Simian Mobile Disco is made up of two of the hardest working men in dance music. Hell, any music.
It’s taken musicOMH several months to track them down, and it’s not been personal – they’re just so damned busy.
Yet here they are – well, one half at least, as Jas Shaw takes a tea break from his studio work to join me.
“We’re just doing some work with Peaches in the studio, and getting stuff ironed out running up to the tour.” Clearly thriving on the immense activity, he acknowledges “we haven’t had a day off in God knows how long, but that’s partly because we’re enjoying it so much!”
And of the people they’ve worked with so far, who’s been the least expected? “I never thought I’d meet Brian Eno, he’s a bit of an untouchable”, says Jas with the devotion of a true disciple. “He phoned up when we were still in Simian the band, and said “Would you mind if I come in?” and we were like, “Yeah! Of course!” I think in the spin of all that stuff it’s something you appreciate in retrospective. The other day someone said to me, ‘is that a personal ambition fulfilled?’ and while it is, each one leads you on to another person you’d like to work with.”
Shaw relishes his studio work. “I guess it’s really simple, we’ve got a ProTools rig with a computer and some nice bits of outboard. We come from a band background, and though we make electronic music there’s a lot of percussion. The studio’s a complete tip actually; it’s full of clapped-out guitars and stuff that makes a noise. We like that, and knobs that you can turn. It’s like a toy shop really; when my girl comes in she reckons it’s like a playground. We’ve got a lot of mono synths but they all make the same noise when you boil it down! Some have got a clunky keyboard though, so they have their own personality – you don’t play the same thing on a 335 that you’d play on a Jaguar, for example. We often moan about software, but it needs to sound and be inspiring. Clicking a mouse reminds me too much of work.”
An important aspect of Simian Mobile Disco’s recording is their willingness to accept mistakes, leaving an essential part of humanity in music that can all too easily become cold. “That crosses into how we approach all music I think”, Shaw agrees. “I listen to a lot of bands and can tell that the final production has been ProTooled to fuck, all the sloppy bits have been edited out. It makes for a very professional production, but characterless. The thing about tracking to tape is you have the band and the take, and you’re capturing the moment. If someone fucks it up, it’s like a live recording. More than anywhere else, in electronic music it’s so easy to have no wrinkles in it, to lack any grittiness. Again, our synths – they wobble out of tune, and crackle a bit, and sometimes it’s a pain in the arse, but other times we get exactly what we want”.
As they prepare to head out on tour once again, Shaw admits, “both of us are halfway through stuff at the moment. You’ll know that James has been doing stuff with Alex Turner and Miles Kane. We’re both doing…”, he checks, “no, I can’t say that one, sorry! We’re finding though that the most interesting thing is when you don’t quite know what the end result is going to be, which is where I am at the moment.”
With all this going on, has there been time to tinker with the live output for the tour? “The ideal for us is to write some more stuff specifically for live. We’ve been leaving spaces in the programmes we’ve got at the moment, specifically where we don’t know what happens, so that it’s not completely regimental. Our touch tone for live performance is Jamie Lidell. I’ve been to see him several times, and sometimes the crowd haven’t got into it necessarily, but other times it’s been fucking amazing!”
He continues. “It’s difficult to get that balance where there’s room for error without it being catastrophic. It’s affected the way we record. We’d make a chain of stuff before, but now we’re setting out so that we’re running around, and guiding stuff, a bit like spinning plates.”
Looking to the future, Shaw becomes ever more animated. “We’ve got ambitious plans for what we want to do, but we’ll need bigger venues to achieve it. Musically I think we’re going to carve out a lot more areas. We’ve got good at changing stuff around on the fly, whereas firstly it was difficult enough just to play it right.”
No plans for a gig with just the duo and their computers then? “I always thought that was fucking rubbish!” he exclaims. “What you don’t want to be doing is staring into the screen. When you’re doing that you’re not in the room with everyone else, that connection isn’t really made.”
Mentions of Simian Mobile Disco these days often occupy the same sentence as their accomplices and contemporaries Justice. An extraordinary parallel run of the duos’ careers has seen them remix each other, release their debut albums in the UK on the same day, and now they will gig around the country, hot on each other’s tails. Has all this closeness rubbed off, and is there a competitive edge between the two?
“A lot of people ask me that,” says Jas, “and it’s been kind of crazy. I was a bit worried people would think it was a publicity thing. We saw them loads in 2006, and then later the next year when we were chatting and we said “what’s the release date of your album?” and we realised then it was the same day! There’s nothing in the competition thing – for one, they’re super-nice, and two, we really like their stuff. They don’t sound at all like us, but they have a similar electronic thinking, a reaction against purism if you want to analyse it. And people do want to analyse it – when we go to Japan, the questions are really in-depth and you end up answering ‘that’s brilliant – but no!’”
Does he feel, though, that Simian Mobile Disco have been a part of the best year electronic music has experienced for some time? “I guess, yeah, it does feel that way, with the stuff I’ve been in to. But I find it difficult to differentiate between electronic and not – LCD Soundsystem and Klaxons, are they electronic? I think it was a very strong year for music in general. Everywhere I go now, people have a lot of music; it’s great that they’re in to it.
“Clubs seem to have really picked up as well, people are much better informed, and we’re not getting asked for cheesy shit like we used to. People now go on to sites and download stuff they’re not really used to hearing, and it means they’re a lot more informed about music. It’s less generic and more mixed in terms of where it sits on the musical spectrum.”
And has Shaw considered reforming the band from which the duo were spawned, Simian? “We haven’t really thought about it to be honest. Having done work with bands recently it reminded me how much I liked it but I don’t think it’s needed. We did all fall out a bit, but a bit of time apart has done us really good. We had Si back in the studio on the last album and it was a really good experience. We had a lot of vocalists but we tend to treat them not in a ‘vocally’ way, we treat them like we would synths. That’s the reason why Si’s track is the most ‘songy’ on the record; it’s the only one where we just left the vocals as they were.”
I recall seeing Simian at the old Royal Festival Hall, opening for Keith Emerson. Shaw laughs. “Yes, I remember his technician when I was getting our stuff together, and he was guarding the keyboards. He said “you can set up two feet from them, but any nearer and I’m going to have to move them.” We were swimming against the tide; it was a purist thing going on. The cool thing then was to sound retro, like the Strokes, but people have said a lot further on that the album makes a lot more sense now!”
Finally I can’t resist bringing up the old chestnut of ‘new rave’ for his delectation. Does it mean anything? “I think it means the thing of people being enthusiastic about music, more broadly informed about it. In clubs now it’s very standard to have a good band and a DJ playing in between. It’s an awful name, but if it’s lumped in with cross-pollenisation then it’s good. The actual name I think is a fashion thing – glow sticks, hoodies – it’s nothing to do with me I think, and if you see how I dress you’ll see what I mean!”
The feeling is that Jas could talk all day, and he’s already very generously given forty minutes’ tea break over to our conversation. It’s an energy bordering on hyperactivity that clearly transmits to Simian Mobile Disco’s music – and their live performances. “The Astoria gig,” he informs me, “is going to be massive!” Only one thing to do then…