The two members of Simian Mobile Disco have certainly been busy. Remix/production duo James Ford and Jas Shaw are in the middle of a summer-long world tour and just finished a new LP. Lucky for us, they found time to squeeze in a lengthy interview before a recent performance. Read part 1 below for their take on the song-writing process, why it’s dangerous to overwork, and the best part of being on tour. Part 2 coming soon. can be found HERE.
(James was in transit when the interview started, so Jas handled the opening questions.)
Tell me about the formation of Simian Mobile Disco. How did you decide to get together?
Jas: Before Simian Mobile Disco, we were in a four-piece band called Simian. I played keyboards and James was the drummer. While we were touring with that, the production side of it had quite a lot of electronic things going on. At the time it was very difficult to do that live. The band was really just a traditional rock band. I had one of those old organs, like the one the Monkees used. We had a few triggers and whatnot; but it wasn’t as electronic as we wanted to go, just because it was hard to do live. We had the choice of either playing off of triggers or playing to a backing track, neither of which were really cutting it. We were always really into electronic music. So while we were traveling around, touring with Simian, we started to get some gigs DJing. And we sort of took off from there.
What about the name?
Jas: The gigs came before the name “Simian Mobile Disco”. They called us and asked what we wanted to be called on the flyer. And “mobile disco” is slang for those cheesy performers you see at weddings or bar mitzvahs.
What was your musical background like? Did you have any formal training?
Jas: I had a bit of formal training. Not much, really. I studied violin for a bit. My uncle bought me a guitar and taught me chords, but mostly it was picked up. All of that stuff feeds into how you make music, of course. I think most of my musical knowledge just comes from working at it.
Do you think your approach helped? Did you ever hit a point where you wish you had more training?
Jas: I think it works differently for different people. I know a lot of people who are really into music theory, and it kind of destroyed any sense of mystery. When I was in Simian I got some piano lessons, just to sort of brush up. And the teacher was like “I know this chord is going to do this, this chord is going to do that” and it all felt really predictable.
I’m rusty on guitar now, but I find that when you don’t know what you’re playing—when you just sort of make a shape with your fingers and mess around— there’s something exciting about that. You don’t know what you’re playing but you like it. There’s something in that: not knowing exactly what you’re doing, but reacting in an intuitive way. Simian was kind of apelike. It wasn’t dumb, but it was visceral. It was music you got on a very simple level. It’s sort of carried through to the other projects we’ve worked on.
What is your song-writing process? Do you build the songs chords or melodies, or do you write your beats first?
Jas: It’s a bit of both actually. What we like most about the stuff we’ve already done– the stuff that has to most longevity– is good chords. Production and fashions sort of come and go, but good chords are what they are. There’s really no set way of doing it, but until we find some decent chords or a decent melody we can’t do much. I suppose sometimes if we find some wonky noise or something that might do the trick, but it’s got to be a really good wonky noise.
What is the rest of collaboration process like?
Jas: Both of us use ProTools, both of us know how to use the synths and all that stuff. Once you bring ideas in they never really come out. The way it normally works is one of us will start with something—a couple of chords, a part of a melody—or a sound, something from a delay pedal or a module. You start with one thing and work it from there. We kind of learned to do a lot of our original stuff from doing remixes. The process of remixing is very similar. You just take one thing you like out of a song and then slowly build all the other stuff around it so there’s really nothing from the original track there.
How do you decide which songs to remix? Do people approach you with projects, or is it the other way around?
Jas: Almost always people come to us. Usually we just get an e-mail from someone in the band or someone at the label, the reason being that the remixes are usually for people’s singles. So the songs themselves aren’t out yet. By the time you hear it, we’ve already remixed it. When we’re asked to do one it’s just a gut reaction. It’s a real danger with the remixes though, when people get too many done. We get loads of offers and it’s a shame because we love doing them. We’ve just both been super busy. We will do more in the future.
How do you know when a song is finished? There’s an expression in writing that says “you publish a rough draft.” Is making music like that?
Jas: I disagree with that. I think you get to a point when the job is done, and the job of a producer is to know when the song is done. It’s quite weird, and I find it very difficult to articulate the feeling you get like “OK, this is done now.” Usually there are diminishing returns. You work on a song and you get to a certain point where you keep changing things but it’s not getting any better. It may be at that point the song still isn’t done, but we work so quickly that it’s rarely an issue. We’ll get an idea started in a day and then finish a song the day after. We usually start loads of tracks and come back to the ones we like.
I think it’s really dangerous to overwork. Not just that you drive yourself mad (it’s obviously not pleasant to go over and over something), but I think that you lose that spark you have when you first get an idea, when you’re full of ideas. By day four, you’ve tried every drum machine on there and every different synth and you just get a bit jaded with it. And I think sometimes you can hear that jadedness. You can mix the life out of something, make it too smooth.
I know particularly with electronic music it’s a real trap that people fall into—stacking on too much and piling on all those extra noises. I think Nigel Godrich says he has a 24 channel mixer. So if you can’t achieve your sound on 24 tracks then there’s a problem. I think particularly with electronic stuff, people compensate for the fact that they’re using loops by using a lot of loops.
What has the current tour been like? What has been the best part so far?
Jas: The best part has got to be traveling around. Before doing this I used to go on holiday and travel around. It’s weird though, because you’re always so busy. Especially with DJing, it usually ends up that we fly in quite late or really early in the morning. It’s frustrating because you get to go to these amazing cities, but you don’t get to do the tourist run. But often the promoter will take you out to a couple of his favorite bars and you get to see people and the way they live. In many ways I think you get a better picture of the town that way.
Do you feel like a tourist when you’re on the road?
Jas: It’s a bit of both tourism and business. You don’t always get somewhere and want to go out. Sometimes you get to a town and you’re super hungover. And sometimes, like today, it just rains all day. Touring can be very repetitive because even though you go to different cities it’s really the same set up everywhere.
MSTRKRFT’s Jesse F. Keeler recently said that he liked DJing because he could play anything he wanted, but when he toured with his band he was limited to playing only songs they had written. Would you agree?
Jas: It’s interesting because when we were still touring with Simian, we were enjoying the DJing for precisely that reason. When you’re DJing its very different each time. What the crowd is like and what time it is—all of these things impact what you’re going to play.
It’s very rare that you play the same set twice. There might be four or five songs that you usually play, but in a two or three hour set that’s like a drop in the ocean. It was something that we really wanted to carry through with the live show for SMD. We wanted to make sure it was very versatile. We’re not very good showmen; and if we’re bored, then we look bored. So we’ve made it that we can play things differently each night—longer and stretched out, or more techno-y.
That’s it for part 1 of the interview. Be on the look out for part 2 to read their takes on the future of the music industry and when we can expect the new album.