Quietus Mix 65: Simian Mobile Disco Trip The Light Fantastic
, June 14th, 2012 08:22
Simian Mobile Disco have just released their third album proper, Unpatterns. The duo speak to us about the process of recording it, and turn in a killer curveball of a mix for the Quietus mix series
As Simian Mobile Disco, James Ford and Jas Shaw have walked a serpentine path over the last few years, calling at stripped-back club music, technicolour electronic pop, big name vocal collaborations and, with new album Unpatterns, an intricate take on the house and techno that's long made up the body of their DJ sets. On the surface, it harks back both to its immediate predecessor Delicacies and anthemic early tracks like 'Hustler' and 'Tits & Acid', certainly a great deal more than to song-heavy second album Temporary Pleasures. However, closer listens reveal it's subtly different: complex and multi-faceted, and unfolding slowly and patiently where their earlier tracks hit straight for the jugular.
Speaking via email, they account this to their working process, which was designed to incorporate the idea of pattern interference: "the way simple patterns moving out of phase with each other generate more complex patterns," they explain, "sometimes so complex that they don't appear to be patterns at all, they become a chaotic movement. The kind of interference that is both simultaneously destructive and constructive. A lot of the tracks on the album are based on sequencer patterns running through the modular synths and drum machines, overlaid and shifting in and out of time." That approach extends to the album title, and its artwork, which uses Moiré patterns – the overlaying and movement of a pair of gridded patterns across one another – to create a disorienting visual effect when the album is slid from its case.
With the album released last month, Ford and Shaw took us up on our suggestion that they record an addition to our mix series, and they've turned in something of a curveball. Featuring everything from tape loop manipulator William Basinski and cosmic synth explorer Motion Sickness of Time Travel to Detroit techno icons Robert Hood and Carl Craig, via Berlin's Shed (under his guise of The Traveller) and modern legends John Cage and Cluster, it's a mind-stretching journey of a mix – and, it's fair to say, a tad different from what many might expect of a duo as familiar with producing rock bands as they are sitting behind banks of modular synth units.
"We've taken the opportunity to do something away from a traditional DJ mix," they say. "There's a selection of electronic stuff on there, much of which is old, but there's some newer bits too. It was nice to take a few tracks that are in the weekend record box and readdress them in the context of music that's not going to make people dance. Just as a warning, this is not the kind of mix you might put on before you go out at the weekend - save it until you get in."
Listen to Simian Mobile Disco's Quietus mix below, and scroll down the page to read our full interview with the duo.
Unpatterns feels like a logical continuation of the process you started with the Delicacies tracks, shifting back towards a very direct and dancefloor oriented sort of sound. Has this been a conscious choice?
Simian Mobile Disco: Yes, definitely. Although with Delicacies, we were aiming at pure club music, stuff we could play out when we DJed, with no compromises towards potential for home listening. With Unpatterns, we've kept some of the aesthetic of Delicacies, but also softened and blurred it a bit, allowing in more human emotion and musicality. There are still some obvious club tracks on the new album, but a lot tends towards more late night, reflective melancholy states of mind than peak time bangers. So hopefully it's an album you'd want to listen to at home, or on headphones, not just when you're out.
How did the new album come together? Was it quite a quick process of writing, or did it end up taking quite a while for all the parts to fit together?
SMD: It was quite a slow process... We started writing for the album last summer, but we were DJing and playing live so much that we were only really working on bits here and there, and it wasn't massively productive. So come the autumn we knuckled down and spent two months in the studio gathering all the bits we'd been working on and re-working a lot. In the end we got twenty tracks that were album contenders, and whittled down to the nine here. The others will surface as B-sides, bonuses etc along the way.
Your music has subtly evolved through quite a few different styles over the time you've been working together. Has that basically just been the result of your own curiosity/resistance to staying in one place? And have the dynamics of playing it live, to a club crowd, helped to shape your sound?
SMD: A bit of both really! No band should rest on their laurels and try and repeat what they've already done. You should always be looking forward and developing. The shift towards making Delicacies was very much influenced by us DJing a lot, and playing to more and more techno and house orientated crowds over time. Our more vocal led work on Temporary Pleasure kind of came about by accident, as a result of almost everyone we asked delivering vocals - when we thought we'd get maybe two or three. So it wasn't a conscious decision to make a poppier record with lots of guests, more that we had all these vocals to work with and it seemed a shame not to give it a go...
You've always toyed the line between stripped-back club music and more of a pop songwriting approach, both with your production work and your own music. Do you see there as being a defined line between the two? And do you find that influences from one side bleed across to the other?
SMD: Yes and no... Certainly we both worked producing a lot of "band" bands, guitars, drums, recording live in a room etc - which is a very different process from writing and producing our own music, and the two don't really influence each other. Of course we apply what we know about electronic production to those bands where it's appropriate, but that's actually less common - we're wary of producing dance/rock crossover bands these days because its so hard to get right, and it can sound lame slapping electronic beats over a live band, so our interests tend to be away from that when we're looking at who to work with. On the other hand, with Temporary Pleasure, with hindsight we did work some of those tracks almost more like producers, the guests' songs dominated rather than our own music. We're still proud of that album, but looking back it perhaps didn't really represent us as much as it should have.
As people who are heavily invested in dance music's history - primarily, perhaps, as listeners/fans, and then also as producers - how did you find the process of twisting it to into more obviously 'pop' shapes for some of your collaborations? Was it a challenge, or quite natural? Have you always aimed to keep functionality as an important aspect of the music you make?
SMD: A lot of those tracks that ended up being the poppier ones - if you strip them of the vocals and some of the melodies, back to what they originally were - they are actually pretty minimal sounding pieces of club music! So in fact, there's not as much separating of the two as you might think. Functionality is important for some of the music - Delicacies, especially - but not always. On this album it hasn't been so much in the forefront of our minds.
What are your plans now that the album is complete and released? Do you have much lined up?
SMD: We're doing a lot of DJing over the summer, and working on getting our live show together for October/November. We're also planning to release a single/EP of the material that didn't make it onto the album around then.