Interview: Simian Mobile Disco's Jas Shaw on Temporary Pleasure, Guest Vocalists, and Synthesizers
It doesn't feel like making music, y'know? I mean, both of us come from a background of being in proper bands, you know where you have a bass and a drummer and guitar and keys. I think there's something really valid in just recording a performance, where you have that thing where the red light's going, and you realize you have to do it there and then, you're not tweaking it afterwards. There's a certain kind of danger if you do everything in the laptop, where you're laying out the parameters and arranging everything beforehand, you don't leave any space for the kinds of accidents or things to happen naturally. It becomes very much a cerebral process rather than an intuitive process. I definitely think that the best things for us happen when we're not analyzing things, but we're following our ears.
Would you say there's a physical, tactile pleasure that comes with working with synthesizers? The physical experience of playing the drums, for example, or feeling the vibration of a guitar pick against strings, has an obvious appeal. Do you find that playing a synthesizer has any kind of similar effect?
Yeah. I think there is, even down to each individual one. It's like, where you can have two synthesizers that are essentially the same, but if the front panel of one is laid out differently, you would probably write different music on it. It's one of the things where the instruments you use have an effect of the music you're making, and we're quite conscious of that. It's one of a number of things that drives us to use hardware. Because [using hardware instead of plug-ins] is inconvenient, yeah, it always breaks down and it takes up a lot of space, but the fact that it is an instrument and it has that effect on how you make music, that makes it worthwhile to have. Of course, it's great to have laptops and software and all that and it's great for putting ideas down. You don't get the feeling of actually playing something, though.
It's really cool that you view them as musical instruments as well as hardware, but there must have been an adjustment period for you in that respect. Those old analog synths aren't exactly user-friendly. What was it like the first time you got your hands on one and tried to play it?
I remember going into a studio to record, and there was an Arp 2600 built into the wall. And while we were waiting [for everybody], the guy who was the engineer looked at me and said, "While we're waiting, have a go on that. See if you can get any noises out of it, it's brilliant!" And I remember pushing the faders all over the place, and no sound came out, and I just thought, "This is shit."
Yeah. It's definitely one of those things where you have to know something about how they work to get somewhere. But once you get into synths, once you figure out how one works, you start to see that there's a pattern to them. A modular synth's not that complicated, once you kind of get the basic principles.
I want to get back to Temporary Pleasure. Describe the transition from your plans to make an instrumental record to this song-based album with a dream team of guests on it.
It was always the intention to have some guests. Just not as many as we wound up with. People identify with vocals more than they do music, it's just a much more direct form of communication. So the intention was just to have two or three vocals, and all the people on there were people that we'd met at festivals while we were touring the last record. And we just assumed that most people would be busy, where everyone's kind of touring or making their own records or whatever. So we wound up sending out more than we needed simply because we assumed we wouldn't get that many back. And, happily, we did wind up getting back more than we expected, and all of them turned out to be really good. So it got to the point where we had all these versions with vocals, and they were all really good, and it kind of changed the way we viewed the instrumentals, and we really just decided to go with it. It wasn't anything that we labored over, we just decided to leave them on.
Gruff Rhys [of Super Furry Animals], Alexis Taylor [of Hot Chip], Beth Ditto [of Gossip], Chris Keating [of Yeasayer]...It's an amazing batch of people. If you could have your wildest dreams come true, who do you think you'd really love to do a track with?
I would have said Prince, but I saw him recently and it was shocking. [laughs]
I mean, it was at a jazz festival, and he was just playing these awful jazz licks. But I'd love to get him into the studio one time before he dies.