Every musician needs to take action to keep themselves fresh from time to time, but James Ford and Jas Shaw of Simian Mobile Disco have really gone to extremes this time: they’ve completely abandoned every tool they previously used to make music. The duo have never been ones to follow anyone else’s methods in any case – the title of their last album Unpatterns says it all about their penchant for disruption and reinvention – but for the recording of their new record, Whorl, they’ve started from the ground up and created an entirely new electronic system, and recorded everything entirely live, from scratch.
Over the years – as members of the criminally underrated “prog-psychedelic band” Simian, as one of the UK’s finest electronic duos, and individually as esteemed producers for other acts – James and Jas have accumulated mountains of incredible vintage synthesisers and other general sound-making boxes. The sounds of these devices made Unpatterns what it was, but this time around they’re putting them all away, denying themselves the almost unlimited freedom they afforded, and limiting themselves to two suitcase-sized boxes each. No laptops; no racks of hardware; just one synth and one sequencer each, which they took into the Joshua Tree national park in California and recorded the album in front of an audience.
“This forces us to commit,” says Jas; “when we record with it, this is the system, and there can be no turning back. When both of us have worked with bands, we’ve always banged on to them about preparing songs before you come into the studio so you can get them done fast and don’t get bogged down in the process once you’re there…” “…and now we’re giving ourselves a taste of our own medicine!” laughs James. The entire process has been completely open-ended and exploratory as they work their way around this new system – until the very moment of recording, at which point they commited 100% to the sounds they are making.
When SMD advise you on studio processes, you’d do well to listen as their wisdom is hard-won. Simian, the band they formed with Simon Lord and Alex McNaughten at Manchester University, was signed to a subsidiary of a major label in 2000. It was an unlikely start, given that they were in James’s words “a kind of prog-psychedelic thing partially named after the Silver Apples’ drum synth”, or as Jas puts it “trying to show you could make band music with songs and harmonies but be into Autechre too, just at the moment the world was into the Strokes and White Stripes and straight-ahead rock music.”
In fact Simian’s music was gorgeous, with a rich pop streak – but as the descriptions suggest, its overtly baroque structures were way out of tune with the time. With the arrogance of youth, the four of them convinced themselves that big things were theirs for the taking, but though their two albums were exceedingly well received in many quarters, global domination evaded them; the combination of thwarted ambition and four very different creative personas led to friction and the band split before completing their third album.
Meanwhile, though, the Simian Mobile Disco project had started to take a vague kind of shape. Originally simply a name under which band members would DJ – in order to, says Jas, “satisfy our urges to do something more freeform, as touring locked us into playing the same songs again and again in the same way.” The name, increasingly just referring to James and Jas, was then used for the band’s own remix of themselves, then for remixes of others, and as Simian came to an end became the duo’s main creative outlet as they made more and more electronic tracks for their own DJ sets.
This gigging and jamming served them well, as when Wichita Recordings suggested an album release they realised they had at least two full CDs’ worth of viable tracks. Attack Decay Sustain Release emerged in 2007, riding a wave of attention following the success of the “Hustler” single first released on the fledgling Kitsuné label, and Justice’s inescapable remix of Simian’s “We Are Your Friends”. This latter never had anything to do with SMD directly, and they have done their best to dissociate themselves from it bar the occasional mischievous dropping of the intro in a DJ set, but there’s no denying the boost it gave the Simian Mobile Disco name, with ADSR consolidating that masterfully.
Where ADSR had had a couple of guest vocals, its follow up Temporary Pleasure was veritably star spangled, thanks to Jas and James’s growing list of production credits. Beth Ditto features prominently, as well as Gruff Rhys, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, Yeasayer’s Chris Keating and more. The results are sometimes as stellar as the lineup, but both Jas and James have reservations: both admit they were acting too much like producers, letting the singers and songs take precedence rather than “the SMD sound”. It was this they reacted against with Delicacies, a record of straight ahead techno tracks purely designed for their own DJ sets; but even the hedonistic blast of these tracks still felt constrained by techno’s own rulesets.
Unpatterns, in turn, was their escape from that world and into open-ended synth exploration. The effusive, slightly professorial Jas talks happily of “spending months getting our heads round some of this kit”, while the rather more laconic James laughs as he says it was a process of “twisting knobs until we got something we liked.” The result was their most complete and coherent album yet, a gorgeous exploration of texture and groove that touched on everything from the Silver Apples through Phuture to Lone and Pearson Sound. The stunning set of 12”s they’ve continued releasing on their Delicacies series, in collaboration with people like Bicep, Roman Fleugel and Cosmin TRG, meanwhile, have kept them well in touch with the clubs.
Now, they are constraining themselves technologically in order to free themselves up even more musically. The result is something that takes you right into the heart of their creative processes, veering from completely abstract ambient explorations through buoyant repetitions that float into the territory of the most cosmic German and Italian synth explorers of the 1970s and 80s, then take flight into otherworldly techno grooves. Note well, it’s not a sound that punches you in the face with its newness or weirdness – the album draws you in gently with the truly beautiful airborne, beat-free opening passage of ‘Redshift’ and ‘Dandelion Spheres’, and each track thereafter is subtle, rarefied and elegant.
Once you start listening deeply, though – to the slo-mo techno of ‘Hypnick Jerk’, say, or to ‘Nazard’ which sounds like an eighties soul ballad heard through a mushroom haze, or to the urgent build of cosmic orchestral intensity in ‘Tangents’ – you can hear the ongoing, constantly developing musical conversaiton between James and Jas. It’s like being allowed in to the middle of a psychic duet. “If anything,” says James, “Whorl can be taken as one long piece, because in the performance of it, we’ve gone where the processes we’ve set up have taken us.” And he’s completely right – it’s as a whole that Whorl comes to life and really opens up its secrets and surprises. It’s a truism that you should expect the unexpected from SMD, but this time round you can be damn sure of it, as they’ve created a system to ensure that it’s precisely the only thing you can expect.