Interview: James Shaw

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JUICE is sitting at the Terrace Bar taking in the commotion. Zouk is rammed tonight. Blame Ramadhan and the recent renovations, but the kids are out and they’re baying for blood. And tonight’s gig will surely get it pumping. Simian Mobile Disco is on the bill. It’s a DJ set, with James Shaw, the band’s keyboardist, or Jes as he’s known to friends – friends like JUICE – on the decks. We met Jes back in 07, backstage at A’Famosa Melaka when he was here to perform at Recharge Revelation 5 Global Gathering. So we know a thing or to about him and fellow Simian and in-demand producer James Ford. Like how they alongside bands like Klaxons and The Rapture are credited with popularizing the nu-rave movement and introducing scruffy rockers to live disco, and how they gained fame on the back of remixes for artists like Muse, The Go! Team and Air, and how their single ‘I Believe’ is featured in the FIFA 08 video game even though they are probably just a handful of Mancunians who aren’t into football, Yes, we’re tight. So as Jas sips on a long cold one and JUICE contends with a bottle of mineral water (boss’ orders – bleh), we catch up with Jes as recaps a year after SMD’s brain smashing debut album, Attack Decay Sustain Release and talk philosophy, politics and police escorts – as you do. “When I arrived at the airport, there were police there and I thought, “Oh sh!t! What did I do wrong?!”

“I’ll probably have an episode and go into rehab in 6 months due to the stress. But for the time being, it’s all good”

Jas, I read in your bio that you did philosophy. Did you finish that degree?
Yes, I did.

So you’re a man of substance…
Apparently so….

Tell me us more about this philosophy?
It’s one of those weird subjects. A lot people ask me, “What are you gonna do? Are you going to become a philosopher?” I just find it a really interesting subject. And I got really into logic and stuff like that … the fundamental framework within language and the things that govern how our thoughts work and how language works. It’s really fascinating. You can’t really get a job as a philosopher, but who cares, right?

Who are your favourite authors?
One of my favourite books is Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. It’s a really great book. A really good one that I read recently is called The Testament of Gideon Mack. I can’t remember who the author is [James Robertson], but it’s certainly more recent.

At this point some blonde from Manchester interrupts us, mistakes Jas for Tom (there’s no Tom in the band) and requests for a photo. She buggers off after Jet, the Zouk marketing guy, shoos her away.

So where were we? How has 2008 been?
I’ve gotta say, last year when I played here (at Recharge Revelation 5 Global Gathering). It was a crazy experience. My flight was delayed. When I arrived at the airport, there were police there and I thought, “Oh sh!t! What did I do wrong?”

Welcome to Malaysia…
So they said, “We’re a bit concerned about the traffic. We think you might miss your set. So we’ve got the police to escort you to the gig. I had these 2 motorbikes beside the car, I was inside and I was like, “Me? Serious?” And they drove us up to the festival. And it was hilarious!

That’s Malaysia for you….

With your tight schedules, busy diaries and consistent gigging, not to mention lack of sleep, how do you keep your energy level up? Do you eat raw eggs in the morning like Rocky?
I probably should. I’ve got to say, the thing that keeps me excited is good gigs and working with interesting people. I think if I was doing boring gigs at boring places I’d probably be like…

Feigns boredom and sticks his tongue out.

The people make it worthwhile. I’ve always wanted to come to places like this and play in great clubs. I’ll probably have an episode and go into rehab in 6 months due to the stress. But for the time being, it’s all good.

We read that you and James started making music together before Simian was even conceived. You being a philosophy major and James being a biology major, were you guys the odd ones out? Reclusive even?
James could certainly not be described as reclusive! He’s anything but reclusive! (laughs.)

The thing is Manchester has got a good history for producing bands. Part of the reason for that is that it’s much smaller than London. But it’s sufficiently big to have a broad selection of people. So if you’re interested in a particular music or scene, it’s quite easy to find like-minded people. Whereas London is very disparate and everyone’s all over the place. That’s how we met each other. Both of us were just out there searching for other interesting musicians.

Speaking of Manchester, have you heard the new Oasis album?
No, I haven’t. I must say though, I remember when the first record came out, I was really excited. It was like a breath of fresh air at the time because it was going counter to what everyone else was doing. But it does feel like they’ve been treading water lately.

Who would win in a death match between Liam and Eric Cantona?
Definitely Cantona. It’s got to be him because he’s an athlete.

What if Liam was really drunk?
I don’t reckon. Honestly, Cantona would have him.

Mike Skinner said recently in an interview that he was making his last album because he thought that he was repeating himself.
That’s a brave thing to do.

Would SMD do the same?
Absolutely. I think if it gets to a point where you feel like you’re just rehashing old stuff, you should really move on. There are plenty of different kinds of music to make and plenty of opportunities. If you’re stuck in rut, the most important is to move on. Otherwise, people will just lose interest.

Do you follow the footie?
I don’t. You’re a bit of an outcast if you don’t follow football in the UK. Both James and I come from very small towns. And it seems like people from small towns either get into football, music or drugs. And James and I went for music. A lot of my friends went for other things.

Can’t it be a combination of two?
Often it’s all three. (laughs)

What’s your idea of a perfect government?
Theoretically, the perfect government should perfectly reflect the views of the people. But it’s not practical, is it? I think it’s generally impossible to reflect everyone’s views. And if you think of those horrible racist, nationalist views, do they have a right to have a voice? Theoretically they do…. It’s such a hard job to do.

Do you get thrown a lot of questions about politics during interviews?
Not really. Sometimes, we get asked about party politics. Like do we support Labour or Conservative? I try not to answer those questions because I find it quite disturbing that musicians have this political influence. Most musicians that I know don’t know anything about politics and I would count myself among them. I read the paper but I have friends that work for think tanks and they read every single UK paper everyday. And they’re study it and are well informed. They’re the people we should be asking. Not rock and roll bands. What the hell do they know?

Are you a believer in the philosophy that music brings people together and breaks down barriers?
Sort of. Like if you walk into a pub and you say “I like this tune”, you can have a conversation with any guy in the bar. And these are all things that break down barriers.

That’s how you met James…
Exactly. And I’ve worked with people that I would have never crossed paths with if it weren’t for music. So in that sense it can bring people together.

Would you guys trade bodies for a night?
As long as it’s not a painful procedure, I’m willing to try.

So what happened to James?
He’s on tour at the moment with the Last Shadow Puppets.

Summarize your life in one word since Attack Decay Sustain Release came out in 2007?
Non-stop. Though it’s not really one word. Unless it’s hyphenated… (laughs).

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen while spinning live?
I’ve seen some weird things. But one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen was someone being sick into a pint glass. And I’ve no idea what they did with the glass either. They just stood there holding it for a while and I got back down to mixing and they were gone when I looked back up.

And what’s the weirdest thing you’ve done while spinning live?
We were playing in Mexico once and were having problems with the monitors. So I went to investigate. As I walked around, I tripped on a wire and unplugged it. And all the lights on stage went off and all the decks and PA as well! It was completely dark and neither of us knew what was going on. We were looking at the promoters and they were clueless. Eventually it got fixed. It wasn’t the most intelligent place to leave a power socket that was powering everything though! (Pauses for thought)

It was kind of funny because up until that time, I wasn’t having a brilliant time. None of the people were really excited. And when that happened, I think it took people out from themselves. And I quite like that. Like when I see a DJ mix, I like to see them fluff the mix a bit and pull it back in so you can feel that element of surprise – that things could go wrong.

Like mistakes are always good?
Not loads … but enough. So it’s not pristine.

Any plans for a Southeast Asian tour?
Not yet. But it’s probably on the cards. I don’t think that we’re well known enough to do a proper tour. I certainly hope that I’ll get to come back here again because every time I come here I love it!

Would you tour in a relatively poor continent if it means getting paid less or practically doing it for free?
Yeah, but we probably wouldn’t be able to do the live show, because the live show is so expensive for us. In fact most of last year, we actually lost money on the live shows. DJing is so much more portable. The live Simian Mobile Disco show is not very mobile. It’s like loads of boxes and tones of lights and equipment, all very fragile and takes ages to set up. Whereas with DJing, just provide the venue and we’ll be there. Bring some headphones and bring some records and we’ll have a party.

Who’s currently on your playlist?
Van Galas, Aphrodite’s Child and this band called Diagonal. We just had Lindstrum (from Norway) over at a new club in London where we curated the night.

How do interviews here differ from the ones back in UK?
Everyone here asks me very good questions. In England, all they ask is “What are the most drugs you’ve ever taken?”

So what’s the most drugs you’ve ever taken?
I’m not telling you. It’s the death penalty here isn’t it?

Yes, for trafficking. But not for talking about it.
Well, I had to take much less because we’ve been so busy. Like I’ve stopped smoking any weed and doing other stuff because if you get really hammered the next day you can’t do anything.

Who’s your favourite British comedian?
I think probably Chris Morris. He did a really interesting thing called Blue Jam. He’s quite a strange comedian.

How old are you if you don’t mind me asking?
I’m 31. Pretty old.

Not really.
It’s gotten to the stage where only my hardcore friends come out clubbing with me. Most of them will only go to the pub and go home early. I’m like, “Come on guys….”

The nu-rave scene has gotten really huge. A few years back, nobody knew about it. Now it’s everywhere. What are your final thoughts?
I almost feel like it’s gotten to the point where it needs to move on to something else. Whenever something becomes established, it needs to change. That was beauty of the scene at the start; no one really knew what was going on.

SMD’s Jas went ape on the denizens of Zouk in October. For more on their groove, check out and