After over a decade of poking at the border and years of occupying the fringe, electronic music has officially entered the American mainstream. Sperry Top-Siders are as ubiquitous at festivals as glow sticks, and rock-star DJ personalities have replaced those hidden behind a club-sweat haze having originated across the pond. Among those are James Ford and Jas Shaw, who left their British electro-rock band in 2005 and performed DJ sets before releasing an album of original recordings in 2007. Simian Mobile Disco, maiden name “Simian” (with a reference to nomadic disc jockeys added to their original moniker), winks at electronic music’s gritty past while squinting slightly at its bright, if sometimes mildly compromising, future.
James Ford, half of Simian Mobile Disco and also a producer for Florence and the Machine and Arctic Monkeys, spoke with us while preparing the live show for recently released album Unpattern. We got into what is lost in translation with the naturalization of dance music into the American mainstream—a conversation briefly relieved to consider the grammatical relativism of “unpattern.” Whew. At least we’re promised a dance party afterward.
AMANDA DUBERMAN: Hey James, thanks for checking in. Do you have a show tonight?
JAMES FORD: We’re actually just in the studio preparing what is going to be the new live show. It’s been quite involved because we didn’t really use any kind of real machines for this record, there’s no information. We have to go back in time and re-program. It’s very labor intensive, but we’re nearly there.
DUBERMAN: How is it playing the new material? Have you gradually tested it with crowds, or are you going to lay it all out at once?
FORD: Most if not all of the tunes have been road tested to some extent. We’d still play DJ sets every weekend. We would play our stuff between other peoples’ records without letting on it was us. It’s really good, actually. You get an honest reaction. Now they are out there and people might recognize them. But to be able to play your tunes and get a really honest reaction from people is really helpful.
DUBERMAN: Kind of like a blind trial.
FORD: Yeah exactly! A focus group.
DUBERMAN: What did you feel you couldn’t necessarily do with your prior band, Simian, that you and Jas decided to start Simian Mobile Disco?
FORD: It wasn’t really the fact that we couldn’t do anything. With Simian, the original idea was to mix more folky songs with electronic stuff. Eventually, it was just that we fell out as a group of people, honestly.
DUBERMAN: Well, that band started over a decade ago, right? You outpaced most marriages, at least.
FORD: Right. [laughs] The relationship is just as important as the music, and after that long of a time, it wasn’t quite there.
DUBERMAN: Maybe in a couple of years, I’ll be talking to you and it’s just you and a solo project and you’ll have the same answer for what happened to Simian Mobile Disco.
FORD: Hopefully not! Jas and I have been doing it for years and we’re both really mellow. I suppose when Simian ended it was just natural to carry on DJing and do remixes, and that’s how it started really. We just enjoyed messing around with the electronic side of things.
DUBERMAN: So you didn’t leave that band with the intention of starting another?
FORD: No, it wasn’t really a master plan. We just thought, “Well, this has come to an end, do you just want to carrying on DJing for laughs?” That was it.
DUBERMAN: How does performing DJ sets and live shows, just the two of you, differ from touring and putting on shows with several more people?
FORD: Performing just the two of us is quite flexible. We get to play with the structures of the songs and because it’s made with real equipment, it’s different every night. That, compared to being in a band, it’s almost a bit freer, in a strange sense. With a band, you have your set songs and you play them well or you play them poorly. Unless you’re in a Grateful Dead type band, and we weren’t, really. There’s really no room for improvisation, and it’s hard to communicate between four people. We do a lot of improvising as the two of us, because the machines can generate new patterns and phrases as we go. There’s a lot of new things being generated every night. With the two of us, we start at A and need to get to point B but it doesn’t really matter how we get there. It’s different every time.
DUBERMAN: You have a very successful career as a producer. Do you ever have ideas that you aren’t able to fully realize or implement producing for someone else that you end up using for Simian Mobile Disco?
FORD: I would say they are more isolated, really. Especially because I tend to produce non-electronic things, mainly. Obviously the process is really different. If you’re recording as a band, there’s no sequencers or drum machines. There’s a room and microphones and amplifiers and people playing things. Sometimes there’s instances of, “Oh, that’s a cool chord change,” but other than that, there isn’t much overlap.
DUBERMAN: Electronic music has really migrated from Europe to the US over the past few years. Has your success followed the trajectory of the rise in popularity of electronic music, or have you grown independently of that?
FORD: We’ve been coming to America for a long time, and we’re very fascinated by the way dance music has been received here. Especially considering most of our favorite dance music was made in Chicago and Detroit. [laughs] I feel like the more sort of modern rise of what people are calling EDM is, you know, the kind of noisy, fist bumping, mosh-pit type stuff. Honestly, we really hate that kind of music.
DUBERMAN: Right, well, at the moment, people seem to be loving that here. Do you think audiences are more receptive to different things in different places?
FORD: Honestly, what you were saying about the trajectory of dance music almost occurred backwards for us. Once we saw that kicking off in America in that way, especially the noisy-electro thing, which kind of led into the dub step thing, which is kind of ubiquitous at the moment, we were starting to go in the other direction. We didn’t really want to be a part of that. Our tastes were getting more into the European angle of dance music. I think the fact that dance music is a big part of the mainstream is positive for everyone making dance music because there are more people into it and there’s more people going to parties and shows.
DUBERMAN: I feel a “but” coming…
FORD: My only concern is that the type of EDM that’s big now may be painted as a universal picture of what dance music can be, but it doesn’t always portray the magic and beauty that is, or can be there. If you go clubs in Europe, it’s a very different aesthetic. It’s not about a superstar DJ on a stage. It’s more of a club experience. People often don’t even pay much attention to the DJ.
DUBERMAN: It seems like even though it’s huge there, it’s stayed somewhat on the fringe without really entering the mainstream conversation.
FORD: It’s massive there, but in it’s own way. The clubs are huge, there’s lots of people, but it’s just in a different way. It’s not like a rock concert. It’s a club. It’s a different way of going about it. That’s not to say that doesn’t happen in America, it does in certain places. But the mainstream version of it at the moment is this DJ as rock star. It should be about the party and about the night.
DUBERMAN: Do you make music that you want to sound a certain way, or feel a certain way?
FORD: We tend not to think too hard about the music we’re making before we make it. On this record, we made a lot of tracks, and we kind noticed this strange, slightly melancholy, dreamy psychedelic thing happening in a lot of the tracks and those are the tracks we chose to put on the album, so it would feel like a complete idea with a particular mood that carries through.
DUBERMAN: Lastly, to get a bit meta with the album title: What is an unpattern? Does a pattern define an unpattern, or does an unpattern define a pattern?
FORD: See, okay. The thought behind that was that we liked how simple patterns can interact to form something that is chaotic and doesn’t seem like a pattern at all. That relates to the album artwork, it’s this thing called the Moire effect, where two patterns are overlaid and you shift one slightly and the interference is destructive and constructive at the same time and it creates this whole new moving pattern. That certainly relates to how we make music. You put a simple loop or pattern into the drum machine and the sequencer but they interact and knock each other in and out of time and create something complex. That complexity out of simplicity is kind of a magical thing.
UNPATTERN IS OUT NOW. SIMIAN MOBILE DISCO WILL PLAY WEBSTER HALL ON FRIDAY, MAY 25. FOR MORE ON THE DUO, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.