Simian Mobile Disco
When James Ford and Jas Shaw met at Manchester University in the late 1990s, they never imagined they’d end up creating a human synthesiser. But their earliest musical experiments together marked the inception of a constantly evolving creative project — one that would follow an unusual path, inventing entirely new formats for music-making along the way. Adding the rich vocals of The Deep Throat Choir to the techno framework of their fifth studio album, Murmurations, was just another transformation in a series of unexpected turns from Simian Mobile Disco.
Ford and Shaw have been connecting the human voice with electronic sound since they first founded the band in 2000 as Simian with Alex McNaughten and Simon Lord. Simian was, in Shaw’s words, about “trying to show you could make band music with songs and harmonies but be into Autechre too.” Named after “Simeon,” the home-made synth rig of early electronic experimentalists The Silver Apples, the band combined Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonies with hypnotic Krautrock rhythms, cosmic analogue synthesiser swooshes, and an unmistakable clubber’s sense of groove.
Their acclaimed 2007 debut album as Simian Mobile Disco Attack Decay Sustain Release earned them their first runaway hit with the “Hustler” single and 2009’s follow-up Temporary Pleasure featured a slew of star guests (Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, Beth Ditto, Super Furry Animal’s Gruff Rhys, Yeasayer’s Chris Keating, and more). 2012’s Unpatterns ditched voices almost entirely to let the rich sounds of modular synthesisers and the occasional sample take the lead, and, in 2014, they abandoned their huge synth collection for Whorl, which was recorded live in the desert near the Joshua Tree national park, using only one single synthesizer and one sequencer each.
On the cusp of the 10th anniversary of Attack Decay Sustain Release — for which they selected tracks to be reissued as part of 2017’s Anthology compilation — Simian Mobile Disco have had a chance to properly take stock, trace all the aesthetic threads in their work to date, and face the future confident and refreshed.
Finding time in between Ford’s work as a producer and Jas’ club gigging last year, the duo arranged a session in Shaw’s countryside studio. Via an introduction from a friend of Ford’s wife, The Deep Throat Choir’s director Luisa Gerstein and SMD began swapping some production and melodic ideas. They decided to bring the whole East London-based choir into the studio to experiment, and the results were intense. Jas says, “Listening to them moving their voices around a tone, altering the timbre, making chords, was like working with an incredible new synthesiser.”
Murmurations is themed around the flight patterns of bird flocks — the giant cloud formations of starlings — and the stunning emergent behaviors that appear within them. These kinds of patterns echo the wisdom of human crowds. Jas still maintains a love of the kind of small underground club spaces that mirror these movements, where he says “there can be a degree of anarchy in the real sense: people self-organising around their common interest.” Creative directors Kazim Rashid (ENDLESSLOVESHOW) and Carri Munden explore related ideas centered on kinetic energy and communal movement throughout the visuals of Murmurations. Rashid says of the collaboration, “We were both having discussions around the purity of collective human experience and how transcendental this can be. Techno and the dance-floor is one of the last true expressions of this euphoria.”
On the beatless introduction “Boids” you can hear uncanny patterns and sounds rising up from the sea of voices: not traditional chords or harmonies, but complex interference patterns that play tricks on the mind. The peculiar vocal effects merge perfectly with SMD’s own distinctive synth tonalities and instinctive dancefloor nous and Luisa’s lyrics and melodies are full of instant hooks, as on single and perfect festival singalong “Hey Sister”.
The result is a thrilling ride, as perfectly pitched for headphones as it is for clubs. At times you might hear hints of Bulgarian choral music, or Cocteau Twins, or avant-garde composers like Iannis Xenakis or Pauline Oliveiros – but really, thanks to the creative freedom of SMD’s working methods, it is a sound completely of its own, something all too rare in an age of retro and reference. Ford and Shaw still have the same love of pure sound, human harmonies and electronic possibilities that they did when they first met at university, and it’s clear that their career path has allowed them to nurture this love and express it as vividly as ever before.