08.08.2009, Words by Charlie Jones

Simian Mobile Disco "We like the wonky bits."

Simian Mobile Disco don’t do loads of interviews, partly, they say, because they get asked questions like, What’s your favourite monkey? Still, they have just returned from Japan where James Ford had to field the questions alone, as Jas Shaw had to get back to London to tend to his swine flu-filled kids, and they are happy to do a Dummy interview.
We meet them in their studio in Hackney which is festooned with copious amounts of knobs, wires and impressive-looking old analogue synths that they used on their second album Temporary Pleasure which is about to be unleashed. It’s a far poppier prospect than it’s predecessor, with songs featuring Beth Ditto of The Gossip, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, and Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys amongst others, but it still packs a techno punch to keep the dancefloor satiated.

Last time Dummy met them – over two years ago – Jas still had a day job. So, is he glad he gave it up?

Jas:  I’ve not had many jobs and going in and quitting is the best feeling. If I hadn’t of thought that this was going to go any further than us two just dicking around then we would have changed our name. Cos it’s shit name isn’t it? But at Christmas two years ago we decided to really give it a go to see if it would fly.

Back then It sounded like you were fitting in recording your debut into whatever precious time you had?

James: That hasn’t changed. The first record was done on weekends and little snatches of studio time. The second one has ended up being done the same way but we’ve been busy in a different way. We’ve both been producing bands, and then touring and trying to be human beings so there’s not been much time. It’s kind of a blessing because you don’t over think things. We intended to make a techno record and then hijacked ourselves half way through. We had a pile of tracks we knew might work with vocals. We sent a load out (to vocalists) expecting to get two or three back and ended up at Christmas with eight or nine things in that we really liked. They also worked as songs whereas on the last record we chopped things up and manipulated the vocals a lot more. This time we thought it would be weird to chop them up so the album is now more song based.

It’s turned out quite poppy hasn’t it?

James: It does feel quite poppy. We only realised after we had finished it. We probably wouldn’t play many of the songs in that format in the live show. But with us producing other bands we have naturally pushed the album in that direction. So it’s not just a collection of dance tracks although we still love doing them. We are in the process of doing an alternative version of the record already, maybe for release next year,  with some of the more techno stuff on we left off the album.

I suppose the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk made song based albums and then play for the dancefloor when they go live?

Jas:Yes and going further back In the 80s there was often a pop version and then a ten minute long b-side.
James: We like the way songs can exist in different formats. We’re very aware of the different aesthetics of techno and dance music compared to songs. 

How do you decide which should just be left as tracks and which need vocals?

Jas: It’s quite often really simple as sometimes a track feels finished. Or if you go any further with them there’s no room for vocals as you fill up all the musical space. Some tracks you can’t see how you’d fit a vocal on. If there’s space for a vocal it’s worth a try. Some don’t work with a vocal and then you end up finishing them instrumentally. Getting a vocal on a track changes it around. It’s something neither of  us can control  and it makes it deviate from where it might originally have gone and that can be a good thing.
James: Sometimes we will hear a tune and you want to make something a bit like it. If half way through something takes you in a different direction those are the things we get excited about. That’s why we use a lot of analogue stuff because it’s naturally sends you off in directions you didn’t intend. Working with vocals you get something back that is this random immovable object that you have to circumvent which can be a creative thing to do.

How did you decide who do work with?

James: They are mainly people we met at festivals and sort of knew. There wasn’t anyone we cold called. We did gigs with most of them. It was like, This track needs this type of voice, who do we know who can do that? Beth’s track is a  Detroit-y soul thing so we needed a voice like hers. Most people were up for it and they came back with lyrics we liked too which was lucky.

Do you know what all the songs are about as you did not write the lyrics?

James: No. All the lyrics were done by the singers.
Jas: Gruff’s (Rhys) track is pretty obtuse and God knows what Telepathe are on about.

They are all quite unconventional singers too…

Jas: We were going for characterful voices rather than technical perfection.
James: We like the human-ness and wonky bits.
Jas: We chose people for their vocal style and writing style. So we aren’t going to go to Gruff with lyrics and a melody written for him because then you are losing a big part of what you like about that person.

The album is very synthetic too. Was that intentional?

James: It’s all synthetic. There’s not a natural sound on there. We never use samples other than a Todd Rundgren vocal sample on there (on Synthesize). But we had this romantic notion stemming from the BBC Radiophonic workshop when synths first were invented that they could make any sound in the world and you would not need an orchestra because you can make an oboe sound, a string sound and a drum sound from synths which is kinda bollocks. But the process of looking for a brass stab and then going through the synths to recreate it and then you end up finding something that doesn’t really sound like that but perhaps sounds even better.
Jas; Who wants a fucking brass stab?

It’s quite Italo-disco in places, especially on the track, Off The Maps…

Jas: Quite a few tracks started off with that cosmic, Italo sound.
James: But we moved away from it because it was a bit too current. So we pulled away from that.

You have been working with artist Kare Moross on a visual identity. Is that important to you?

James: Yes, that will be reflected in the live show. She’s been helping us maintain a thread of continuity. Trying to keep the visual ideas simple and have it flow through everything from artwork, live show to T-shirts.
Are you still enjoying playing live at festivals and clubs?
James: The gigs have been getting better and better. The last run we have just done, Fuji Rock, Melt in Germany have all been stellar. We’ve got loads of lasers and visual shit going on now. The show is evolving. It’s quite flexible and different every time for us.

So outside of Simian who have you been working with?

James: Done a bit with Klaxons. Jas has done some Little Boots stuff, I’ve done some Florence and the Machine stuff. Obviously Arctic Monkeys. Chrome Hoof we’ve just been working with. Jas has worked with Invasion.
Does working with bands then influence what you are doing?
Jas: Not directly but it’s all experience. I learnt how to do lots of tape flanging with Invasion.

What else are you listening to? Any tips for Dummy readers?

James: Loads of tracks rather than albums. I like Dirty Projectors, Black Meteoric Star. Beautiful Swimmers. Heldon, a 70s proggy type thing. Detachments.
Jas: The Joakim record is great. 

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