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Simian Mobile Disco on How to Not Be a Dickish DJ

The essential live techno duo talk Berghain, Joshua Tree, and their secret to longevity

The origin tale of Simian Mobile Disco was once an oft-told tale, but it's been so long that many people don't even remember that Jas Ford and James Shaw were once part of weirdo-pop band Simian, an adventurously creative four-piece whose "Never Be Alone" was posthumously remixed into one of Justice's first hits. Even though the band was most definitely a guitarry endeavor, their pre-occupation with electronic tones was evident from the beginning.


"Our way in to dance music wasn't so much straight into techno. It was through weird electronic stuff…We were actually fucking around with effects pedals and synths before Simian happened," says Shaw. "When we met Simon [Lord, lead singer], we bonded over the idea of trying to mix his like for folky, singer-songwriter stuff with Warp and Autechre, because that's the kind of stuff we were getting into. We just kind of got in a room, made an album in our bedroom, and got signed from that."

"Never Be Alone," Simian's pre-split 2002 single

Simian broke up after their second album, though, during an ill-fated American tour. "We kind of fell out as individuals, basically, and the band was no more," says James. "I felt like if we could have held it together a bit, as individuals, we could have gone on to make some good records," continues Jas. "We were pushing against what was going on at that time. A couple of years later, there were quite a few bands doing similar stuff."

It was during that American tour that the future SMD duo got a taste for DJing. "After the gigs, we'd always go off and DJ in some random bar, not really club DJing, just more, eclectic indie-band DJing, d'you know what I mean? Like Dopplereffekt and then a Sun Ra record. That kind of DJing," says James.

"We were pretty belligerent DJs," laughs Jas

"We played at Fabric once, for the first time," starts James. "We started off electronic but then we went deep into playing 13th Floor Elevators. Literally, we got kicked off the decks. We ended up getting a residency at Fabric and playing there all the time. The more you play as a DJ, the more you realize you're part of this general experience. To play so chop-and-changy is a bit of a dickish thing to do, but DJing and discovering music through clubs colored the music we ended up making."


Simian Mobile Disco's first release, 2007's Attack Decay Sustain Release, had a distinctly electro tonality to it. Held in comparison to last month's remarkable Whorl, there's a marked difference in pacing and storytelling. "The idea of patience, not chasing that constant gratification is something that we got into later by going into Berghain and Panorama Bar," says James, "where's it's about longer, stretched out, the whole evening. It's not about playing a 40 minute set."

Jas takes over: "Cuz' you know you're gonna be there for two days straight, so there's no hurry. Take your time. If you know your club is closing at 2AM, people are like "I finished dinner an hour ago, I have to go home soon." If you have time, all that pressure kind of goes away. The live thing leads you more in that way."

Perhaps the duo were missing the pressure when they decided to record Whorl live at Pappy & Harriet's in Joshua Tree a few months ago. "We knew that we didn't just wanna fly in and do a gig, so we got there a bit earlier so we could hang out in the desert and invoke our spirit guides, look at the stars," Jas laughs. "We found this natural, valley kind of thing. We were just gonna rehearse in the place that we rented, but we ran a cable out there and played outdoors. Some of the stuff [on the album] was from that, as well."

Scenes from SMD's jaunt to the desert

"…It was like our setup on stage, just on some blankets on the rocks in the middle of nowhere," James continues. "We took the recording we did at Pappy & Harriet's and the recording from out in the rocks and one or two of the original jams we did when we were getting them together and assembled the three into the album."


What makes Simian Mobile Disco unique is that they've brought a commitment to live performance into the electronic realm. James explains, "With this setup at the minute, there's not a single moment where we're not actually trying to do something, there's not a single space. There's no playback, there's no predetermined sounds or anything. We're basically trying to make a produced sounding track out loud, y'know, on the fly. All the drum sounds, the length of the hi-hats, the filter on the bass, the wobble on the poly-synth – all those things are all going on in parallel."

The duo aren't particularly sympathetic to DJs who add singular organic elements to their set in the hopes of currying a sense of authenticity. "I think it's a fucking charade," says Jas of drum-pad mashing playback DJs. "The thing is," he goes on, "DJing is great. A good DJ who like connects with the crowd and then also pushing people into something that they may be a bit less comfortable with. A really good DJ set is fantastic and it doesn't require any tricks. It doesn't require any, like, magic. It just requires good record choices and good timing and all of that stuff. You don't need to play some space drums over the top! That doesn't make it better! Like if you fill it with effects!

"Jas has a good theory that the effects on a mixer are to keep DJs busy, that maybe the effects only go to the DJ monitor just to keep them occupied in between tunes," James breaks in.


"And that working the EQ thing!" Jas laughs. "Sometimes you want to change how it sounds. But you don't need to be spinning those puppies all the time! Someone already spent ages making sure it sounds good!"

So what is Simian's secret to longevity? "We've just ignored everyone!" says Jas. "It looks like we've been zig-zagging. From our point of view, we've been going in a straight line. Everything else just keeps moving! We just do what we're into.

James continues, "At this point, we've probably made a lot of what you'd call 'bad career choices.' In terms of raising our profile, I don't think we've managed our career very well. We never really think about that stuff. We're motivated by the excitement and the possibility of what could go on in the studio."

"Maybe that's why you're still here," I responded.

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Jemayel Khawaja is THUMP's Associate Editor in Los Angeles - @JemayelK