While the UK-born duo of James Ford and Jas Shaw, better known as Simian Mobile Disco, tend to blame luck for their everlasting success, it’s really just a result of discipline, endless learning, true hard work, and an imagination without boundaries; a few things that many of today’s producers seem to be forgetting about. James and Jas put out their latest creation, “Unpatterns,” earlier this year only to reassure fans of their resistance to imitate and their constant strive for originality. Now, after mainly performing DJ sets the last little while, SMD are hitting the road once again with their re-designed live show, giving fans a chance to catch the duo perform with their preferred analog setup imported directly from their personal studio. The tour starts tomorrow night right here in LA and will be spanning across North America until the end of the year before returning back to England for a homecoming New Year’s Eve gig. I was fortunate enough to get hooked up with the Simian Mobile Disco boys for a quick chat about the new tour and workflow, so read on for a taste of what to expect at the show.
Hey guys, how’s it going?
So you had the debut of the new live show back in September in LA for FYF Fest, how was that?
It was great, we went all out with extra lasers and lights at FYF which was a new thing for us… and got a great response.
How is this new live setup different than the ones of the past few years? Are there any new additions as far as gear, and what have you replaced for now?
The live setup is pretty similar, we've change a few things - like bringing a 909 on the road instead of the Drumtrax drum machine, a few different pedals. Plus our midi controllers are a lot more sophisticated - we have a launchpad and an iPad controlling some stuff now, rather than a keyboard.
What are some of your most prized pieces of the current live show and why are they exciting to you?
The modular synth, because it does so much and is so flexible.
I imagine your studio arrangement must always be changing, so was it hard to narrow down exactly which pieces of gear you’d be taking on the road?
We very much try to avoid bringing particular bits of gear on the road - it's much better to have flexible kit (like the 909) which gets used on almost every track.
And in addition to the modular rigs and synths, you’re also bringing along a custom lighting arrangement, right?
We've actually stepped back from the visual side of things. We ended up with our last set up being two guys standing in front of a wall of LED, which we weren't really keen on. Now we're using lights to emphasise what we're doing, to focus the visual side on our performance.
When you guys first started getting gigs, was it strictly just DJ sets or did you always have the goal of performing live? Even though live sets consist entirely of your own music, do you still feel like the possibilities are endless when it comes to performing?
Well before we started DJing much, when we were in the band (the original Simian), we knew all about live performance… so when we started SMD, although DJing was our initial focus, we were thinking about performing live very early on. Our live set up actually allows a lot of flexibility, because we can jam things out a bit.
How does working the analog route engage your brain differently than if you were pressing keys on a laptop?
Working with mostly analogue synths, especially the modular ones, gives you a very direct hands on access to the inner workings of synthesis. Doing that on the laptop usually involves going through pages of menus or dialogues, whereas you have every control literally at your fingertips with the mod. Also, a lot of analogue gear can be slightly temperamental - so there's often a bit of a random factor that you are forced to deal with, which can make you be creative...
Because of the equipment you use in the studio to create your records, your creative process tends to be a result of just messing around and seeing what happens. How can you prepare for the unpredictability of the machines and system when using them in front of large crowds?
Hah, it would be misleading to say that we're doing a lot of improvisation on stage, but the slightly unpredictable behaviour does force you to have to deal with quirks the machines throw up… you just need to be flexible and able to deal with it. Sometimes it can lead you to unexpectedly good places...
And with that being said, can we expect each night on the tour to sound a bit different every time? No set can really be identical that way?
Yes, it will sound a bit different over time. The setlist isn't really changing that much on this tour, it's a lot of preparation to get all the parts together on the live rig. But each track will be a little different every night.
I’d imagine those moments where your setup catches you by surprise are the most exciting ones, where something sounds great and you don’t even know why…
Yeah, that's what we were talking about earlier - those random moments can be really creative/inspiring. They can also go quite wrong, of course… that's the gamble.
On the topic of the new EP, I find that it really captures SMD from all angles; contemporary and psychedelic, yet still traditional and dancefloor friendly. Would you say that it’s a tough balance to make music that you can play out in the club but still remain deep, growing, and forward thinking? Is that something you hope to maintain forever?
It can be tough, and this album and EP, which were recorded all at the same time, is our attempt to synthesise (no pun intended) all the various strands of electronic music that we're into. We'll keep at that - of course sometimes its good to just focus on the dancefloor, or make ambient drones, and we'll be doing that too in future projects.
How does your evolving sound affect the live show? Do the older songs change over the years when you recreate them on the fly?
Yes, totally. The versions of "Hustler" and "It's the Beat" we're playing live now are almost totally different songs. The only thing they have in common with the originals is the vocals really.
Are there any newer artists out there on the rise that you find inspiring or in a similar mindset? Who did you look up to when first starting out as DJs and producers together as a duo?
What are some of the biggest stylistic differences between the latest EP and some of the earlier work? How do you find simplicity in all this chaos?
Well… big question. The album and Ep are our attempt to synthesise a lot of things in contemporary dance music, whereas our first album was more or less straight up party music… we've tried to go a bit deeper and more psychedelic on this record.
Alright, so what are you looking forward to most on this new tour?
Just being on the road is going to be fun.
Final words of wisdom for aspiring producers?
Get one bit of kit and learn how to use it, really well. Then get another.
Any last things you wanna plug, anything new in store soon apart from the tour?
Nope, the tour is all for the next month! Hopefully see some of you at the shows...
Thanks guys, see you soon!
Be sure to hit up Simian Mobile Disco on Facebook and Twitter to stay posted about the tour and new music. Also shout out to the crew over at This Is Music LTD, the group's management and good friends of ours, for helping out with the interview. Also, LA fans, you can catch SMD playing an exclusive in-store DJ set tonight at new record store, Mount Analog, which begins at 6 pm!