Until 2014, Mica Levi had cultivated hushed adoration in the peripheries of multiple scenes. Levi, better known as Micachu, has penned grotty pop with her band the Shapes, composed meditative instrumental music for leading ensembles, and produced wayward electronic music since her first Filthy Friends mixtape in 2006. But her blood-curdling score for Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 sci-fi film Under the Skin propelled Mica’s challenging and eccentric work reach a new level of mainstream acclaim. The modest musician is characteristically nonplussed by the hype, and has continued to dedicate her energy to the underground, holding down a chaotic slot on London’s popular online radio outlet NTS, and closing out the year with a hallucinatory mixtape for Demdike Stare’s DDS imprint titled Feeling Romantic, Feeling Tropical, Feeling Ill. Over an afternoon cup of tea at her home in South London, Mica seemed optimistic about a forthcoming instrumental commission for the London Sinfonietta and buoyed by the reception of the DDS tape.
Laurie Tompkins: Your recent tape, Feeling Romantic, Feeling Tropical, Feeling Ill, could have just as easily been a free online mix. What distinguishes it as physical release in your mind?
Mica Levi: I can’t take any credit for that decision. I got a call from Sean from Demdike Stare and he said, “Hi, we’ve been enjoying your show on NTS, do you want to do an hour mix for us on a limited edition cassette tape?” I handed it in like five days late and then it was out on tape the next day.
Do you mind the fact that it’s a limited release?
If you make a piece of work, you don’t want to restrict its availability, but I think it’s very respectful for the Demdike Stare guys to make it a physical artefact. It just makes it rarer, more precious.
Do you reckon people think of it differently because it’s pressed? A lot of your other mixes are similar length and feel, like the NTS shows, but perhaps the physicality makes this one seem more like “proper music” than a casual mix.
Yeah exactly, and that’s what they asked for. Music makers might want to cuss labels or say they could just do it themselves, and you can, but it depends on how much self promotion you want to do. It helps to have someone else backing your music. Sometimes it feels unnatural for people to be like “Hey, I’ve done something—look at it, look at it.” At the same time, you’re making music and you obviously want people to hear it, so you can’t save your ego that much. If you’re working with other people and you’re all pursuing an outlook together, that’s the best way to do it. If I was to have a label I would want to be doing it with a bunch of mates.
That’s the NTS show formula, right? You’re the constant, but you jam with loads of guests.
That’s right. When I went to talk on the mic during the first show, I had no idea what the fuck to say. The next time I got my friend Brother May to come down, and he promoted all the Facebook, Twitter, and NTS loads of times; he was a proper pro. That seemed like a good way to do it—halve the load. I’ve done two shows with instrumentalists, one with May and one with my friend Steph, which was a divas show where we just played diva music and got friends to phone in requests and did this uber-girly thing. The joy of it is that I don’t have to think about it too much, and that gives it a vitality.
It’s been interesting to watch as a new audience finds your work following the success of Under The Skin. What’s changed at your end?
Ah man, it’s such a circus! What is it that Woody Allen said? Something like, he wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that would have him as a member. That’s kind of how I feel. I think the score was pretty solid and a good version of some work I’ve done, but I really work in phases. Sometimes I resent that in myself because I go into a new phase and feel like a tourist in an unfamiliar scene. Mostly, I just like making things wherever I can get away with it—that’s what I do, and so that comes out in different forms. I’ve looked into making physical things, like drawing pictures, but music’s what I mainly do. Mixtapes are quick to produce and a very particular discipline. You follow your gut and try to stay true to it and that expresses your tastes and your preferences.
The tape seems to bear the traces of your recent projects. You can hear the electronic productions crossfading into the strings scores.
Pretty much. I tried to split it into three. Ages ago, I was working on this synthetic romantic string music and then I was making stuff that felt quite tropical. This was just an opportunity to release it.
Your music is often considered “experimental,” which seems like a vague term these days. Does it mean anything to you?
I don’t know, really. The word experiment is kind of funny, because anyone who makes anything is experimenting. You try this and that works, that doesn’t work—that’s an experiment, isn’t it? I’m being a bit coy, but that term might be about testing weird combinations and formulas out. It could be about doing something previously considered bad taste. It’s all subjective. I hope anyone that’s writing is experimenting because that’s when it’s enjoyable.
The last Micachu And The Shapes album, Never, consists of short and scrappy tracks, yet they develop a clear narrative. Do you apply that same methodology to the mixtapes or is it more free-associative?
I practice doing mixes, and I try to put stuff into collections. When I work with the band, we just write songs with the instruments we use, and that nails it into a collection. But if I’m working with my friend Tirzah, I’ll make a load of beats and we’ll try to narrow it down into a collection. A few years ago, I went on Boiler Room, but it was a really last-minute thing. I was like, “I don’t have any hot tunes, I’m just going to suck.” The only thing that I could play was my own stuff, because I knew it, and I could mix it, and nobody had heard the tracks. From then on, I realized that was the best way to do it.
When you write instrumental music, do you use a pen and paper?
Pretty much. I work on a piano and I think harmony and melody and structures are important in everything I do. Then there’s some sounds I gravitate towards, strings I’m most fluent with.
You don’t take electronics as a starting point for acoustic music?
Oh yeah, totally. Everything comes from everything. It was a good test when we did Chopped and Screwed with London Sinfonietta because we didn’t want to just tape ourselves to an orchestra. We had to try to make our stuff acoustic by creating some electronic-sounding impressions. The instruments we made and played are called “choppers.” They’re a bit broken and not completely finished, but they generate something which is quite electronic. They produce a loop and their rough sound is similar to the kind of recordings that we make.
You sometimes DJ at gigs which blend classical and modern instrumental music with more contemporary electronic music.
I have done a few but I don’t run to them, I’ll tell you that.
Is that because they lack that practical thinking about how you expect music to behave in a particular space?
Exactly. Like, what do you want to do? Do you want to sweat and move and listen to something really bass-heavy or something more meditative? I don’t think any music discipline is better or worse, it’s just about strength of vision, commitment to an idea. I think what’s amazing about writing a score for an ensemble is that you can achieve something that’s coordinated and that can happen for a long time. If you write for an orchestra you’ve got a great breadth of textures and range, and you basically create a map that a lot of people can follow in great detail and lasts for a long time.
So what are your hopes for the near future?
It’s all downhill from here, isn’t it? They’ll let me in the club and then show me out the back door in a couple of months I’d imagine. I don’t fucking know, man. I don’t have a plan.