The Forum: Jas Shaw

As half of Simian Mobile Disco, and as a solo producer, Jas Shaw has been present, correct and endlessly experimental in electronic music for a span of decades. From the absolute festival-rocking era of tracks like ‘It’s The Beat’, ‘Hustler’, ‘Cruel Intentions’, et al, to his recent collaborations with Gold Panda under the moniker of Selling, Shaw has guided his sound, studio and creative partnerships down endless avenues of interest, informed by the progressive history of house, techno, psychedelia and minimalism.

SMD arguably hit a career high with 2017’s hugely creative ‘Murmurations’, the duo’s collaboration with London’s all-female Deep Throat Choir, a rich and almost spiritual concept album that was released on the cusp of unfortunate circumstances. Shaw was suddenly, unexpectedly diagnosed with AL amyloidosis, a rare disease “caused by abnormal deposition and accumulation of proteins in the tissues of the body." Shaw was immediately taken in for treatment, their US tour was immediately cancelled and their one-off performance of the album at The Barbican was tinged with the tragic possibility that SMD perhaps might not take to a stage together again.

Of course, given that you’re reading this edition of The Forum with Shaw some eighteen months later, we’re delighted to instead be talking in promotion of ‘The Exquisite Cops’, a twenty-track body of work that will see a full, collected release on SMD’s Delicacies imprint, following a series of fortnightly releases. The sheer volume and quality of the work speak for Shaw’s resurgence in his home studio, and the track titles - ‘Freedom For The Pike’, ‘A Cat In Gloves’, ‘Tic Tacs Without Strategy’ - prove that his wry and knowing sense of humour has hardly been dulled by the raw experiences that have inevitably defined his working and personal life in recent times.

Another highlight thus far is the single ‘Science and Luck’, a phrase that stuck with Shaw ever-since he left it as a note on his phone some years earlier. “When I got ill last year with a condition that’s managed with science but who's trajectory seems to be largely defined by luck this idea took on a new layer of meaning for me” , explains Shaw. 

John Thorp spoke to Jas Shaw in June 2019.

So, I'm speaking to you at home, well outside of London? How long have you been decamped in the countryside?

I've lived out for maybe five years. The idea was just to build a big studio for myself. I mean, I say big, it's hardly Abbey Road, but a studio in which I can swing a cat. Both James and I spent a while searching for places in London and couldn't find anywhere that wasn't going to get imminently turned into luxury flats, but my wife and I just kept on looking until we more or less hit the sea.

I either wanted it to be close enough in that people could meet you to record and then bob back in with an Uber home, or, once you get a certain distance out, you sort of need enough space that someone can crash over. And with what's happened with my health, it's worked out nicely like that. I had Derwin (Gold Panda) over, and I've got a release coming up with Mike, who records as Fort Romeau. I just have nice people over and hey, it's nice!

I think it's fair to say your 2019 has been better than your 2018... At what stage are you now, in terms of recovering from the illness?

Well, as long as I don't relapse before the end of this year, I'm just going in every week for tests, and I'm working towards a stem cell transplant early next year, when I've recovered to the stage that I have a better heart. That part has been incredibly easy so far, given that they've been basically taking stuff out of my bones without cracking them. It's pretty mad. I'm super, super shit with needles, and even though I've had seven months of chemo weekly, I'm still absolutely losing my biscuits every time.

The illness you had is pretty inexplicable, given how few people get it, and how little is known about it. I'm right in saying you'd live a pretty healthy existence prior to being diagnosed?

Yeah man, and particularly being self-employed, you really feel it when you're ill. You can't just take a sick day, you have to suddenly cancel everything coming up and then you're like, “Fuck, I can't pay for anything.” Considering decades of touring, I didn't get ill very much. We just cracked on. And then this dropped really out of nowhere. So that was annoying.

I know you very much have the attitude of wanting to just press on and move forward, which is something you maintained even when in the midst of treatment. Nonetheless, I don't really get to speak to many people who've been looking down the barrel of the gun in that respect...

First of all, you're welcome to chat about it. As much as it's like, just a massive bummer, I'm totally used to it now. It's really just one of those things that's just a normal part of my life. I'm sort of conscious of the fact, having started doing gigs again, that promoters won't know. And so when you explain that, for example, that you can't drink and why that is, you see the blood drain out of their face. They're thinking, “I don't know what to do with this information!” And my wife, she's always joking about it, she'll punch me in the chest and tell me she's about to stop my heart. It's all pretty macabre stuff that at the start of the process, you definitely couldn't do. And now it's just bog standard.

And has your general creative process changed?

It'd be a lie to say that the process hadn't changed. When I first went back in the studio, after I'd gotten into a routine with the chemo, it was really dark. What's nice about having moved out of town is that I have loads of space. There's all these stupid little experiments that are half-done. I'll say, disassemble a piano and put loads of stuff on it, plug a synth into this, wire it into that... It's like a little system. And then I'll lose interest and do something else, and having them all going concurrently, all these little projects, it was a really nice environment, especially when I have people over to collaborate.

So I had all this stuff going on that seemed wonderful and then, all of a sudden, I could literally have been dead in two months. They said that without treatment, that's how long it could be. And so immediately I had to really very seriously move stuff over into my wife's name and start to plan to sell everything in the studio. And suddenly, instead of this wonderful little place that had all these fun little projects, it just looked like all this stupid shit. All these knackered synths, old compressors that don't really work, and I'm thinking, how am I going to get rid of them? It just seemed like this enormous burden. And credit to James, and our managers, Ollie and Luke, I had to have them promise that if I died, quickly, that they would come and disassemble the studio. And that wasn't a nice conversation to have.

I can imagine it was a relief to be back in the studio, even when you were ill?

Yes, but going back into the studio, it felt like a different space, with quite heavy connotations. The first three months presented the highest chance that I might just cark it on the spot. But it got better as the treatment wore on. When I got back in the studio and had the monitors on and made a cup of tea, it felt like I wasn't really ill any more. My wife was out at work, the kids were at school, and I could be sat at home watching an episode of The Wire or something like that thinking, “I am going to die soon”, or I could write some music. And because I wasn't touring, being sat at home, I made so much music it was just ridiculous.

Is much of that music what we are hearing across this new singles series?

Yes, there was a string of it. The first thing I did was finish off the 'Selling' record with Gold Panda, and then I worked on some remixes for the last SMD record, 'Murmurations', which was just a compulsive thing, as I didn't really have the energy to write something completely new. Everyone else was very busy, and I announced I was just going to do a few remixes to get started. I think I did twelve or fifteen remixes, and they all got back from Primavera that year and were like, “Dude, you have to stop now.” And then I started digging in, making stuff from scratch, and now it's like a process. Switching on the monitors is like going for a walk.

The tone of the music is, given the circumstances, some of the more minimalistic and meditative music you've made, driven by subtlety.

It's difficult to get away from the fact that some of the stuff I did with no gigs on the horizon and nothing much going on, it was sort of like an ersatz clubbing experience for me. Because obviously I couldn't go out, but I'd still be flicking through the internet and see people playing and had that itch.

So you were missing clubs and club culture?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, look, I'm in my forties and I'm too old to be knocking round clubs for no reason. People will think I'm a dealer. But I still really love it and get a buzz out of going to a really good club, and there's a spirit to it and a sense of hopefulness and with that small amount of people, you can make a little change. And if I'm honest, I feel slightly conflicted about linking it too much to my illness as I don't want to trade off that too much. There's something a little cheap about it.

Well, I notice you didn't decide to call the singles 'My Recovery' or 'A New Light', or take a moody new press shot on an abandoned hospital ward. Then again, that's hardly seems like it's in your nature...

No, and I think that would have spoilt it. To a large extent, when I go into the studio, everything is temporarily just fine. So to tag it into the stuff that's knitted into my life, it feels like I can compartmentalise it, to some extent. But honestly, I'm still just figuring out how to navigate all this. As you need to be honest with people but it's just a bit wearing isn't it? Somebody just banging on? (Laughs.)

I think one of the reasons I enjoy speaking to you so much is that Simian Mobile Disco, and SMD Live, in particular, were enormously important to me when I was a student, around that very particular brand of electro. Obviously your music and approach has moved on a lot since, but I was wondering if you enjoyed that period as much as everyone on the dancefloor did?

Yeah, man, of course it was! It was great! It's difficult because, and maybe 'ashamed' is a bit strong, but there's so much of that time, that I would change now. But obviously I think that the best of it – Erol and Optimo – that sort of spirit of, “Let's put that with that, and it might be alright, let's have a go?” And I feel like that sense of not worrying about things too much, is something I have to slap myself and keep remembering. You certainly won't catch me putting acapellas on the top of drum tracks, but the idea of taking something that doesn't fit in a certain situation and somehow repurposing it and re-presenting it for someone who wouldn't expect it; that's still something that can be interesting.

I try and remember this now that I'm back Djing. I will put some things in the bag that sort of compliment the form, and then some things which are deliberately antagonistic. There was a while when I wanted my Djing to be that 'dream techno' thing. You could be there eight minutes or eighteen hours, it would feel the same. And while I still like that, I just feel like I've been interested in other drum patterns and make that a broader and more interesting process. Like everybody, I've been buying loads of broken-up stuff. And I know it's a word that everybody hates, but, IDM stuff! The process of buying something made for someone's bedroom and making it work with some more muscular techno is what I'm into.

There are some truly bonkers remixes in your back catalogue, especially from your pop crossover period, around the time of the second LP, 'Temporary Pleasure'. There's a Shackleton remix of Hustler!

We had a Silver Apples remix, too! At the time, we were doing loads and loads of remixes, and you could just ask for anyone. When I was a kid, I was a massive fan of Luke Vibert, and then we asked him for a remix, and he asked us to provide the stems. And his address was in Hackney, literally walking distance from my house, and walking round there thinking, “Oh, I hope he opens the door!” I remember putting the package really slowly through the door... Probably out, or just hiding quietly in his front room.

With most people, it's really tenuous. You send them parts, they send something back and you're just pleased as fuck that they have any contact with you. But then you spend years picking apart DJ Hyperactive records, just thinking, “How is this so good?” Then he delivers your remix and asks if you're alright with the mix? I mean, come on man!

What I think is valuable about SMD now is how much you subtly shift between albums, while still only sounding like yourselves. So you've been a rave act, a pop act, a heady techno act, a trippy psychedelic band, a choir accompaniment... Do you and James happen upon these ideas in advance, or does the direction just emerge during the studio process?

It's a bit of both, really. I think that we're lucky in that we have frustrated people sufficient times now that they just expect to be frustrated. So it sort of gives us carte blanche to do whatever we want, as long as we're willing to accept that people will be frustrated.

But in terms of how we get stuff done? It's pretty random really. I suppose, thinking forwards, James has been super busy. Between albums, we do a bunch of twelves for Delicacies, whereas it feels like I have just done that while he has been off doing loads of production and writing. I've got this space downstairs full of acoustic instruments and things that you can whack. We've got into these solenoids that you can effectively send a voltage and they whack a drum for you. So we've been talking about building a machine. And James has sent over some academic studies he's seen knocking about, and stuff like that it's just that we need to have a go. If you get us in a room for a few days, it'll either be fun and fruitful, or we'll realise that having done that, it's not the right thing. But there are always plenty of ideas.

I like the idea that James has one life working with the biggest bands in the world, and another building some kind of mad, conceptual drum machine and hitting pianos with you. I imagine that makes it even more of a laugh?

I hope so! James doing this production stuff, it's not a new thing, I just hear it when I go over to his house. It seems pretty abstract to me, but he's really good at it. And just in terms of how we work together, I can see how. He has the confidence to try things out, but he's also really good at spotting when people aren't happy, or when things aren't going well. Additionally, he's musically really quick. I don't really know anything about notes, and for a while, I even switched my sequencer to numbers as I'd had enough of it. Whereas even when we're doing stuff that's fairly atonal, he knows how it works and is good enough at it that, unless it's a problem, if something is clanging, he'll just let it. He just has this amazing sense of key.

Last time I spoke to you, you were promoting Whorl, which you recorded live in one-take out in the Joshua Tree National Park in California, so technically in the desert. I remember how a lot of the discussion was focused around the term 'psychedelia', and indeed, psychedelics. Both of which have really reentered the culture in the past five years or so. Did you record it ‘under the influence’?

No, we didn't. We were out there in the desert, in this little town, which was freaky enough. I remember how we talked about what the hell psychedelic even means? Does it mean druggy? Because what does that even mean? They all do different things, for starters.

Have you read Michael Pollen's book, 'How To Change Your Mind'? He typically writes about the economics and ethics of food, but this one concerns the so-called 'psychedelic underground' in the USA, and the use of psychedelic substances to treat trauma and depression, as well as to help people approaching the end of their lives.

No, but I will. That's in the post, as this saga isn't over. I actually have some friends involved in the recent drug trials in London that are looking at the same issues, and I know some people involved in ketamine and depression. But I've also heard anecdotes from friends that have suggest that maybe it still isn't the best idea to self-medicate.

But, no, as for the emergence of this new psychedelic culture, I'm afraid that's a complete coincidence!

But who knows what accidentally prophetic idea you will have next? When I spoke to Justin Strauss for this series he had a great view on this, which was to just keep chipping away at your thing, and then taking advantage when pop culture opens a window for you.

In terms of sheer strategy, like a cultural weather vane, people basically try and divine the future. And it means that you're constantly chasing stuff, all the time. And there's this general sense that it's not... Oh God, I'm about to use the word 'authentic', and I really don't want to, as it's such a fucking jeans advert of a word! There's just something a bit shit about it, a bit second hand. Seriously, one of the best ways forward is to just have a go at something. And as long as you're willing to take it on the chin that whatever something was meant to be is not 'it', then that's fine. At least you know you're doing your thing.

Sure, and when it does go badly, you can just sleep at night knowing you've not embarrassed yourself?

No, I'm afraid that embarrassment is an important part of the process.

John Thorp, July 2019

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