff. I suppose we were just messing around to see what would happen.

I read that you recorded it in about three months?

Jas Shaw: It was actually over a longer period than that. We had probably been working on it for over a year, on and off. Over the last summer, we got almost nothing done, because we were flat-out gigging. Toward the end, we had sessions where we’d try things out, and then we locked off three months at the very end to really nail it down. But as James said, because we didn’t go in — we almost never go in — with any particular preconceptions as to what the music’s going to end up like. There’s often quite a long period at the front where we’re just trying out lots of things, which is really fun, but also, because you don’t know what you’re doing, it means you explore lots of stuff which doesn’t necessarily work. So there was definitely a long period of us just trying lots and lots of different things, trying to find out what fit.

Ford: Once we get something going, we can finish it off fairly quickly. So we tend to do quite a lot of tracks, and then, for this record especially, we went through and lived with the tracks for a while, and then picked a tracklist with the ones that we thought fit together with a similar sort of mood or feel or aesthetic. There were ones that were a bit off-piste, a bit more left, a bit more right, if you know what I mean, and these were the ones that seemed to hang together in the middle.

Who were the vocalists you worked with? I didn’t see them credited.

Ford: We didn’t work with anyone, really. I suppose it was a reaction to the amount of vocals we’ve used in the past, especially on Temporary Pleasure. We decided we didn’t really want it to be a featured-vocals type record. So all the vocals are samples. The “Seraphim” one is from this woman called Cilla Black, who I don’t know if she’s famous anywhere apart from England. She’s actually most famous for being on TV — she put out a program called Blind Date, which was kind of a dating show, but she had this amazing, Scott Walkerish, sort of ’60s, quite epic singing career. That sample is from one of her songs. The only one that actually you would have heard of was Jamie Lidell, and that was on the track “Put Your Hands Together.” We did a track with him on Temporary Pleasure, and we actually just went back into the same session and dug out [his vocals]. Because he’s so amazingly talented, he just improvised for a couple of hours, so there’s loads and loads of material we didn’t use on the previous track. We just went back and recycled it, basically!

I like how the album ties in with the current revival of classic house and techno, but it sounds totally different from everything else out there.

Ford: That’s a really good compliment. We really didn’t want to sound retro. And especially, using a lot of the original machines that have been used in the past, it’s a trap you can fall into quite easily. We were really careful to try to make a modern-sounding record at the same time.

You have mentioned early Warp as an influence.

Shaw: For us, Warp records were like a label that — Aphex Twin was probably the most famous of the bunch, but I was into guitars, really indie stuff, then got into Aphex Twin, and then finding out what label he was on, and from that you get into all that stuff. You sort of go back to Detroit and Chicago from that label. Around that time, almost everything that they put out was really, really good. It got to the point where I’d go and I’d listen to everything they put out, in the shop, and even if I didn’t like it, I’d probably buy it, because I’d think, I probably just don’t get it yet. And I’d take it home and listen to it, and nine times out of 10, after a while, I’d be like, “Yep, this is ace.”

Ford: Weirdly, when we were getting Simian, the really old band, together, Simon, the singer, came, and we met up with him, and he mentioned Autechre, and we were like, “Oh, wow, that’s the link between his folky stuff and ours. Now we can do something.” That sort of early techno, 808 State and all that kind of stuff, that’s always been our bedrock. British techno.

It’s such a great moment for British techno right now.

Shaw: The interesting thing about the U.K. scene at the moment is that all of these absurd subdivisions are disappearing. Obviously you’ve got the whangy, nasty dubstep stuff, which has gone off on its own route, but as James said, you can kind of lump it all together under “bass music.” There’s a really nice cross-pollination with bass music and techno, and it seems to be informed by a lot of that early dubstep stuff, like Hyperdub, and the very early stuff that came out on Rephlex. So it links back to more avant-garde music. Dubstep in its broader term obviously includes all that nasty [makes honking sounds] nonsense as well.

Ford: Which is now all “EDM,” apparently!

Shaw: What’s really nice is that for a while, there were all these insane subdivisions, which were kind of arbitrary, really. And at the moment, there’s just a really nice blurring going on.

I hadn’t listened to Attack Decay Sustain Release in a long time, and I had forgotten how deeply analog it is; almost purist, in a way. I feel like people — critics, fans — have never really gotten that aspect of Simian Mobile Disco.

Ford: Weirdly, there’s a track called “Wooden” on that first album — we were just putting together the new live show, and we went back and dug out some of the parts to start playing that track, and did a new version of it, and it actually sounds totally like one of our new tracks. It was quite odd. It made me realize that we were actually doing similar stuff then, to now. I suppose tracks like “Hustler” with cheesy vocals kind of overshadow that stuff.

Or the Justice remix of Simian’s “Never Be Alone,” which set your career on a sort of bizarre trajectory.

Shaw: There was a whole scene that we kind of got lumped into — the new rave thing and all that stuff — which on one level was kind of fun, but you’re putting together, like, LCD Soundsystem and Digitalism. It didn’t fit at all. To a certain extent, I think that’s true of most bands. Most bands are marked by their singles, and often, album tracks are overlooked. It’s just the nature of things.

Ford: I think also, though, to a certain extent, we have been trying to pull away from that for the last few years. We did get lumped into that, which was really good and we had a lot of fun doing it, but since then, especially with what’s happened to dance music in America going towards your Deadmau5 and your Skrillex and stuff, we were just like, “Hang on, no, no, let’s go the other way.” We find it quite tricky to tread our own path and not get sucked into that world.

Your career has moved a bit like a pendulum, in a way, from the sound of the first album to the poppier Temporary Pleasures, then toward some quite forbidding techno with Delicacies, and now back towards something warmer and a little more welcoming. I know that you don’t consider Delicacies to be a “proper” LP, however.

Shaw: I’m coming around to that being an album now, actually. We always were like, “It’s definitely not an album.” And then, speaking to a few people interviewing us, I’m like, “Yeah, you’re right, it is an album.” But honestly, it’s just a reaction. I think, in the back of your head, as a musician, you’re always conscious of not wanting to repeat yourself. And the thing that’s most recent in your head is the most previous album. So you’re like, “OK, we can do anything we like, but not that.” One of the things we’re always conscious of is keeping moving forwards. I like to think it’s not just us swinging between two points, but certainly, we have kept moving in terms of our sound. I think we’ve probably pissed people off and lost fans, because we’ve been so — not massively diverse, but reasonably diverse in terms of our sound. But I feel like, if you carry on doing the same thing, you become boring.

Ford: It’s also because we don’t really have a plan! We sort of just do what we are excited about doing at that particular point in time. And an album really is a snapshot of our mental process, or any band’s mental process, within a six-month period, or whatever. That’s literally been our progression during our journey through electronic music. There’s no other way to explain it. Like Jas says, if we’d had an overarching strategy for world domination, maybe we should have got one sound and stuck to our guns a bit more.

Shaw: But we’d be killing it in the States if we were still pumping that “Hustler” sound. We’d be rinsing is right now!

How has the development of the so-called “EDM” scene in the States affected you guys? You play a lot of festivals, so you must be in contact with a lot of that.

Shaw: It’s horrible.

Ford: Yeah! You know, we’ve seen it coming for a while. Obviously, having been associated with some of the acts that are big in that world, we’ve done some of those gigs, like Ultra [Music Fest]. I think that’s maybe quite a large contributing factor to the pendulum, to be honest. We were like, “Hang on, do we want to be part of this, or do we not?” And we don’t, really.

Shaw: I think that EDM has actually been pretty good for the States. I feel like interesting dance music, and I classify that as the subset outside EDM, has become stronger in opposition. People have been like, “You know what, I don’t want to be a part of that, and we can do our own party,” and I feel like those parties have become more interesting. Everybody’s kind of moaning about it, but it’s always been there! There’s always been popular bad music. I feel like good parties in the States are on the up. Although they’re probably horrifically outstripped by, like, EDM stuff, that’s fine. We don’t have to go to those parties. They can exist without us worrying about them.

There’s a strange misconception that just because music is made with computers, it all has to exist within the same scene.

Shaw: It was the same with the dubstep thing. Because you had Skrillex and stuff that came out on Hyperdub and Hessle Audio both being called dubstep, somehow they had to be the same thing. Once you remove that term, and you call one thing “pop” and you call one thing “bass,” that’s fine. You’re not worried any more.

Ford: Which is why the term “EDM” is probably a really positive thing. It polarizes it, doesn’t it?

Shaw: It’s like when you see a movie and it’s got Robin Williams in it, and you know you shouldn’t go to it. It’s like a warning!

What happened to the Delicacies label? Is that done?

Ford: No, it’s going to continue. We’ve got some stuff we want to put out on it that we made at the same time as this last record, and we want to continue doing new stuff for it. We did a swap with Psycatron where they mixed one of our tracks and we mixed one of theirs, and it came out on Delicacies as a package. We want to keep doing that with different people, basically.

Any plans to work with Beth Ditto on a follow-up to the EP you did together last year?

Shaw: We’d love to do it again. We were hoping to do some more recording with her, but we needed to finish our record and she’s just done one. I think that, time permitting, maybe we’ll get back into that towards the end of the year. She’s amazing and we love her, but she’s really hard to pin down for.

Ford: She’s flaky, basically! She’s so much fun, though. Literally, that EP was one of the most fun recording experiences ever, and we’d love to do it again.

Did you have the songs done when she came in, or was it all done with her?

Ford: No, we did the whole thing with her in, like, five days or something. It just clicked together really easily. She’s a great writer, and she’s really easy to work with, and a lovely, funny person. Any opportunity to do it again, we’ll definitely get in there.

James, are you continuing to do much production for other people, or is Simian Mobile Disco taking all your time?

Ford: At this point, we kind of decided to just focus on this for a bit. I’m at the point where I just want to do one thing at a time. I went through a period a few years back where I was trying to juggle too many things, and it got a bit too much. I do plan to do production again, writing for other people, but at this point I’m just going to do SMD for a while before I move onto the next thing — essentially, do it in chunks as opposed to trying to do 20 things at once.