Interview: Simian Mobile Disco's Jas Shaw on Temporary Pleasure, Guest Vocalists, and Synthesizers
"I'd love to get Prince into the studio one time before he dies."
Jas is the one not drinking.
For the last five years, Simian Mobile Disco, the British production powerhouse of James Ford and Jas Shaw, have been reshaping people's musical expectations by turning EDM into pop music and back again. They've cut acid house with bratty rap, dosed nu-disco with heartbreaking vocals, and built epic storms out of static-y, frayed drum programming. Production values aside, however, their songs are distinguished by their melodies and hooks. Ford and Shaw are songwriters first, technology nerds second.
With the duo scheduled to perform at the Jelly Pool Party this Sunday and their highly anticipated sophomore album, Temporary Pleasure, dropping in two weeks, we got Jas, the duo's taller, blonder member, on the phone. He was racing to the Tokyo airport at the time, frantically trying to catch his flight back to England, but we still managed to discuss Temporary Pleasure, his background in "proper bands," the tactile pleasure of synthesizers, and guest vocalists.
I read in another interview you did that you and James [Shaw] were somewhat dissatisfied with the aesthetic presentation of your debut [Attack Decay Sustain Release], but that you're much happier with Temporary Pleasure. What did you want to achieve with this album in particular?
The original intention for it was to be a mostly instrumental record, which obviously it's not. Generally speaking, our intentions for it weren't very drawn out. Although I think the thing that carried through, that we did have an intention for, was the songs we thought were strong from the last record were the tracks that had really good chords, and really strong melodies. It took quite a drastic turn with the addition of all the vocalists, but I really feel like, melodically and harmonically, this is a much stronger record than the last one.
It surprises me to hear that you wanted to make a long-playing, more straight-up techno record. Are you still planning on releasing that version? Or will those versions just get used during your live show?
Probably both, actually. We've already started playing these tracks live, and they tend to be longer and more stripped down, more how we conceived the instrumentals to be. And also we're revising some of the original instrumentals, because when we DJ, we won't play them in the format they're in now-they're very much in a home-listening kind of state. So we've been in the studio turning them back into long-playing techno tracks. And on top of that, we've enjoyed doing that so much, creating these extra instrumentals, that we'll probably be releasing them as 12"s or on beatport or whatever. Possibly release it as an instrumental techno record.
So in that earlier interview you were talking about a musical aesthetic? I just assumed you were speaking more in terms of a non-musical message because it seems like, lyrically, there's a kind of anti-consumerist message that recurs throughout Temporary Pleasure. Is that stuff just a coincidence?
I mean, all the lyrics were done by the vocalists. We didn't write any lyrics.
But did you give them any kind of direction at all?
We did give people a freedom. It was really as simple as, we'd make a track, think of who'd be a good fit for it, send it to them, and see what would come back. So there was no kind of overall agenda for it. When we start out with a kind of master plan for something, it just doesn't happen. Our most productive time in the studio came when we gave up on prescribing what each track was going to be and just went in there each day and said, "Let's just make something and see what happens." That's when the most interesting stuff would happen.
But when you've got an artist in the studio, how do you work off of them? What kinds of things do they respond to?
We always choose to have a vocalist in, if possible, as it gives you a chance to guide them. In some cases this is just saying that you have a good take and don't need to do more. However often the vocalist will do things unintentionally that you like, and you can get them to repeat or exaggerate these things. If they're recording without you there, they will always be second guessing what you want, and that's rarely a good thing.
That spontaneity's very important to you. I think most people tend to think of electronic dance music as this very antiseptic, painstakingly assembled bunch of loops, but you and James seem not to like that. You record live to tape, you don't endlessly fuss over things in post-production. What is it about that endless refining that you don't like?
It doesn't feel like making music, y'know? I mean, both of us come from a background of being in proper bands, you know where you have a bass and a drummer and guitar and keys. I think there's something really valid in just recording a performance, where you have that thing where the red light's going, and you realize you have to do it there and then, you're not tweaking it afterwards. There's a certain kind of danger if you do everything in the laptop, where you're laying out the parameters and arranging everything beforehand, you don't leave any space for the kinds of accidents or things to happen naturally. It becomes very much a cerebral process rather than an intuitive process. I definitely think that the best things for us happen when we're not analyzing things, but we're following our ears.
Would you say there's a physical, tactile pleasure that comes with working with synthesizers? The physical experience of playing the drums, for example, or feeling the vibration of a guitar pick against strings, has an obvious appeal. Do you find that playing a synthesizer has any kind of similar effect?
Yeah. I think there is, even down to each individual one. It's like, where you can have two synthesizers that are essentially the same, but if the front panel of one is laid out differently, you would probably write different music on it. It's one of the things where the instruments you use have an effect of the music you're making, and we're quite conscious of that. It's one of a number of things that drives us to use hardware. Because [using hardware instead of plug-ins] is inconvenient, yeah, it always breaks down and it takes up a lot of space, but the fact that it is an instrument and it has that effect on how you make music, that makes it worthwhile to have. Of course, it's great to have laptops and software and all that and it's great for putting ideas down. You don't get the feeling of actually playing something, though.
It's really cool that you view them as musical instruments as well as hardware, but there must have been an adjustment period for you in that respect. Those old analog synths aren't exactly user-friendly. What was it like the first time you got your hands on one and tried to play it?
I remember going into a studio to record, and there was an Arp 2600 built into the wall. And while we were waiting [for everybody], the guy who was the engineer looked at me and said, "While we're waiting, have a go on that. See if you can get any noises out of it, it's brilliant!" And I remember pushing the faders all over the place, and no sound came out, and I just thought, "This is shit."
Yeah. It's definitely one of those things where you have to know something about how they work to get somewhere. But once you get into synths, once you figure out how one works, you start to see that there's a pattern to them. A modular synth's not that complicated, once you kind of get the basic principles.
I want to get back to Temporary Pleasure. Describe the transition from your plans to make an instrumental record to this song-based album with a dream team of guests on it.
It was always the intention to have some guests. Just not as many as we wound up with. People identify with vocals more than they do music, it's just a much more direct form of communication. So the intention was just to have two or three vocals, and all the people on there were people that we'd met at festivals while we were touring the last record. And we just assumed that most people would be busy, where everyone's kind of touring or making their own records or whatever. So we wound up sending out more than we needed simply because we assumed we wouldn't get that many back. And, happily, we did wind up getting back more than we expected, and all of them turned out to be really good. So it got to the point where we had all these versions with vocals, and they were all really good, and it kind of changed the way we viewed the instrumentals, and we really just decided to go with it. It wasn't anything that we labored over, we just decided to leave them on.
Gruff Rhys [of Super Furry Animals], Alexis Taylor [of Hot Chip], Beth Ditto [of Gossip], Chris Keating [of Yeasayer]...It's an amazing batch of people. If you could have your wildest dreams come true, who do you think you'd really love to do a track with?
I would have said Prince, but I saw him recently and it was shocking. [laughs]
I mean, it was at a jazz festival, and he was just playing these awful jazz licks. But I'd love to get him into the studio one time before he dies.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.