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Welcome to the strange world of Simian Mobile Disco, a land of killer tunes, acid, anthropology, mystical desert structures – and synths. Lots of synths…
Words: Thomas H Green
Photos: Kate Moross & Carrie Davenport
It’s the day before St Patrick’s Day and Simian Mobile Disco are sitting in a bar at The Clarence, U2’s hotel in Dublin. Dressed in black, like a pair of stylish undertakers, neither has a drink in hand – although they will later – and they seem much too normal and guileless for dance music’s A-league. They seem, in fact, like a pair of uncharacteristically well-dressed geeks who can’t quite believe their luck. Possibly they are. Currently, they’re genially assessing how people perceive them.
“They might say one’s a boozer and one’s a synth nerd in glasses,” ventures James Ford, he of the intense eyes and mad professor hair. “I’m not that much of a boozer,” deadpans the blond Jas Shaw from behind his specs.
Neither is Ford, really, but the thing they both are is good company: human, not self-censoring or shrewdly opaque. To their fans they’re a musical thrill ride, delivering killer albums – a new one’s incoming – spectacular live shows and DJ sets and a plethora of remixes (Björk, Muse, Kevin Saunderson; James’s favourite is Peaches, ‘Downtown’, while Jas’s is DJ Hell’s ‘U Can Dance’) and witty, genre-busting mix CDs, notably for Bugged Out! and Fabric, though their own favourite is the one on the cover of this magazine – of course.
However, they relate most immediately not to their clubland peers but to little known sonic boffins and mavericks.
“Richard Harrison made this amazing record where he put contact mics on electric fences on the moors,” says James, his eyes shining. “He came up with noises that [BBC Radiophonic Workshop synthesizer queen] Delia Derbyshire would have had a job making.”
Jas chimes in. “[American experimental composer] William Basinski made loads of loops on cassette and forgot about them. The oxide falls off as they grow old, so he made a series of recordings, playing them as they fell gradually apart. You can literally hear them dying as the information disappears over the course of an hour. When you’re travelling it’s the most beautiful, transcendental thing you can listen to, like sonic valium.”
Yet for all their tales of out-there sonic experimentalism, these are not two studio-bound saddos, mouldering away inside with their computers; they’re out there, in clubs, living the dream. Aren’t they? “Well, I chatted to Paul McCartney once,” James deadpans, when pressed, “and once I nearly knocked over Diana Ross too.”
Jas Shaw, 35, is really called James, but he once lived in a house with four other Jameses, including Ford, so he became known by his initials. Born in Farnborough, he spent three of his pre-teen years in the States before returning, aged 10, to a small town called Chelsfield, in Kent. Here he acquired a tight group of friends, running slightly outside the pack, getting into super-fast metal such as Pantera and Napalm Death.
“I wasn’t listening exclusively to metal, but the music I listened to as a kid was pretty atonal,” he laughs. “I remember the first time I went to London with fifteen quid for a couple of records – well, you weren’t going to buy something safe, you were going to buy something your parents would hate, just as a way of generating your own identity.”
An uncle bought Jas a guitar when he was 12 and he consequently spent his teens jamming in covers bands. He and his mate Alex MacNaghten decided to go to Manchester University, more down to the city’s reputation – “Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, this mythical place where amazing things happen” – than for their chosen subjects.
“I did a year of engineering and hated it,” he recalls. “What finally broke me was when we met this guy who was the world authority on ball bearings. He came in and said, ‘It’s amazing, if anyone wants to know anything about ball bearings they call me.’ People in my class were, like, ‘That’s wicked!’ but I was thinking, ‘I’m out. I am one hundred per cent out’.”
He transferred to philosophy but was more interested in forming a band with MacNaghten on bass. The pair needed a drummer, so they advertised on the notice board in their student hall of residence, Owens Park. A fellow student who lived there answered it. He was a shaven-headed character – “I was in hair denial” – called James Ford.
Ford, 34, was born in Stoke-on-Trent. “Like Robbie Williams, Slash, Frank Bough and Lemmy,” he says proudly, traces of his Midlands accent firmly in place.
When we quibble (incorrectly, as it turns out) that Lemmy hails from North Wales, Ford responds at once, “Well, definitely Anthea Turner, you can’t argue about that!” He grew up in the small market town of Leek, near Macclesfield, and was playing bass and singing in bands by the age of ten.
“There was a mad music scene in Leek,” he remembers. “My friend Joe was a really good keyboard player; someone saw him play and put him in his band. He was a child with these old dudes, and from there this weird young scene grew, loads of bands – none of them any good, obviously.”
Ford was into the Beatles and Bowie, but had a musical epiphany when he embraced jazz: “Miles Davis, Tony Williams, the first music I was shocked by – it was very formative,” he recalls. Aged 15 he bought a Korg synthesizer for £20 “from someone who wanted to buy weed”, and he and a friend would make four-track tapes of “synthy psychedelia that we thought sounded like Herbie Hancock’s ‘Headhunters’.” For the most part, though, until he went to Manchester University to study biology, “there was nothing else to do but play in bands, take mushrooms and try to get into pubs underage.”
The band that Ford, Shaw and MacNaghten formed went through various incarnations, but when singer-guitarist Simon Lord joined, they bloomed into Simian.
If people have heard of Simian these days it will likely be because of ‘We Are Your Friends’, the 2003 Justice remix of their song ‘Never Be Alone’. It was a monster, one of the biggest dance tunes of this century, but Simian weren’t around to enjoy its eventual success; they split acrimoniously on a US tour in 2005 (they’re all friends now – Lord even sang the vocal on SMD’s stormer ‘I Believe’). They’d had a five-year career and signed to French Virgin subsidiary Source, but, rather like The Beta Band, were an offbeat indie-tronic cult act that never quite broke through.
“We spent four years swimming against the current,” sighs Ford, “We were totally at odds with The White Stripes, The Strokes, their stripped-down rock. We were making slightly fey, electronic-infused music with four-part harmonies. Regardless of what we did, it wasn’t being taken up.”
DJing was Jas and James’s hobby, playing an eclectic, inventive selection at after-gig parties – mashing up Aaliyah’s r’n’b, Drexciya’s Detroit electro, 50s studio nut Joe Meek, Wiley’s early ‘Devil Mix’ bass instrumentals, and anything else they fancied. Source asked them to make a mixtape representing their sets, and they did – “that’s when we made up the name ‘Simian Mobile Disco’, as a joke,” they recall.
From 2003 they DJed for Kill ’Em All And Let God Sort It Out (later just Kill ‘Em All) at various Camden venues – the Embassy Bar, the Lock Tavern, the Barfly – to a mixed reception, but three years on clubland was about to undergo one of its periodic seismic shifts: an increasingly popular combination of indie guitars and dance music was nicknamed ‘nu rave’ by the media. Simian Mobile Disco were bemused to find themselves associated with it. Ford produced the Mercury Prize-winning first album by The Klaxons but Jas and James always disliked the term ‘nu rave’. For them, the unexpected spotlight offered an opportunity to showcase their own, decidedly electronic dance flavours. They started quietly putting out 12”s on hip little French labels – their debut, ‘The Mighty Atom’ on Cosmo Vitelli’s I Am A Cliché, ‘The Count’ on Kitsuné – but when they eventually signed it was to guitar-centric indie Wichita, home to Bloc Party, The Cribs, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and so on.
“Most dance labels have a sound which you’re subject to, whether you like it or not,” says James. “Wichita’s a small label but when we met [MDs] Mark Bowen and [ex-Creation Records music business legend] Dick Green, we realised they were in it for the right reasons.”
The label suggested SMD put together a bunch of tunes for an album. James and Jas found they had enough for two.
Simian Mobile Disco’s latest album, ‘Unpatterns’, is a reaction to its predecessors. “The title,” says Jas, “is to do with us not repeating ourselves creatively – it’s almost like a kind of mantra about how to go forward.”
‘Unpattern’s nine sleek, club-friendly tracks dip the ladle into funky techno, tough minimal disco and classic Chicago house, a sinuous showcase for two producers pushing into increasingly sophisticated electronic sounds, while always retaining a deep funk at the core.
“There was no masterplan,” Jas explains, “just a series of things we didn’t want to do. We didn’t want verse-chorus-verse, although we did want vocals; we were listening to Krautrock and psychedelia and we wanted to use vintage kit, but didn’t want to be retro – we wanted to make those synths relate to music now; and we wanted to move away from ‘Delicacies’.”
‘Delicacies’ was a series of tough, stark singles named after strange foods (such as Casu Marzu, a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese filled with maggots) and aimed at DJs and dancefloors. They received low key releases on an eponymous label during 2010, and were eventually compiled into an album. They were, in themselves, a reaction to the first two Simian Mobile Disco albums, ‘Attack Decay Sustain Release’ (2007) and, particularly, ‘Temporary Pleasure’ (2009).
“We couldn’t play anything off ‘Temporary Pleasure’ in clubs,” says James, “so we were just making tracks to play out.”
‘Delicacies’ was effective, techno-flavoured fare that moved sideways and onwards from SMD’s forays into pop and their brief, unplanned association with indie-land. This was music that loudly proclaimed a band in thrall to DJ culture and pure dancefloor drive.
“That was the point about ‘Delicacies’,” says Jas. “We didn’t talk about it or promo it, we wanted to make straight up 12” club tracks, fairly unmelodic and atonal. It wasn’t really meant to be an album, we wanted them to just slip out and people to find them. They’re some of the best dancefloor records we’ve made. With an album, a lot time is spent on presentation, but we just wanted to push ourselves in the studio and put the results out there.”
It seems a long way from SMD’s debut album, a mixture of tasty foot-movers, moving away from indie-dance, and with songs that featured guest vocalists, including Ninja from The Go Team! It’s still well loved, and certain tunes from it – ‘It’s The Beat’, ‘Hustler’, ‘I Believe’ – have not gone away. It also contained the fabulously titled ‘Tits And Acid’ which, along with ‘Hustler’, set the band up as a force to reckoned with as far as DJs and underground clubs were concerned, certainly long before the unanticipated storm of attention caused by ‘We Are Your Friends’.
“I love tits and I love acid, but maybe not at same time,” says James. “The boring truth is that was named after a mixtape I picked up in Brooklyn.”
The follow-up album, ‘Temporary Pleasure’, strayed a little too far into the dance-producer-with-endless-guest-vocalists zone, from Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor to alt-soul singer Jamie Lidell, Gossip’s Beth Ditto to Chris Keating of New York band Yeasayer. It contains some crackers, such as Audacity Of Huge’ but is not as consistent as its predecessor.
“We met a load of people at festivals and sent them a bunch of tunes we liked, expecting to get one or two back,” says Jas, “but they all came back and we ended up subjugating the tunes to the vocals.”
“It has one or two of our best songs,” Ford adds, “but probably a few of our worst too. It was a learning curve, and has influenced everything we’ve done since.”
The new album features vocals, but in the house tradition of loops seamlessly woven into the groove. ‘Seraphim’ even boasts a snippet of Cilla Black in her 60s pop prime, while ‘Put Your Hands Together’ has a sample of Jamie Lidell from the same two hours of freestyling that delivered his vocal for ‘Temporary Pleasure’. And then there’s outstanding instrumental ‘The Dream Of The Fisherman’s Wife’, named after a famous 19th century Japanese woodcut of what James correctly describes as “octopus porn” and which sounds like a bleepy tribute to all SMD’s old analogue synth heroes. It’s an album whose slinky elastic grooves are in love with the dancefloor – but with a twist, for it also subtly tips its hat to electronic listening music of the Brian Eno variety. It has a very definite and individual flavour.
“We made a lot of tracks then chose the ones that fitted a mood,” Ford explains, “The last album was quite choppy; this one has a more singular sound, that’s the point, otherwise why make an album?”
“Those older synthesizers proved a rich palette,” adds Jas, “Rather than being limiting, they provided a sonic cohesiveness.”
At the Academy in Dublin Simian Mobile Disco are on the decks. Their set makes it clear that when ‘Unpatterns’ tours live in autumn, it will be a crowd-slayer. ‘Cerulean’ sounds great over the big speakers, sinuously funky, enthralling the crowd. Jas and James, a bottle of beer and a glass of whisky by their sides, jiggle and grin, reacting to the crowd bouncing wildly about in front of them.
They spin Bodikka & Joy Orbison’s ‘Froth’, Mark E’s ‘Belvide Beat’ and supporting DJ duo Bicep’s soulful tech-house remix of Chamboche’s ‘Smoke Screen’ – but the crowd wants SMD, and various ‘Delicacies’ are soon thumping out.
Jas and James are in such synchronicity it’s hard to imagine them bickering, but there have been moments of tension. Ford has been a high-profile producer since his association with Arctic Monkeys on 2007’s ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, producing The Last Shadow Puppets and the first Florence & the Machine album along the way.
“We haven’t fallen out, we’re too mellow for that,” James told us before the gig, “but I definitely caught myself trying to do too many things at once, juggling and only half-doing it all. Jas placed calm pressure on me to carve out a proper chunk of time to do ‘Unpatterns’ – which is what I did.”
At the decks the two friends look animated, their frames silhouetted amid flashing lights. Midnight has passed so it’s officially St Patrick’s Day, and the DJs are ready to take the whooping crowd up a level. They exchange glances and grin, then drop ‘Put Your Hands Together’, their percussive Jamie Lidell-sung tech-funk odyssey. Mayhem ensues.
They raise a pair of beers to the sweating, writhing mass of bodies. Now everyone’s a synth geek, everyone’s a boozer, and everyone’s dancing – including James Ford and Jas Shaw. The Simian Mobile Disco is in full effect.