Interview Simian Mobile Disco: Festivals, Guest Vocalists & What Not To Eat For Breakfast

Derek Robertson sits down with James and Jas.

Whilst Primavera Sound is a predominantly indie festival, it’s not all skinny jeans and boys with guitars. Enter electronic behemoths Simian Mobile Disco and their unique take on dance music. Derek Robertson sits down with James and Jas in the calm before the storm to chat about festivals, guest vocalists, and what not to eat for breakfast in foreign lands.

You play festivals both live and DJing. How different are the two sets?
Jas: Very different. The live show is us playing all our own stuff; we bring with us a miniature, portable version of our studio, so we have old drum machines, synths, a desk and stuff. DJ-ing is just DJ-ing; we play very little of our own music.

When you play big festivals do you feel pressure to play all your hits? Do you still enjoy playing them?
James: It’s a bit churlish not to play songs that people might know, so we will play a few of them. As our live set up is quite flexible, we can change every aspect almost on a whim. We’ll do different versions, or play with the arrangements and the way they sound so there’ll be elements that people recognise, just presented in a different way.
Jas: And we’re definitely not gonna play ‘We Are Your Friends’! We never have, and we’re not about to start.

Before you go on, do you have a concrete set list in mind, or do you just choose the first tracks and then see where it goes?
James: We have a list of the songs, but within the songs there is a lot of fluidity. There are sections where we don’t know what’s going to happen, but there are always touch points of the actual songs that we include in the set.

When you’re DJ-ing, how do you take turns?
James: We generally go back to back. It’s quite interesting - if you don’t do it right it might zigzag a little bit, but then sometimes you can get on a real flow. Jas might throw a curveball in there, or it’ll go in a direction I didn’t think it would, and you have to knit a way through the night.

So is there any humour involved, like if one of you plays something really leftfield, as if to say “Follow that!”?
Jas: To a certain extent. What’s nice as well is that playing with someone else gives you a little bit longer to think about what you want to do next.

Is there any difference playing a big stage compared to playing in a tent?
James: We always enjoy tents actually, as a large part of our show is the light show, and we’ve spent a lot of time and energy getting that part of it to work. If we play in the daytime on an outside stage then we really don’t enjoy that.

Speaking of visuals, have you ever had a turn down a festival because a stage wasn’t suitable for what you wanted to do?
Jas: The visuals are an important part of the live show, and we would definitely knock back a festival if we thought we couldn’t make something interesting happen. To a large extent, because we’ve had the lights since day one, they have a similar interplay to how James and I play off each other. Our lighting guy Dave does a lot of it on the fly as well, so it’s important that everything can work together, otherwise it’s not really worth doing.

I read that your next release as Simian will be coming out on Wichita, but you still have the Delicacies imprint for releasing some of your more esoteric projects. Are you going to keep this split in the future and continue with dual releases?
James: That was the whole plan for Delicacies. It was a way for us to have a quicker turnaround, and to be able to make something that we wanted to play as DJ’s. We can put stuff out quickly and make it available for people who want it – we can literally do what we want. The next album will be coming out on Wichita, and I suppose it’ll be a little broader than the “Delicacies” stuff, but you know, we’re at the point now where we’re gonna make exactly the album we want to make. I don’t think it’s going to be as poppy as some of our previous stuff.

So you don’t go into the studio with any pre-conceived ideas of what you want to do, or what type of album you want to make?
James: We definitely have done in the past, whether we like to admit it or not, but with this one, we’re just going in, trying stuff out, and choosing whatever we are happiest with. There aren’t any preconceptions of what we want it to be at this point in time.

‘Temporary Pleasures’ wasn’t warmly received by critics. Do you think that had anything to do with your desire, perhaps even sub-consciously, to make ‘Delicacies’, which is much more minimalist and techno orientated?
Jas: It probably did to be fair. And aside from what other people said, it’s something that we noticed at the time, in that when we’d go Dj-ing, we couldn’t really play any of those (TP) tracks because they were all edited so short. I guess ‘Delicacies’ was us trying to redress the balance.

With hindsight, are you still happy with the way it turned out?
James: I think there’s some good stuff on there, I think there’s some less good stuff on there. We made a whole bunch of tracks at that time, all for the album, and I think the mistake we made in hindsight was choosing the wrong track list. There was a lot of stuff left out that would have balanced the album out a little more, and we should have probably only chosen two or three vocal tracks as opposed to sticking them all on, which is what we did.

Do you have any plans to work with more guest vocalists on the new album, and if so, will you be working with them in the same way?
Jas: Well, we’ve never really written lyrics for other people, and it’s kind of integral to why you get someone in to work with you – the lyrics they write, the style of their voice, all that stuff. You invite a guest in to get their take on things and their influence. We’ll definitely get some vocalists in on this next one, but I think we’ll go back to treating them more cruelly. The mistake we made before, as James said, was letting the vocals lead the record, whereas this time, I think we’ll be a lot tougher to please.

As artists and DJ’s, does the modern rash of celebrity DJ’s, who basically just turn up and play their favourite tunes, ever piss you off? They’re even getting festival slots now.
James: Not really. We’re not DJ snobs in that way at all. With new technology, the ability is there for everyone to do it. Obviously there are DJ’s we really like, and those people that you’re talking about are probably not among them, but we’re not gonna try and start some sort of hate campaign against them.

You can if you want. This would be the perfect platform…
Jas: Ha! I think that stuff has always been around, but maybe it’s just more conspicuous because there are so many programs that make it super easy to DJ.
James: Yeah, because of the technology, you no longer need any kind of real technical skills to do it, so literally anyone who thinks they have good musical taste to share with the world now has the ability and the motivation to do it. It’s similar to the wider issue of the democratisation of music in general. There’s wheat and there’s chaff…and as there’s more noise out there, it just means the people who are actually really good have to push a lot harder to stand above all that chaff.

Given the theme of “Delicacies”, and the fact that you’ve actually tried some of them, are you gonna try and sample some of the delights they have here in Spain? They have brains, intestines, even bull’s testicles…
Jas: Stupidly, we didn’t realise that the delicacies thing would come back to haunt us when we were travelling. Part of it was that we’re genuinely interested in these foods, but when I was in Indonesia, I was pretty hung over one morning and they brought me – for breakfast – brain, skin crackers, and knee ligaments.

Breakfast of champions.
Jas: Actually, the brains were not that bad, but the knee ligament was horrible. It’s really rubbery and tasteless, just….not good. The brains were a bit egg yolkish, sort of like tofu, but the nicest one was the skin cracker, which was basically just a pork scratching. Just fried, sub-cutaneous cow fat.
James: We named a track on the album after a Spanish dish – the translation came out as nerve salad.

Nerve salad? What on earth is that?
James: Well, maybe it’s not exactly called that, but its slices of spinal column. Have you heard of it? Maybe it’s a South American one….

It may well be a Latin American thing. It sounds absolutely hideous.
Jas: People often ask us about this, about eating that stuff, but we did deliberately choose the gross stuff. It was important to us that the delicacies weren’t the sort of thing you could find in those fancy delicatessens in West London. That’s not the vibe at all, we wanted the really revolting things.
James: Testicles are quite a common one though, aren’t they? I think they call them “Prairie oysters” in the USA. That’s one of my favourite terms, “prairie oysters”. So I might try them.

Taken from the Summer 2011 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.

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