Since forming Simian Mobile Disco in 2005, James Ford and Jas Shaw have produced four albums of crowd-pleasing and critically praised electro music, worked on tracks for the Arctic Monkeys, the Klaxons and Florence and the Machine and released a series of offbeat animated music videos. Their fifth album Whorl, however, is the pair’s most experimental project to date.
To make the album, Ford and Shaw ditched their laptops and recorded a live session in the Californian desert, performed using only a synthesiser and sequencer each.
Visuals for artwork, music videos and subsequent live shows were created by regular collaborators Jack Featherstone and Hans Lo, who used an oscilloscope and custom coding to create a series of hypnotic and colourful shapes, textures and animations.
“We basically wanted to create a visual world that felt kind of 70s but also futuristic and utopian. It was harking back to the BBC Radiophonic era when playing with electronics was opening up a new world of possibilities and expanding the creative, scientific and perhaps spiritual horizon,” explains Featherstone.
Featherstone and Lo, who met on the shoot of the video for 2009 SMD track Synthesise, spent around six months creating the custom system and began work on the visuals before Ford and Shaw had written the music for the album.
“Once James and Jas had told us about their plans [for Whorl], we knew immediately that we wanted to somehow reflect their process in ours,” he says.
“It became obvious quite quickly that we were going to try and include some analogue hardware in our set up, as it made sense both aesthetically and conceptually, but it was also important for us to retain some kind of control over the imagery. “We weren’t really interested in creating purely abstract, generative forms, or playing with glitch-y static. What we wanted was a way to process pre-made content that was tangible and immediate, but also unpredictable, so we settled on the idea to build our own system using an oscilloscope and custom software,”says Featherstone.
The system takes two people to operate and uses footage which is placed into video mixing software VDMX, then turned into sound using custom code developed by Artists & Engineers and fed into an oscilloscope via a sound card.
The process enables Lo and Featherstone to manipulate and distort imagery being fed into the scope live using midi controllers (see image, left), and create reactive visuals in response to live audio feeds during performances. A camera is then placed in front of the oscilloscope and a live stream sent to a second laptop, where it is colourised and sent to a projector.
“We had to buy several scopes before we found the right one – it’s amazing how different each one spat out imagery, each with its own character,” adds Featherstone.
When researching existing analogue equipment, Lo and Featherstone were particularly inspired by the Rutt/Etra video synthesiser; an analogue device which allowed users to play with the height, width, intensity and scale of images and manipulate them using a horizontal centering effect.
“The system we made was developed to try and replicate the Rutt/Etra – the original synth produced the most stunning imagery, and our goal was to get as close as possible to this using our own techniques.
“This also led us to our own discoveries, which we embraced and followed, knowing that by doing so, we were beginning to create our own version of it and the basis for the album’s campaign visual vocabulary. We ended up making a vector scanning version, which allowed us to manipulate footage in 3D,” says Featherstone.
Creating visuals for an album before it’s recorded is an unusual process, but Featherstone says it helped create a stronger link between the imagery and SMD’s music.
“We had lots of time to think about and develop our visuals … we would send SMD things that we were working on, and they would do the same. It was an ideal situation really, knowing that the visual side of the campaign would be so closely entwined with the music side,” he says.
“The whole project was a challenge and continues to be on tour – the system just gets packed into a large flight case and things often go wrong, so every time we boot it up, we’re crossing our fingers hoping that it all works, but I think that’s part of the fun, and I’d like to think it gives the performance a real energy,” he adds.
Since meeting Ford and Shaw through designer Kate Moross, Featherstone – a Chelsea College of Art graduate who has also worked on album art and videos for musicians James Holden, Sad City and Luke Abbott – has worked on several projects for Simian Mobile Disco, from a bizarre animated promo full of pulsating and exploding inflatable characters for track Hachinoko to an abstract geometric world of RGB graphics for 2012 track, Cerulean. “I have lost count of the number of videos I’ve been involved with – it’s certainly a hefty body of work,” he says.
“Looking back over it all, it is possible to pick out recurring themes and motifs: space, travelling/ tripping, retro gaming, club culture, geometry and all things analogue, however on the most part, these recurring themes have been unintentional,” says Featherstone.
“SMD are incredibly open to new ideas and like to push things, so whenever possible I try to dream up something fresh for them – although sometimes the constraints of time and budget do mean you have to stay within your comfort zone.”