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“I can’t just sit in front of a piano or a guitar and make music” – Simian Mobile Disco’s Jas Shaw on isolation, exciters and his new solo experiments

With SMD on temporary hiatus, Jas Shaw has been locked away, experimenting with something a little different

Jas Shaw landscape

Jas ShawSimian Mobile Disco synthesist, modular brain, guitarist, and all-round lovely guy – is more familiar with the creative possibilities of isolation than most, having spent the majority of his time holed up even before national lockdowns kicked in in early 2020.

Shaw found the prospect of isolation all but daunting. However, it did help yield his upcoming contemporary experimental album Solbruchstelle, a 21-tracker of roomy, excited, beatless synth delight.

On this album, Shaw routed his sequencer output through the body of a piano, creating a dual sense of claustrophobia and a love for confined spaces. With this in mind, we interviewed Shaw for an in-depth gander into his modular setup, his attempts to code an open-source sound computer in a hospital bed, and his thoughts on the divine powers of isolation.

This album is the product of isolation. What was it like when the first lockdown kicked in for you? Was there an a-ha moment where you said to yourself, “I have to make an album now”?

Yup, it’s certainly the product of isolation. I knew in November that I’d be green-lighted for a stem cell transplant, but it got knocked back once because I had a cold. To prevent it from getting knocked back again I went into isolation at home mid in February-ish, and didn’t really leave the house much after January. I think getting my head shaved was the last trip out.

Isolation meant I was planning lots of little mini music-creation systems that I might find interesting. I had gotten a hold of a Norns box (https://monome.org), which was extravagant. It’s a portable sound-computer through which can run your own coded scripts. I already had a Grid (Monome’s key-based MIDI controller) and an Arc (their knob-based version), and I worked in a software house for a while. I’m comfortable with text based coding, so Norns felt like a good platform for me to make some little systems in. It was portable, focused, and easy to dip into and get something out of.

Also, um, tangentially, it was and is still being developed, so you would get an OS drop something like twice a week and you could see the entire system, all there in code (https://github.com/monome). As someone who has browsed the forums for some time now, it’s been quite amazing to see a community of like-minded people contribute to this thing, and to see how it’s grown.

Back on track – I made myself some little sequencers, and modified some community ones to suit my way of doing things. In the process of fault-finding these, and testing to see if I clicked with them, I made a fair pile of little snippets. I took Norns, a Grid and a tiny synth into the hospital, showing how naive I was. It was a strange time on the ward. It was really empty as they had cancelled the following wave of patients, and as a result, a few of the nurses would hang about and chat. It turned out that one of them had been to some gigs that I’d played, and we bonded over bands that we liked or didn’t like. I guess they felt relatively comfortable with me because they literally laughed in my face when I said I’d brought in a little sequencer and a synth, kindly but also soberingly. That stuff stayed packed up, nurses are rarely wrong.

The tracks feel deliberately expansive. Was this your way overcoming claustrophobia?

I think there’s an element of both claustrophobia and a love for confined spaces. I was feeling pensive before the operation, but isolating beforehand was very weird. As we all know, isolation makes you go a bit wrong, and if you multiply that by the quite distracting idea that I was going to have my immune system switched off, you can imagine that it was a quite dense and tangled period that I kind of had to deal with on my own. Perhaps seeing musical sense in very limited, graspable scripts was the simple that I needed? It’s a bit ad hoc, but there’s no denying that throwing myself into re-learning code was a simultaneously wasteful and sensible thing to do.

In terms of expansiveness, I agree that some of them sound quite expansive and that’s not really an accident. In the later stages of recording, I deliberately made some of the recordings feel like you were in this room, just by leaning very heavily on the room mic, but others had reverbs added. I recorded one pitched up a bit, so that I could pitch it back down, giving the illusion of a bigger room. It’s a nice room and I’m lucky to have somewhere like this to isolate. But even a nice room gets on top of you, and I do think there’s an obvious intent to imagine I wasn’t in this room.

A cornerstone of the recording process for this album is the ‘exciter’, which you attached to the body of a piano in order to expand the sound originating from your synth. What exactly is an exciter?

If you look on the back of an open-backed speaker box, it’s got the magnet and the driver; it’s those bits. The idea is that whatever you attach those bits to becomes the cone of the speaker, which is what amplifies the sound. This is why acoustic instruments have soundboards – the weedy sound of the strings gets amplified by the soundboard. By just bolting an amp to the chassis, and an exciter to the soundboard, you can piggyback on this and you get an audio input to your piano.

It’s kind of more than that, though, because you get the room too. If you want a slightly more distant sound then you can just move the mics back, and it’s realistic because it’s actually a room. Our brains are really good at guessing what a room looks like based on the sound of it. Even fancy plugs don’t nail a room like a room does.

The reason that this was such a big ‘a-ha’ moment was that, purely by fluke, I had voiced these sequences in vaguely piano-ish registers and with a generally plucky shape. Stuff with bass just disappears, and very clangy stuff isn’t as effective I later found out. But plucky, piano-ish material works pretty well fed into a piano; that fact that I was surprised is not something that I’m proud of.

This also flukily tied in with a conversation I had with my uncle, where he mentioned that his dad had done recordings with a weird old mic that he had kept but had lost the cable for. I was really looking for an excuse to spend a bunch of money on a nice stereo mic arrangement, but couldn’t quite convince myself that I could justify it, and it turns out he had an amazing old stereo ribbon mic that just needed the contracts cleaned up on, and a custom cable made.

Anyway, when I put the recordings onto the piano it immediately sounded like a record, like this record. It allowed me to go though the recordings again, and re-listen and see which ones worked and that gave me a sense of direction in recording new patterns. Some of them were even done just using the piano as a monitor, so that I could find sounds and patterns that really felt at home on it. The main issue with this is that you could sometimes hear me clacking away or sniffing or breathing in a slightly laboured way. Gross.
Jas solo 171221_SMD0098
You say this prepared piano technique was inspired by Heath Robinson. His whole schtick was imagining elaborately engineered means to overcome simple problems. That seems like a common thread for your music; the SMD album Whorl was recorded in the desert directly from a synth and sequencer, with the aim of “having a studio wherever you go.” And you studied mechanical engineering for a time. Where do you think this desire comes from, to optimise and perhaps ‘revolutionise’ your live setups and recordings, in elaborate or perhaps roundabout ways?

It came out as a kind of manifesto. I find that I don’t make good decisions about recordings that I’ve made when I’ve been very ‘involved’ in the mix, busily directing every little minutiae. But when it’s me just guiding a sequencer, I can have a sense of distance from the creation. It allows me to think, ‘wow, that’s something special’, without getting all big headed about it.

I can’t just sit in front of a piano or a guitar and make music. I accept that this is a failing on my part. I think that the difficulty is that when I got good on guitar, it was a process of learning lots of special moves and shapes, and that felt like a dead end for me in terms of music. I can see that if you can get good enough at an instrument that it becomes transparent to you, then you can play and listen, and sense if you like where it’s going. I’ve just not got there, and I’ve watched too many people walk up to a guitar, pick it up, play their favourite chord, and somehow that feels like a stringed trap. With a few synths, I can guide the sounds roughly where I want it to go even in the dark. But even in that situation I’ve always got the sense that I want to jumble it up, so that I don’t just open and close filters and envelopes.

It’s like using the Juno synth to create. Now I shouldn’t really rag on it. It’s a brilliant synth, and for the first few SMD records, it was the only polyphonic synth that we had. But the problem is, it’s the path of least resistance. It’s got a narrow range of sounds, and all of them are good, all. It’s just effortlessly good-sounding, and anything you do on it will probably make the mix. However, each time I switch it on, I feel like I’m maybe copping out on going the extra mile and trying a different way to do a chord. I tend to leave it off for a while and then slap it on everything for a while, getting twice as many tunes done. I guess it’s a proxy for the idea of not always doing what you know will work?

I don’t usually start with a concept and then create it. Instead I start by creating, then curate and choose. I think this is particularly common in electronic music; you just get something going with a sequencer or the like and make changes until it feels exciting, or you get bored. There’s a simplicity in that: you’re simply asking “I like this sound, do you like it too?”

Also, I love to take all the cables out. Synth, studio patchbay, whatever. The idea of re-structuring the same old tat so that it feels fresh does the whole Pavlovian conditioning thing to me. I think that’s how people end up with ludicrous modular rigs, because just one extra module changes how you work with all the other bits. I do think that the gradual nature of subtractive synthesis, where you have a quite tactile system that seems to change in a fairly humane way, makes it a nice thing to use. The more jaggedy and seemingly-random-if-you-don’t-do-the-maths layout of FM gives you less clues on which way to turn any given dial, and also where that might lead. Often your target sound requires more searching than you might practically have time for.

That relates back to the Juno, because the Juno’s a conservative solution. It’s all win. Whereas FM is less popular and more rewarding. The presets are usually great, but as soon as you nudge anything it falls to bits. Or in coding, you have the concept of abstraction, which is just packaging up a bit of code so it can be re-used. Abstraction is really there so that you hide the complexity of its inner workings, so that you can have clarity. That process of reducing options is, again, really common in music production. It’s ace to have lots of phaser pedals but don’t try all of them on every track. That’s not going be fun.

For me, a dial that only does one thing is more intuitively grabbable than one that has lots of uses without and visual feedback as to what it’s currently doing. There’s something kind of ‘whoah!’ about suddenly looking at a synth and considering all the other sides as possible interfaces.

So, about Heath Robinson – yes, I definitely think that some of the strategies could be seen as needlessly complicated solutions that have clear and obvious options. But in fact, most of them are ways that we can shield ourselves from the horror of too much choice. Finding an interesting little pocket to explore seems way more conducive to something cool happening, even if you might get sand in your gear.

Jas Shaw portrait

The name Sollbruchstelle translates from German to ‘breaking point’. Obviously your experiences in lockdown have influenced the theme here, but is there a global, social or political influence too? What else do you see breaking the proverbial camel’s back?

In English, the concept of ‘breaking’ has some broadly sad connotations. But ‘Solbruchstelle’ keeps those sad connotations, but then also makes you consider that it might be a good thing. It loops over and over again, and I don’t seem to get tired of it. And, again, it seems like the kind of thing that some people really get, and to others it’s very mundane, and I even like that about it.

Parallel thought: I’m told that the word ‘ersatz’, which is obviously German – which has a definite sense in English of being an inferior substitution – doesn’t have this connotation in German. We bolted that on ourselves. It doesn’t quite fizz like ‘solbruchstelle’, but it think the fact that ‘ersatz’ is not pejorative in German feels somehow to undo the sense that something can be substituted, but be just as good, and that there’s something to enjoy there?

As for political influences on the name, I’m afraid there aren’t many. I’m a musician and can’t speak with much authority on current events. It would feel really mad that I should have a platform to bark my opinions on, when I’ve not been outdoors in over a year. I have friends who read every paper, every day, and can meaningfully interpret data. And others who actually do the work of trying to make things a bit less unfair. I’d feel a bit like a tool parroting the simple bits that I have understood from chatting to them, or reading their stuff and passing it off as my own. I guess you can probably guess that I’m worried about this stuff, and certainly I would throw my weight behind re-building of community and valuing people and organisations that work towards these ends.

This sort of contemporary sound is somewhat of a new direction for you, but you can hear traces of it in your earlier SMD work. You worked with Deep Throat Choir on ‘Murmurations’, for example. Have you always enjoyed this kind of music? Which musical influences particularly stand out for you?

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Blink A Few Times To Clear Your Eyes by Grand River, out on Editions Mego.

Besides that, I do a lot of perusing for new music on Bandcamp and enjoy making lists on Buy Music Club. Have a look: https://buymusic.club/user/jas Certainly, all the stuff on that list has got me excited. People often hate comparisons, and I understand that. But I also want people to think that this music is special, because it feels special to me. I’d be proud to be considered alongside any of these people, any of these bands. For music that isn’t widely liked, there’s a sense of seeing yourself in other people. When someone says that your music is like someone else’s that you are a bit ‘uhh’ about, that’s smarts, it totally undermines the connection. Suddenly, the fact that they like it for different reasons is wedge between you rather than a clue that there’s a link.

I think that anyone who’s done a lot of touring and doesn’t think they are the best ever would concede that in any given town the residents are the best DJs. They know the room, they know the crowd. I’ve always tried to tread a line of relating to what the residents are playing, whilst also being aware that the point of me coming is to play something slightly different. I’m also aware that the residents in good clubs will probably have lent their set to fit with what they expect I’m gonna do.

So there’s a possible feedback loop there? I certainly have had as many wow moments listening to the residents of a club before or after I’ve played, as I have watching headline DJs. I think that a guest DJ a few times a week can be like a new module for the crowd. It brings some fresh ideas into the club, makes the residents approach the night with a slightly different hat on. It feels like a meaningful exchange of ideas where all involved want the night to be something unique. What’s less nice is the ludicrous ratio of pay between the residents and the guest. It’s something that had become normal before lockdown, and it’s not immutable.

The album is being released as a collection of EPs. Was this a stylistic choice?

Dividing this thing into three just sort of suggested itself. I hated all of the 10-track running orders that I made. At the risk of sounding egotistical, I think that 30 minutes of these tracks is a satisfying amount and my mind didn’t start to wonder. By an hour of it I was ready to bin the lot. So I chose just seven of them, which formed the first EP, and I sent it to a friend, and he emailed back saying that he liked it, but that none of his favourites were on the list. So I made a list that I thought would be his vibe and this went down better, but then I’d kind of already broken the format and I had a pile of other tracks. So I decided to treat them like a sort of half an hour mini-set, and it just all made sense. Then I had to explain it to other people, and clearly it doesn’t make any sense. I do stand by the fact that I let the tracks decide on the format, that’s a good thing. Also, no one so far has called it a triple album, which is criticism that I can see I’m open to. A big, flatulent, overweight self-indulgent triple album; it’s game over tackle.

Jude Iago James

The third of the three EPs, ‘Sollbruchstelle III: Snacks Of Carelessness’, is released on April 23, followed by the full album release of Sollbruchstelle I – III on May 7, both via the Delicacies