Ambition, Uncertainty and Simian Mobile Disco
James Ford and Jas Shaw burst into an almighty guffaw of laughter when I ask them why they’re so intrinsically attracted to danger and risk. “I mean come on!” says Shaw when their laughter subsides at last. “You know what we look like, right?”
The prospect that these softly spoken and unassuming men might be characterised as unhinged and archetypal rock ‘n’ roll stars, hurtling towards self-destruction, is evidently hilarious in the extreme.
Perhaps Shaw - bespectacled and sharp-featured - and his curly-haired musical partner don’t quite fit the bill visually as far as artists drawn to the romanticism of self-imposed jeopardy go, but throughout their career they’ve nonetheless held an emphatic desire to push boundaries, stretching themselves again and again to points where they teeter on that invigorating edge of potential collapse. Their album Whorl, for instance, was recorded entirely in the middle of the desert in the Joshua Tree National Park; “There was no real reason for us to do that, but it was funner!” says Shaw.
To take the most current example, the three of us are speaking just days after the pair played live at London’s Barbican. It was ambitious in terms of sheer scale at the very least, filling the imposingly large theatre for an album-in-full show for a record – their new LP Murmurations – that was then over a month from its release. They were joined by new collaborators The Deep Throat Choir, conducted through an endlessly intricate weave of lush and labyrinthine melody by Louisa Gerstein and backed by stunning live displays by Chris Parks and Saam Farahmand.
The visual artists were stationed over two miles away in a laboratory in Soho, tailoring stunning and hypnotic flows of psychotropic visuals using petri dishes full of coloured fluid, manipulated in real time, filmed on the same macro-lenses used for The Blue Planet and beamed onto the gigantic Barbican screens. In front of their huge, mesmeric projections stood Gerstein and her choir arranged in perfect symmetry, and at the front of the stage Shaw and Ford, each at the command of their own mighty rig of precariously assembled programming equipment. There are a multitude of moving parts, any number of which could falter, but they glide beautifully in time – the choir’s weaving and mazing layers of voice, rumbling and reverberating around the room’s perfect acoustics as Parks and Farahmand’s dazzling projections shapeshift sometimes like cells dividing, and sometimes like stars exploding. It is, in short, transcendently stunning.
“I think so often that electronic shows are just on rails, I’ve seen a lot of shows where you know nothing could go wrong bar a powercut,” Ford reflects a few days later. It might not translate to the audience but for our enjoyment of it, the fact that everything could fall over in x number of ways, it lends an extra edge and interest. Unfortunately we were facing away from the screens for most of it!”
“I’ve been pestering to try and get some footage of it because I really want to see it. It’s so crazy because they came up with this ludicrous system that had so many likely points of failure, it’s just stupid! There’s so many ways it could have gone wrong, and that’s exactly how we do things as well. Making electronic music now, there’s so many convenient and economical ways of doing things, and we’ll always find a much more complicated way. It doesn’t make it better, but it does make it more fun!”
"AL Amyloidosis It’s astronomically rare...someone was telling me there were only 500 diagnoses last year." - Jas Shaw
The live Murmurations show is deeply emotional. This has much to do with the nature of the music itself, but also because of the fact that this is to be their last show for the foreseeable future. Just over a week before it took place, it was announced that Simian Mobile Disco would be cancelling a planned American tour after Shaw’s diagnosis with AL Amyloidosis, an incredibly under-researched condition that occurs when a substance called Amyloid, produced in bone marrow, builds up in the internal organs. Shaw is currently receiving chemotherapy, but the prognosis for a disease that affects such a fractional percentage of people is unclear.
“It’s astronomically rare,” Shaw says. “Someone was telling me there were only 500 diagnoses last year. I was having shortness of breath and I kind of wrote that off as me being a bit out of shape, but I got a check and they could see something wasn’t good. I was more or less in A&E on and off for a couple of weeks, and then fortunately the cardiologist I saw was switched on enough to send us for some tests, which pointed towards things that could be caused by Amyloidosis.
"I did the scan, and they found Amyloid in my body. There’s no clear prognosis, everything is just completely up in the air. For the minute I’m spending my time metabolising chemotherapy drugs. What I’m hoping for in the short term is to get some sort of pattern where I can do some music, make some sort of normal out of this particularly strange and out-of-nowhere situation. In the medium term… I really don’t know. I didn’t have a plan for this! I am kind of just taking it day by day.”
There has been an enormous outpouring of love for Shaw and for Simian Mobile Disco as a result, first of all on social media and then physically at The Barbican show, charging their performance with an even deeper level of emotional resonance. “It was really, really nice, I’ve got to say,” he continues. “I don’t like being the centre of attention, but it was really nice. A lot of people got in contact who I hadn’t heard from in ages, and particularly because at the moment I’m spending a lot of time just resting; chemotherapy is very tiring so I’m flat out. People dropping you a text, a message or whatever, it makes you feel less disconnected from the world.”
The gig, he agrees, while meticulously planned months in advance, took on an extra edge as a result. “I’ve got to say there definitely was an element of that for both James and me. We were aware of the fact this is a special gig for all sorts of reasons. It was amazing to see the crowd as well, it struck me after the show that it’s quite an ask really, the record’s not even out yet! It could have been empty, we had no album out and we’re asking for an enormous amount of people to come to The Barbican. It was really nice that people would put that level of trust in us.”
"With this album we talked about what we were going to do before the music was even written. We’re constantly thinking of rules and parameters, it’s like an idea of what would be fun to do, like recording an album in one take in the desert, or getting a choir involved..." - James Ford
Their trust is repaid in full by Murmurations, an album that is lush, complex and rewarding in spades. As on every new project Simian Mobile Disco have undertaken it came with them redrawing the boundaries within which they’ll work, and on their new project they’ve delved deeper than ever. We don’t reinvent ‘ourselves’, but we do reinvent our process between every album” says Ford. “Maybe it’s because we’re both producers. For me that process of the environment, the building, the people you’ve got around you, all of that fundamentally effects the music you make. With this album, with Whorl and with the one before that, we talked about what we were going to do before the music was even written. We’re constantly thinking of rules and parameters, it’s like an idea of what would be fun to do, like recording an album in one take in the desert, or getting a choir involved, in fact.”
The Deep Throat Choir are the defining figures on this record; it is dominated by layers and layers of their beguiling voices. This is not, however, a ‘choir album’, those voices are not just used to add texture or an anthemic sweep but are harnessed and manipulated as an instrument in themselves, filtered through a unique and fascinating prism of Simian Mobile Disco’s own creation. “All the things we do to synths, we wanted to do to the choir,” Shaw explains. “A lot of the time we were quite cruel, we’d have these amazing stretches of audio and we’d crop out a single second and run that through a synth and that was the only bit we’d use. All of the references were non-choral.”
This choir in particular were chosen simply because of a pre-existing friendship, but nevertheless they were the ideal collective for this approach. “Some choirs can be a bit forceful, a bit Wagnerian and bombastic. It needed to be stripped of some of the baggage, particularly the religious baggage that you get with the majority of choirs, but also the intention of it. The intent of that choir is much more musically related to what we do than a lot of choirs, they’re very open minded, we didn’t have to translate our ideas to them, they just knew. The fact that they were a choir and they use their voice, it was almost irrelevant. Musically we were related already. It’s like a set of strings, they were doing things by ear.”
"The jump between engineer/producer and artist is something that we’re quite good at..."Jas Shaw
The logistics of working with a choir containing dozens of people, compared to a synthesiser, are their own challenge of course, especially when the collective is so in demand as to allow only a few days of solid time working together. Shaw’s studio was barely large enough to host them, so they were forced to relocate to The Pool in Southeast London where microphones were placed all over the room. “We had this enormous track count we were digging through, it was absolutely enormous, but at least it meant that we had a bit more control over what we’d recorded, and that we were thinking about the material rather than the technical side of things," says Shaw. "The jump between engineer/producer and artist is something that we’re quite good at, we can put our engineers hats on, but we knew we only had two days with the full choir assembled. It was really important that we were really focused on getting interesting stuff. The song stuff was planned, there was lots of procedural stuff that we had no idea if it was going to work. So that was amazing, but it was nerve-wracking."
The sessions were not arranged with a full album necessarily in mind; the band were expecting perhaps a 12” single or an EP, but as Shaw continues “The sessions just went way better than we expected, and we were left with loads and loads of just crazy textures.” The time that Simian Mobile Disco spent with the Deep Throat Choir was short, but so rigorous and potent that the result is as deep, lavish and explorative as anything they’ve ever put out; it is a career-high.
Of course, there were machinations before this short session, with Shaw and Ford meeting at the outset of the Murmurations project to discuss their plan of attack and delve into possible procedural routes. “Before then we’d been doing a lot of club-focused techno stuff, and we thought that if we made a new record we’d want to push ourselves into a new area, says Ford. "We’d talk about vocals, and the way we could produce them in a way that was different than how we’d used them in the past. A friend of ours sings in The Deep Throat Choir. I’d heard of them and seen them play so we raised the idea with Louisa and we had a few similar touch points. We were talking about stuff that’s not too verse-chorusy. Louisa started sending us some ideas over the things we’d made and we really liked the melody.
"In the studio we got really excited about trying to make the worlds of voices and electronics meet in a seamless way, to try and make the voices act like the way we’d use our synths, texturally and less in a song way." - James Ford
"Me and Jas were writing a whole load of procedural stuff, one that we really liked was creating a drone then nominating two or three people in the choir to be explorers and deviate from the notes they were given, then when one of them moved their neighbour would try to follow them and maybe harmonise or shadow them, then their neighbour would do the same, and then eventually the whole choir would fit into these melodic pads and structures that were sometimes atonal, sometimes meandering and sometimes complicated. We had them doing percussion noises, fireworks noises, non-traditional singing, very tight atonal clusters and swells that were almost like a synth swell – a changing a filter and opening a valve sound.
"Once we started to do that in the studio we got really excited about trying to make the worlds of voices and electronics meet in a seamless way, to try and make the voices act like the way we’d use our synths, texturally and less in a song way. That really opened up a whole thing.”
Much of the credit must go to Gerstein, the choir’s effervescent conductor. “She’s just been great through the whole process, really excited and into it and full of great ideas," Ford says. "With the live show, we had to reverse engineer our album as we always end up having to do, so we built the live show in terms of our equipment and our rig, and did the rehearsal, and then sent her the rough rehearsals earlier in the year. She went away and totally rehearsed the choir to this structure and made this amazing big diagram of how it all fits together, she really went there!”
“She’s got such great wisdom for dealing with them,” he enthuses. “I’d play a chord and she’d immediately nominate different sections to do different notes. There was a load of rehearsing for the recording and for the live show, she put a lot into it and that made the whole thing work. Without that it could have just not been anything. Really we just did those two days recording then took it away to Jas’ studio, editing it all down.
"One of the things we got really excited by was that we managed to find a way to take the sort of slightly loose and improvised stuff that they’d been doing but extract different notes from it. We had all of this information to feed back into our synths. We managed to find a way for us to make our electronics follow the vocals and really shadow them and almost make it imperceptible which is a vocal and which is a process or a synthesizer. It was really fun to work on, and we incorporated a bit of live percussion that we wouldn’t have done normally. It all just came together so easily.”
The immediate future for Simian Mobile Disco is - for now - unclear. Whatever the next stage, however, in Murmurations and its singular live show the band have delivered a rounded, conclusive piece of work, arguably the zenith of their career so far. “It’s come into a really nice, complete circle," Ford explains. "What we intended to do was just to make a record with a choir, enjoy doing it, push ourselves into an area we hadn’t gone before, and do some shows that were a spectacle. It’s not out yet, but already for us this has been a successful album. We had an idea, we chased the idea and it turned into something we’re proud of."