Mikachu - wacky pop for now people

She trained at the Purcell School, and now Mikachu counts Björk as an admirer. By Marcus O'Dair
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The Independent Culture

"I wasn't quite sure what to expect, I thought everyone would be wearing Victorian clothes. So the first day I went there in full football kit, shinpads and everything: just like, 'this is what I do.'"

Though you might not guess it, Mica Levi is recalling her arrival at the prestigious, music-based Purcell School, at the age of 10. Eleven years later and the football obsession has long been supplanted by an equally strong passion for contemporary electronica, inspired by her subsequent discovery of the school's music-tech room. Yet something of the outsider spirit remains in her current musical alter ego: Mikachu.

The name itself may not mean much. In her own words, "it's like [the Pokemon character] Pikachu, it's that simple." Yet it's already attracting an inordinate amount of attention, not only from both bloggers and mainstream media but also seminal electronica artist Matthew Herbert, who will be releasing the as-yet-untitled debut album on his label in November. Perhaps most impressive of all, Björk was reportedly spotted in the audience at a recent show.

For all the avant-garde credentials of Björk and Herbert, let alone her own diverse influences – a former member of the Cluster grime collective, she is currently studying composition at Guildhall – she has achieved this success through a medium she defines as pop.

"You either call it pop music or try to find words for it," she explains, offering "nosebleed experimental anti-folk monkey-brain" as an alternative, which is funnier in the flesh than in print. "I think it's pop music. They're short songs, with choruses and verses."

She's right too, though it's hardly Girls Aloud. This, after all, is a girl who plays a vacuum cleaner on "Turn Me Weller". Brilliantly brought to life by her two-piece band The Shapes, the textures and timbres are as off-kilter as might be expected from producer Herbert, a man whose instrumental arsenal has in the past included human internal organs.

On top sit Mikachu's kooky, quirky lyrics: going on a date with a vulture is a not unrepresentative theme. The delivery, often gloriously low-pitched, is also so off-hand that some commentators have drawn comparisons to Kate Nash. Elocution aside, it's hard to imagine Nash replicating Mikachu's recent composition for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. No judgement is intended regarding their respective merits – Mikachu dismisses as "bullshit" the notion that classical music should enjoy any inherent superiority over pop – but they are simply very different artists. It's hard to imagine Nash compiling anything to rival Mikachu's recent, hip-hop leaning Filthy Friends mixtape.

The rumours of Björk's attendance at a recent gig turn out to be entirely true. "She danced and had her tongue out," she recalls. "I spotted her halfway through a song. I just froze. [Then] I basically thought, 'It's amazing she's here, obviously that's a lot of pressure, but if she doesn't like it, there's nothing I can do.'"

But like it she clearly did – an embarrassed Mikachu eventually confirms that they spoke by phone afterwards as well. "She said, 'I really enjoyed your music, I've been listening to your CD all week.' It was really surreal."

Mikachu seems keen to downplay the hullabaloo she's created. It's only because I was backstage at Camp Bestival last month that I know Wayne Coyne, from the night's headline act, The Flaming Lips, was effusive in his post-gig praise. (It may also be, at least to some extent, that she's genuinely oblivious; though she smiled back convincingly throughout the conversation, when he departed she admitted she had no idea who he was.)

Recognised or not, the patronage of such alt-rock icons appears well placed. At the risk of fuelling the ever-more ravenous hype machine, it would take a pretty extraordinary glut of new talent over the next four months for her not to end 2008 as one of the most original artists to emerge this year. Hers is a tremendously fresh sound, playful without being lightweight, and benefiting hugely from her ability to make apparently incongruous elements appear natural bedfellows. Though the sledgehammer symbolism may stretch credulity, the tracklist of her personal MP3 player really is split – give or take a few Captain Beefheart tunes – between hip-hop and the music of American 20th-century composer Harry Partch.

Partch is also the only artist named as an influence on Mikachu's MySpace page, something that could come across as horrendously pretentious. Yet, having accompanied her on the 10-day Convoy to Capetown earlier this year, a tour organised by the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, I can say with some conviction that her interest in Partch is genuine, and bordering on the evangelical.

Indeed, it may well be that Partch is the prime influence on Mikachu's music. Many of his pieces were no longer than pop songs. As a creator of custom-made instruments, he should also take responsibility for Mikachu's notorious vacuum-cleaner solos, as well as her attempts at inventing various instruments from scratch (even if she usually contents herself with hammering her tiny acoustic guitar, bought from Oxfam "for a tenner" and held on by a piece of string).

One could even claim that the legacy of his microtonal experiments appears in Mikachu's cavalier attitude towards guitar tuning – although it's probably just that she's got a cavalier attitude towards guitar tuning. Ironically, though, she insists that she's grateful for her time at The Purcell School, she also suggests that this lo-fi aesthetic may be the most last effect of her time there .

"Music doesn't have to be polished," she shrugs. "You just have to be good at what you do. I have a lot of respect for musicians who are versatile but I think – it's probably from school – a lot of people are just showing off. It's not honest, you're just showing off, which is quite boring musically."

"I'm not very technically fantastic at the guitar," she continues, by way of conclusion. "My voice is all right but I'm not a refined player or singer, and my diction's lazy. These are all things I'd like to work on, but I'm much more interested in making exciting music, interesting sounds, than I am in aspiring to make music that's very polished."

Mikachu and The Shapes play the Loop Digital Culture Festival in Brighton tomorrow ( www.loopbrighton.com); 'Golden Phone' is out on Monday on Accidental

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