Published on December 14, 2007
Back in the late 1990s, James Ford and James "Jas" Shaw were studying biology and philosophy respectively at Manchester University and at the same time developing strangely sublime electronic music in the spare room of their shared house.
Fellow students, the folk-inspired Simon Lord and rock bassist Alex MacNaughten joined the group and formed a band, Simian. The quartet began touring all over the UK while Ford and Shaw found some time off the band's schedule to perform their little electronic gigs in night clubs. When Simian disbanded in the early 1990s, the disco duo decided to pursue their musical career in electronic and disco music. Calling themselves Simian Mobile Disco, the duo ventured around from party to party and set the dance floor on fire.
"We got stuck with this name, really," Shaw says in an interview backstage on October 27 at the Recharge Revelation 5 Global Gathering in Malacca, Malaysia. "Mobile disco is actually what you call people with loads of records playing music for wedding and bar mitzvah parties. We didn't have a name for the two of us at the time because [playing in clubs] was not intended to be a career. So they started calling us Simian Mobile Disco and now we can't change it because we're already known by this name. Believe me, if I had known, I would have come up with a really, really cool name."
Ford produced albums for Mystery Jets, Klaxons and Arctic Monkeys while Shaw began to build the largest modular synth in southeast England. They continued working on tracks and samplers for Simian Mobile Disco but were careful not to take it too seriously. Over-thinking, to them, is a sudden death to creativity.
"Actually I don't think much about music, I just want to make it," says Shaw. He got off the plane just about an hour prior to the interview but talking about music always sets him straight and puts him in an enthusiastic mood. "It doesn't make much sense, right?
"That's what we try to do. We try not to think about it, or intellectualise it. Because the idea is music should be really primitive. I find it like that with electronic music, especially live electronic music. When you're recording music, it's all about getting good voices, to get it technically accurate. That way you get yourself controlled and then jammed. It's overproduced. Music, I think, should come from your instinct. I like improvising and we work really quickly that way."
When they left Simian, the disco duo had a handful of material ready to flaunt. Before they knew it, Wichita, a truly independent-minded record label, approached them and offered a deal for their debut album. "It's a lot of input there; early electro, acid house, elements of techno. The tracks themselves are much shorter than normal electronic tracks. They are edited like rock tracks." Shaw told Weekend about SMD's debut entry, "Attack Decay Sustain Release", which was released in June. "It sounds strange to make an electronic music record this way, but I don't really think about the genre. Music is listened to at a primitive level. Can you analyse what you love about music you like? It's an impulse, and emotional, primitive something that tells you 'I like that'. And the less you think about it, the more you rely on your instinct and enjoy music more."
They went to New York to record the vocals of an aspiring rapper, Char Johnson. She rapped freestyle for 45 minutes and SMD edited the best bits into "Hustler". Recording everything on analogue machine, SMD tried not to make their music sound too programmed and techy. They even kept all the mistakes. The results are punchy, vigorous chopped up tracks of their lengthy extended club mix.
Jas Shaw took the TQX Freedom Electric Arena at Recharge Revelation 5 Global Gathering without James Ford, but just himself and his raunchy repertoire were enough to do the magic. His acid and house tunes with streaks of disco drove the Asian crowd crazy and begging for more. After the show in Malaysia, SMD has a full schedule ahead of them till the end of February. The duo will also support Chemical Brothers in the UK tour and The Underworld in Europe.
What else should the fans look forward to? "Difficult discos," Shaw replies with a serious look. "People think disco is easy listening, pure fun. We'll do it the other way round and give it a new definition."