James and Jas of Simian Mobile Disco, though quite different in personality, are both modest fellows. In conversation each of them, more than once, puts the success of SMD down to sheer luck – however, this is not really true. Yes, they were in the right place at the right time in some senses, but it takes an awful lot more than that to bring an album as sonically glorious and ambitious as Unpatterns to as broad an audience as they are managing to reach. And as you get deeper into the details of their career to date, it becomes very clear how much tenacity, scholarship, imagination and sheer love for what they do, as well as good fortune, has got them to where they are today.
Most of all, their success has been based on learning as they go. And they’ve had plenty of things to learn from since they were thrown into the deep end of the industry when Simian, the band they formed with Simon Lord and Alex McNaughten at Manchester University, was signed to a subsidiary of a major label in 2000. It was an unlikely start, given that they were in James’s words “a kind of prog-psychedelic thing partially named after the Silver Apples’ drum synth”, or as Jas puts it “trying to show you could make band music with songs and harmonies but be into Autechre too, just at the moment the world was into the Strokes and White Stripes and straight-ahead rock music.”
In fact Simian’s music was gorgeous, with a rich pop streak – but as the descriptions suggest, its overtly baroque structures were way out of tune with the time. With the arrogance of youth, the four of them convinced themselves that big things were theirs for the taking, but though their two albums were exceedingly well received in many quarters, global domination evaded them; the combination of thwarted ambition and four very different creative personas led to friction and the band split before completing their third album.
Meanwhile, though, the Simian Mobile Disco project had started to take a vague kind of shape. Originally simply a name under which band members would DJ – in order to, says Jas, “satisfy our urges to do something more freeform, as touring locked us into playing the same songs again and again in the same way.” The name, increasingly just referring to James and Jas, was then used for the band’s own remix of themselves, then for remixes of others, and as Simian came to an end became the duo’s main creative outlet as they made more and more electronic tracks for their own DJ sets.
It’s at this point, around 2004-5, that you might say the right-place-right-time factor kicked in: the two were focusing entirely on genre-hopping electronic music when very few others were, inadvertently putting themselves in a perfect position for the huge resurgence of dance music with substance that would take place in the second half of the decade. They both suggest an element of mucking about to what they were doing: “We were just making strange sounds for the sake of it,” says James, while Jas describes endless DJ gigs “playing the opposite of what suited the venue, including completely clearing Room 2 of Fabric the first time we were asked there.” But again there’s more to it. The fact that they kept on keeping on, playing gigs, making tracks weekly and honing their craft suggests and intense focus that maybe they didn’t even know they had themselves.
Certainly they were surprised when, after a couple of releases and remixes, making a connection with Wichita Recordings led to the possibility of an album – and they realised they had at least two full CDs’ worth of viable tracks. Attack Decay Sustain Release emerged in 2007, riding a wave of attention following the success of the “Hustler” single first released on the fledgling Kitsuné label, and Justice’s inescapable remix of Simian’s “We Are Your Friends”. This latter never had anything to do with SMD directly, and they have done their best to dissociate themselves from it bar the occasional mischievous dropping of the intro in a DJ set, but there’s no denying the boost it gave the Simian Mobile Disco name, with ADSR consolidating that masterfully.
Never ones to fit in unnecessarily, however, Jas and James made damned sure they didn’t just take this success and run with it. Associated with “the electro thing” along with the likes of DFA Recordings, Ed Banger and Erol Alkan, they deliberately shied away from the noisiness and rockism of that scene, always keen to achieve something much deeper and more cosmic in line with their love of a long line of strange electronic music running through 90s techno and back to avant-garde experimenters of the more distant past. However, though they had developed close relationships with Bugged Out and (despite their initial awkwardness) Fabric, they never became part of the minimal techno scene that was sweeping Europe either.
They also reached out to other artists well beyond the club world, through both of their work as producers for bands, through increasingly great live shows and through generally being quite sociable – as with one Beth Ditto, who James says “we met at Glastonbury and had a generally really great time with!” So, where ADSR had had a couple of guest vocals, its follow up Temporary Pleasure was veritably star spangled. Ditto features prominently, as well as Gruff Rhys, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, Yeasayer’s Chris Keating and more. The results are sometimes as stellar as the lineup, with “Cruel Intentions” in particular being a deserved underground hit, but both Jas and James have reservations: both admit they were acting too much like producers, letting the singers and songs take precedence rather than “the SMD sound”. It was this they reacted against with Delicacies, a record label (and subsequent compilation album) of straight ahead techno tracks purely designed for their own DJ sets; but even the hedonistic blast of these tracks still felt constrained by techno’s own rulesets.
Which brings us to Unpatterns, an album which more than ever shows just how unwilling Jas and James are to rest on their laurels. In the place of big name guests and ventures into booty-bass, all the voices are abstracted, spaced out, woven into the fabric of the synthetic sound. So broken hearted robots croon in “I Waited For You”, a cyborg Chicago house singer implores us to “Put Your Hands Together”, and alien choirs raise their voices in the ambient “Fourteenth Principles.” It’s a monstrous record with none of the poppiness of ADSR, the multiple voices of Temporary Pleasure nor the orthodox dance dynamics of Delicacies: instead it’s the sound of SMD breaking away from any standard structures and going deep into exploring the possibilities of their their studio equipment and selection of vintage synthesizers. The effusive, slightly professorial Jas talks happily of “spending months getting our heads round some of this kit”, while the rather more laconic James laughs as he says it was a process of “twisting knobs until we got something we liked.”
Either way, the sound is entirely confident, and brings together all their influences in the pursuit of pure sonic pleasure. In a weird way it brings back the “prog-psychedelic” feel of those very first Simian songs, though with all the knowledge of the dancefloor they’ve gained in the SMD years. And the effect of that is quite uncanny: it completely sidesteps questions of retro and futurism to create a sonic temporal zone all of its own, where the place where relatively primitive electronic sounds stop and the mind-boggling degree of control offered by digital signal processing starts is impossible to locate. And thus synthetic noises that might echo a Tomita or Suicide record from decades back are reinvigorated in a perfect demonstration of electronic music’s power of recreation. The title of one track – “Everyday” – says it all: this is about renewal as a routine part of music making.
It’s a record full of love, dedication, hard-earned experience, obvious understanding of decades of electronic music from across scenes and styles, and huge fun. It’s completely of the now, showing a band as familiar with Blawan and Lone as they are with Silver Apples and Phuture, but never jumping on bandwagons; as Jas puts it “why would we want to try and imitate a Hessle Audio record when they do it perfectly already? Why make a Lindstrom record when you can’t be better than Lindstrom?” It’s just this sort of deliberate refusal to imitate or latch on to any one sound, along with a whole lot of passion and hard work, that’s given SMD the longevity and fruitfulness they’ve achieved. So if you ever hear them suggest they just lucked out, don’t believe a WORD of it.