I Watched Simian Mobile Disco Record an Album in the Desert
By Jemayel Khawaja
Simian Mobile Disco have been at the cutting edge of dance music since they rose to prominence as part of the proto-EDM wave of electro that hit American shores in 2007. The Justice vs. Simian track "We Are Your Friends" is one of the most definitive tracks of that whole era.
Since then, members James Ford and Jas Shaw have carved a niche for themselves by moving against trends in dance music. The duo utilize analog equipment when performing their tech-house beats live. That is to say, they're actually playing instruments. That's why they're an act that so readily appeals across the spectrum to hipsters, ravers and music nerds alike.
When I heard that Simian Mobile Disco were going to record their upcoming album live at Pappy and Harriet's in Pioneertown, and that drone rock trailblazers and early Sub Pop luminaries Earth were opening, it presented such a counterintuitive mishmash of vibes that I had to check it out.
Pappy and Harriet's is a honky-tonk barbecue joint planted deep in the desert. It's set in a faux-western ghost town named Pioneertown that was built by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers in 1946 to use as a set for Western-themed movies. It is the last place you'd expect to find forward-facing electronic music.
Still, nothing could have prepared me for the cultural clusterfuck that I stumbled upon out in the desert.
The venue appeared in the night as an oasis of light as I walked up after miles and miles of dusty nothing. The place was already overwhelmed with people and Earth were chugging their way through the quietest drone set I'd ever heard on a stage out back. The heavy dose of distorted sludge coming out of their amps got a little monotonous after a while.
Drone rock and techno aren't exactly a natural combo. But the mesh of crusty rock dads, intrepid hipsters and dance-o-phile party kids huddled around crowded heat lamps was pretty hilarious.
Inside, Pappy's staff and the locals seemed incredulous at the amount of traffic passing through the restaurant. A bartender/ Lisa Loeb look-a-like was noticeably flustered, taking five orders at a time and barely managing to keep it together. Clusters of frontier regulars lined the walls, looking on in a state of bemusement at the torrent of city slickers squeezing through their local drinking hole.
By the time Simian Mobile Disco took the stage, the crowd outside had swelled to capacity in a frigid anticipation.The duo patiently built tension with swells of sound that gave me Kid A flashbacks and the crowd was so rapt that when a beat finally dropped, the whole place lit up.
Armed with a synthesizer and a sequencer each, the duo patterned the set by building ambient, aural landscapes before dropping into the tight, restrained, and melodic techno-centric grooves that they're known for. Their ability to be as cerebrally engaging as they are viscerally moving is still in full effect.
The recording from this performance is supposed to be the skeleton for an upcoming album, titled Whorl, with minor edits and layering to be made in the studio. It's quite a statement to suggest that an electronic music album can be recorded live, and to do it in such a setting is indicative of a sense of adventurousness that only Simian can claim.
Not everyone seemed to agree, though. A local with a sizable billy-goat chin beard wearing a crushed red velvet overcoat told me, "I've never seen this group of kids in here before. I've never seen a DJ set-up here before either. I saw that and I thought I was hallucinating." He stuck around for a few more minutes before heading out in a grump.
Unfortunately for him, he missed Simian's DJ set inside the restaurant. While they kept the tech house vibes going until late, a room full of grooving kids tried their best to work their dance maneuvers around the folksy, wooden interior, replete with tchotchkes jutting out from the walls and tables strewn with plates of leftovers ribs (which we thoroughly enjoyed).
The whole thing was a trip. Only a fearless electronic act act like Simian Mobile Disco would have the balls to record an album amidst the murky unknown that the whole event whipped up. The show's surging, bass-riddled finale stuck with me as I drove back home through the darkness of the desert.
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