Micachu & The Shapes: ‘London’s just going to be a place for rich people’
Micachu & The Shapes’ new album was born from a long, spontaneous jam. They talk about altering their creative process and how the city that shaped their sound is changing for the worse
Micachu & the Shapes: ‘We weren’t trying to force things out of ourselves. It just came out. Flowed out of us’
Describing Micachu & The Shapes is never an easy task. Their music seems to follow quite different patterns from other bands, with home-made instruments and a hundred different influences usually coalescing into short, sometimes manic, often catchy pop tunes.
The band’s members – Mica Levi, Marc Pell and Raisa Khan – met each other studying music at London’s Guildhall School almost a decade ago, and built a strange mix of DIY spirit and classical knowledge. The band’s first album, Jewellery, was produced by dance music provocateur Matthew Herbert, while the follow-up was a collaboration with the London Sinfonietta that drew equally on the cough-syrup drawl of chopped and screwed hip-hop and dissonant avant-garde composition.
Their latest record, Good Sad Happy Bad, is another surprising step. Meeting up to play one day, Pell decided to record the session without telling his bandmates. Over the next few hours a long, improvised jam unfolded. When they listened back to the recordings, off-the-cuff and lo-fi as they were, they felt there was something special about them.
“We just appreciated that they felt good after listening to them,” says Pell. “We weren’t planning on recording them or even listening back to them, but when we did, we liked them. When we were playing, we didn’t have any consensus, except just to hang out, so we weren’t trying to force things out of ourselves in ways that we’ve done before. It just came out. Flowed out of us.”
The long jams were edited down to 13 short tracks, often clocking in under two minutes. It’s a spare record compared with their previous work. Songs don’t jump about so much and are happier to ride on a single groove for their duration. Levi found herself playing fewer instruments and focusing on singing. The lyrics were recorded separately to those initial jams, with Levi writing them as quickly as possible before singing over the raw recordings, and Khan later contributing some words.
“It’s best when it just seems to work out and come out quite quickly,” says Levi. “[Sea Air] actually has sounds quite like waves, but I didn’t think about it at the time, it just worked out like that, subconsciously.”
On Unity, Levi’s voice is looped and processed, ending up sounding like a screaming donkey. Was it a rough day at the studio? “She was having a great day in the studio,” says Khan, laughing. “Jumping around, screaming.”
Levi says that, as a band, they’re feeling fluent in the way they create and work with each other. This comes after a period where it wasn’t so easy, once the “beginner’s luck” had run out and habits began to take hold. Their jamming process, the unself-conscious approach, has helped them overcome that.
“There’s always a middle bit when you start at anything,” she says. “You’re probably good at first and you take to it in a way that is quite interesting, and then after a while you get stuck in your own habits. Then, after a long time, you can hopefully be fluent enough to do whatever you want.”
“I feel like we’re trying to use more non-verbal forms of communication,” says Pell, before the others interrupt him. “Like middle fingers.” “Starey eyes.”
All three of the Shapes play in projects outside their main band, and Levi came to the attention of a new audience in 2013 with her soundtrack for Jonathan Glazer’s film Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s a dark, uneasy soundtrack that heightens the suspense of the film’s often obtuse visual narrative. The film met with critical acclaim, while Levi’s soundtrack was nominated for a Bafta.
The attention the soundtrack brought has made little or no difference to the Shapes. For Levi, it was just another exciting project, another experiment, a chance to try out something new.
“We all do different things. That just felt like another thing that I’d do with my day,” she says. “It’s just a laptop, solo mindset. If it was in the band, it would be different. It’s the same in some ways but it’s different. If you do music all the time, every day, all day, then you have different aspects of your music life. You go through different flavours and different phases.”
The Shapes have spent their whole career in London. Whether playing with avant-garde orchestras or making mix-tapes with grime MCs, it’s clear that the city has had a big impact on the way all three work and engage with their art. They even spent a few years using a Thames-side shipping container as a studio. Have they seen the city change over the past 10 years? Is it getting harder to be a musician in London?
“I guess when I was in my early 20s I never thought about it,” says Khan. “Now I do think about it. That probably means that my relationship with it has changed. As you get older, you think about it.”
“I think it got harder,” says Pell. “It’s bloody expensive and it doesn’t feel like the government want to encourage the arts at all. Whether it’s cutting tax credits, which helped you out, or shutting down certain A-Level courses, with music technology courses in jeopardy, I think it’s getting harder. It changes quickly. Everywhere changes.
“I know a lot of people who have come here and left fairly quickly in the last couple of years,” adds Khan. “Coming here, expecting to stay a few years and leaving after six months because it’s not working out. It’s not what they thought, what they expected.”
Levi is quick to point out the role of artists in the city’s gentrification, how their ongoing search for cheap rents can change an area, but Pell suggests things are moving quicker now, leaving the artists behind in the process.
“Places like Hackney Wick and Stratford, they’ve bypassed the whole cultural thing and gone straight to gentrification,” he says. “There hasn’t been any interesting bit in the middle. It’s a weird time.”
“They’re pushing people out,” adds Levi. “London’s just going to be a place for rich people, basically. People who are supported by the government, or are living in council housing, are also getting shifted out. It means vibrant London might be elsewhere in the next 20 years.”
“And rich people don’t make good art, do they?”
- Good Sad Happy Bad by Micachu & The Shapes is out September 11th on Rough Trade