Ford and Shaw's inquisitive streak is reflected in the studio. Every available space in their cave-like spot in East London is occupied by blinking racks of hardware. They like turning stuff on and seeing what happens, but are equally excited by running stripped-back setups, and thriving on limitation. The only rule, really, is to try new things.
But even by Ford and Shaw's standards, the idea behind their new record is ambitious. Whorl, their fourth studio album, will "blur the boundaries between studio composition and live performance." Last month they played at a saloon in the Californian desert using a skeletal setup that included two modular synths, two Sequentix Cirklon sequencers and a mixing desk. A recording of the performance will form the basis of their album. It was the first time they'd played without a computer. When I met with Ford and Shaw in the days leading up to the show, they were deep in rehearsals and planning. There was still some uncertainty about their setup, but I think they were secretly happy about this.
Perhaps we could start with you outlining the premise of the new album.
Jas: So in between all of the other albums that we've done, we've always gone back to doing 12-inches, with the Delicacies series stuff. And this time it's been much more collaborative, so we have called in other producers. And I think we were both kind of eager to do something not 12-ish, if that makes any sense.
And the album is also something that fell back from our live show, which we've been progressively pulling all of the crutches out of. Increasingly we were making it on the fly just to keep it fun, to keep it so it didn't feel like a "space bar show." We've managed to get the drums so that they're all completely programmed live. We watched a quite a few shows, and the ones that we liked best were just a couple of machines. And when you look back to how music was made up until probably the mid-'90s, that's sort of how it was. It was like: drum machine, delay pedal, couple of synths, mixer. Bish, bash, bosh.
We don't need a laptop. The laptop has actually become not very helpful. So we were like, "Alright, get rid of the laptop." What will replace it? We looked at MPCs. We looked at all of the other options. I considered building a [Sequentix] P3. The sequencers that we've got are effectively the step up from the P3. And just like, when we looked into what Cirklon could do, it was everything that we knew, really. To sort of drive back to your question, to a large extent the nature of the music was very much defined by the rig. Which I know is kind of perverse on one level. But on the other level we've always found that with collaborations, for example, that defines the nature of the record. We get that person in there and even if they don't do that much, for some reasons it comes out with a bit of a—it smells of them, you know?
Effectively we kind of functionally made the setup so that there was less duplication. The setup, in order to be mobile, needs to be smallish, and each function or unit in the modular world is pretty big, certainly compared to the laptop world. You know if you want a bass thing it takes up this much space. The first probably two or three weeks was just popping modulars in and out, fixing stuff.
James: Well, we were still doing that last week as well. Like, "Oh, maybe this could be better."
Jas: It's been a kind of productivity vs. collaboration.
Have you been guilty of overcomplicating your live setups in the past?
James: I don't know.
Jas: Oh really? It couldn't be more complicated than this setup. If anything, we've much more overcomplicated it.
James: I think we're quite good at keeping a handle on technology versus productivity, because that's a real wormhole you can fall down, especially with modular gear. You know, when you start, the gear takes more precedence than the actual music, and that's a disastrous situation. We're very aware of that and are constantly trying to make sure that the melodic content, and the content of the music, is taking precedent over whether the modulars are the right way around or in the right configuration.
In terms of the live performance aspect of the album, how did that conversation start, and why did you end up thinking it was the right idea for this project?
Jas: I suppose it links back to a lot of the records that we were enjoying, that obviously were done in that way. To not just go into the studio and start Pro Tools and to just vomit a lot of ideas down and spend months editing them. Just kind of spend some time in a rehearsal room and get these ideas and hone them. And then the next time, if it works in a rehearsal room, generally speaking it works so much easier—and then just press record, you know.
Also I think we were just really excited about recording in a different way. I guess it feeds on from the live record we did, which was live versions of stuff we'd already done. Having everything going at the same time and being able to manipulate it is very, very different to recording the things in one by one and fastidiously doing each one.
James: I think as well it was just an exciting prospect for us, and that is justification enough in itself. The idea of getting rid of the computer and doing something that was kind of live and a bit more loose was just an exciting idea that's made us create this little bunch of music we just created.
Is there a significance behind the location of the show?
James: It's just that I've been there before and really liked it. An opportunity of a gig presented itself out there, and then it just seemed like the two things really fitted together, and it seemed like a good idea to make the live show and the studio version of ourselves meet directly in the middle. Meet for a showdown. Pistols at dawn.
How have you been preparing for the show? What have the weeks leading up to it been like?
James: Actually, this last week has been a little bit more fraught than we thought, because we kind of made some really good progress at the beginning, once we'd built the system. We felt the music came together pretty easily. But then, actually retracing our steps and playing it again, obviously with the modular thing we've got a lot of oscillators cross-modulating, and we actually found a little bug with the sequencer that meant that things weren't coming back exactly. It was really hard to get back to certain points. So when we were rehearsing the set all the way through, we got to a certain point and it was just like, "Oh my god, we're nowhere near where we needed to be."
So were you setting yourselves milestones?
James: Yeah, and definitely within the show there are things that are now like flags in the ground that definitely are gonna happen. It's how we thread our way between point A and point B that changes. But it's like, we need to get to these certain points. Otherwise we couldn't get away with it being an amorphous, freestyle jazz thing, you know? But then when you're trying to get from point A to point B, and point B is totally nebulous and amorphous, and it doesn't come back like you expected it to, it's pretty scary. And we tracked it down to an actual bug in the software in the sequencer, which we've got the guy to fix, and so it was actually like, proper—we started freaking out a little bit.
Were there particular features of the sequencer that drew you to it?
Jas: Basically we needed just a step sequencer that can save patterns. It doesn't do any sampling. It's difficult to tell exactly, but rhythmically it feels really tight. Like really spot on. And everything just sits together nicely.
James: I think as well, just looking into it is a bit like a 909 or something like that. It is quite intuitive once you get used to it, and so it is very playable for things like structures, like dropping things in and out or looping sections and things like that. It's just kind of instant. So it's almost like you've got a physical connection to the structure of the sound, if that makes sense. As opposed to like on a computer, it always feels like you're one step removed from that.
Do you think that using a hardware sequencer gives quite a different end product?
James: Yeah, I think part of the reason that we chose to do this whole project was that it was a closed system. It's a limiting factor, so the bass sounds and the lead sounds are only ever going to be made by particular elements in the system we created. And the same with the sequencer: you can only do certain things with it, it's not like it does everything. We've run into a few brick walls where it's like, "I cannot do this thing I want to do." But then that in itself is a good thing because it means that you find a creative way to step around that particular problem. More often than not you find a different, better thing. And that self-imposed limitation thing is something we always try to do with other people when we're producing their records, and so this was a way of us doing it to ourselves.
The modular systems that you're using are the same that you've always used?
James: Just as, like, an amalgamation of the modular system we've toured for years, with some new modules configured in a different way. My system is much newer. There was one module that only arrived last week, that was kind of the cornerstone that I was waiting for. A lot of them are very, very new. That whole world of Eurorack is kind of exploding. Loads of people are just making very new, sort of esoteric designs. There is one particular module actually called Braids that we just started using, and another one called Yarns by this thing called Mutable Instruments. They've been really, really useful. We've been using them a lot. But yeah, one particular one, the Yarns, I only got last week.
Does your use of modular synthesis have roots in a particular ideal or line of thinking?
Jas: I suppose one thing that we've always been really interested in is the electronic pioneers—Joe Meek, Delia Derbyshire and a lot of that kind of early, early stuff, where they didn't really have any other option. It was a decision to make modular stuff. But that's something nice, that stuff makes you approach music in a slightly different way.
If you take a Minimoog, which is a great synth, but it's definitely like a keyboard, so you approach it like a keyboard. Whereas if you take a pile of oscillators and some modulators and stuff, you're not going to play like on a Minimoog. It just isn't going to work that way, and I think that's something we've always been interested in.
Is there a feeling of individuality fuelling it a little bit?
James: Yeah, that is the idea. I remember being a teenager and making a pedal board and swapping effects pedals around. And you know if you put the distortion after the reverb or before the reverb it makes a big difference to the way the two things interact. And that idea is the heart of much of the stuff, really. It's the fact that you can take elements that are in most of the synthesisers, but they're kind of discrete units, so you can swap them around and play with the way they interact with each other. That opens a whole world of possibilities and that idea is exciting to us.
You talked about the wormhole effect that is inherent in this stuff. Do you feel as though you've become more disciplined down the years? Is this something you have to learn as a modular synthesis enthusiast?
Jas: Yeah, I mean if you go on modular synth websites—which I'm not saying that we do—it's fucking rubbish. They're all just making the same pointless cross-modulation bits—so boring, just the most boring thing in the world.
James: You could say that about any forum, though.
Jas: Yeah, that's true. I think particularly people are like, "Oh, I made this amazing noise." And you listen to it and it's like, "Uh, I don't care about that." I think that's the thing, that the default setting for a modular synth is to make weird, wiggly cross modulating noise. And that is as interesting a point to start from as, for example, a piano, which makes very well tempered interesting noise. But you really have to do something with that modular noise. It can't just be that. Having two people there is so good, because at some point one of us just says, "You're boring."
James: You're boring me.
Was there a particular vibe or sound you were aiming for with the album?
James: I think we knew that we didn't want to make a straight-up clubby record, because we've been doing this Delicacies thing where we've been aiming at just making club tunes that we would wanna play, which has kind of been a motivation for quite a while. But for this album, we definitely had in mind I suppose the obvious kind of krautrock, sort of Cluster and those kind of influences; Tangerine Dream and the kind of more proggy—a lot of the early electronic stuff that Jas has just talked about. Kind of Raymond Scott and those kind of things. And also in a modern way, I absolutely love that James Holden record from last year, and the Luke Abbott stuff.
Have you traditionally had a fairly fluid relationship between your live shows and the studio?
Jas: We started out just doing remixes and it was purely a studio thing, and then it gathered some momentum, and we were like, "Maybe we should do a live show?" Probably someone else said to us we should probably do a live show, and so we kind of begrudgingly put a live show together, and then we actually found we really enjoyed it. It gave a different aspect to it that we hadn't had before.
I think gradually, as time has gone on, the live show has fed more and more into the way we actually made the music, to the point where on the last record [Unpatterns], it was very much recorded as live performances, even if it's just one thing at a time. We record the bassline as a take and then edit that down, and the chord thing as a take and edit that down. That's always been the way we've done it, but then I think this is the final step in that chain. It's like The Fly—we've finally become the fly.
With the collaboration series, I was interested to know why you reached out to the guys that you did?
James: I think a lot of it was just chance meetings with people. You know, we'd be playing a gig with them. You end up going out for dinner or getting drunk with someone and then it's just like, "Wouldn't it be fun to mess around in the studio? Why don't we do that?" It wasn't very considered. It was more just kind of what happened. We've got links with Bicep, and met Cosmin and Roman out and about, and it just all seemed to work out really well. They all ended up just coming around to our studio and messing around, and it was really easy and fun. It’s something that we hope to do more often in the future.
When you get someone in the studio for the first time, what does that first conversation sound like? How do you define roles, so to speak?
Jas: You know what? In theory you have that conversation, and a lot of bands are like, "Maybe we should have something ready just in case." You know, something to work on. But 90%, in fact, not even 90%: 100% of the time the people have just turned up and been like, "Let's just try something. Let's just plug some boxes in and see what happens”—which is actually how we always work. I don't think we're unusual in the electronic world in just going in, plugging things in and then seeing what you've got and modifying it.
I think that thing of having an overview of exactly what it's going to be before you've started is a bit of a myth. Or at least it is for us. I think that you have a bit of an idea of the kind of thing you want to do, but it generally appears as you do it. It's the process itself that sort of yields the decisions that you make, and it kind of crystallizes in front of you. It's not like you suddenly wake up in the middle of the night and go, "I'm going to do a track like that!"
Your style from record to record seems remarkably different. Why is this the case, do you think?
Jas: To a certain extent I think it's integral to all music. I think it's particularly integral to electronic music to always be hungry for change, to always be looking for something else. When DJs are looking for records, you're not looking for that record that you already have. You're looking for: "What the fuck is this?" And similarly, it's integral to modular synth things. You plug all the cables in and what you really want to happen is like, "Jesus, what is that?" And I think that with every record we're just very conscious that we want to explore something else. Obviously over the years I've learned that it pisses people off, and it's a bad thing to do, but I can't really understand why people would want to knock out the same old shit all the time.
Has this been reflected in the setups that you've used on the albums as well? Does this change in line with the sound?
James: I think so. I think this setup is indicative of how it's always been. It's like, if we've got this bunch of stuff together what could we make? It's that excitement of what's going to happen. We don't know. It might good. Even if it can lead you down some odd paths. I think if you were happy with the thing that you did last you'd never make music ever again. You've got to be like, "I can do something better than that."
Are you presently doing much stuff with bands and other projects?
James: Yeah, on-going production with other things. Quite a lot of pop writing and producing for other people. Recently I did Arctic Monkey's most recent record and the Haim record. A few things like that. There is lots of other things on the go, but until it comes out you never know what's going to happen.
Is your headspace quite different on those sorts of projects?
James: Totally different. But that's what is good about it. Again, what we were saying about defining a system—that's kind a producer's job with other people as well. Defining the boundaries of what is allowed on this particular record. Is it fuzzy guitar sounds? Is it roomy drums? Is it really stripped down? Defining that system is production, in a way.
Have you thought much about why it does work between you guys?
James: I think we are both fairly mellow. It's not like—I don't think it's one of us who wears the trousers if that's what you're getting at.
You said that.
James: I think the fact that we're still making music together after this amount of time means that we just enjoy making music together. Having been in lots of situations with other people making music, it makes you appreciate that we've got a pretty good working relationship in that way.
Jas: The point of it was just: "I've just heard this new record. Are you into it? Yeah, I'm into that. I've got that synth. Should we muck about on it?"
James: There is no better feeling than being excited, and to go in and do something. That initial buzz of the work, or when an idea starts to crystallize, is the point of it all. That's the most exciting bit for me, personally, rather than playing out in front of people, going to places, things like that. Whatever it is. That bit where something happens and you're like, "It could be this and this and this." That excitement is the whole point of doing it, and I'm pretty sure me and Jas will still be doing that when nobody gives a fuck.
Simian Mobile Disco play this year's Movement festival in Detroit, which runs May 23rd through May 26th.