What is it with bands on the roof of buildings? I always end up talking to various different bands on top of them. Not that I'm complaining about the actual rooftop or the talking to bands part, both are wicked; but when you gotta climb up life endangering ladders carrying co-ordination eroding drinks to do it, it's a little dangerous.
When I met Micachu and the Shapes, Mica Levi (vocals/guitars/various instruments she has invented), Raisa Khan (keyboards/electronics) and Mark Pell (drums/percussion) on the rooftop of the Old Blue Last in August 2008, they'd been on the gig circuit quite heavily for the last 6 months or so to much buzz in the industry; and more people were starting to pick up on this anti-pop//pop genius. I asked Mica if it was true that Björk rang her after a gig to tell her how much she liked it, and Mica brushed it off with the fact that Björk probably didn't even physically dial the number; it was most likely that one of her crew did and just handed the phone to her. Word.
Micachu opened with her Filthy Friends grime-ridden mixtape in early 2008 (go get it from their myspace it's beyond bad-ass) roping in mates like Toddla T, Man Like Me, Golden Silvers, Baker Trouble, Kwes and Jack Penate to contribute. And to name drop a little more, Micachu has been swapping remixes with Metronomy and We Have Band. During my first listen to Mica's debut album Jewellery, late last year on the bus, I got so excited about it that as I was texting to share my glee at it's brilliance, I lost one of my most favourite scarves (I was seriously heartbroken about it) as I jumped off the bus at the wrong stop in mid-text.
In the wake of Jewellery getting props from all who heard it at the end of last year, Micachu said bye to Hospital Records and signed over to Rough Trade, who released the album earlier this month.
How many interviews have you guys done already? Have you done loads?
Mica: We’ve done about 250?
Have you got answers for all of the usual questions already then?
Mica: A little bit... Do you want a smoke?
No, I’m alright. Who are the smokers in the band?
Mica: All three of us.
I remember I was at the 93 Feet East gig and Mark, you said “Two of the band have quit smoking since our last gig here.” And Mica was like “Fuck off it’s a lie!”
Mica: I like to have a cigarette when I’m happy.
You go to Guildhall right? All three of you do, so that’s how you met? Why did you decide to become a trio?
Mica: Well I sort of wanted to put a live band together so I put a thing out on Myspace. Me and Raisa were already good mates and wanted to start a thing together so we started writing.
There is a bit of a stigma around ‘music school bands’, how do you feel about that?
Mica: I think that a lot of people lie anyway, especially with guitar based music; a lot of those kids are like white, and middle class.
Mark: We all do composition courses at Guildhall, not instrumental ones, I don’t study drums there, Raisa doesn’t study keyboard.
Mica: But we could have well been at UCL studying philosophy or science or English you know. I do feel grateful that I’ve been lucky enough to have a music education, it doesn’t mean that we have a better or worse approach to music, but I do find it useful. It doesn’t mean that you make good music or bad music, wherever you come from, whatever you do.
What is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music?
Mica: That depends on lots of things doesn’t it! It’s sort of weird, in pop music it seems to be that your personality and your background is as important as your music, You know, your image. At school, we’re anonymous, composing music on computers, and personal stuff doesn’t really matter, and people care a bit about that. If it’s good music, who you are and where you come from should be irrelevant.
Where do you come from? What kind of kids were you in high school?
RAISA: I was a nerd.
MARK: I made sure my shirt was always tucked in, my top button was done up.
MICA: I was a geek as well, but I was in a music school If you’re obsessive about anything in school you are labelled a “geek” really aren’t you?
Yeah definitely, I guess that’s just kids. How old are you all?
Mica: We’re all 21.
The machine, as it were, has labelled you (Mica), as a bit of a prodigy. How do you feel about that?
Mica: I feel very grateful that we’re writing music, and that it’s getting played. If you can make a career out of that, it’s pretty cool. But there’s lots of bullshit, you know, you can’t take that type of thing too seriously. For your own sanity you just have to ignore it because it’s just other people’s buzz.
Mark: The thing is that you can pick up an instrument, and work hard at it and be good at it but then prodigies just seem to have this amazing technical ability. But they still have to go through life and just be an amazing guitar player – you have to experience things and develop yourself and your talent.
That’s right. I was watching a thing on child ‘super human’ geniuses on television the other night. And basically what they all were, were these kids with incredibly pushy parents.
MARK: Pushy parenting is part of the prodigy thing.
Did any of you have that? You went to music school, so obviously from an early age you knew music was your thing. Were your parents instrumental in that?
Mica: I mean, maybe a little bit. Me and my sister are quite obsessive characters. My sister is quite organised in her obsessions - she has a different obsession every year. One year it was this, the next it was that, whatever it was, she was intensely into something. Music has really always been my obsession. My parents were musicians, so it’s all I’ve ever sort of known really. So maybe they were a little bit pushy; but ultimately, it was me. I’ve always been pretty independent.
When did you start playing music? What did you play?
Mica: I was four and I started playing violin, then I went to music school and it was a pretty amazing experience. Pretty unusual; but the routine of playing music all the time lost it’s enjoyment a bit and along with any sort of personal discovery, which is important in all music. So I just started writing music and enjoyed that as my outlet.
How did you get hooked up with Matthew Herbert?
Mica: It was an organic thing, he heard my music and kindly asked if I’d do something. He’s a tasty music person so it was encouraging. He puts a lot into it; even if it’s a bit odd. He’s not all about selling records, he works the way he wants to work, no pissing about.
Working with a name like Matthew Herbert is quite a big deal. You’ve done some massive gigs already. Where else do you want to go? What else do you want to do? What is your ultimate goal?
Mica: We’ll just see how we go. We don’t really know. It’s really nice that people like and are listening to our music. It’s just a really great job, being in a band. We’re still learning about different types of audiences and different types of interviewers and many different things.
Your gig at 93 Feet East was the first time I’d seen and heard you guys play, maybe a year or so ago. Obviously you’ve been playing loads and loads of gigs since, but it still seems fresh and you look like you’re still really enjoying yourselves.
MARK: We thought we played really bad at that gig!
Really? But there was such a great vibe at that gig.
Mica: We had fun.
MARK: It’s really interesting though, you know it’s a learning thing.
Do you write all your own beats?
Mica: Well kind of, that’s how some of it works. Mark does a lot of the production himself, especially with some of the new stuff we’re doing. It’s really interesting working on some of the synth stuff too because we’re all trained musicians, with all of us discussing and contributing to how we want to sound.
What do you think is the current musical scene? What do you think the ‘kids’ want now?
Mica: It seems a bit lost. I think people should latch on to something. I think people are very nostalgic, very obsessed with the history of pop and dance, as opposed to the future of it. If anyone does something people are immediately obsessed with attaching it to hundreds of different things just to find themselves. People are even dressing in the past. Interestingly though, they dress a whole mixture of a really 50s something with a really 80s something, and it’s similar with music. It’s a weird sort of time where people are a bit unsatisfied and lacking a bit of identity. You’re bombarded with so many different things all the time. Everyone is compared to something before them and criticized for not being as good.
What are you guys currently latching on to, so to speak?
Mica: I like to try and switch myself off to everything. Being part of Hospital Records is nice, it’s just good to find your niche, so you’re part of a family, when you’re just looking at stuff on the internet or listening to stuff on the radio. Who do I like? Everything’s a bit boring at the moment but I think there’s a lot of entertainment ability. I like loads and loads. We hate this question! Everyone says “we’re really eclectic”, but then it would be rubbish if someone said, we just like hip hop. We’re basically obsessed with jazz. Old jazz, not all this wanky stuff.
Would you be OK with to be bombarding the masses? It’s a double edged sword. On one hand you get to do what you want to do, but on the other hand you’re contributing to the machine, aren’t you?
Mica: I think that the family of music that I come from, being experimental or classical, no one wants to hear it. You’re just expected to make no money, have a shit job, be on the dole. You just have to always be happy with what you’re doing. If you’re totally honest with what you’re doing and not compromising anything for anyone, then that’s good. We’re really new to it, but know there’s a lot of bullshit. It’s nice to have interviews like this as opposed to ones where they know what they want to hear.
So you’re growing and entering into this world, how are you dealing with it? Are you liking it?
MARK: I hate the interviews, I hate the filmed ones, they’re terrible. We’re not good on camera. We know interviews like this need to be done. If this were filmed we’d probably be very different. At the end of the day, it’s nice just to be able to just do music - it could be a lot worse.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing music?
Mica: Probably still studying. I don’t know running a video shop? A cleaner? I really like cleaning. Or a vet?
One last question. Are you into anime? Manga? Like, Pokemon maybe?
Mica: Micachu was a name given to me by Baker Trouble. So, no. No Pokemon for me.
JEWELLERY by MICACHU is out NOW on ROUGH TRADE