Simian Mobile Disco's James Ford on the ups and downs of EDM moving into the mainstream
Motor Mouth Media
Simian Mobile Disco (due for a DJ set tonight at Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom) is two brilliant, slightly nerdy British dudes with a powerful, slightly aggressive grasp on man-made machine music. They create dirty club stompers and nostalgic, atmospheric, glitchy house anthems and blistering electronica, but despite a shared friendship and band size with French duo Justice, neither of the Londoners can really dance worth a damn, which is okay, considering their entire audience makes up for this.
Only weeks after the partners in craft released their third and most noticeably relaxed album, Unpattterns, we caught up with DJ/producer James Ford to discuss dubstep, the duo's creative process and which member is kind of a better dancer -- or at the very least has rhythm.
Westword: How did this album become so pared down in comparison to previous releases? Was that a goal when you entered the studio?
James Ford: Not really. We don't tend to have much of a plan, if you know what I mean. We knew we didn't really want to repeat ourselves and do lots of vocals and featuring. I suppose the main plan was to make a record we'd want to play as DJs, because that's how we started making music. We just sort of plugged in and got down to it. We've been deejaying a lot, and we don't really play that many vocals when we DJ.
We've used a lot of vocals in the past, and we weren't really excited about them. We tried to use vocals, and it didn't seem to fit in with the instrumentals that we had. With a few, we were messing around with vocals and ended up using short loops in their place while we were trying to fit the vocals in. And then we were like, "Well, hang on, this is actually better." We actually enjoyed the texture and more instrumental part instead of that human element.
Is there ever a pressure to improve upon yourself?
I think all the albums we've done have been quite different, and we like that. We like moving on. We'd get bored too easily if we kept to a formula. I think if you didn't know you could improve on the last thing you did, you wouldn't continue to make music. Of all the records we've put out, there have been good bits and bad bits, and I think you strive to make less bad bits and more good bits as you go on.
We've learned from things we don't want to repeat. One thing we missed this time was the tracklisting: We always make quite a lot of music and take the album from the tracks that are there. On the few of the others like Temporary Pleasure, we kind of picked all the vocal ones even though there were more instrumental ones, and I think we got a little skewed. This time, we were more cautious and wanted a cohesive album.
How many tracks did you create before whittling the album down to nine?
Probably thirty. We tend to work quite quickly. We can do a track in a day and tend to do that quite a lot. Some of it were more clubby, more poppy. Some of it were weirder. We just tried to pick the ones that would become an album, otherwise it seems pointless. We wanted to create something that makes sense to listen to the whole way through. Some of them will come out as singles or be part of our Delicacies project, but I don't know really. Some of them will end up as a bin. You either like it and use it or you get rid of it.
Where does the title Unpatterns come from? What does that word mean to you guys?
It was a made-up word to sum up how we were feeling when we were creating it. It's like pulling all these tiny pieces together to create something complicated, and it has an obvious metaphor to how we make music with all these machines. You make a pattern on one machine and then another, and the sounds knock each other out of time and space until you create something that surprised you.
It's finding simplicity in the chaos. There are all these strange pushes and pulls as you rotate one image into the other and create something that never existed before. We spend lots of time together on journeys just talking about things, and these concepts pop up, so we apply them to the fairly arbitrary task of naming songs.
Motor Mouth Media
You're also an incredibly busy producer [for acts like Arctic Monkeys, Florence + the Machine]. How do your priorities rank, as far as SMD and your producer and DJ work?
I definitely have periods where I've been doing a lot of producing, and I had to make a decision to take time off to make this record and tour this record. We're trying to keep our other projects to a minimum until this is over a little bit. But I don't have much of an over-arching strategy. Obviously we've got management and we have a diary and time constraints, and if it's a good gig that looks like it will be fun, we'll take it. If it's a really good production project, we'll take it. It's really on a case-by-case basis.
The thing about deejaying is that I sort of see the point of it as representing the music you like and are into and a bit of your own music and where that comes from. You're also responding to the situation as well. If you're warming up for someone, you don't bang it out in ten minutes. You're connecting the dots between the DJ before you and the DJ after you instead of just crashing it all out. Often you're the end-of-the-night set where you start kind of small and really wig it out at the end. It's fun because it's different every time.
How much does your ability to recreate a song live affect how you create it?
Our live shows have quite a big impact on how we record, in a weird way. We'll get all the machines sort of tugging around doing something, and you just play with it and tweak it until something clicks together. And then we press record and improvise. It's kind of like capturing a performance for half an hour or however long it is, and then I suppose we edit together the best bits until it starts to feel like this thing with a structure. Most of the tune is made in one pass or two passes. Then the real work is editing and making it sound nice.
Who has better dance moves: you or Jas?
[Laughs.] We're not really dancers, sadly. It's like opposite ends of the seesaw. I'm a drummer by trade, so I've at least got some rhythm. I'd say me. I haven't seen Jas dance even so much as a wiggle. Waving your arms doesn't count. Maybe that's why people become DJs. There's some sort of Freudian logic in there.
What's the biggest stylistic difference between you and Jas today as you grow into your third album?
Most duos have one DJ and one musician type, and honestly it's not really like that [for us]. It might be a more interesting interview if it were, but we've been working together so long that it's like we produce each other or maybe micro-produce each other at different points. If someone looks like they're getting too zoned in on a sound, the other person is there to be like, "That's enough, stop" or, "Hey, that's really good."
The thing is that we've never really been part of the scene. Right now, if we ever get roped in as part of it, we'll run the other way. I don't know why. There's all this noisy electro that's sort of became dubstep now, but we never really wanted to be a part of that. It's hard to say, really. I don't think we fit in anywhere, which is a blessing and a curse. We're happy doing our own thing, but it's easier if you're part of a movement. I'm sure we'd be more successful if we jumped on a scene and embraced it wholeheartedly, but we just end up doing what we want to do, honestly, and there's not much more logic in it than that.
Which part of that scene most induces you to run away?
Actually, probably the stuff we're talking about, especially the way Americans add that rock aesthetic, that fist-pumping sort of electronic music as heavy rock. That's something I really don't get and really don't like, that really noisy dubstep stuff and really aggressive electro stuff. Whenever any music gets into that territory, I have to walk the other way.
I'm glad electronic music is in the mainstream again, and I think it's good for everyone making it. But my concern with the idea of EDM is that it only represents that side of the dance-music experience, and that European longer tradition, less focused on the stage and more focused on the communal experience that lasts several days instead of 45 minutes, is lost. My fear is that current promoters get the wrong idea that that's maybe all that dance music is.
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