Music Interviews

Interview: Shapeshifters

In 2004, nobody’s summer passed without anacquaintance with the Shapeshifters.

To say Lola’sTheme was big would be a king-sized understatement,but Simon Marlin and Max Reich refusedto pressure themselves into a hastily conceived followup flop.

Instead they returned with a solid song-basedtrack Back To Basics, and have recently supplementedthat with the equally hooky Incredible.
Time for analbum then, and the duo have obliged with arefreshingly coherent and varied piece of work. WhenmusicOMH tracked them down to the label’s London offices the mood was oneof relaxed confidence.

Clearly the duo were aware of a lack of quality inthe dance album stakes, but as Max explains they hadexperience on their side. “I think the differencebetween us is we’ve done it before, been working somany years in the music industry it was a naturalthing for us to do, and after Back To Basics we hadthe window of opportunity. Other people, eitherthey’re not prepared or don’t have the resources orare even just too scared!”

The duo have been making electronic music for some15 years. Back then Simon was in an industrycapacity. “I worked with Peppermint Jam, I was thelabel manager there. Before that I had a managementcompany with Lola (his wife), and we looked after Maxon that, running clubs and doing DJ tours.

“I’ve alwaysbeen in dance music and it was around 1990 when Istarted doing remixes – the first one wasSylvester‘s Mighty Real. It was not until myrelationship with Max where I started to pick up thethings I needed to know. It wasn’t until 2003 that Ihad the balls to put my name to something.”

“Wecouldn’t just do it all 4/4 or it would sound like afucking compilation.”
– Simon Shapeshifter on making an album.

Which is where their big tune came in. “Basicallywe’d started to set up our own label Nocturnal Groovesand we needed a record to launch it with. I was athome listening to Lola one night and she played me anold record by Johnny Taylor called What AboutMy Love. The first eight bars of that record was thestring riff, and the next day me and Max took it andit felt good, so we gave it the working title ofLola’s Theme. It was originally an instrumental, thenwe added the verse on afterwards.”

And what of thefollow-up? “Well I think a few people were surprisedBack To Basics was quite as assured as it was, but thething is we wanted to work doubly hard to make sure itwas. We also had more money in the bank from Lola’sTheme, and it was the vibe we were on at the time,wanting a big strings and brass section. If anythingthere was more pressure from ourselves to make it goodthan from anyone else! And then we turned a similarapproach to Incredible – we wanted them to turn outthat way, as after all we don’t make jazz music!”

Lola’s Theme, of course, was a Europe-wide smash,and Back To Basics didn’t exactly do badly either,paving the way for the album. Simon takes up the plan.”We decided that if we were going to make an album wecouldn’t just do it all 4/4 or it would sound like afucking compilation, and so we didn’t have any remitwhen we sat down and started writing.

“We’ve started rehearsing, but we wantto spend a lot of time on it, get it really good.”
– Simon Shapeshifter on plans for a live show.

“We took25 demos and picked the best twelve. It’swhat it is, how we were feeling at the time, what wecame from. We come from a club background, so a fewtracks on there are about the chemical generation,then there’s things about our beliefs, things we’repissed off about in the world at the moment, like theopening track which is an anti-Bush statement.”

The album track Sensitivity features Chic‘sNile Rodgers who Max says “was amazing. Wehooked up with him and he loves Lola’s Theme andwanted to do something with us, and so he actuallyfound an old demo that he recorded with Bernard, hisband mate in Chic, it had been lying around forfifteen years or so and he just found it!

“There wereno vocals, no nothing and he just e-mailed it over tous and we wrote a completely new song over it, thenrecorded strings and all the vocals and stuff ande-mailed it back to him. He jammed with his guitarover it, and so it was done pretty much completelyover the internet!” We met up once when the track wasfinished and it was amazing to meet him, he’s beeninvolved in so many successful records.”

It’s easy to see why working with Rodgers was sucha boon for the group and Simon in particular, for hegrew up with “early Jackson, Stevie Wonder,Mamas and Papas, even Tears For Fears.Then I got more into techno and electro, startedenjoying house music.” Now the group sit squarely onthe divide between commercial and underground dancemusic. Simon agrees. “Some people used to say it was agrey area, but because dance music suffered so much afew years back some people got a bit too snobby abouteverything like that.”

“I think a few people were surprisedBack To Basics was quite as assured as it was.”
– Simon Shapeshifter on the recent compilation record.

Next stop for the Shapeshifters is the annual dancemusic conference in Miami. “We’ve got two gigs – aPositiva night and one with Frankie Knuckles.It’s a great get-together and handy to have the albumcoming out at the same time, it gives us a little moreexposure.”

Knuckles is something of a hero to thepair. “Absolutely” says Max, “he’s one of those peoplewho’s been around, one of the pioneers of house music.He called us up and said how much he loved Back ToBasics, and we did a great night in Pacha togetherlast summer. He’s a very humble, lovely guy.”

Since the two are keen to keep their DJing and bandprojects simultaneously on the go, the choice of actsthey admire reflects this. “Obviously theJaxx“, says Simon, “the Prodigy,Chemical Brothers, Faithless – all actsthat have done it bigger and better than we have. Asfor DJs, well Frankie’s still brilliant, then there’sRoger Sanchez, Martin Solveig – he’s areally talented guy. Full Intention we love aswell.”

And on plans for taking the show live, Simon isenthusiastic. “It’s high on the list, and somethingthat separates you from being a bog standard danceproduction duo. We’ve started rehearsing, but we wantto spend a lot of time on it, get it really good, andit takes a lot of money too.”

The only time he’sstumped for an answer is when I ask who he’d havesupporting them. “Support? I thought we’d besupporting other people to be honest! Probably a DJ Iguess, our own boy Simon Hawes, a deep nocturnal set.”It’s refreshing, then, to know the Shapeshifters’success is still early enough to be continually takingthem by surprise.

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More on Shapeshifters
Interview: Shapeshifters
Shapeshifters – Sound Advice