Jas Shaw is best known for his endeavours as Simian Mobile Disco with his partner James Ford.
For his latest record, Klavier, he teamed up with Bas Grossfeldt to produce an album the latter describes as ‘piano studies in a breaky-technoish surrounding’. It was inspired by a Disklavier, a blend of acoustic and electronic tech first built by Yamaha in 1987.
Sounds intriguing to say the least, so it’s time for Jas and Bas to explain all…
1. So what’s the story with the new album?
JS: “The record is called Klavier as it came about from discovering a classic Disklavier in the studio. We abandoned the synths and let this strange but familiar instrument lead us down a path that neither of us had imagined.”
BG: “The process was pretty much what makes the record special. We built a setup with the Disklavier and some Max Patches and then altered the sound of a piano hands on in the studio, pushing and pulling its strings and so on. We then processed the recordings in various ways and the main amount of sounds you hear on the album are piano-sounds.”
2. When did you get into music making?
JS: “When I started it was still tape in nice studios and PCs with cracked software and ropey soundcards at home. We couldn’t afford studio time so we used the best PC that we had between us and saw what we could do with it. It was very basic; we had to bounce down parts constantly and edits were destructive but we got plenty of music recorded.”
BG: “I started making music pretty late, but the simplicity of a DAW got me into it, that you can start making sound without any deeper knowledge. And from there I got hooked and got more and more into it, discovering hardware and software paths alike.”
3. How did it change the way you work?
JS: “Being able to record with a computer was, initially, very similar to recording on tape. Editing/bouncing was all destructive. With each new version and better computer we got access to more tracks, undos, and good sounding soundcards, all of which I enjoy but, in fact, I don’t think that was ever really a limiting factor in how good the music we made was.”
4. What is your production philosophy?
JS: “We like to prepare a system to record whatever you are fiddling with. Fiddle and hit record when it makes music for you.”
5. Can you tell us a bit more about your studio gear?
JS: “I have got lots of synths, sequencers and drum machines, usually arranged into small, self- contained units; they don’t all work together in a big, grand system.
"I tend not to record with lots of separation - I’ll often just track all the drums down to a mono track. The computer works as a way to record long takes, if necessary, and allows for quick, easy editing so that you can dump all the boring sections.”
BG: “In my studio the computer is the basis of the setup accompanied with some drum machines and tabletop synths. That is the heart and soul of a lot of stuff I come up with. However, Jas’s studio is kind of a blast to be in to be honest with you. For Klavier we processed a lot of our recordings through some samplers and effects in the computer and in Jas’s studio which got us to the sound of the record.”
6. What are your top five plugins?
JS: “My favourite of all is the Pro Tools EQ3. It’s very ‘nothingy’, just clean, uses very little processor and allows me to chop out all the infuriating resonances. I could comfortably mix with just this one plug.”
BG: “I have to add that it is a pleasure to have had Jas working with this one; he has really mastered this little fella.”
JS: “UAD Harrison EQ. A very common mix thought for me is ‘right, we are having all the top/bottom off that’. The filter section on this EQ is great. I like the EQ bit, too - I wouldn’t say it’s miles off EQ 3, though, but the hp and lp filters just feel really right to me. I could definitely go for a CPU light version that just has the high/low-filter.”
BG: “Soundtoys Decapitator is a distortion wonder and with the right frequencies and textures going in, you can get pretty nasty stuff out of this. It seems a little limited at first but once you discover how to work with it not as an add-on, but as a sound-source, it is really fun.”
JS: “UAD Little Labs IBP, the software version of the phase correction box. If you have two kicks then at least half the time this will improve things. If you have three kicks then that’s your own fault and this plugin can’t help you.”
BG: “Waves VEQ4. Sometimes I just put it on a track and don’t even twist the knobs. I don’t think in terms of digital or analogue quality, but you can feel that this EQ has got a certain vibe to it. It doesn’t fit with everything, but it can shape a sound and it always reminds me of scraping a sculpture out of a wooden block.”
6. How does one of your tracks typically come together?
BG: “For us it can be a lot of things and obviously we tried to do something different in our record. So there is no typical start and progress really.”
JS: “Yeah, sometimes the structure comes in the recording part and all you need to do once you hit stop is chop the best sections into a compelling order.”
BG: “Exactly. Sometimes it can get a little more tricky, though; we have a certain vibe of the track that we want to enhance or if we try to capture inspiration.”
7. Talk us through one of your production tricks…
JS: “With this record we were obviously basing everything around our main instrument, the piano. And very few things in my studio will reliably switch on at concert pitch and if something sounds vibey we certainly won’t bother to tune it.
"This means that when you go to put another layer on you need to sweep the tune pot around to find somewhere that seems to work. This gets ugly if you do lots of layers and the errors add up, so we are kind of encouraged to work with what we’ve got.”
8. How do you think the collaboration worked out?
BG: “I have to admit that this was and is a very inspiring project, where I have the feeling that Jas and I are always glad to get inspired by different perspectives from one another.”
JS: “Definitely! I’ve done lots of collaborations and they have all taught me something new. In fact, even though I’ve been making music with James [Ford] for well over 20 years I still pick up tips from him.
"One of the great things about electronic music is that most people are self-taught and often have really odd ways of doing things but assume that everyone else does it that way. I have learned that their odd ways are as good as my odd ways.”
9. What is on your wish list, studio gear wise?
JS: “I’d like to try one of those FM/granular workstations like the Waldorf Quantum.”
BG: “I am intrigued with the feeling and sounds of the Elektron machines and would love to expand my universe there. Plus a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo.”
10. What would you like to see developed in tech terms - and why?
JS: “A mixer that ignored all the mic amp nonsense and concentrated on line/modular level. ”
11. What advice have you picked up from playing live?
JS: “It is a very variable thing. We used to take our whole studio in flightcases with us and rebuild it each night; some people turn up with a laptop. Both can be good; you need to decide what is going to be rewarding for you. If you make a rig that’s reliable but boring then you will not want to tour for very long.”
12. And from working in the studio?
JS: “Take breaks, leave the room. Eat biscuits, don’t drink too much coffee.”
BG: “Tea breaks are important. Close your eyes while listening back. Listen to references and inspirations. I won’t back you up about the coffee thing, though, I’m sorry mate.”
13. And from the music industry?
JS: “I was once told that you are only a musician when you are making music and I think that’s been helpful advice.”
14. Plug the album!
JS: “It’s pretty high brow stuff so we are putting this out under the pretentious name of Shaw & Grossfeldt. I’m kidding - it’s not pretentious, but it’s definitely not a straight-ahead club record though, either.”
BG: “A mutual friend of ours told us that he loves to travel with it and I agree. It’s piano studies in a breaky-technoish surrounding.”
15. What else do you have coming up?
BG: “Like all musicians we would love to tour together and with a live setup, but for now we all need to keep our heads down and be thankful if we can stay healthy.”
The album Klavier is out now on Richard Fearless’ label Drone.