Simian Mobile Disco - Subservient to Technology [Interview]

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There is something different about James Ford and Jas Shaw, the two masterminds behind the bold electronic music duo Simian Mobile Disco. After four albums, you might think this music game was old hat. They have gone around the world and around and around they continue to go, but when I spent some quality time with them before their 'Whorl' stop at Mezzanine in San Francisco, these men were just as excited and enamored by the music as if they had just played their first show.

These two men from London have had plenty of hits. They have produced with top billed acts such as Florence and the Machine, Arctic Monkeys and Peaches. Yet, they are not trying for hits or be the highest paid producer, my impression is they just want to play music and challenging music at that. Evolving out of an early four-piece band named Simian (you'll know them of Justice vs Simian 'We Are Your Friends' acclaim), they turned into a DJ duo that quickly sped to production, and it's hard to believe it's only been since 2005 that they have been letting their synths speak in their current Simian Mobile Disco iteration. Facts are facts though and here we are today with Simian Mobile Disco stronger than ever.

'Whorl' is a bold undertaking that is the culmination of Simian Mobile Disco's intention to become a true live electronic act with no computer, just analog gear and their wits about them to put on a show. They made their studio portable, they took it out to Pioneertown in Joshua tree, and in April of 2014 they live recorded their latest masterpiece. It has made huge critical waves, and the fans at all the shows are raving all over social media that this thing called Simian Mobile Disco is a must see thing.

Somehow, someway I was lucky enough to pick these brilliant, almost mad scientist musician's brains. Here is what we talked about.

So the Whorl tour! Has it lived up to be everything you hoped and imagined it could be? It being a live show, has it had its challenges along the way?

James Ford: It never goes one hundred percent right, but that’s kind of what we’ve set ourselves as a task. There’s always something that kind of can go a little awry, but then there’s also equally stuff that goes better than you expected it to or something new that happens, and you go like, “Oh that was good! You should try and do that again!” It’s a living breathing organism.

We’ve catered it a little bit. We’re playing one or two old ones with this gear, but we’re not really playing Hustler or anything that’s got vocals because we literally don’t have any way to play vocals at this point. We don’t have a sampler, there’s no computer, it’s all just been generated by this analog machinery.

People have been super receptive. We’ve had really great responses and people have been really into it, so it’s been great!.

Jas Shaw: Technologywise, we’ve shifted to say 1979?

James Ford: Yeah! Haha!

Jas Shaw: That’s about the limit of our technical abilities currently. We might dabble with the early 80’s, but let’s just get comfortable with where we are before we move on to that…

The reception to Whorl thus far appears that it has been extremely well received, how do you feel about it?

James Ford: For us, it’s probably the most fun album we’ve ever made, in terms of the actual recording process. Just because we set up this whole idea of it where we built this limited system with the equipment and then realized that we didn’t have to be in London to do it because it was portable, so we went out to the desert in Joshua tree and did it.

That whole experience of the quite limited timeframe and limited set of gear and we were out in this amazing place and recorded it in the open air under the stars. It was a pretty special experience, we really enjoyed making it. So actually, at this stage of making any record of ours or for anybody else, you just don’t want to listen to the record, but actually when I listen to it, it just reminds me of a really good time I had in the desert, you know what I mean? We’re still pretty pleased with this record, it feels like a pretty honest representation of us at this point.

Why did you choose Joshua tree as the location to perform and live record Whorl? Did the desert just speak to you?

Jas Shaw: It does, obviously! Honestly we got offered a gig and it fell around about the time we were planning to finish the record. Already we figured out the system was going to be portable, so the live show would be a perfect representation of the studio. So, it just seemed like a gig out in a biker bar in the desert around about the time that we ought to be wrapping the record. It just seemed like luck that we ought to accept.

Honestly it could have been anywhere but not our studio. We actually considered doing it in London, like finding a weird little warehouse space, but the desert is much more adventurous, isn’t it? So yeah, you know, the desert spoke to us.

James Ford: I’ve been out there a few times with other bands, Arctic Monkeys, that I’ve worked with and there is an amazing studio out there, I recorded a band called Crocodiles out there, and Arctics and a few different things, and I personally have a real love affair with that part of the world. The whole scenery, there’s just something odd about that place and it feels pretty magical there. We’re not really hippies but that’s probably as near as we get.

Like Jas says, the opportunity to go out there was a really fortunate thing to happen at that point in time. Also, in a really nice way, it framed the whole idea. We really made that music with that gig in mind, so we were in our heads making electronic music for the desert, and that changed the kind of music we made, colored the whole project.

Must have been refreshing coming from England!

James Ford: Exactly. For us, it’s exotic, exciting. It’s different. We always try and push ourselves to do something different on each record and this seemed like a good next step for us.

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What are your favorite tracks on the album? Or should we just play it through beginning to end?

Jas Shaw: I do think it’s an all the way through thing, if possible. I know people have busy lives and despite the fact that I’ll say, “Oh, you should listen to the record all the way through,” half the time I don’t, so it’s slightly unfair. Honestly, I do feel partly because it was all recorded in the same space in a short period of time, I do feel it’s pretty cohesive, and it’s sort of designed to be a bit of a reflection of a road trip. I do think it’s better all the way through.

James Ford: I think the attention span thing was an interesting thing because as we recorded it live, it is quite slow paced and there’s lots of space in it, and it doesn’t jump up and grab you every few minutes like a lot of pop music does. I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate that. I think sometimes when you’re running around you want instant gratification stuff, and I don’t think this album does that very much, but that’s kind of what we wanted it to do. It’s meant to be more languid and spacious.

It seems to me, as a long time fan, this is a rather significant moment, a culmination of sorts for Simian Mobile Disco to reach an apex of a totally live electronic show. Is Simian Mobile Disco where you want it to be right now? Is this what you always intended? Or are you constantly evolving?

James Ford: Yeah, 100%. It definitely feels like it’s a good honest reflection of what we are at this point in time and what we’re into. I feel like we’re pushing ourselves, with the live show and the technical side of it, as far as we can to do something new at this point. I’m excited to play live tonight. I like that, it doesn’t feel like we’re treading water. I’m proud of it.

Jas Shaw: I’m the same. The live show, we constantly refined it, make it be more and more live, more and more room for us to go out on a limb and play around with different ways, but it had reached a certain point where we needed to just scrap it and reenvision the whole thing. It was a stressful thing because you sort of forget that we’ve been touring for years with that and we got pretty good at it, so to throw away all of that experience and muscle memory was risky. There were a few points where we were like, “This isn’t going to work…” It was learning a completely new sequencer, basically learning a completely new way of working, but it’s working and I can feel as we go through tours, we get more comfortable with it, more proficient and more daring and doing other things and that’s what we wanted. We wanted it to be a custom instrument that we made, that you learn, you get good at.

I absolutely love Delicacies, is this something you are continuing?

James Ford: Definitely!

Also, do you actually eat and sample all of the delicacies you title all of the tracks?

James Ford: Definitely not! The Delicacies thing is apart of how ‘Whorl’ came about. Delicacies is now a label that we are running, mainly to put out our more kind of club facing tunes and collaborations we’ve done with other club DJs. That’s definitely going to still keep going on and that’s probably where we will go next, after this album, do more straight up club stuff and a few more collaborations in that world.

In a way it was good to know that was there, and it made us less worried about making sure there were club bangers on this album because it frees us up to do whatever we want to do. The two things are going to run in tandem really.

And in answer to the second part of your thing, do we eat everything… I don’t know, I would say Jas is more adventurous than me? I used to be vegetarian so I’m squeamish about eating monkey brains and shit like that. Definitely when you go to like Asia and faraway places, promoters see that maybe we’ve got this Delicacies thing going, and they go, “I’ve got just got a great surprise for you guys! I’m going to take you and you can eat some lung! You’re going to really love it!” and we’re like, “Oh no…” Now we’ve got to eat some strange rotten egg...

Jas Shaw: Usually it’s the next day as well, when we’re pretty hung over, and we’re looking at it and they are looking at you expectantly, like, “Yeah? You like it? You’re welcome!” “Ahhhh, thanks…”

Is there a Simian Mobile Disco philosophy? Do you have a set of principles that have guided you from the beginning to become what you are today?

Jas Shaw: I think our general rules are: don’t repeat yourself, no acoustic instruments.

James Ford: Yeah, that’s true, that’s been totally true. I think whenever we try to do something specific, we learned early on we were quite bad at trying to do something specific. We just now don't bother thinking about what we are doing, just mess around until something good happens, and then go with that. That maybe explains, a little bit, why it doesn’t seem we’ve had a very good career strategy because we really don’t care. We don’t have a big plan, we don’t have a long term goal.

Jas Shaw: More or less, it’s the synths that make the decisions. We’re just sort of curating.

James Ford: Subservient.

Jas Shaw: Absolutely subservient to synths.

James Ford: Subservient to technology is probably a good three word description.

Who are some of your inspirations?

James Ford: Loads of stuff. The thing I like about DJing, it’s an obligation to keep on top of music, new music, old music. There’s always new stuff coming through the door. In our world of techno and house, there’s always great stuff coming out every week. Then we’ve always been huge fans of, I suppose the guys who use this kind of equipment back in the day, you’d have to build it yourself, no one else was doing it. Raymond Scott, Suzanne Ciani, loads and loads of people like that who went out on a limb just doing stuff on their own. Morton Subotnik and the list is kind of endless with those kind of guys.

We always say our first musical bonding experience was getting into early Warp recordings, Autechre, Aphex, LFO. Through that you then go back discovering all the great stuff that comes from here, Chicago and Detroit and all that good stuff. Men with rudimentary machines just trying to make some weird music. Then obviously there is loads of great modern guys as well at the minute, obviously we’re big fans of like James Holden, Luke Abbott, and the Kraut rock stuff.

Jas Shaw: Strangely, thinking about it, if you were making electronic music before 1970, you had to make your gear yourself. To a certain extent, that’s where we’ve gone back to. We’ve always used modular stuff, but it really was, we’re going to make an instrument and see what you can do with it. All of those guys were doing Musique concrète, if they wanted an oscillator, or if they wanted reverb, they had to go and make one, or devise one if they wanted this sound. I think it’s that spirit of DIY and not necessarily using off the peg stuff, there’s something kind of appealing about it on an intrinsically inventive level.

James Ford: Funny enough, you’re talking about the name, we actually got the name Simian from a band called The Silver Apples, and The Silver Apples were an American ‘60’s psych band. Basically was just a drummer, this guy built this strange drum machine in the ‘60’s, and it was just a bunch of oscillators and means to turn them on and off, and his machine was called the Simian, and that’s where we got the name from for the band.

Jas Shaw: He had no sequencer, no real control over the oscillators apart from a coarse tuning nob. So when you hear it, it’s roughly like a right, roughly really really manual and coarse. There’s a wildness to it that is very much missing in the neat and tidy, everything in the box. We’re not against computers, you can do wonderful things with computers, but I think that it’s often the case that a lot of software provides you with a very tidy convenient way of making something and that is not necessarily the most creative tool for you to use. Having something where you need to kind of do it manually and you need to learn to play it, gives you that immediate room for expression I guess.

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