Progress Report: Simian Mobile Disco
Simian Mobile Disco are currently touring the world in support of their third proper full-length album, Unpatterns. Having established themselves as one of the world’s finest electronic acts, the duo of James Ford and Jas Shaw are keen on stepping up their live game and somehow not getting lost in the current wave of dubstep-infused, fist-pumping electro mania that is currently sweeping through the dance tents of the festival world. I had the chance to talk to them about the making of their newest record and inherent problems of playing electronic music live.
STEREOGUM: Where are you calling from?
SHAW: London. We’re in Hackney, actually. James is here as well!
STEREOGUM: You guys are in the studio right now, yes? What are you working on?
FORD: We’re just trying to get our live show together, which is like the “admin” part of what we do.
SHAW: We recorded our record using all of these old analog sequencers, so we don’t actually have any saved information for any of it. We’re trying to figure out how to play the songs from Unpatterns live, which involves going back and listening to it and trying to figure out how we got those sounds out of these machines. It’s a bit like trying to figure out how to do a cover song. When we play live we like to do it properly, using all the actual machines and having them do their thing … but this is the painful part where we try to go back and figure it out.
STEREOGUM: How long do you think this process will take?
FORD: Hopefully not too much longer, but we’re also still DJing two or three times a week, so it’s been a bit crazy. I suspect we’ll be doing this for another week or so.
STEREOGUM: What was your thinking when you started to work on Unpatterns?
SHAW: We knew we wanted to do something different than the previous one, but that’s always our thinking when we start to make a record. In terms of the gear and such, we had a bunch of synths we like and a load of old drum machines and sequencers … we basically just plug everything in and start playing around. That was really nothing new. What really changed this time was us as much as anything.
STEREOGUM: How so?
SHAW: You know, time has passed. We’d been listening to a lot of different kinds of music and been exposed to different things. Also, on Temporary Pleasure we’d kind of gone down that road of using lots of vocals. This time around we wanted to bring elements of our previous records together without really trying to mimic anything that we’d done before. We had no idea what it would sound like when we started and that’s always my favorite time in the process. I like when you turn up at the studios and nothing has been done yet and you really have no idea where it’s going to go. We had a few false starts, but we try to cast the net quite wide and then just go wherever it feels good.
STEREOGUM: So much of the time I’m talking to rock bands, most of whom kind of follow the same cycle of putting out a record, touring it for a year, taking a little time off, and then eventually going back into a studio to start the process all over again. For you guys — who are constantly DJing around the world — do you ever take time off away from each other before you decide to start working on a record again? Electronic artists seem to operate on a much different schedule than most rock bands do.
FORD: We never really take time off. We’re always DJing and traveling, plus we both produce things for other people, so that’s really what takes up most of our time. Most of the time, Simian Mobile Disco is the thing we are doing in between everything else. This time around we really took time out from all the other stuff specifically to focus on this. We wanted to keep DJing while we were making the record. I think it’s healthy. You keep being exposed to new records and it’s a good testing ground for any tracks that you might be making. You get to have an instant, honest reaction from people.
STEREOGUM: You operate out of your own studios?
SHAW: We have a room, which is basically just a rehearsal studio that we’ve had for ages. It’s basic and kind of scruffy, but it’s a nice environment to work in.
STEREOGUM: When it comes to Simian Mobile Disco, do the two of you always work together — as in, a true collaboration — or do you operate separately?
FORD: Well, we both have laptops that we are always playing around and basically creating little song sketches on when we are out and about, but often those things don’t really become full tracks. We’re very kind of machine-based, so songs don’t really get built in the computer. We might take a baseline or a melody that we created on the computer, but that usually gets reworked in the studio when we play it through the actual synths and drum machines. Most of this new album was done by us coming to the studio in the morning, turning on the 808, and getting things moving. We have the different elements separated out as we record them, then those things get concentrated down into a track. We like to keep it fairly stripped down and the layers of the overdubs to a minimum. The music is made by us just jamming in the studios with machines, basically.
STEREOGUM: There’s a beautiful, uncluttered quality to this new record. Technology allows for you to easily add more and more and more — especially if you make electronic-based music — so it’s nice to hear music that is really “elemental” and shows a sense of restraint.
SHAW: I totally agree with you. We listen back to old acid records and techno records. They often had one drum machine, one or two synths, and maybe a delay pedal or something … and that was it. You know that the song you are listening to is a single take. They probably did five or six of them and you are listening to their favorite one. It feels more like making music than just pushing blocks around on a screen. I certainly wouldn’t want to get involved in any arguments about whether or not plug-ins are good or bad or squabbles about hardware, but for us the process of not staring at a screen and having all these machines going simultaneously, you know that when you hit that red button that says “record” that you have to play everything correctly and do it right. It gives you that sense of nervousness that I remember having back when I played with a band. There is a degree of safety you have when everything is totally recallable and inside a machine. When we record a mix we actually go through a desk and if you screw up it means that you have to rebuild it from nothing. I appreciate that there’s a degree of stress involved. It’s easy to make yourself too comfortable.
STEREOGUM: It also interjects an element of “humanness” into the process.
FORD: That’s always been the bit that we’re the most excited about … and the thing we’ve always tried to inject into our music. When you listen to old acid records it’s almost as if you can hear their fingers pushing the keys, which is what I like. It’s those little human things that give it a rawness and a looseness. Those are the things you get when you work with real machines.
STEREOGUM: So how does that translate into your live performance? I’d assume it would be easier to just be triggering these pre-recorded tracks from a laptop.
SHAW: Actually, the live show is truly representative of how we record, and it’s actually had a big effect on how we record. Live, we have everything running into a desk and all these things running simultaneously. You are kind of just trying to orchestrate or steer all of these things in the right direction, but often you sort of lose control of it. There’s something wonderful about that. We kind of set that same thing up in our studio when we record. So, theoretically, replicating it live should be easy because it’s essentially a live take you hear in the recordings … of course, it’s never that simple.
FORD: You can’t always recreate the same thing every time, which is what makes it exciting. That was one of the things that influenced the title of the record, Unpatterns. The idea that you can create this chain of machines and create this series of patterns that sort of interact and collaborate to create something that is really chaotic, but also beautiful.
STEREOGUM: Does the whole thing ever just crash catastrophically while you are playing live? That must happen occasionally.
SHAW: Oh yeah, that definitely happens. It’s very stressful in the moment and you walk away fearful that you’ve done a bad show, but often seeing someone fuck up and then somehow recover from it actually makes it better. It can’t always be perfect. It’s also fun to see things go a bit awry sometimes. It makes it human.
STEREOGUM: So you’ll spend the bulk of this year touring?
FORD: We’ll be DJing throughout the summer — which is quite different from our actually live show — and then roll out the live show in the autumn. We’re recreating our visuals right now and trying to incorporate some of the visuals we created while making the new record. You won’t see our proper live show until the fall.
STEREOGUM: I just came home from covering an electronic music festival in Copenhagen, which was really eye opening. It reminded me of just how huge the culture surrounding electronic music really is in the UK and how here in the States we still have a kind of baby version of that. All the attention being paid to dubstep this past year reminds me of the way people wrote about the Prodigy — and dance music in general — a decade ago. There was this feeling that dance music was gonna really explode and take over and then it didn’t. As people who really operate within the culture of dance music, do you have a sense that the scene is expanding?
SHAW: It’s always really mystified us that the culture for electronic music isn’t bigger in the United States. So much electronic originated there! I remember us playing in Chicago and I played a Wax Trax record and there was just a blank look on everyone’s faces. I was like, this came from here! I spent my childhood wanting to come here and buy all these records and you don’t even know them? Same thing in Detroit. There are so many amazing American DJs, I just feel like the scene should be much bigger. Festivals in the States are dominated by rock music or “Rock/Dance” music, which is something else altogether.
FORD: You hear the term “EDM” bandied about pretty loosely these days. Obviously, this increased interest in dance music over the past couple of years is a good thing for everyone — the audiences are bigger, there are more opportunities to play out. I just hope that the “fist pumping in the air, crowd-surfing, mosh pit” kind of thing isn’t what people come to think that all dance music should be about. It’s really missing the point in a lot of ways. You go to Berlin or so many places in Europe, the way that dance music goes down with crowds is a much more intense, more cerebral kind of thing. It’s not about worshipping this central DJ figure on a stage, but rather having a communal experience with a room full of people. My fear is that the EDM sort of thing will become the norm, which I feel is a negative thing. It’s not about playing for 45 minutes on a festival stage. That’s not what should be thought of as cool.
SHAW: There is already a backlash against that kind of EDM stuff, which could actually benefit everyone. Once one style becomes super popular, the things made in reaction to that often tend to be really interesting. It kind of galvanizes an underground scene. You have people saying, we are not that. We are not hammering out things at 130 bpms and trying to drop a million breaks. If that kind of division needs to happen within dance music, I think it’s cool. It’s healthy.
STEREOGUM: Well, if the success of really mainstream dance music helps weirder, more interesting music creep into people’s consciousness at the same time, I think that’s a good thing.
FORD: I think so too and I think that is happening.
STEREOGUM: Well, good luck with everything. I look forward to seeing you play in the States. I’m curious to see how effectively you can replicate the sound of the album … I now expect it to sound perfect!
SHAW: Don’t worry. We won’t be wearing giant mouse heads or anything.
Unpatterns is out