“You know, in Japan, they have these places you can go to, where a girl will dress up like a cartoon character for you.”
“Well, I saw it on some programme presented by Jonathan Ross.”
“I’d have to go for Betty Rubble. You?”
“I dunno. Optimus Prime?”
James Ellis Ford and James ‘Jas’ Anthony Shaw, better known to clubbers and indie kids alike as Simian Mobile Disco, are beating DiS and their own online PR at two-on-two pool in the back of an east London boozer. “Is this going to be one of those games where we spend 20 minutes chasing the black around the table?” asks Shaw as we miss an absolute sitter; precisely ten seconds later it’s Game Over as he sinks his shot, albeit via a lucky series of deflections. Still, we’d be getting off on the wrong foot if DiS beat its interviewees to be.
Retiring to a window seat, our digital recording device of choice is dropped atop the table and three pints of low-percent lager are supped at. We’re here to talk Attack Decay Sustain Release (DiS review; the title is a reference to the ADSR envelope, some kind of modulating set-up), the duo’s long-awaited debut album, which finally arrived in stores in June via Wichita. As you read this – if you’re reading it the instant it’s gone live – SMD will be in Japan for the Fuji Rock Festival; our time together affords the pair a break from packing their vintage gear into flight cases for the trip, a trip costing a fair few pennies in luggage costs. But it’s not like they can hire gear over there – these men are truly attached to their equipment.
Which is something evident enough in the sound of Attack…, an album fusing the mindsets of indie musicians past with the dance-floor sensibilities of modern house. Warmly received by critics upon its release, it was a DiS office favourite to make the annual Mercury Prize shortlist. It was pipped to the proverbial post by Klaxons’ Myths Of The Near Future, an album produced, no less, by the in-demand Ford; he also twiddled the controls on the similarly nominated Favourite Worst Nightmare by Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys. The pair, they’re not so bothered – one suspects they’re too busy with a hectic tour schedule, which also takes in a number of DJ dates, to care for pats on the back from corners of the industry almost solely concerned with sales figures.
‘Tape’ running, and we’re off.
Go on then: explain the album art and the thinking behind it…
Ford: The title was just a stupid idea that turned into something real, really…
Shaw: It wasn’t a stupid idea! Okay, it was a stupid idea… We had this idea that we’d write the title out in all these spoons… millions of spoons… on a hill! And it actually happened. We had people phone us up: “We’ve got, like, 3,000 spoons and we’re driving over to a load of scaffolding now.” So we were like, they’re doing it… they’re actually doing it.
Ford: We just wanted something that was ‘real’, you know, rather than something graphically designed.
And the title itself? It’s something that technically-minded sorts will get, right?
Ford: Yeah, but: we will admit that it’s sourced from a really boring and mundane thing. The reason we liked it was because… well, Jas suggested it to his girlfriend, and she took it in a completely different context. She kind of put her own ‘thing’ onto it. We really like how different people have completely different reactions to it; I mean, they’re four really strong words on their own, albeit ones that don’t really mean all that much together, although they nearly do. It kind of describes a process, but people have thought it refers to sex, or drugs, or life… everyone puts their own thing onto it.
It’s a very ambiguous title really for music that could be perceived – certainly on paper – as being fairly straightforward…
Ford: Yeah, right. It’s amazing that in Japan – we’ve had a few phoners already – they’ve got all these amazing and crazy interpretations of the title and how it relates to our music. We didn’t have any of the suggested ideas ourselves. I suppose for anyone who writes lyrics they’re used to people interpreting their material in very different ways, but since we don’t really write lyrics, it’s interesting no have a non-prescriptive title that people can get different things out of.
And, title aside, the album feels like it’s been around for a while, even though it was only officially released in June…
Shaw: Some of the tracks have been out, in one form or another, for a while. There are five songs that have previously been available.
Ford: But there are different versions on the album, as we mixed it all at the same time to get a better sense of continuity, and edited them to make the album work as a single piece of work, as opposed to just having loads of drum intros and outros. It really would have been weird to not put things like ‘Hustler’ on there, because even though that song’s pretty old to us, it’s part of the story of how we got here.
In a way, then, is this debut album actually the end of a chapter of SMD, rather than the beginning of one?
Ford: I think so, totally. It’s the summing up of what we’ve achieved so far.
Shaw: Everyone has something out before an album, as there has to be material ready to comprise an album, rather than someone just stating: “Right, let’s go, album time”.
Well, no album just appears out of thin air, but in your case you had so many releases prior to this album that it does have the feeling of being a fair while coming…
Shaw: With electronic music, it’s nice that you don’t have to sit down and sort of get into the mindset of: “Right, we’re going to write an album now”. You can just write a few bits and put them out on 12”s – it’s a nice and immediate way of getting music out there. But when you don’t come from a strictly dance background – I mean, we both used to save up when we were kids to buy and album, and listen to it a load of times – it’s important to not just stick all those 12”s together and call it an album. It’s a case of revisiting them and filtering them into an album – I guess that’s why the album tracks are shorter.
So you were keen for Attack… to be received – to be assessed or digested or whatever – as an album in a true sense, rather than just a collection of tracks?
Ford: Yes, and I suppose – going back to what you were saying earlier – it feels like a long time coming because we weren’t doing this as a ‘band’. We were doing this on weekends, so we’d have something we could play out the next weekend; we were releasing records through and for mates, and stuff. We were always doing other things, so it was only really this year when we started doing this properly.
And you only actually took SMD out live in the spring, right?
Shaw: Yeah, in April or May.
Ford: Yeah, and it’s been crazy. At Benicàssim the other weekend we played the main dance tent and it was ridiculous. There were loads of people outside the tent, and everyone was having a great time…
At Wireless earlier this year it was a fight to get into the tent for you, too. That transference to playing live must’ve taken a while, though, what with all the vintage gear you use, and the nature of the music in question anyway... And, also, were there any nerves at all?
Ford: It never really came down to nerves or confidence, as we’d played before crowds before. It was really just a case of getting the right gear together to make everything flexible enough. We’d been used to playing in a band, where unless you’re Led Zeppelin or someone like that you can’t really improvise too much and make it sound good – in Simian it was pretty rigid, really.
You can alter a set-list but ultimately they’re just the same songs, albeit in a different order…
Ford: Exactly. With our live show now, though, we can change things as we go along. We can make some bits shorter and other parts longer; we’re mixing everything live so we can just take out a kick drum altogether, or everything else and just leave a kick drum; we’re running analogue sequencers and stuff like that…
So you are flying by the seats of your pants, so to speak…
Ford: Yeah, there is the element that it could just all fuck up.
That must make playing live as SMD a lot more exciting than playing as part of a ‘traditional’ indie band?
Ford: Trying to confer with the rest of the band when you’re on stage, just standing there, is really hard to do, but it’s easy with me and Jas.
Do you just play off each others’ nods and winks?
Ford: Yeah, sort of. We set up on a circular table, and generally we’re facing each other, so a lot of it is on the nod. It’s good like that, and a lot more fun for us.
Shaw: One night in Amsterdam we ended up – for various reasons – doing two sets. The promoter didn’t think anyone would be in for the first set, but there was, so we were faced with having a lot of people see the same set twice. So we played it reasonably straight for the first set, and then just leathered it. People came up afterwards and asked what the new tunes were.
Ford: But they were the same tunes…
Shaw: …Just with the structures changed slightly. It was during a club night, and we were stripping everything out and then adding all these extra beats. It was good, because it never gets like: “Here we are again, playing the same old shit”.
So, perhaps unexpectedly, you’re of the opinion that this electronic music you make – to pigeonhole it as simply as possible – is more flexible than what’s usually perceived as being ‘organic’, i.e. drums and bass and guitar...?
Ford: Yeah, I think so, and a lot of that comes from DJing. DJing is literally a lot of interaction with the audience – you can see immediately what records work and what records don’t, y’know what I mean. There’s a lot of improvisation involved with DJing, and with new technology it’s getting easier and easier to make dance music on the spot.
There are a lot of good acts who have released albums recently: Justice and Digitalism for example. But you must, given your position, get subjected/exposed to a lot of crap?
Ford: We do get sent a lot of stuff through MySpace, a lot of shit. Anyone can get a cracked copy of some programme and a cheap laptop and make a weird mash-up, some cut-up distorted thing. There’s a lot of that around, and a lot of it’s wank. It’s almost like the ‘60s garage band scenario: back then you had a load of bands essentially sounding similar, but the good ones – the really, really good ones – stood out. I hope the accessibility of technology, and the democratisation of the music business this day, will eventually lead to some amazing music being made. But it does need a lot of filtering.
Considering your album arrived at roughly the same time as the aforementioned acts, were you pleased with its reception and the way in which few journalists directly compared and contrasted? There was very little in the way of, this is so much better than that, et cetera…
Ford: We only found out that the Justice album was coming out on the same day as ours about a month before, which was very weird, especially so given the link between the groups. It was totally un-planned – they spent a year doing their record, while we spent, I suppose, three weeks!
Shaw: That’s three weeks spread over, like, two years.
Ford: And the chances of them coming out on the same day… Well, it was just weird. I think in a way, though, it was a good thing – it focused people onto this type of music. There was a weird balance in reviews, too, and there was one or two that covered them both together, in the same piece. Time Out did one, but it all worked out alright.
There’s no friendly competition between the two bands?
Shaw: We’re just friendly, really – there’s no need to say ‘competition’. Then you kind of… Well, you’ve got to understand that while electronic music is in a really good way right now, it is still pretty leftfield. I don’t think any of it is competitive…
Ford: …Well, none of it is quite daytime radio-type material yet, is it?
Shaw: No, but…
Ford: …But it’s not really leftfield…
Shaw: …Okay, we’re not talking Blur and Oasis here. We’re talking… Aphex and Autechre?! Okay, maybe in between the two…
Maybe Pulp and Menswear…
Shaw: Oh Jesus Christ! We’ve got to be Pulp, please… I shotgun that we’re definitely Pulp…
But anyway: I think it’s healthy, really, that these records of a similar ilk are being well received, and that they’re emerging at the same time. It’s opening up a fair few ears…
Ford: Yeah. A lot of reviews of the new Chemical Brothers album made references to the newer acts coming through, although I’ve not actually heard it to pass comment.
It suffers from Too Many Guests syndrome…
Ford: Well that’s exactly what we didn’t want on our record.
Shaw: Having too many guests is so dangerous.
Ford: Especially big-name guests.
Well you’ve got Ninja from The Go! Team on your album…
Shaw: Well, yeah, but she doesn’t get spotted in the street. We’ve not seen her for ages, actually, as The Go! Team are touring all around the place.
Is that something you might incorporate into your live sets in the future, live vocals?
Ford: No, because we’re pretty disrespectful with vocals. Sometimes we’ll just take a single syllable and fuck around with it. You can’t really get a singer to come on and deliver one syllable. I dunno… we did a (television magazine show) T4 thing where we got Simon (Lord, formerly of Simian – MySpace) on to sing with us, and it worked well even though we weren’t totally into the idea at first. We thought it was going to be awful.
Shaw: We were totally stressed beforehand… we almost pulled it.
Ford: But actually it was cool.
I recall seeing Bloc Party on it once, looking perfectly awkward… which leads me nicely to the record label you two bands share, Wichita. How did you come to be involved with a label seen primarily as a conduit for indie-rock?
Ford: Well, part of the thing is that they’re based near where we’re based, and Mark (Bowen, co-founder) is a legend. They’re good people who just like music and aren’t out to make a fast buck. We didn’t want to go into a big major deal like we’d done with Simian, and they seemed like really nice people.
And they’ve just signed Les Savy Fav…
Ford: Who? Have they? Awesome?
Yes, you should remix them…
Ford: Okay. Ben at Wichita is awesome, too, and one of the things we learnt through Simian is that when you sign a deal you have to let go of so many things that you need the people around you to be trustworthy. They end up having a lot of input into what happens to the band.
I get the impression Wichita’s one big happy family.
Shaw: It is. I mean, this used to just be us dicking around on weekends, and we’d loathe to have this turn into a ‘proper’ job. We’d hate people totally bossing us around. For example, with the album cover we just phoned up Wichita and said: “We need 3,000 spoons.” “What?” “Three-thousand spoons, and some scaffolding.” “Okay, here’s a cheque.” You know, you don’t speak to someone who then has to speak to their boss who then speaks to their boss – you just speak directly to someone in charge and ask, “Can we do this?”
Ford: And they’ll either say yes, or tell us that our idea is fucking shit. It’s hard to get an honest opinion in this industry, so that’s amazing. We love that.
Which brings us, neatly, full circle to your album cover. Thanks…
Attack Decay Sustain Release and the new single ‘I Believe’ are both out now via Wichita. Click here for SMD’s MySpace page.