A Whole Other Thing at Play: James Ford on the routes that led him to The Hum

A Whole Other Thing at Play: James Ford on the routes that led him to The Hum

Interview: Stephen Christian
Footage: Thomas Edwards

2879 words, 00:09:35

It is quite likely that you’ve heard James Ford before, whether you know it or not. Well, if not him precisely, then some vivid piece of music in which he’s had a guiding hand in its creation. In recent years he is very likely to be mentioned as one of the most credible, and hyper-musical, record producers in the game. After all, straddling the spaces that separate the emphatic leftfield soul of Little Dragon from the baroque pop of Arctic Monkeys, or the exploded genre-collisions of Gorillaz and the kinetic post-punk of Shame must be seen as a commendable career decision. What may at first appear to be a collection of odd bedfellows as collaborators however, begins to make far more sense when tracing Ford’s own musical life.

Before establishing himself as a producer with an eye on the avant-garde, and the skills to translate that into tangible popular appeal, he incubated as a teenage jazz obsessive playing bass, drums and synths alone in his cellar. Eventually, serving time in a string of experimental bands led to him forming the seminal group Simian, whose skewed electronic psych-pop still resonates curiously potently, even though they burned brightly and quickly, splintering after the release of their second album in 2002. Prior to the band’s implosion in a “punch up in a fish restaurant in [Texas]”,  Ford and fellow Simian member Jas Shaw had hastily cooked up the moniker Simian Mobile Disco while remixing one of their band’s singles. That remix would point the way toward an angular and emotive brand of electronic jam that would quickly gain momentum, setting up Simian Mobile Disco as one of the pre-eminent dancefloor fillers of the 2010s.

So now, once again, Ford straddles yet another musical chasm. With The Hum he has melded his cutting-edge production knowledge to impressionistic, pastoral songwriting. Fleetingly arresting insights and observations fold into plaintive daubs of sonic playfulness, blurring genre and sound as has always been his wont. Writing, playing and voicing every instrument himself, The Hum could exude the sense that James Ford had arrived, if he hadn’t arrived already.

Stephen Christian: When we first spoke about the record, before it was finished, you had mentioned that you’d been thinking back to a lot of the music your father had played around the house when you were young. Not in an overly nostalgic way, but using that idea as a kind of guide – can you elaborate on that thought?

James Ellis Ford: Yeah, me and my dad have a good relationship. The main focal point of those relationships can be something like football, but for us music.  He’s very switched on to new music and bands and will send me stuff all the time. So, I grew up with pretty varied music being played, and he had a very good record collection.

A lot of the stuff I remember is definitely what you’d call the ‘Canterbury Scene’ stuff. I inherited multiple Gentle Giant, Caravan, Stackridge, Hatfield and the North records, lots of Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, that type of stuff. So, I suppose all that was kind of ambient in my upbringing. I went back to all that in the early days of Simian, when we also got really into that Kevin Ayers album Shooting At The Moon. So, it’s always been a big part of my musical heritage.

I was kind of a pretentious teenager listening to lots of jazz, John Coltrane and that sort of stuff and I remember my dad buying me a copy of Bleach by Nirvana and being like ‘you realise this is what the kids are listening to right now’ [Laughs] and before that I was just kind of floating off into jazzy noodles.

SC: Was that kind of wilful rebellion? Were you very aware that all the other teenagers were not into that stuff?

JEF: Yes, there was definitely a contrarian thing about it. The band I was probably trying to avoid the most were The Levellers and all that sort of stuff. I just thought ‘I can’t be anywhere near that’, so I went in the other direction.

I grew up in a little market town outside Stoke-on-Trent, very country living and in retrospect it was great for music. I had a music teacher who let me kind of bunk off football or rugby and play drums in the music room and stuff. Then, I had a good group of mates and we were basically playing in pub bands from the age of eleven or twelve. My dad played in local bands and stuff as well, so we had a cellar with and old drum kit and guitar and stuff in it. I remember being a teenager and being in the cellar with, like, a Tascam 4-track and I had a drum kit and a couple of crap Electro-Voice mics, which I still use actually, and a Maxi-Korg synth that I’ve still got and I was trying to recreate Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters kind of vibe on my own. Doing the drums, then doing the synths, making loads of wiggly noises and just having the fucking time of my life basically. I remember so clearly that moment and being like ‘this is the best thing ever, I just want to keep doing this’. 

Then I was going to go off and study music and my dad sort of talked me out of it and said ‘I don’t think you really want to be that kind of musician’ and he was right, really…so I went and got a biology degree. Then, I answered a note asking for a drummer on a notice board in the student halls, even though I was a bass player.  I went into this room dense with weed smoke and there were these guys Jas and Alex and they were playing Primus or something crazy and technical like that. [Laughs]. I thought ‘I’ve got to be in this band’ and that eventually became Simian. At the same time I was playing drums in clubs for these nights where DJs like Andy Votel and Mr. Scruff would be playing weird old records and I’d play along with them. Every Friday or Saturday night I’d drag my drum onto these club stages to play with them, it was really strange.

Then at one of these clubs I met Graham Massey, and we started a friendship and I ended up playing drums in 808 State, which was my first ‘proper’ gig or the first time I ever got paid for playing music. 

Graham then became a huge musical influence for me, he’s of course got an incredible record collection and played me loads of out-there stuff from Rashaan Roland-Kirk to early techno. We ended up playing in a band together called Homelife and another called Toolshed which was like three drummers, an opera singer and we were doing Sun-Ra covers and Graham was playing bass clarinet, which is where I probably got incorporating the bass clarinet from, actually. We did a crazy summer-long residency in France, soundtracking this abstract theatre company in the middle of nowhere.

SC: Since then, you’ve covered a lot of musical ground: you’ve been an acclaimed band of your own (Simian), you’ve evolved that band into a successful electronic project (Simian Mobile Disco), you’ve produced albums for a lot of varied artists and now you’ve made a solo record. Do you have to compartmentalize these as separate things, or do they just completely overlap each other naturally?

JEF: I definitely don’t have a strategy, if that’s what you mean. It’s too all over the shop for that. I definitely look back at things like…’why did I spend so much time DJing when I could have been making more music?’

I do respect people who can find their specific lane and just completely master that thing, it’s just not me. I just have too short an attention span or something, or just actually such broad taste that I genuinely love making a folk record and then making a techno record. I love being able to dip into a different world and make a really big rock record and then shift to making a strange electronic record and just being able to inhabit these different worlds for a few months at a time. 

When you’ve had enough of one thing, you can go and do the other thing. [Laughs]

SC: You can go and make a first solo album - which you wrote, played, performed, and mixed every note yourself in your home studio – but at various points feels uncannily like a band playing together in a room. What was that process like?

JEF: Yeah, that is weird isn’t it? I definitely was trying to do that, especially on ‘Caterpillar’ and some other songs. I don’t know why I was trying to do that, but maybe it was again being slightly contrarian. Like, I’m here on my own so why not try and make it sound like a bunch of different people. I was also trying to keep my self-editing to a minimum, so I’d just write an idea or a melody and then immediately play what I’d play if I were each member of a band as a first take and leave it.

Obviously, process is kind of everything in production, because it colours everything. So, I spend a lot of my time with other people saying ‘we’re going to do it like this and use these instruments in this space and record it in this way, on tape or whatever’ and it’s often quite meticulous. With this, I’ve found I’m much…lazier, when it’s my own music. I just want to get something down as quickly as possible to see if it’s even worth thinking about. So, to that end, it was quite different across the entire record. Some songs started from drones and loops and synth ideas, and then I’d add a bit and leave it for a while or some of it started as simple songs at the piano and then I had quite a bit of that before I even entertained the idea of singing. 

It was all quite exploratory and quite disparate, really, I still feel like I could make several different types of records. I was trying not to overthink it and just to keep moving forward to see what happened.

SC: When you did arrive at turning some of the pieces into songs you would sing yourself, how did you approach the lyrics? A lot of them feel very personal even when they’re more abstracted, but it also feels like there’s a contemplative, almost Zen, thread that runs through the album.

JEF: You know, lyric writing is a relatively new thing for me and, similar to what I was saying about the music, I was trying to just move forward and see what happened. I was trying not to write about specific ‘this’ or ‘that’, but then in the background is the pandemic, Jas (James’ musical partner in Simian and Simian Mobile Disco) getting sick, and other kind of brushes with mortality as well as, I suppose, the general existential dread that’s going around at the moment. Then at the same time, feeling quite cocooned in my space and my life. Having a small child and a happy marriage, and just a safe little zone that was also emphasized by the pandemic and just trying to reconcile those two things.

Also, my wife is a Buddhist and she’s been trying to get me into it and I’ve always been fairly resistant. Then, especially around that time and still now, I’ve been reading a lot about and trying to practice meditation and gratitude and I guess just mental health stuff that everyone’s thinking about, really. So that threads in there a bit as well. I’m a staunch atheist and always have been, but there’s still a part of me that thinks ‘is there something over here that I should be exploring a bit harder?’. You don’t want to be fucking Richard Dawkins, do you. [Laughs]

SC: Did you find putting yourself out there lyrically and vocally to be a difficult thing?

JEF: It was the hardest part by a long shot, yeah. I’m pretty confident as a musician and a writer since I’ve done lots of stuff now, but it’s a very different thing committing to a lyric and then singing it. There’s a whole other thing at play there. 

As a producer, I’ve definitely been there trying to pull that out of other people and get them to be vulnerable and super direct and personal and put it all out there because that’s what people want to feel. Having to then kind of force that on myself is…actually really fucking hard [Laughs] and has given me a new appreciation for what I’m asking other people to do. As a producer, it’s made me more sensitive to how difficult that is, which is interesting.

I know I can sing in tune, because I know what that is, but I’ve never thought of myself as having a good voice, but then some of my favourite singers don’t have ‘good’ voices. The idea of being too histrionic kind of makes me cringe, especially at this age. I just wanted to keep the songs quite plain, and kind of ditty-ish and not too fussy. I feel like I can stand behind that quite easily.

A lot of the reason behind the whole thing was to challenge myself and push myself outside of my comfort zone and then the furthest outside of my comfort zone I could be is to just sing on it. I had this little internal battle with myself about why I wasn’t singing on it. It’s a weird thing, you have these things in your life that say I’m this or that or the other, but I’m not that. Then coming up against one of those things and asking ‘why am I not that?’ feels like quite an important thing to do, so you don’t get stuck in these little zones. So, for better or worse I made the decision to do it…and now I have to fucking talk about it. [Laughs]

SC: The album also does a really beautiful job of blurring the lines between the organic and the electronic, which feels a little bit like a hallmark of yours. Is that an intentional outcome?

JEF: Yeah, when you kind of can’t tell what’s a synth or what’s a sax. I think I’ve always tried to straddle the line. Even early on with Simian, we were listening to psych records and we were listening to Autechre records. Warp records. We were trying to find somewhere between those two worlds. Since then, sometimes I’ve leaned more towards dance music or more the other way, but that’s still broadly what I’m trying to do.

Like when I first heard an Aphex record, I literally didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know what the sounds were, where they were coming from, how he’d put them together and that feeling of not knowing what was what, I love that.

SC: I think Chemistry Is What We Are (Simian’s first album, released in 2001) is a bit of an underappreciated classic, and The Hum feels to me like almost a distant relative to that record. Do you feel any sense of having come full-circle?

JEF: Yeah, I definitely do.

I haven’t listened back to it in ages, but I remember being very proud of it when we’d made it. When we were basically teenagers. I definitely think Simian were a bit out of time, just asynchronous with what was going on at the time.

It was all very exciting, we’d just finished college and we were completely surprised when we got signed and we all moved down to London. Then there were kind of the typical major label shenanigans and the second album was a bit of a nightmare and it just kind of fell apart. We definitely felt that big label, second record pressure and just kind of fucked it up, basically.

Weirdly, Brian Eno approached us after the first record and came in on those sessions, actually. I remember our studio was really chaotic and messy and he came in and was mainly, like, tidying up. [Laughs] He played some guitar and did a few backing vocals and I remember thinking at the time, ‘is this guy really doing anything?’. Then, in retrospect, our relationship in the band was really bad at that point and when he came in, just his presence totally changed it for the better. 

Anyway, I was even maybe explicitly channelling that first record. Maybe because that first Simian record was the first record I, and we, properly made and that excitement was intense and that’s something I’m kind of chasing all the time. I do feel like we captured an atmosphere or something in that record and I was definitely trying to recreate that same feeling in myself. It’s probably the feeling I’m always trying to recreate, just that Mary Shelley situation of you’re making something and you don’t know quite what it is and then you’ve birthed something kind of inhuman that might damage the world. [Laughs]