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AU58: Simian Mobile Disco cover feature

July 1, 2009

This was my third cover feature for AU, and my first trip across the water for an interview. Nice guys, the two Jameses.

SMD cover

In the middle of the decade, Simian Mobile Disco were among the pied pipers of electro, leading the sweaty, synthy charge for others to follow in their wake. But now, two years after their debut album, the English duo are back with some big name guest stars in tow – older, wiser and ready to test the water again.

The beauty of modern dance music is that it can be created in such small spaces. By naming themselves with the German word for ‘power station’, Kraftwerk not only evoked the grey industrial landscape of post-war Germany, they also conjured images of primitive equipment being played in an enormous concrete hangar. By contrast, Simian Mobile Disco’s east London studio is no bigger than a child’s bedroom, albeit with a better speaker system. Size isn’t everything, though, and this unassuming little room in a quiet corner of Premises Studios is where SMD – James Ford (the curly one) and James ‘Jas’ Shaw (the blond one) – go to cut themselves off from the world and make sweet, sweet music together. Ahem.

The focal point is a computer monitor surrounded by an intimidatingly large set of speakers, while on the other side is an impressive array of hardware and a sad-looking bass guitar minus two strings. Most intriguing, though, is a handwritten sign by the door that reads “I HATE MUSIC”, accompanied by a cartoon sad face. You don’t have to spend time with Ford and Shaw to know that the sign can only have been born of fleeting frustration, as the duo are two of the busiest, most passionate men in the business.

When we meet for the pre-interview photo shoot, they are bleary eyed and recovering from “a heavy weekend of DJing”. Indeed, since the release of their debut album Attack Decay Sustain Release in 2007, they’ve toured pretty much constantly as DJs and as a live act, released a Fabriclive mix album, put together Sample And Hold, a compilation of remixes of their own tunes, recorded the follow-up studio album – Temporary Pleasure, of which more later – and somehow found the time to work on albums by an array of other people. SMD’s parent band Simian were self-produced, and the pair have gone on to forge a parallel career in production, Ford making his name working on debut albums by Test Icicles, Mystery Jets, Arctic Monkeys and Klaxons. And it hasn’t stopped.

“Even this year alone, me and Jas have been involved in Arctic Monkeys, Klaxons, Little Boots, Florence and the Machine, The Invasion…” says Ford, as we sit down to chat. “There’s nearly six or seven albums, excluding our own, plus touring. It has been pretty nuts, to the point where we’re trying to chill out a bit, really, and enjoy making music ourselves.”

The band’s enthusiasm for music is palpable – variations of the word “exciting” crop up a lot when they discuss their work – and although they insist that they love being busy, the workload can be a problem. Shaw affects a face of mock despair when asked if it has taken its toll over the last couple of years; if they find it tough. “It is actually a little bit, yeah,” says his partner, “because it’s been three or four years of constantness. And then added on top of that, your personal life as well. It is like trying to juggle hot coals. But it’s fine, I think we’re mellowing it out a little bit for the rest of this year and trying to enjoy DJing and gigging and just making tunes.” Which still sounds a bit like work, to be honest.

“It’s sort of difficult,” Shaw adds, “because both of us love DJing and we really like playing live and making our own record, and then production is like a whole other can of worms. You want to produce this band and you want to work with this individual person, and there’s so many different things, and they’re things that we’ve always wanted to do. So it is totally self-inflicted, and I think maybe we have pushed it a little too far, but I definitely don’t want to ‘chill out’.” He chuckles with disdain at the mention of the words. “No-one wants to chill out!”

Ford: “I think the thing that suffers at the end of the day is sleep.”

Ah, ‘Sleep Deprivation’, the first record’s opening song – the meaning is clear. That record is being followed up in August with the superb Temporary Pleasure, an album that should cement the duo’s place at the top table of electronic music. It’s a summer party album with a raft of guest vocalists – Gruff Rhys, Chris Keating of Yeasayer, Beth Ditto, Jamie Lidell, Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, Edinburgh rappers Young Fathers and Telepathe, to give you the full list. The ever-changing vocals take the album in a variety of different directions, and it has its share of electro bangers, but it also feels like a much more substantial, poised and even refined album than the often riotous debut.

“I’d like to hope so, yeah,” says Ford. “I think a large thing that’s dictated how the album has moved and gone is the vocals and the quality of the vocals. Last time, we used the vocals as another instrument, chopping them up and messing around with them, and quite enjoying the mundaneness of the lyrics. But this time, we chose people who have got more songwriting experience.”

On Attack Decay Sustain Release, vocals appeared frequently but only in two instances – ‘I Believe’ and ‘Love’ – were they formed into actual songs. This time around, things have turned out very differently indeed, every guest adding fully-fledged songcraft to the duo’s typically tight productions.

“The original plan was for it to be a largely instrumental record,” Shaw reveals, “and in order to carry that, we knew that harmonically and melodically, it would have to be stronger. We knew that style changes, but good chords and good melodies still carry across whatever you’re doing, and when we sent the stuff away [to vocalists], we changed our minds immediately about it being an instrumental record, just [through] the amount and the quality of the vocal contributions.”

The list of vocalists comes across as a bold statement in itself – they are advertised on the track list as featured artists, and most of them are pretty eye-catching. Names of the stature of Gruff Rhys and Beth Ditto will probably sell records in their own right, but the duo aren’t afraid to use lesser-known names either – Young Fathers are still largely under the radar, while Telepathe and Chris Keating’s Yeasayer are very much niche bands, for the time being at least. While some fans may worry that the number of guests will be at the cost of the album’s cohesion, and cynics might argue that it’s just a publicity stunt to get so many ‘names’ involved, Ford insists that it all hangs together and “sounds like one record” and – with a reservation or two, including Taylor’s track, which Ford and Shaw concede does sound uncannily like his own band Hot Chip – we’d be inclined to agree. It’s certainly not the directionless mess it could have been in lesser hands, anyway. So was there a wishlist of potential guests?

“Not really, no,” says Shaw. “There was a lot of people who we’d met touring the last record, mostly at festivals to be honest, but also just knocking about. We just made loads of tracks and each of those tracks suggested a certain kind of vocal, and that led to us sending them out. We’re pretty bad at writing to spec – I think if we sat down and tried to write a vocal for someone [specific], it just wouldn’t happen.”

“We didn’t cold call anybody,” Ford interjects. “It wasn’t like ‘We need to get this person’, it was more like ‘We’ve got this track and who do we know that could do a good job on it?’. Pretty much everybody on the album, we’ve met at festivals and we’ve got some sort of a relationship with. It wasn’t like getting a big list of guest vocalists in, it was more like, ‘Beth would sound good on this’, or whatever.”

And sound good Ms Ditto does. The Gossip frontwoman appears on ‘Cruel Intentions’, a surprisingly tender track that mashes up elements of Italo disco and house and winds up as one of the highlights of the album. The restraint she shows in her vocals is about as far from ‘Standing In The Way Of Control’ as it’s possible to be, and according to Ford, her willingness – and that of all the other vocalists except for the New York-based Chris Keating and Telepathe – to come to the band’s studio to finish the track enabled them to take her out of her comfort zone.

“She’s known for her very flamboyant, loud personality,” he says, “and we wanted to bring out a softer, more melodic side of her. And that’s much easier to do when she’s in the room – to try a few different ways of doing it, and we really liked it when it wasn’t so belted out. Things like that make it really useful to have people in the studio.”

“With Jamie [Lidell],” adds Shaw, “we loved all the stuff he did with Super_Collider, so we patched him into loads of weird effects so that he couldn’t hear any of the pure sound of his own voice, just the mangled stuff, and it set him off – you can hear him screaming and yelping and all that kind of stuff.”

Sure enough, Lidell’s track, ‘Off The Map’ will come as a surprise to anyone who is only familiar with last year’s Jim, which completed his transformation from the glitchy electro-soul of his Super_Collider days, through the more accessible – but still idiosyncratic – Multiply and into an out-and-out soul man, the old-school arrangements and pure vocals of his latest album bearing comparison to Al Green, Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder. ‘Off The Map’ has him in attack-dog mode, snarling and shrieking over SMD’s thumping, Moroder-tinged techno.

Also finding that he’s not in Kansas any more is Chris Keating of Brooklyn psych merchants Yeasayer. Normally, his bold, strident voice is instantly recognisable, but on first single ‘Audacity Of Huge’, you’d be hard pressed to tell that it is the same person, as he drops quickfire cultural references. “I got that Bob Fosse, I got that Joey Ramone / A bag of Bill Murray, Damien Hirst telephone,” he scats. The song doesn’t make a lot of sense, but my god it sounds good – Keating locks his voice into the syncopated rhythms and becomes a percussion instrument himself, bombarding you with surreal images.

“He sent the vocal back and he said in his email that he went for “a creepy N*SYNC vibe”, which we quite liked the idea of!” recalls Ford. “A horrible, slightly boy band-y vocal mixed with [Aphex Twin’s] ‘Windowlicker’, and then obviously the kind of Italo-y thing that’s in there. Then we made the track around it. It’s quite different from Yeasayer and it’s quite different from us, really, so we were quite pleased that it ended up in this strange sort of no man’s land that we like!”

Shaw adds, “We knew we were going to get back something unusual from him, but when we got it back, it was like, ‘Where the fuck has that come from?!’.”

Shaw and Ford had DJed a bit before forming the indie band Simian, who released two albums before being dropped by Virgin and splitting up in 2003. By that time, the name Simian Mobile Disco had already been coined as an outlet for the band’s DJ gigs and remixes, but it wasn’t long before Shaw and Ford took control, started producing their own tracks as well and things started to happen. It just so happened that by 2007, when Attack Decay Sustain Release came out, hard-hitting party electro was the order of the day, with Justice and the Ed Banger crew, Digitalism, MSTRKRFT and Boys Noize – to name a few – all making their names at just the right time. SMD were no different, as they unwittingly tapped into the electro zeitgeist.

“From the end of Simian,” Ford recalls, “we were getting much more interested in electro-y sort of stuff – you know, like [Mr] Oizo and all that sort of stuff – and that was brewing and you could see a few people start to do things. I think you could feel that an exciting thing was about to happen when we started making tunes, and then it obviously turned into something and lots of other people got onto it. But I think we were just fortunate to be into that sort of sound early on, as much as anything.”

“Yeah, it wasn’t anything considered,” says Shaw. “But you could definitely feel the difference. At the time we were doing Simian, we were definitely swimming against the stream, whereas with SMD, everything just seemed to work a lot more easily. It wasn’t because we thought about it, it just turned out like that.”

Ford: “Yeah, we were quite surprised as well, really. We weren’t even trying to do anything with SMD, we were just DJing for fun really and then it turned into something a lot more than we thought it would. It was quite weird, really.”

During our hour-long conversation, Justice crop up quite a few times, and that isn’t just down to a journalist throwing comparisons at the band. The two production duos’ careers have been curiously intertwined over the last few years, each helping the other along without really meaning to. In 2003, just before Simian split, the then-unknown Parisian pair entered their rework of the Simian song ‘Never Be Alone’ into a remix competition, and didn’t win. Not long after, though, the track – named ‘We Are Your Friends’ and credited to Justice Vs. Simian – took on a life of its own and became one of the defining club tracks of the decade, kick-starting both acts’ production careers in the process. From an SMD point of view, though, how odd that a track they had no involvement in should help their career.

“We definitely thought so,” laughs Shaw. “It’s sort of churlish to not acknowledge the fact that it definitely must have helped. It almost certainly got us some more DJ gigs or something like that. And as much as we’re sick to fuck of it, it is kind of a cool story. It was genuinely something that just got picked up by other DJs – it was total word of mouth. There was no major label crunching away.”

Then, through some bizarre coincidence (which elicits laughter and sincere denials of any conspiracy when mentioned), both acts released their debut albums on exactly the same day. But for all that tracks like ‘Hustler’, ‘Hotdog’, ‘It’s The Beat’ and ‘Tits And Acid’ were massive party anthems that sat happily beside those of Justice and other electro acts in club playlists the world over, SMD are happy to move on from that sound.

“We’re definitely not really listening to or playing out any of that noisy, distorted sound,” says Ford. “But even after we did that, it really developed into its own scene of thrashy dance music. We ended up doing a lot of gigs of those things, where the DJs were playing 40 seconds of each tune and it’s all really compressed and really loud and there’s no dynamics, and we all got really tired of that really quickly. So I suppose, we naturally moved into deeper, more melodic techno and disco and all that kind of stuff.”

“I think that evolution was starting,” Shaw says. “The last track we did off the last record was [the analogue techno track] ‘Sleep Deprivation’. Probably one of the first ones that made it through was [the harsh, clipped] ‘Hustler’, and I think you can hear the difference in attitude between those tracks. I think we were already heading down that road even back then.”

And they aren’t in the slightest bit concerned if their old fans have lost interest and moved in different directions, either.

“I certainly hope they have!” Shaw laughs. “Do you know what I mean? It’s really natural for electronic music for things to have changed. We didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do, but we definitely knew we didn’t want it to be like the last record. Frankly, if the same people who bought the last record don’t buy this one, I can live with that. I think it would’ve been much worse to go, ‘Ooh, we’ve definitely got to get one on there for the old crowd’. I hate all that nonsense.”

“For us,” Ford elaborates, “the quick movement of culture – and especially the recycling of music and especially dance music – we find really exciting and we really like the fact that it’s very forward-moving and everyone’s [chuckles] reaching for the future. I think it’s really exciting and it’s non-precious. That’s kind of why we called the album Temporary Pleasure – it’s a very hedonistic, of-the-moment feeling, rather than trying to be conservative and make a ‘classic’ record.”

You’ve no eye on your ‘legacy’ then? “No!” Shaw exclaims, laughing. “Fuck, I hadn’t thought about that!”

That isn’t to say, though, that electronic and dance acts can’t make legendary, era-defining albums – think of the likes of Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk, who were pioneers perched on the leading edge of electronic music in the Seventies and whose records have not only been immeasurably influential, but hold up even now as sublime pieces of work.

“Yeah, that’s exactly the point!” says Ford, excitedly. “All the records we really like sound really dated. You can tell that it was made in 1983 or 1969, you know? In a way, that makes it more human. You can hear the technology they were using, you can hear the influence they had, and you can really attach to it. Whereas something where you can’t really place where it is and what it is, it’s more of a removed feeling. So hopefully our album will sound like it was made in 2009.”

As we leave to head home, the pair settle down in that dinky little studio as they prepare for an afternoon shut off from the sun, working on extended techno mixes of tracks from the new album. “I HATE MUSIC”? Yeah, right.

WWW.SIMIANMOBILEDISCO.CO.UK

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