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.
You’ve probably noticed that Panda Bear has done quite a few interviews to promote his latest solo album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, before its imminent release. We were one of the publications that jumped at the chance to talk to Noah Lennox, as we were seduced by the LP’s sample-driven melodies and meditative vocal arrangements.
But we were also compelled to chat with him by an ulterior motive: to pick up our last conversation where we left off. When Electronic Beats’ Glenn O’Brien chatted with the Lisbon-based musician in 2013, the former Animal Collective member averred that “club music has to be heard at club volumes to be enjoyable.” It immediately set off some alarms for us, the same way Erlend Øye stirred us up during a recent interview by saying that the “problem” with electronic music is that “it’s fucking boring to see live.” In a nutshell, both sentiments seemed to be based on a dogmatic adherence to conventions about (in Øye’s case) what makes for a quality performance, or (in Lennox’s case) what counts as “club music” and its purpose. We kicked off our catch-up with Panda Bear by taking him to task on his previous statements, and once he clarified his position, we moved on to less controversial topics, like the spiritual nature of his latest record.
Interview by Osia Katsidou.
Osia Katsidou: The last time you spoke with Electronic Beats, you said that “club music has to be heard at club volumes to be enjoyable.” Do you still feel that way?
I think I’d slightly change that statement by saying that I feel that club music is most effective at club volumes. I think it’s inaccurate to say it can’t be enjoyed [in other contexts]. There’s something to be said for hearing something in a place it was intended to be heard. If somebody makes an album and they’re mixing it in the studio, it can sound very different on laptop speakers, for example. The thing will have a certain power to it in a specific environment and scenario.
Club music certainly has a spatial element to it. Loops and layers need a certain amount of space to properly develop.
There’s a social element to it as well. And I also feel like there is a focus on harnessing energy and momentum with a lot of club music. For example, with beat drops or the typical builds in electronic music—in a social environment, where you have a group of people, the management of energy in that situation is much different than it is when you’re by yourself. Electronic music is fully realized in a social environment.
In order to better understand your thought process on this topic, I’ve picked out some songs that might take on a different character or create a different experience based on the volume that you hear it. Can you tell me how you think these tracks might come off in different environments or on different sound systems?
Evian Christ, “Waterfall”
The bass frequencies take on a different character at louder volumes, but the detail of the production might suffer a bit in a proper club atmosphere. On a home system the low end is something you’re aware of. In a club (if it’s a good one!) the low end is something you can’t escape.
This one’s funny, because he infers the social aspect of the club environment by using what sounds like crowd chatter and by the intermittent shouts. I imagine the response to the crank up at 2:45 or so would be quite a bit different in a club with a group of people. Alcohol, among other things, changes this game considerably.
In the same interview, you also described electronic music as meditative.
I still agree with that, although I could expand that to other forms of music, too. A lot of music that resonates the most with me is stuff that is transported in some way, that hooks me in a way that turns off a certain part of my brain and turns on another. It doesn’t have to be club music, but the repetition, the pulsing and the insistent rhythms in a lot of electronic songs, it induces this kind of mindset.
Do you think the same part of the brain is responsible for religious impulses? Or, can meditative music be a religious experience?
I think music and religion are very similar. It’s a little bit difficult for me to speak about it because I’m not an organized religion type of person, and I didn’t grow up in that environment. But I will say that I think that the purpose of ritual and also the purpose of music—not all music, but most of it—are the same when it comes to inducing a certain type of thinking.
Maybe it makes more sense to equate it to a spiritual experience more than a religious one.
That would make more sense.
That religious aspect was kind of my gateway to thinking about your new album. You named it Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper. This is a cheesy way to ask about it, but how was meeting him?
Well, none of the songs really talk about death, but a lot of the songs hover around this theme of transformation, or how an intense event in our lives can often destroy our self-image or the way we orient ourselves in the universe. Sometimes it forces us to create a new self-image or a new identity. The reaper as a concept refers to these intense events. That thing that forces you to think about yourself in a new way.
Do you think it’s far-off that I made this religious reference to the album?
No, I don’t. Maybe making it strictly religious is limiting, but talking about it spiritually and making that connection between spiritual experience and an intense musical experience, I hope that this album does that. It was definitely a mission of mine to write songs that had a more universal concern.
In the past I used introspection as a tool, kind of like writing a diary. The hope was that dealing with something within myself would somehow relate to the listener. Even though I think introspection is good in general, there’s a threshold you reach with it. It’s a point where introspection can transform into self-obsession, narcissism, or some kind of self-centered exercise. With this album, even though most songs start from a personal story or a personal thought-process, I tried chipping away the specifics until it became something that could belong to anybody. I feel that this album has a scope or perspective to it that’s much larger.
Does it make you feel more exposed?
It’s funny to say that talking about things beyond myself would be somehow more revealing, but I think it’s true. These are things that are not just important for me. I never have the desire to be preachy or tell anybody what to do or how to think. It was kind of slippery in that way, to present stuff that I thought was important and maybe useful to other people, but not in a condescending way. To keep it like an observation.
MS MR are a boy-girl indie pop act straight out of New York and London, except that makes them sound a lot less interesting than they actually are. Their catchy four minute songs may have the grandiose, Elysian appeal of Florence & the Machine or Bat For Lashes—think songs called “Bones or “Fantasy”, kettle drums and supernatural synths ascending to the firmament—but the band were born in the distinctly earthly environs of Brooklyn basements and Tumblr. This tension between the sacred and the profane, the emotional and the pop-transcendent is what gives their debut Secondhand Rapture its enigmatic charge. Allow us to make introductions.
1. If you were still in high school, which clique would you belong to?
Max Hershenow: Theater nerds/sarcastic academics
Lizzy Plapinger: Art kids
2. Your most memorable show?
One of our favorites was our show at Laneway Festival in Sydney this year. It was one of the biggest and most raucous crowds we’ve ever played to and the first time most of the crowd knew the lyrics.
3. An album or artist that changed the way you thought? And how did that happen?
M: I lived in Latin America in high school and was really influenced by Latin pop. The Spanish singer Bebe’s first album Pafuera Telarañas made me think about different ways to combine influences, which I think has profoundly affected the way I write now.
L: Music Has the Right to Children by Boards of Canada. Before listening to that record I had never heard anything like it and it totally blew my mind. It really opened me up to a whole new genre and experimental style of music and felt like the gateway to other acts like Avalanches, Prefuse 73, The Go! Team… It continues to be a strong touchstone for me in thinking about music and how you can meld and transform sounds to create new atmospheres.
4. What does underground and mainstream mean to you?
For us it’s about toeing the line between these two worlds. We’re very much rooted in a DIY and “underground” scene and sound and want to continue to explore unique and alternative ways of making and sharing music. However, we also have big ambitions for the band and genuinely want as many people to listen to our music as possible, so we’re absolutely not afraid of being accepted by the mainstream, as long as we stay true to our core identities and “underground” work ethic and style.
5. Should music be free?
There needs to be a back and forth—If music is free in one form than you would hope that a fan would pay it forward to the band in another way. We have always made our music available for someone to listen to for free in the hopes that if they enjoy it and believe in the band they will follow through and purchase the album and/or come see us play a show.
6. Latest find on Soundcloud or Bandcamp and what you like about it?
M: “Out of Yourself” by Truls. It’s such a good pump-up party anthem, and his voice is amazing.
L: This new band WET. They only have two songs up right now but I love her voice and how smooth the music is.
7. Describe your one indispensable outfit?
M: Doc Martens, black leather jacket, jeans and a t-shirt.
L: high-waisted pants, crop top, dragon lady jacket, wire framed vintage sunnies and my Vagabond shoes.
8. A film, book, or artwork that greatly influenced your music and why?
M: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez—it taught me to not shy away from my inclination to infuse the mundane day-to-day with a sense of high drama and a touch of magic.
L: Cats Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut—one of my favorite stories and the catalyst for “Dark Doo Wop”.
9. Your current favorite song and what you like about it?
M: Daft Punk, “Doin’ It Right”. I love the way the two melodies interact.
L: Chrome Sparks, “Marijuana”. It’s sort of become my go to in the car and just immediately puts me in a good mood.
10. If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
M: A choreographer.
L: I have a studio art background so I hope something with design.
Ms Mr’s debut album Secondhand Rapture is out now on Columbia Records
Melody’s Echo Chamber is the project of French multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Melody Prochet. Her self-titled debut is a fibrous and loosely woven take on psychedelia, part homespun indie (her husky voice reminiscent of has a touch of Tracyanne Campbell about it) part gnarled experimentation—the overdriven electric guitar shocks of Chrystallised adding unexpected heft right from the beginning. We’re pleased to offer an exclusive pre-release stream below. The release is due on November 5 through Weird World. You can check the video for her first single “I Follow You” directed by Laurie Lassalle here.
~ Photo: Diane Sagnier
Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan and Matt Didemus have come to be poster boys for a very precise kind of pop music. Indie-informed and highly literate in dancefloor forms, they’ve mastered the art of courting critical praise and building up loyal fans on the ground.
Now, they’re in a state of flux. Interesting flux. Exciting flux. But definitely flux. Despite living on different continents and working across different time zones, they’ve managed to release four full lengths since 2004 (including one of the best albums of 2006 So This Is Goodbye). Now, with their album contract ending with the Domino label, their re-evaluating what comes next. EB’s Moritz Gayard went backstage at Electronic Beats Festival Budapest, to find out where the duo go from here, why they’re foreshadowing a move away from albums for smaller vinyl releases and which one of them has a hankering to make r’n’b.
Moritz Gayard: Welcome to Budapest. There was something new which you just rehearsed, is there going to be a new album?
Jeremy Greenspan: No. I think it’s going to be for an EP or a 12″ or something like that.
MG: A digital release?
JG: We’d probably do it on vinyl I would hope.
MG: Will you release it through Domino?
JG: I’d love to put that release out on a small label.
MG:One of you is living in Berlin, what does that mean for the band when one of you is in Canada and one of you in in Berlin?
Matt Didemus: It’s been five years so …
MG: Do you feel like a Berliner?
MD: Does anybody feel like a Berliner?
MG: If you want to work on something do you do it via filesharing?
MD: Not much, we fly more often than we … file.
JG: I have a couple of days off in Berlin so we’ll go and do a video or something like that. That’s why our albums take so long to make.
MD: We don’t have any pressure to do an album at the moment because we’ve just finished a contract so we have some time to decide what to do.
MG: Do you want to remain linked with a label like Domino which has a reputation or, like Mostly Robot playing here, their label is Native Instruments which is known for making software rather than being a label.
JG: I think that if we were going to be doing an album we would want to be with a label like Domino but at the moment we don’t have any plans to work on an album. I’m much more excited to work on 12″s right now. It’s so much less pressure, it’s more inspiring.
MD: It’s more fun.
MG: Isn’t it a different audience?
MD: I don’t know how important album culture is anymore apart from maybe in the world of press. We all listen to single tracks. I know so few people who listen to albums.
MG: We do album listenings at EB and now whenever I hear a single track from the listening session I’m reminded of when I first heard it and took my time to listen, because that’s the artist’s intention.
JG: We do like making albums.
MG: You do have fans who are perhaps expecting an album release?
JG: I think they would like some EPs too. I think albums are too longs these days. Classic albums, to fit on a piece of vinyl, should be 35 minutes or something like that. That’s how long I think an album should be. If we could get away with making albums that were 35 minutes I think I’d be into that but people nowadays want a 60 minutes album and that’s too long.
MG: You’re not working on an album, but what are you working on?
JG: At home I do a lot of mixing of other bands. I mixed part of the last Caribou record. Actually, Dan Snaith has a record label has a record label called Jialong and I released a 12″ on that and I’ve got another two of them planned for this year. I’ve a studio at home that I work at all the time.
MG: There’s a lot of good bands coming out of Canada at the moment, Grimes, Purity Ring, D’eon …
JG: I don’t know all the bands but I’m friends with some bands from Canada, Caribou being the one that comes to mind the most.
MG: Your music has always been a mix of electronic and indie influences, what direction will the new EP or 12″ go in?
MD: We’ll see what happens, we always start things with the intention that we’ll go one way and then go another.
JG: I’ve just completed an album for a new artist named Jessy Lanza and that was me trying to work on stuff that sounded as much like r’n’b as I could. For us I don’t know. I had this vision of us working on more industrial sounding stuff but we think more in terms of equipment than styles, we think about what kind of equipment we want to use more than anything else. That’s what determines what it sounds like.