Simian Mobile Disco: Interview

    One of electro’s hardest-working duos has roared back into clubs worldwide, both on record and in person: Simian Mobile Disco’s second album, Temporary Pleasure, has already spawned several dance floor anthems; meanwhile, James Ford and Jas Shaw have been furiously globetrotting, performing both DJ sets and live shows. Add to this a slew of production and remix work, and you have a couple of dudes in serious need of a vacation. Here, Shaw — the group’s blond, bespectacled half — talks about Simian Mobile Disco’s live gigs, making the new album, bad remixes, and collaborating with the likes of Peaches and Diddy. (Yes, the Diddy.)


    Was the Ultra Music Festival during Winter Music Conference in Miami your first U.S. date this year?
    No, Ultra was like a weird bit in the middle. We did the West Coast and then came all the way down. We were supposed to go all the way down to SXSW, but we kind of wormed our way out of that one. We’ve done that a fair few times. Ultra, you can sort of tell it comes from more of a cheesy, house-y vibe. When we turned around and there was a load of dancers on stage, we were like, “This isn’t cool at all …”


    Yeah, I’d never seen dancers on stage at any of your gigs before.
    “That’s a new thing the two of them have added!” We’ve got a separate bus now for all the dancers. [laughs] The thing is, they weren’t there at the start, and no one asked us about it. We got started, and James was like, “Look around.” It was a wall of dancers, and they were all dressed up like Mad Max. It was just like, “Come on, what the fuck’s this?” It was just weird, because I sort of feel like a lot of those festivals, for a lot of kids, that’s where they get exposed to a lot of music. For it to be presented in such an unfavorable light, such an unsuitable light…. Maybe for a lot of them they were like, “Wow, amazing dancers!” but I think a lot of people were just like, “This is tacky.” You get the same thing in Ibiza, when you get dancers on podiums in random places around the club. I think it’s a bit cheesy, but some people like it. But just a wall of dancers on the stage…


    You’re playing more festivals this summer, here and around the world. Is what you do live much different when playing a festival versus a proper Simian Mobile Disco show?
    When you do a festival it’s quite a different dynamic than if it’s your own crowd: You play differently, and not necessarily in a bad way, either. You know that they’re not there to see you, they’re just there, so you maybe play a more mainstream set. I dunno, sometimes I think it’s good to put yourself under that pressure. It’s kind of easy to [say, at your own show], “Yeah, the people here, they’ll know at least some of the stuff, and they probably won’t leave if we go a bit wonky for three tunes.“ They’ll stick it out for a bit. [Whereas at a festival they’ll] see 20 minutes of that and 20 minutes of that. If it’s not totally amazing, they’ll move along.


    The lights at your live shows are pretty amazing.
    We’ve been slowly bolting things onto it as we go round, adding extra bits. A lot of people have said you should have a sound guy rather than a lighting guy, but for us it’s definitely more important to have that kind of dynamic. Right from the very start, it’s always been a really critical part of the show, up to the point that we’ve been in situations where if they’ve been like, “We can’t give you power,” we kind of can’t do the show. Physically we can do it — we can plug our gear in and do it. But it’s kind of selling the audience short. It’s just a bit shit, if you like.


    Speaking of the visual side of things, the first two video clips you released for songs off the new album [“Synthesize” and “10,000 Horses Can’t Be Wrong”] were both done by Kate Moross and Alex Sushon. Is this a new sort of visual brand you’re trying to create?
    Those two were kind of a paired release. We originally had them do one video, and we were all really pleased with it, [so] let’s do another one. I don’t think there’s going to be any videos that are similar in that kind of way, but it sort of stemmed from us talking about [how] we really like very basic, simple graphics. I really like the idea that it’s projected on the wall — in some way that kind of makes it human rather than something that’s all done in After Effects, written in Flash, and just published. All the imperfections are things that if you were doing completely digitally you’d try to add in, but it’s just there. I think it makes it feel like something I can identify with.


    A very random YouTube clip floating around shows James face down on Diddy’s couch [it’s about five and a half minutes in] at a WMC party from this year in Miami. How exactly did that come about?
    The day before Ultra, we played at his party. We were supposed to do it last year, but we had a gig [in New York] the night before. We played in his club — which was quite weird, because it’s quite a, like, fantasy club, which is not what we’re used to: slightly dirty techno raves. Toward the end it got really good, we loosened up a bit. Right at the very end when Felix [da Housecat] was taking over, I looked up and Lil Jon was on the stage. I was like, “James, look at that.” It was great — it’s not every day that happens.


    Did you know Diddy before he invited you to play his party?
    We’d never met him before. We have a mutual friend that he contacted us through, but we were like “Really? Us? OK!” He’s a lot more approachable and actually more likeable than he comes across. When we were playing proper spaced-out minimal disco and nasty, blippy techno, he would love it. I think he’s genuinely into that stuff.


    Actually, we’ve been talking about doing a collaboration for quite a while. We sent him a load of beats, and he said he’s done the vocal. It’s too late to make it on the record, so we’ll probably just have to do something like a standalone release, which is cool, because these days with digital stuff, it doesn’t all have to come out on the record.


    We definitely come from very different worlds, certainly in terms of what people have seen. He gets the European techno scene – he was sort of singing over top of what we were doing and it wasn’t hip-hop verses, it was stuff that fitted in. He understands the aesthetic.


    Tell me about the new album, Temporary Pleasure.
    I think probably in terms of the whole [previous] record, the tracks that we felt were most successful were tracks like “Sleep Deprivation.” They have a very strong chord element, a melodic element, as well. They may be less immediate. I think for a lot of people, when they first heard stuff, it was like “It’s the Beat” and “Hustler,” then slowly tracks like “Scott,” “Sleep Deprivation,” “Clock” and “System” sort of lasted as well. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly they’re the ones that I sort of feel [are] still relevant. All those tracks, they come from that chordiness. The focus was very much melodic. That’s definitely carried through on this new record. We sort of tried to approach everything by writing chords before we even got stuck into designing sounds and things like that. It’s actually quite a proper record.


    There’s a lot of vocals. Despite releasing the two instrumental techno-type things first — “Synthesize” and “10,000 Horses Can’t  Be Wrong” — most of the other tracks are sort of poppier and more vocal. We had so many good vocal contributions, it really changed our mind about it. The original idea was to just get a couple of really strong vocals and just do loads and loads of instrumentals. So we sent the instrumentals out, and the period just at the end, all these amazing vocals came in. We were like, “Shit, it’s going to be a vocal record!” [laughs]


    But I think it suits the record. Like I said, by doing the techno versions — because they all kind of started life as sort of long, blippy techno things — people will be kind of able to see it in context. It didn’t start off as a pop project, but it seems to have accidentally slipped that way.


    Which vocalists did you work with on this album?
    I suppose having a bit of profile from the last record, we were able to pull in higher profile people. No one super famous — the most famous person would probably be Beth [Ditto] from The Gossip. She’s on a track with us. It doesn’t sound like the Gossip stuff; it’s a really disco kind of thing. We’ve got Jamie Lidell — both James and I were massive fans of  Super Collider, stuff he did with Cristian Vogel and his solo stuff. The girls from Telepathe are on a track; Chris [Keating] from Yeasayer is on a track. We’ve got Young Fathers — they’re a relatively unknown hip-hop band from Glasgow. We just kind of tried stuff out and it worked so well, we literally finished a track in one day.


    Is there any particular theme to Temporary Pleasure?
    It’s not a concept album, if that’s what you mean [laughs]. It’s cohesive in the sense that it was all finished and mixed in quite a short period of time, so none of [the songs] sound miles away from the others. Stylistically it varies — it’s not just a load of 120 BPM disco-slash-techno chuggers. There’s a few that take it to slightly strange places, some that you definitely couldn’t play out, some that we‘re trying to figure out how the hell we can play in the live show because they‘re just totally bizarre speeds.


    I kind of feel an album should be pretty varied. We did a really wide variety of stuff, like 12-minute proper disco freakouts and really short things. We were a bit worried whether they would fit together. I think since everyone listens on shuffle, the amount of cohesion you need on a record is massively reduced. People are used to hearing quite dissonant-sounding things right next to each other. That said, like with the last record, you could listen to it from end to end. There were a couple of tracks both of us thought were really strong that we didn’t put on the record, simply because they sort of interrupted its “albumness.”


    [With digital releases now], it’s really nice — you can really concentrate on making that album something where that’s all you want on it. You’re not like, “Ah, there’s a few tracks … how are we gonna get them out there? Maybe we should make them a secret track or some bullshit like that.” Who wants a secret track? Such a load of crap! So there won’t be secret tracks on it [laughs].


    Are you playing most of new material live now?
    No, we’ve slowly thrown a few tracks in just to see how they would go, and to see how they felt as well, because sometimes you can’t tell until you play in front of people. But yeah, there’s probably five or six new ones in there, some of the vocal ones as well. The way we’ve got the live show set up, you can play them full vocal and try the format that they are on record, or you can pull the vocals out and change the structure and play them more long format. Sometimes if you play a super, super late set, you can play hardly any vocals and leave the vocal track down and just kind of weird it up a bit. At festivals, it’s exactly the opposite — it’s like vocals loud. People just need something to latch onto.


    Will there be official remixes of the singles coming out soon?
    We’ll definitely get remixes done. I’m a bit funny about remixes, because I think that a remix is a really valid thing. I personally often find that remixes are sometimes better than the original for some tracks. It’s all part of the nature of someone coming along, listening to something, and having a more objective standpoint — just going, “That’s the best thing about it,” and then taking that and focusing more on that. Often when you’re making something you don’t spot it.


    But that said, I think that remixes are just out of control at the moment. People are getting a dozen remixes, and it’s just terrible. They’re rarely good. That’s the thing: There’s a lot of music software out there that does the job largely for you, so you can make something that approaches releasable quality, but it sort of doesn’t have any idea or point to it. Just because you physically spend a few hours, bit of cut and paste, throw some effects on, and you get something that sounds like something approximating a remix. The things that make a remix valid are when you go in and say, “This is what makes this track tick,” and then you take that and you focus on it. That’s a musical activity rather than kind of a computer activity. There’s just all these remixes out there that just look like someone’s gone and stuck them into Ableton, 20 minutes, job’s done. I would just delete every single of those. I hate that stuff, it’s so boring! [laughs] Just clogs up the world.


    It’s of those things that really chokes a scene. A good example is fidget house in the U.K. It had a very distinctive sound at the start, which was really interesting because it was quite maverickly put together, but there were a few things that it always did. Then it got to the point where someone would go, “Have you heard  this?” and it was someone in L.A.’s “fidget-house blog mix,” and all it is is exactly that song, but it goes like “eh-eh-eh-eh-ehehehehe” and there’s absolutely nothing musical going on there. It’s moronically parroting what they’ve seen before. You can tell that these people only listen to that stuff, and it’s just recreating itself again and again in a closed loop, so it never goes anywhere. It’s like the immediate death of a scene. No input from anywhere else. Terrible.


    When I talked to you last year, you were listening to a lot of Hercules & Love Affair. What kind of stuff were you playing during the recording of the new album?
    At the time we were really into the Norwegian disco thing — Lindstrom, Prins Thomas, that stuff. We actually recorded loads of live drums and sequencer jams, and it sort of didn’t go anywhere for us. It’s quite weird, because I still really like that stuff. A few days ago I heard some of the new Prins Thomas stuff that he’s done with Lindstrom, and it’s amazing, so great, but I sort of feel like there’s only a few people in that scene that are really making a contribution to it. There’s quite a lot of it that’s quite generic. Cosmic disco — it’s this kind of beat, and this kind of wiggly sound comes in. When you get to a point where you’re like, “This is just a new version of a record I already have,” I find it quite depressing.


    In terms of new stuff, we’ve been getting into U.K. Funky, which is like slightly faster dubstep and really, really simple and basic. I’ve also been listening to loads of metal — which didn’t particularly feed into the new record, I must say [laughs].


    You and James also worked with Peaches on her latest album, I Feel Cream. What can you tell me about working with her?
    That was ages ago, actually. It was kind weird, because originally Peach approached us to do some production for her, and it sort of ended up we didn’t have as long as we thought we’d have. She’s super sweet, and, as you would imagine, quite difficult musically — which was nice, because both James and I know each other so well. She wanted to make something quite different from what she’d made before, [but] as we were going though, she kind of did want to do more similar things to what people would expect from Peaches. We were supposed to do the whole thing, but at the end of the session, we were all like, “It’s definitely not done.” From our point of view, we were like, “You might want to work with some other people.” We’ve done a few on there. [They wrote or produced four of the album’s tracks, including “Lose You” and “I Feel Cream.”]


    The band is touring North America in late October and November. Dates are as follows:

    10.28.09 Boston, MA: Paradise
    10.30.09 New York, NY: Webster Hall
    10.31.09 Philadelphia, PA: Starlight Ballroom
    11.01.09 Washington, DC: 9:30 Club

    11.04.09 Chicago, IL: Metro
    11.06.09 Toronto, ON: The Mod Club
    11.07.09 Montreal, QC: SAT
    11.24.09 San Diego, CA: Voyeur
    11.25.09 Los Angeles, CA: Mayan Theatre
    11.26.09 Tijuana, MX: Lobby Club
    11.27.09 San Francisco, CA: Mezzanine
    11.28.09 Portland, OR: Wonder Ballroom


    Photo Credit: Julian Furtak/