How Simian Mobile Disco Became Techno's Most Unlikely Champions
On the eve of their fifth LP 'Welcome to Sideways,' Jas Shaw looks back at the twists and turns of Simian Mobile Disco's long career.
Simian Mobile Disco have quietly had one of the most interesting careers in contemporary dance music. Since meeting in Manchester almost twenty years ago, the duo of Jas Shaw and James Ford have found themselves everywhere from Berghain to the Billboard charts, and have put out engrossing, evocative electronic music that is as approachable as it is unconventional—all while almost willfully reinventing themselves at every turn.
In many ways, the duo's progression from guitar-based rock to dance music, and then from pop to underground club, is an allegory for the tastes of a whole generation. The duo have always seemed one step ahead of the curve they set for themselves, and in joyously fumbling towards the future, have amassed a body of work that will be looked back upon as a definitive commentary on this whole era.
On the eve of the November 11 release for Welcome to Sideways, their fifth LP and perhaps most focused attack on functional club music to date, Jas Shaw walked us through the twists and turns of Simian Mobile Disco's career of synth-based disruption.
The members of Simian meet in the UK with the intention of forming a band in 2000.
Jas Shaw: I met James in Manchester. Me and Alex, the bassist in Simian, we went up there with the intention of forming a band. We put up an advert, James answered it. He lied, actually. He said he was a drummer. He didn't even own a drumkit!
We came from a band background, but wanted to do more electronic stuff. We were starting go out out, like, proper clubbing, and all that. We had done loads of recording, but, it was just experiments. We didn't have a clue what we were. We weren't DJing with any kind of serious intent, but we weren't gigging as a band... We didn't see a forum for what we were doing.
"We didn't have a clue what we were."
None of that stuff ever got released, but it's weirdly similar––we had a couple of synths, a guitar pedal, and a desk––pretty much exactly what we do now.
2005: Simian records two albums and enjoy indie rock success, but break up abruptly.
When we met Simon, we became more of a band. He came with songs. We went from making weird experiments all day to blasting out songs. Simon was a singer-songwriter, but we were listening to Autechre and early Warp stuff. He was interested in 60s psychedelia, and we felt that there was a parallel to be drawn between what had happened in the late 60s and with the more IDM-my type stuff, which was very granular and abstract, and somehow applying that aesthetic to songs. It sounds totally unwise now...
We were completely swimming against the stream. At the time it was The White Stripes and The Strokes. Broadly speaking, there was no scene for us to attach to. The era was weird, but it was really good. Being in a band had been an ambition from year dot for all of us.
We were touring pretty heavily, and then we'd spend all the rest of the time in the studio, and we shared a house as well. That was not a good idea at all. All the pressures of being in a band––our independent label got eaten by a major, touring, recording two albums––it sort of drives a wedge through even good relationships. I still think that it's a shame that we fell out. I feel like there was a better third record in us, if we could have held it together.
2007: After Justice enter their remix of Simian's "Never Be Alone" in a competition, the song becomes an inadvertent club hit in the fast-developing electro scene.
Right around that time, so many people were switched on, and it just started to happen... Soulwax, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem...Loads of people who were in a band, but went out clubbing a lot. The Justice remix threw us in the middle of it all, even though Simian had broken up! All of that stuff didn't grow from the house scene. It wasn't "legitimate" house music...
We had already started DJing by then. We'd do a gig and go to a bar afterwards and DJ, piss people off by playing the wrong records. What we wanted to play was techno records, Dopplereffekt records, but what people wanted to hear was The Strokes. So we had to squeeze as much as we could in without literally turning them against us. I think you can hear that in our music at the time.
2007: Simian Mobile Disco's first LP, Attack Decay Sustain Release, makes them new stars of the electro.
The first thing I did after Simian broke up was I went and bought a modular synth and sat in my flat for months, figuring out how it worked. Our knowledge of electronic music was much stronger in weird, abstract IDM than it was in house or techno, and our understanding came second hand. We were discovering Basic Channel, old Chicago house, Jeff Mills. It wasn't built-in from the start. We were kind of bluffing! But we were starting to get gigs in proper clubs, places like Fabric.
"I bought a modular synth and sat in my flat for months."
We finished "Sleep Deprivation" just days before the album was done, and it kind of points the way for were we were heading. At that point, we'd sniffed the air and been a bit, like, 'This electro thing...We don't want to live there.' It was an interesting thing to do at the time, but it didn't feel like home, just like something fun to do.
2009: SMD's follow-up LP, Temporary Pleasure, finds the duo uncomfortably flirting with the mainstream.
Temporary Pleasure was difficult, on a number of levels. We had compartmentalized what we did. We came up with this theory, which was wrong, that we could play techno DJ sets, make an album that was more for home-listening and have a live show that was a more pronounced version of the album, and that people would understand the difference.
Absolutely nobody got what we were trying to do. It was a fucking disaster, such a comprehensive fuck up! Only the poppy message got out. It looked so bad. We had ten tracks with ten features, it was ludicrous! It looked like we made this going for pop. And it wasn't that.
We had a track in the charts. So all the people who would have previously come to the shows though we made pop music. And all the people who listened to the radio and have come because we had a track in the charts, they're all pissed off because we've played an hour and a half of techno at them.
2011: SMD launch Delicacies, their own label, and whittle away on experimental analog techno records for almost two years while reclaiming their sound.
We had to learn to be more focused. With that in mind, and to counterbalance the poppiness of what we had done, we started Delicacies, which continues to be our sub-label. I think it was the right thing to do. We learned an awful lot, and there was no pressure on any of it. It set us up for the next record.
We just wanted to make some stuff and just bash it out with no press, no nonsense, they were just going out on 12 inches. The Deli stuff was just stuff we wanted to DJ at the time, often just by making an interesting patch on the synth. When you're dicking around on a synth, sometimes they just start doing something weird. That was the point that we'd look for. Get that, and try to turn it into something you'd want to play in a club. That was a our remit.
2013: SMD begin to crystallize their sound and commitment to analog while earning the respect of the techno scene.
Unpatterns was the most difficult album so far. We'd misjudged it with Temporary Pleasure. We were genuinely thinking that, if we fucked it up, we were done. Toast. It's a pressure that can be destructive, make you overthink things, second-guess yourself. We spent so long on it. The longest we've ever spent on anything. We properly sweated bullets on it. One Christmas, we had a whole playlist of tracks for it, and we never ended up using any of them.
What we struggled with was how to integrate vocals. We wanted something to come out of a human, but for it to join in rather than take over. Eventually, the way that we managed to reconcile it was to stop thinking of vocals as vocals––of course, obviously! As soon as we started to think of them as sounds, running them through synths or effects and modulators, the vocals locked in. That was the turning point. But it was a beast getting there! I don't want to say that we 'found our sound' on Unpatterns, but we definitely got back on track.
Around this time, we became a lot more picky with the clubs we played. We were DJing with the people whose records we were buying and really enjoying it. Going out more in Berlin, where people don't put their hands up in the air––it works on a different cadence. Because you know that you're gonna stay out until lunchtime the next day, you're not looking for that immediate gratification. You want a more hypnotic, ethereal rhythm to the set. We felt we could own that in our own way. That it somehow tied back to the original reason why we loved Autechre and weird, droning 60s psychedelia.
2014: The duo ditch their long-standing live set-up, learn new synths, sign to ANTI-, and record their next album live in the deserts of Joshua Tree, CA.
Unpatterns was kind of afterparty music. We spent all of our time in clubs. We had started to get decent at DJing, at good clubs with good people, taking it seriously. So we knew right from the outset that Whorl was going to be not clubby at all. We needed to make music that would just fucking die in a club. Right from the outset, we knew we were gonna record it in the desert. We wanted it to be psychedelic and krautrock-y.
It was the opposite of Unpatterns in that we had so little time to throw it together. We'd basically thrown away years of practice on the old rig, bought new sequencers, and had two or three months to learn the sequencer, rebuild a live rig, and write an entire album and record it live. It was actually, looking back at it, stupid.
"We needed to make music that would just fucking die in a club."
I had never even been to Joshua Tree. It was nothing like I thought it would be. But the spirit of the desert is still the same. There's this sense of a journey and it's oddly spiritual dark expanses. When we played [Whorl, live in Joshua Tree], we had a computer under the desk recording it. Some of James' oscillators were going out of control because it was so cold. We had to tidy that up a bit.
2015: While James produces albums for The Arctic Monkeys and Depeche Mode, Jas takes the mantle of DJing and releases a series of solo EPs.
We always said we would keep SMD as kind of a side project, which was kind of bullshit, really. That was largely what was paying our bills and we would spend the majority of our time on it. But equally, there would still be plenty of times where James would go and spend three or four months producing an Arctic Monkeys record or a Florence and the Machine record. It's really what we needed back in the Simian days, just a gap. It's an amazing thing for James to be asked to produce the Depeche Mode record, but James has been working at a pretty high level for a long time as a producer. He's really established now, and he's very very good at it.
Towards the end of Whorl, I moved house and set this studio up in my house. I must have spent a good year building that. All of the solo records I've put out since then have been me testing the room out. Every time I come into the studio, there's something to discover. And while James was doing a lot of production, I was doing loads of DJing. Increasingly started to play very late sets, playing with more austere techno artists than we were with before.
2016: SMD's fifth studio album, Welcome to Sideways, is aimed more directly at the club than their work has been in almost a decade.
It's club music. Right now, I feel it's really great how quite functional techno and noise––the kind of stuff I would have played in a bar in 2006 just to annoy people––seems to be this fruitful area of music that is really adventurous and is challenging the idea of what music can be. The appeal of all those noise guys is that, you don't go there because it's going to press all of your pleasure buttons, you go there because you get this hypnotic sensation from texture. It works at Berghain, but also at a church in London, or at the Jazz Cafe.
"I'm not getting a Berghain tattoo, as much as I love it."
At the moment I've got a massive bee in my bonnet about weird techno and I absolutely love it, but I wouldn't want to tie my colors to the mast. Honestly, having seen through a bunch of different scenes as I felt as passionately about, you just follow your nose. I'm not getting a Berghain tattoo, as much as I love it. You have to just keep finding something new.
I like the idea that, at this point, we can just do whatever we wanna do and people will judge it on what it is. But still, I think we're personae non grata in techno world, partly because of our history. And part of me says––fair play! Yup, we made some poppy music. I kind of like the fact that we've not really settled anywhere. I think it's quite dangerous. We've never really stayed a part of any scene. And it think it's good––or at least, it works for us!
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