I glance at my watch again, cupping my hand over its face to make out the time in the June sunshine. Jim, our photographer, takes another test shot against the cloudless blue sky as the smell of the barbeque drifts out across the pool. We are backstage at the Hostess Weekender at AgeHa, waiting for our chance to speak to James Ford and Jas Shaw of Simian Mobile Disco, one of today’s performers. As I pace the wooden decking a member of the Hostess staff approaches us with a concerned expression. “I’m very sorry, but the technical trouble with the equipment is really serious. Is there anyway we can reschedule the interview for later on tonight?” she asks.
Simian Mobile Disco are in Tokyo to perform their new album “Whorl”, a live show which they have only recently debuted at Sonar festival in Barcelona. The album, due out on September 8th on Anti Records, presents somewhat of a change in direction for the band – as it is made entirely on vintage analogue gear. Because of this, we know that a problem with their equipment here today is grave; indeed, their ability to perform at all is hanging in the balance. We accept the apology and move back to the main arena. As SMD’s performance time ticks ever closer, we half-expect an announcement from the organisers – the bad news that they will not be performing. However, much to our relief, their synths are wheeled out on stage on time and it looks like the show will indeed go on. As the lights dim and the show starts the crowd remain blissfully unaware as to how close they have come to not seeing SMD perform.
“Sorry about earlier” apologizes Jas when we finally meet after the show, “we had to totally repatch one of the synths”. Both he and James still look adrenalin fuelled from what must have been a frantic period before the show. The boys continue without pause to explain why they have made this transition to a live setup that can be so volatile. “We wanted to change how we record music, so we ditched the computers” starts James. “I guess we wanted to pull the rug, to undo the safety harness” completes Jas. By limiting themselves to a suitcase sized rack of modular synth gear each their new live show reduces their sound palette but allows much more hands on, real time manipulation. In other words, James and Jas constrain themselves technically, to free themselves up musically. “In our huge studio we were finding ourselves spending four hours making a kick drum” Jas says “whereas with this, boom. If it works it works, we can do it and move on”.
In April, Simian Mobile Disco trekked out to the Southern California desert to record Whorl, taking with them just two modular synths, two sequencers, and a mixer. “We had a house and we ran a cable over the rocks and rehearsed looking out over the desert, it was amazing” recalls Jas as he shows me photos of breathtakingly barren landscapes. “However, we didn’t realize how cold it would get” continues James, “at night the oscillators would drift and it made everything much more difficult”. The band jammed and rehearsed and their three day stint culminated in a one off sold out show at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown, allowing 900 fans to witness part of the recording process as they recorded the live takes later used on the album.
As a concept performance Whorl is analogue and organic; it is what the band term an “honest record” and has much more authenticity as a ‘live’ show. “In the past we have made music for what we thought people want, to get airplay on the radio or be a hit in the club” elucidates Jas, “this time we didn’t try to second guess things and a lot of people have said this is their favourite album as a result”.
Indeed, both as a performance and as an album Whorl appears to represent Simian Mobile Disco at a much more comfortable stage in career, exorcising a few musical demons. While the use of analogue equipment means that the album is not exactly what you could call a ‘new’ sound, it is best summed up in a word which James mentions several times in our interview; it is a “liberating” album. Whorl is almost cinematic in its sound and if this represents a new chapter for a more mature Simian Mobile Disco, we look forward to hearing it develop.
The studio album of Whorl is released through Anti Records on the 8th of September. For more information, please click here.
Words: Mark Birtles
Translation: Sanae Shiromoto
September 8, 2014