Interview: Micachu & The Shapes
We meet the pop/experimental combo led by a woman once dubbed “the next in a line of great female songwriters”
t’s not every band who get to tour America with one of the most eminent recording collectives of recent times. A group whose album Merriweather Post Pavillion beat The XX’s outstanding self-titled debut album to sweep the album of the year awards three years ago. But then not every band are Micachu & The Shapes.
Founded when classically trained songwriter Mica ‘Micachu’ Levi, whose first steps into the world of recording were as a DJ and MC in the UK garage and grime scene in London, came together with fellow Guildhall students Raisa Khan and Marc Pell to form The Shapes. The band released their debut single Lone Ranger in May 2008 and have been generating feverish excitement ever since.
It was but three years ago that Micachu & The Shapes released their debut album Jewellery, resplendent with the sort of pop songs that should be about as infectious as a sterilised lab coat, yet still manage to weave themselves into the very fabric of your minds. It was hotly tipped as an outside bet for 2009’s Mercury Prize, with its omission from the shortlist provoking The Guardian to ask “but what about Micachu & The Shapes?”
They’ve since followed that with the similarly excellent sophomore release Never, a record which has been on the listening menu for Songwriting constantly since it came out this July and takes the band’s brilliant anti-pop songwriting into both catchier and more experimental territories. Still no Mercury nomination, though.
Songwriting caught up with Micachu & The Shapes at Bristol’s Colston Hall, at the end of a UK tour that came right off the back of a tour across the United States with Animal Collective. We found a band beguiled by the songwriting skills of Adele… or did we?
You’ve not long been back from touring America with Animal Collective. What was it like touring with them?
Mica Levi (guitars and vocals): Perfect, better than perfect. They’re just really great guys, really chilled out. They were just really good to us. They invited us to tour on their bus with them and introduced us to a lot of music, played us loads of cool stuff, loads of cool music. It was great.
What was your most and least favourite part of touring America?
Raisa Khan (keyboards): Least favourite part was that it had to end! (all three laugh)
Mica: There weren’t really any bad bits of the tour.
Raisa: Though the last show got cancelled. In Williamsburg, the New York gig got cancelled.
Mica: You can’t drink on the street.
Raisa: You can in New Orleans though.
Who’s your favourite artist that you’ve toured with?
All: Animal Collective!
What impact does touring have upon your songwriting? Is it conducive, a hindrance or no difference?
Mica: Well I think for all of us, this time the tour’s been really good for our writing because it’s just been really comfortable and inspiring.
Raisa: Though we don’t really write much when we’re on tour.
Mica, you grew up in a family of musicians and began writing and playing at a very early age. What were those early compositions inspired by?
Mica: Well I don’t really feel like I started writing until I was a teenager and I wrote some songs about, you know, whatever, miserable ones. I dunno, I’ve got a terrible memory actually. I got suspended from school and I wrote a song while I was suspended, cos I was upset.
What unexpected styles of music and artists have an influence on your music?
Marc Pell (drums): I personally don’t think that inspiration comes from one place, I’m quite open-minded. It’s good not to have expectations.
Your first studio album Jewellery was influenced by the composition studies that formed part of your studies at Guildhall. What influence did studying at Guildhall have on your songwriting?
Mica: I dunno, I guess it’s just what I was doing at the time; it all feeds in. You play lots of different music, study lots of different principles of making music from around the world and from other decades and stuff and to be honest with you I reckon it’s just bouncing off doing that, it’s like concentrating on something very specific and because I was doing that I guess I could just relax and write songs as a sort of hobby. Learning about John Cage for instance, it’s not necessarily on the album at all, I don’t think. But the impact was just getting to know about different movements throughout time, that kind of thing.
It gave you something to focus on and then build around the sides?
Mica: Yeah I think so. Just understanding different philosophies and so on.
You’re classically trained musicians who writes pop songs. Which pop musician would you most like to see compose a classical music song?
Mica: Loads… I’m just trying to think who would be really good. I think Hudson Mohawke.
Who else would you like to work with – artists or producers?
Marc: Hudson Mohawke.
Marc: Any producer that would let you get…
Mica: …that would have us!
Mr: To step into a room with somebody who knew their craft, who is confident with working with bands and who enables you to just think within your instrument, as part of the ensemble, would be an interesting experience. We haven’t done that, really: we’ve never gone into the studio with a producer for three or four weeks solid, when we perform and work on the material.
Mica: We haven’t written in the studio much at all.
So someone who would come in with their ideas as opposed to you just going in with yours? Someone like the late, great Martin Hannett, for instance?
Mica: He had the drummer on the roof. He wanted it [the recording] really dry so recorded him outside and was like ‘Just keep on playing’! He was like, ‘Look, we’ve got the mic set up now’! So people just got pissed and left him there!
As students of music what would you write your thesis on?
Marc: Dennis the Menace. Who has a better colour scheme, Dennis the Menace or Desperate Dan?
What impact do you think making your own instruments has on your sound?
Marc: On the last record a lot of the drum sounds were taken from contact mic setups that we had, the shaker, dead sounds. It wasn’t really making instruments, but it at least got me thinking about the clashing in a different way, you know, pitch quality… being able to distort it and put acoustic instruments through acoustic drums, and shakers and things through delay pedals. We didn’t use any of the ‘made’ instruments. But the general idea of adapting an instrument somehow to make it sound different was incorporated.
Who’s the most important songwriter currently making music?
Mica & Mr: Adele.
Marc: Let’s Wrestle
Mica & R: Animal Collective
Which unknown songwriters should we know about?
Raisa: Let’s Wrestle
Mica: Wesley Gonzalses
If you were commissioned to start a songwriting class what would be lesson number one?
Mica: How are you feeling? Write it down. Can you play an instrument? It would be just getting something basic together. Working out maybe two pieces that you think go together well and then split them into two sections, or add them to another bit of material that you’ve already got. Y’know, making an environment where you’ve got something going on. Probably the best thing to do is get everyone round in a circle, get them clapping, get a beat together and then get people to make up a melody within the context and then keep on improvising and develop that. Some exercises like that.
What tips would you have for the aspiring songwriters out there?
Mica: Just be honest. Do your thing. Be brave.
Marc: Listen to Adele!
And that was that. Songwriting caught Micachu & The Shapes’ performance later that evening – you can read our thoughts on it here. Bigger things surely must beckon!
Watch the video to Easy below.
Interview by Damien Girling
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