Disco duo doing it for pleasure

Jas Shaw (left) and James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco. Photo / Supplied by Shock Records
Jas Shaw (left) and James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco. Photo / Supplied by Shock Records

Judging by their studio upgrade, James Ford and Jas Shaw are doing all right. 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 who use it, however, who really show how far Simian Mobile Disco - who return to Auckland's Big Day Out next year - 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, Temporary Pleasure, 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, 'All right, here we go'." His musical partner explains how they wanted Ditto - the singer in soul-punk band The Gossip - 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. 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 and the Machine, the bulging contacts book. With little in the way of forward planning, SMD marshalled their dance floor weapons into a coherent mass of analogue sounds and crunching beats.

For their second, SMD have given their guests, also including 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 left-field album than we ended up doing."

But when they got all the guest contributions back they had no choice but to use them in a more structured way than before, Ford explains.

Looking back, though, they can both 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'."

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. 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' as yet unnamed 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.

LOWDOWN

Who: Simian Mobile Disco
Where & when: Big Day Out, January 15, Mt Smart Stadium
Latest album: Temporary Pleasure, out now

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