Simian Mobile Disco - Standing out the way of control

Simian Mobile Disco intended their new album to consist of plain techno. Then indie stars such as Beth Ditto, Gruff Rhys and Hot Chip got in touch, and they realised they'd better write some songs. They talk Chris Mugan through their chaotic creative process
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The Independent Culture

To judge by their studio upgrade, James Ford and Jas Shaw are doing alright. Last time we met, two years ago, we cleared cables off flight cases in order to find a seat. Now they hunch over a desk on proper chairs and boast about their vocal booth. It is the guests that use it, however, who really show how far Simian Mobile Disco (SMD) have come. For their 2007 debut album, Attack Decay Sustain Release, they brought in the likes of The Go! Team's callow vocalist Ninja to rap over their hardened dance beats. For its follow up, the pair have upped their game.

"Beth Ditto was in there," Shaw, the spectacled one, boasts fondly. "We'd literally just moved down here and she brought in a bottle of whiskey. She was really nervous and said she had it to loosen her throat. I thought, 'alright, here we go.'" His musical partner explains how they wanted Ditto to leave her comfort zone. "She was really up for the disco. Beth's got that house diva in her somewhere. We definitely didn't want her to belt it out as she's known to [as the singer in the soul-punk band the Gossip]. We wanted her to go for a more soulful rendition."

His reminiscence suggests that Temporary Pleasure is a more considered work than its predecessor. Attack came together during weekends snatched between gigs and the production work of Ford, he of the mad professor hair and, thanks to his knob-twiddling duties for Arctic Monkeys, the Klaxons and Florence & the Machine, the bulging contacts book. With little in the way of forward planning, SMD marshalled their dancefloor weapons into a coherent mass of analogue sounds and crunching beats..

For their second album, SMD have given their guests, among them Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals and Hot Chip's Alexis Turner, a chance to steal the limelight with more polished songs. It sounds like they put a lot of effort into planning this work, though nothing could be further from the truth. For a start, Pleasure was meant to be a techno record, Shaw explains. "We fall between two aesthetics, [catering for] the noisy, rock-crossover audience and a more proper clubbing, techno audience, and we were steering towards the latter.

"We started off listening to esoteric disco, krautrocky stuff, minimalist funk. We wanted to make a more leftfield album than we ended up doing." Earlier this year, the pair leaked a couple of stark instrumental tracks, "10,000 Horses Can't Be Wrong" and "Synthesise", to suggest their then direction. "Those were representative. There were going to be two or three vocal tracks – the rest would be instrumental flip-outs." In the five months between releasing those tracks and finishing the album, all the guest contributions came back in. "We got sidetracked and hijacked by some very good vocals."

Such was the quality of the responses to the backing tracks that SMD had sent out, they had no choice but to use them in a more structured way than before, Ford explains. "On the first record we chopped up all the vocals and used them like instruments, but because of the people we chose or what they delivered, these tracks worked much better as songs, with better lyrics, verses and choruses. We'd written the original tracks in a seven or eight minute format, now we had to edit them down." "My theory is that we wrote better chords this time," Shaw adds. "The one thing that carried through from the first album was that tracks like 'Sleep Deprivation' had really good melodies, that cut through trends in production. Rather than just having bleeps we liked, we had bleeps that moved in an interesting harmonic way."

Looking back, though, he can see that this process fits with SMD's modus operandi. "The point where we get excited about a track is when we're trying to make a disco tune and it disappears off in a different direction and you're not quite sure where it is anymore. If you finish a track and it sounds just like Norwegian disco or Berlin techno, it's not very interesting. It's only when you lose control of it that it gets to the point where we're like, 'that's a keeper'."

Likewise, selecting singers was a haphazard process, dependent on their meeting people at gigs and festivals. "Random is the way we operate," says Ford, struggling to explain what attracts him to a contributer. "Usually we find we have something in common, like, 'oh, I didn't know you were into [the maverick US rock singer] Todd Rundgren'. Or we think, this song could do with a vocal, maybe a man, maybe a deep voice. Who do we know? Then we chuck them an email with an MP3 on it."

Despite the presence of well-known names, the one show-stealing vocal contribution to Temporary Pleasure is by Chris Keating, the frontman for the esoteric US indie band Yeasayer. He pursues a totally different direction on the new album's lead single, "Audacity of Huge", playing a grasping materialist who can't get the girl, despite owning a "grape Kool-aid-filled swimming pool". It surprised SMD, Ford admits. "I've been to a few of their gigs and like their records, so wasn't expecting that. 'Going for a creepy 'N Sync vibe' was his quote. We had to send it back and forth a few times before we got our heads round it."

Although SMD is their main band, it is clear that, especially for Ford, the project is something of an escape from the more onerous work of producing some of our most feted musical names. At the end of the last year, Ford was heavily involved in four records: this one, the Arctic Monkeys' third album, Humbug, the Mercury-shortlisted Lungs by Florence and the Machine, and the Klaxons' second album, some of which the band have been asked to re-record by their label. Their producer responds tersely, "Doing other people's records always seems more stressful, and Simian is a release from that."

SMD's mammoth tour schedule, for both live and DJ dates, demonstrates their popularity across the club and gigging worlds. Last weekend, they played in Malmo, Sweden, before immediately flying to the iconic Space in Ibiza. Ford marvels at his mate's ability to raise two kids at the same time. "We'd often get back at six in the morning; I'd sleep through the day, but Jas has to look after his little ones."

Ford, though, since he got married last September, has had to redress the work-life balance. "I found myself only doing half a record, which is quite frustrating because, when you get involved in something, you want to see it through to its conclusion. And after three years of constantly filling every day with production, touring or whatever, I was going crazy. I needed to spend time with friends and family, otherwise I'd turn into a robot."

So the must-have producer kept this year free for his own music and the results are telling, given the step up on SMD's second album. Temporary Pleasure sounds like a long-lasting success.

'Temporary Pleasure' is out now on Wichita Recordings.