Interview – Simian Mobile Disco by Angela Shen

Allow me to introduce you to the lovely Aquarian homegirl, Angela. She’s near and dear to my heart and loves good music a lot. She was lucky enough to interview Simian Mobile Disco before their show in LA and rather than say anything about how dope it is, enjoy!

P.S. Here’s my favorite tune from their latest album!


Something about Simplicity and Complexity

Simian Mobile Disco is kicking more ass now than ever. Last month, the duo released their third full-length LP Unpatterns and is currently working on their live show debuting later on this year. They’ve also been playing quite a few DJ gigs in between, and I was lucky to have the opportunity to sit down with James Ford before his set at the Avalon in Hollywood. Having just flown in from Colorado less than two hours before I arrived at his hotel, he looked a bit tired but still chatted with me animatedly. Casually sipping a beer while we sat at the rooftop bar of the hotel, James was delightfully unpretentious in contrast to our decidedly upscale and swanky surroundings. He apologized for his partner’s absence. “Jas had to fly home and attend to some family matters.”

A: How do you deal with such a demanding schedule? Do you exercise or keep up a special diet?

J: You just get used to it. You end up sleeping in 3-hour chunks and then sleep a lot when you get home. I haven’t got a kid but I suppose this is what having a kid is like. Does it look like I exercise? No, I eat healthily, but the problem is I drink too much. I find it hard to DJ while sober. I get too analytical about it. But you need to find a balance between being too pissed as well because then you think everything is fine and it’s not. I do “measured drinking.”

A: How many drinks does it take for you to find that balance?

J: I don’t know, anything between at least three and less than fifteen. Luckily Jas is pretty straight so if I ever get too drunk, he just takes over. But tonight I’m on my own so I’ve got to stay on the straight and narrow.

A: How did you and Jas meet?

J: We met at university, at Manchester. We both went there to get into music and I answered his advert on a notice board for a drummer. Jas and Alex – the bass player in Simian – already had a little band thing going. I wasn’t really a drummer but I was like, “I could probably do it.” We eventually started living together and continued fucking about with music, and that turned into Simian. When that dissolved Jas and I just carried on as DJs.

A: What was the living situation like when you and Jas were at university?

J: We lived in a house together. The most memorable one was called “The Old School,” literally, and it used to be a Muslim school for girls. We lived there when we were students for a while – there were about 10 people in there – and after a few years it literally turned into a hellhole of like, fucking drugs and weirdness. I remember there being weird people sleeping on the sofa like, kind of dodgy guys that we didn’t know and they would be there for three weeks and then we were just like, “Right, maybe it’s time to move on…”

A: When you work as a team of musicians, do you find that you are more compatible in your similarities? Or is it that you balance each other out like yin and yang?

J: Yeah, I don’t know, it’s quite weird, I think with a lot of DJ duos it seems like it would be a nice story if they were really different like, one person does one thing and the other does another. But honestly, I’ve spent the last 10 years with him. I’ve done a lot of traveling with him so after awhile you become more similar, do you know what I mean? I spend more time with him than I do my wife! On the other side of it, when I think about people who travel a lot and DJ, and I realize that having a friend around is a good thing. It’s good to have that shared experience with someone so you can be like, “Remember that time we did this crazy thing in this place,” you know what I mean? If you’re on your own, you can never really explain it to anyone.

A: Oh definitely. Solo travel can get lonely. I understand that when you and Jas were starting out, you’d play at secret warehouse gigs. Is that something you’re still interested in doing, or do you feel like you’ve outgrown that scene?

J: We’re actually trying to do more of those kinds of things if anything. We’d rather play to a really good 400 people sweaty rave than some kind of bottle service-type club. The more weird and dirty the rave the better. I think we’re having an after party tonight, actually.

A: Oh, really? I’ve got to get that address from you! When you released Delicacies in 2010, you also organized a series of club nights called “Delicatessen”. Will this project continue, or was it just a one-time thing?

J: Really, I think we confused people with that whole project. It was supposed to be our sub label where we can just put out club tracks kind of quickly and not really say anything about it. Which is what we did – we put out a series of 12 inches and didn’t really promote or do anything. And then we made this slightly dubious decision of collecting them together as a compilation at the end of the year. So, obviously – it’s got 10 tracks on the CD and it’s got a cover – so people think it’s an album. But we never really intended it to be our third album! However, I think the project will continue once this album cycle dies down. We will hopefully collaborate with some producers that we like. And yeah, the club nights are ongoing, but it really depends on when we will have the time and energy to do it.

A: What was it like putting on “Delicatessen”?

J: It was kind of like having a birthday party; do you know what I mean? You’re sort of worried if everyone will turn up. Honestly, I’d rather play a club night than organize and promote it because actually, promoting is quite a lot of hassle and stress. It’s good when it works, but it’s not something you want to do all the time. When you promote, you’ve got that thought in the back of your head. You don’t think so much about the music, you think, “Is it going to be a good night?” You wouldn’t want to do that every night of your life. It’s more fun just to play.

A: Word on the street is, you two are working on a live show.

J: We’ve always meant to do a live show, really, but we haven’t quite figured out how yet. Most of the album is made with real machines – 808 or 909 drum machines and synthesizers – there wasn’t really any MIDI programming like one that’s done on a computer. Our music is done in an old fashioned kind of way, and it’s really fun for us to work like that. But it also means that there’s no recorded information for a live show. We had to go back and try to reverse engineer what things plug into what things, how we had it set up, and a complicated system like the modular system we’ve got is quite tricky. We’ve nearly got it together now, and it took us longer than we expected, but it’s going to be good, I think. We’re hoping to do a tour at the end of the year.

A: Excellent! Let’s talk about your new album. What inspired the name Unpatterns?

J: The name came to us while we were making tracks. In the beginning they all had kind of arbitrary, working titles. However, when we were getting into it, we started having conversations about concepts that we could maybe call the album or things that we were interested in that might relate to the music. We eventually built up a big bank of these names and we started to form concept tracks. In the process of that we were also thinking about the visual side of things and really, the thing we liked about the name Unpatterns (which is obviously a made up thing) is that it describes how a simple pattern combined with another simple pattern can suddenly create something really chaotic and kind of unknowable, kind of magical. Think of the Moiré effect where you get two of the essentially same pattern and slightly offset them, which is what the album cover is. We even made an app with it. So it’s about constructive and destructive interference. There are these two patterns and you can rotate them, and they interfere with each other. Basically these two really simple patterns were overlaid and slightly changed – and together they make something really complicated that you never thought could exist from that. That’s the literally way we make music as well. It’s simple sequences and drum patterns, but a few of them interact and they make something that we wouldn’t expect or know it could be. And so Unpatterns as an album name seems to make sense.

A: Seems like geometric patterns, shapes, and lines are an ongoing visual theme for you and Jas.

J: Yeah, and back to the circles on our SMD logo and everything, really, it’s all kind of linked in. There’s something about geometry that’s sort of mystic and magical – Pythagoras and all that stuff. It’s the truths that govern the universe and patterns and all that. It’s psychedelic as well, there’s something quite transcendental about it that really appeals to me. Repetition, it links into how we use vocals as well, loops, just simple patterns and phrases. Something about simplicity and complexity.

A: One thing I immediately noticed about Unpatterns is that it doesn’t have very many vocals on it. It’s definitely a departure from Temporary Pleasure.

J: No, it doesn’t really. It’s got some little loopy bits but no. We kind of did it on purpose. On Temporary Pleasure we gave out lots of tracks to vocalists and we didn’t expect them all to come back. We were originally planning on using two or three vocals. But loads and loads of vocals came back and we just kind of got wrapped up in vocal world and ended up using most of them. In hindsight too many of them, I think, because instrumentals would have made for a more balanced record. Some of our better songs are on that album but also some of our worst. The main problem with using vocals is that other people’s personalities and vocal identities dictate the song. So on this album we were very keen to make it our record and not have anyone else’s input. We used a bit of vocals but only textural things – sweetness, like a human element – but really I suppose it’s an instrumental record. I don’t know, we might use vocals again in the future, but for this record we were just in this particular zone.

A: I think the lack of vocals fits in the concept of the album.

J: Yeah, it just felt like the right thing to do. It’s what we were excited by. You know, on “Seraphim” and other tracks that have got some snippets of vocals on them, we were trying longer vocals, and it just didn’t really fit in with the mood. It didn’t really fit with the sort of open, psychedelic feel we were going for. We were actually trying to fit this longer vocal over it, looping it just to get it in the right key and we were like, “It actually sounds really good looped over. Let’s just use it like that.”

A: With instrumentals, you give the listener more room for interpretation.

J: Yeah, totally. It’s got more space in it, it’s deeper and less “instant.” It’s not like “oh, that’s a pop song” or “oh, that’s a radio song.” You can listen to it over and over and notice different details each time. I think any pressure we had to try and do more commercial stuff was probably from ourselves, which resulted in Temporary Pleasure. But you know, as a producer the lesson that you learn in the end is just to make something honest and not try to second guess what other people think. It’s hard to remember that, you know what I mean? But I think we’ve done that now. I feel like we’ve arrived at a sound that we’re happy with. I don’t know what we’re doing next, but at the end of the day, we’re just making music that we like and if people are into it it’s a bonus.


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