Interview: Simian Mobile Disco's Jas Shaw on Temporary Pleasure, Guest Vocalists, and Synthesizers
"I'd love to get Prince into the studio one time before he dies."
Jas is the one not drinking.
For the last five years, Simian Mobile Disco, the British production powerhouse of James Ford and Jas Shaw, have been reshaping people's musical expectations by turning EDM into pop music and back again. They've cut acid house with bratty rap, dosed nu-disco with heartbreaking vocals, and built epic storms out of static-y, frayed drum programming. Production values aside, however, their songs are distinguished by their melodies and hooks. Ford and Shaw are songwriters first, technology nerds second.
With the duo scheduled to perform at the Jelly Pool Party this Sunday and their highly anticipated sophomore album, Temporary Pleasure, dropping in two weeks, we got Jas, the duo's taller, blonder member, on the phone. He was racing to the Tokyo airport at the time, frantically trying to catch his flight back to England, but we still managed to discuss Temporary Pleasure, his background in "proper bands," the tactile pleasure of synthesizers, and guest vocalists.
I read in another interview you did that you and James [Shaw] were somewhat dissatisfied with the aesthetic presentation of your debut [Attack Decay Sustain Release], but that you're much happier with Temporary Pleasure. What did you want to achieve with this album in particular?
The original intention for it was to be a mostly instrumental record, which obviously it's not. Generally speaking, our intentions for it weren't very drawn out. Although I think the thing that carried through, that we did have an intention for, was the songs we thought were strong from the last record were the tracks that had really good chords, and really strong melodies. It took quite a drastic turn with the addition of all the vocalists, but I really feel like, melodically and harmonically, this is a much stronger record than the last one.
It surprises me to hear that you wanted to make a long-playing, more straight-up techno record. Are you still planning on releasing that version? Or will those versions just get used during your live show?
Probably both, actually. We've already started playing these tracks live, and they tend to be longer and more stripped down, more how we conceived the instrumentals to be. And also we're revising some of the original instrumentals, because when we DJ, we won't play them in the format they're in now-they're very much in a home-listening kind of state. So we've been in the studio turning them back into long-playing techno tracks. And on top of that, we've enjoyed doing that so much, creating these extra instrumentals, that we'll probably be releasing them as 12"s or on beatport or whatever. Possibly release it as an instrumental techno record.
So in that earlier interview you were talking about a musical aesthetic? I just assumed you were speaking more in terms of a non-musical message because it seems like, lyrically, there's a kind of anti-consumerist message that recurs throughout Temporary Pleasure. Is that stuff just a coincidence?
I mean, all the lyrics were done by the vocalists. We didn't write any lyrics.
But did you give them any kind of direction at all?
We did give people a freedom. It was really as simple as, we'd make a track, think of who'd be a good fit for it, send it to them, and see what would come back. So there was no kind of overall agenda for it. When we start out with a kind of master plan for something, it just doesn't happen. Our most productive time in the studio came when we gave up on prescribing what each track was going to be and just went in there each day and said, "Let's just make something and see what happens." That's when the most interesting stuff would happen.
But when you've got an artist in the studio, how do you work off of them? What kinds of things do they respond to?
We always choose to have a vocalist in, if possible, as it gives you a chance to guide them. In some cases this is just saying that you have a good take and don't need to do more. However often the vocalist will do things unintentionally that you like, and you can get them to repeat or exaggerate these things. If they're recording without you there, they will always be second guessing what you want, and that's rarely a good thing.