Interview: Simian Mobile Disco

Interview with Simian Mobile Disco

Simian Mobile Disco


Having dropped Unpatterns at the beginning of 2012, Simian Mobile Disco have just followed it up with A Form Of Change. Jas Shaw told us more about the album and EP, shared his “no techno before midnight” rule and explained why their rider’s about as bad as Steve Aoki’s.

Questions and answers

So how long did Unpatterns take to make?

It actually took well over a year, because it was made in amongst doing other things. We wanted to keep DJing, just to make sure we kept our finger on the pulse. Even if you have a few weeks away, you feel like you’re not on top of things anymore. Once a direction unveiled itself, and we could see the shape of the record, we took a big chunk of time off and really laid into it, in the studio.

The good side of locking yourself in a studio for two or three months is that you can go off on one, and you’re not tied to a scene. But it’s also really useful to be able to put a rough mix down and use DJ sets as a testing ground. You get a very honest reaction, because nobody has any idea it’s one of your tunes.

The idea of the direction unveiling itself to you is interesting: do you ever start writing with a specific goal in mind?

In the past, we have tried to do something in a particular style and it always completely fails. Our studio set-up is quite esoteric so it’s actually very difficult to get it to do exactly what you want, which is part of what we love about it. So we normally start off with something in mind and, almost always, something more interesting happens, and then we just follow that up. Regardless of what the start point is, wherever you end up with a track is almost always miles off where you began.

How do you feel you’ve progressed artistically since Temporary Pleasure?

I think we were maybe a bit naïve with Temporary Pleasure. We’ve always been in bands and always been into electronic music, and somehow tried to make the two coexist; trying to use vocals and song structures in electronic stuff. Increasingly, we realised that we didn’t really want to play any of Temporary Pleasure when we were out, so I was doing edits of the instrumental stuff.

I think we’ve got more and more into the psychedelic, looped, very repetitive side of things, and have more of an understanding of that late night aesthetic. Before midnight, techno’s rubbish, but then after midnight all other music’s rubbish. After 4am you don’t want a chorus, and you certainly don’t want a verse. You want simple sounds that evolve and engage.

Have you moved away from using guest vocalists permanently?

No, but I think we would be looking for different things out of it. With Temporary Pleasure, we definitely had “producer” hats on. We’d send a track to someone, they’d send back a vocal, and then we’d get the vocal sounding good, and then just pretty much hack into our own track, to subjugate it around the vocals. When you’re being a producer, you’re trying to get the best out of someone else’s aesthetic. Whereas I think if we had someone else in again, we’d be stronger at asserting our own aesthetic.

Working on Unpatterns, we did actually get a few vocals in from people but they just didn’t work in that particular context. We’re not looking for a hit record; we’re looking for when vocals work like synths, somehow. It’s probably easier to do collaborations off the cuff, when someone’s in town. Because otherwise you’re in that slightly awkward situation where someone sends you something really good but you can’t use it.

Do you have a favorite track on the album?

Erm, that’s quite difficult: “Choose your favorite child.” (Laughs) I really like "A Species Out Of Control" but I find it really difficult to differentiate the process from the track. Even now, I still hear songs and I’m like, “I wish that hi-hat was louder”, y’know? And until you’ve got past that, I don’t think you have any idea what the record is.

You’re definitely moving away from your indie roots, and going deeper and deeper into the dance world with each release. Where do you feel you fit in the current musical climate?

Honestly, I don’t really know. We certainly started off in that indie-crossover world but we moved away from it because it didn’t feel it interesting anymore and we were learning more about underground electronic music. I don’t think we’re accepted by the underground electronic world, and I don’t feel that bad about it. Obviously you always want to be accepted by your peers, but part of me thinks it’s good not to be too much part of a scene.

That’s actually one of the few things that we did spot early doors. We consciously decided not to sign with an electronic or dance label, simply because 90% of those labels have a house sound, like a label identity, and we thought that might become very limiting later, when we wanted to make different things. So while signing with Wichita looked like an odd choice, we felt it made more sense than signing up with a label that perhaps had some currency in terms of credibility in the world that we were making music for.

What acts are impressing you at the moment?

Loads. I’m never at a loss to find new tunes, there’s almost too much good stuff to give it the time it deserves. I suppose what got us into electronic music originally was the Warp stuff, and I feel like Border Community have inherited a lot of their spirit. The records coming out on Border are electronic, and they’re psychedelic, and there’s just something very odd about them.

As much as I love a well-engineered techno record, there is definitely a format for techno that is quite rigid, in terms of the mix, the arrangement, how much compression... Sometimes it can feel a little bit paint-by-numbers. One of the great things about techno and house is that it’s always been forward thinking, and for it to be very rigidly defined seems contrary to the idea of it. A lot of the stuff on Border, when you play it out, it doesn’t necessarily sound “right” and doesn’t necessarily work that well on a dance floor, but we always still play it out, because it’s such ace music. I love all that UK bass stuff on Hessle [Audio] too.

So tell us about A Form Of Change. Were they tracks that were written during the Unpatterns sessions?

Yeah they were. There were absolutely sh*tloads to choose from. The nice thing nowadays is that you can release music more frequently and that completely takes the pressure off. If you’ve got a few extra tracks, you don’t have to cram them on the record and ruin the flow of it.

What was it about this group of tracks in particular that set them apart from the album?

They were nearly all goers for the album, but we took them off because we felt it made the whole record too long, and messed with the pacing of it. I’m not suggesting everyone will listen to the whole record – because that’s a real luxury – but if you are putting an album together I feel like you should at least make one that you would want to listen to it all the way through.

Everyone talks about the album not being a relevant format anymore but actually, in terms of a structure, an album is about the right amount of time to listen to something. And from a creative point of view, it’s really helpful because it take the pressure off each track having to be a “single”.

For me, the singles often become cloying after a while and you gravitate towards the tracks that a major record label might term “filler”. They’re not always the most immediate ones and they’re certainly not radio tracks, but after a while there’s something about them that you really like, something that maybe wasn’t so obvious at the start.

Ok, you’ve been touring all year: what’s been the best gig so far?

We played this festival called FYF, which is really good. It was quite a weird festival for us to be booked on because it’s largely punk music, but there are loads of really good bands that we like. And, increasingly, the weirder, more leftfield festivals are the ones that we want to be booked on.

Also, a couple of weeks ago, we took the live show out to Space [Ibiza]. We’ve been trying to get the live show out there for ages and it’s a total mission, but we finally we got it out there and it was really, really fun.

What’s on your rider? Is it as bad as Steve Aoki’s?

Our live rider is really restrained; it’s just stuff that we need. But I saw our DJ rider recently and it is ludicrous. I think they just copied our live rider. And bear in mind when we play live we take a crew with us, and when we DJ it’s just me and James. So it’s like two bottles of vodka, 48 bottles of beer... James can properly put it away, but it would definitely kill both of us if we got anywhere near polishing all that stuff off. So yeah, our rider’s as bad as Steve Aoki’s.

What’s been your ultimate highlight in the band?

The ultimate highlight... (Laughs) Actually, when we came off from our set at Space, Carl Craig was stood at the side of the stage and he said, “I wanna join your band.” Both of us looked at each other like, “Ok, we’re done.” (Laughs) That is basically the best thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life, ever.

Finally, if you had to recommend one album from 2012, what would it be?

The new Daphni record is so good, but I don’t think it’s out yet. So let’s go with Nathan Fake.