Immediately upon entering a room where Simian Mobile Disco is performing, the concertgoer is struck in quick succession by two unassailable facts. The first is light. Blinding light. This is no everyday incandescence but rather a veritable assault of photon-emitting LEDs. Between the distinctive harshness of LED light and the heavy bass thump of SMD’s music, the effect is not unlike that of a tricked-out car bearing down upon a crowd. Except for one key difference: unlike the pimped ride, SMD is anything but mobile.
Bobby McFerrin is an artist who could be referred to as a ‘mobile disco’. If you allow him a loop pedal and a couple microphones, Reggie Watts is – if not exactly a mobile ‘disco’, at the very least a mobile Théâtre de l’Absurde. The various elements of the SMD live performance are balanced in such a way that, if the act were forced to slim down for a lower-threshold stage, it seems at first blush that those two bi-peddled things that scurry among the equipment – James Ford and James Shaw – would doubtless be first to go.
If you’ve seen the music video for “It’s the Beat”, you’re aware of what a transformative effect a few rectangular bars of color can have on the music of SMD. At first, the blinding lights are maligned as a distraction, obstructing as they do one’s view of the technicians and their machines. Before long, though, you realize that the blinding force of the lights has a purpose beyond preparing you (by modulations of color and intensity) for those rare deviations from the hook riff and the four-on-the-floor beat. By stabbing the eyes with such ferocity, it indelicately informs the audience: nothing to see up here, folks. Please dance amongst yourselves.
Probably it’s no coincidence that SMD would encourage their audience to turn inward, as it were. This naval-gazing theme permeates the SMD experience on every level, from the genre label ‘blog-house’ (suggestive of a confessional, epistolary approach to electronica) to music videos like “Audacity of Huge” and “Hustler” that show a keen (yet comically broad) self-awareness in their depictions of glamorous excess taken to grotesque extremes. The arrangement of the stage itself mirrors these themes. The LED strips hang in a staggered pattern suggesting a circular barrier enclosing the activity on stage. When the lights are static, one is reminded of Stonehenge. When they flash in sequence, one thinks of the electrons that are said to orbit the nucleus of an atom. Reinforcing either impression are the two Jameses in constant motion around a roughly circular lump of analog electronics at center stage. Whether SMD are magicians or scientists is, by design, left ambiguous.
Equally ambiguous are the individual characters of the two Jameses. Although their forms are not easily discerned amidst the glare of the totemic lights and the cloud of artificial fog and dance-sweat that hovers around the stage, the observer can eventually learn to distinguish the thinner, dancier James from the slightly stiffer, hairier one. What isn’t clear is the specific role that each James plays. Is one the master of the electro-squiggle? Does the other have a special way with triggering vocal samples? It seems that they don’t want you to know. Visually, these simians may appear rather insignificant among their creation. However, as their moniker reminds us and their busy, knob-turning, rump-shaking bodies confirm, if there is a mobile disco in the house, it sure isn’t the machinery on stage. These men control the dials and where they are, so long as there are a few thousand pounds of equipment in tow, that’s where the party is.