Micachu And The Shapes Is Back To Give Voice To Almost-Adulthood
Award-winning composer Mica Levi and her band are growing up, sort of, on third album, Good Sad Happy Bad.
Kafri Studios in east London, where Micachu and the Shapes recorded the majority of their third studio album Good Sad Happy Bad, is a cozy spot tucked away beneath a railway arch, full of clutter and couches that make it feel more like a friend’s house than a rehearsal space. We begin our interview stood outside it, in the rain, with cigarettes. Staring past a cloud of smoke, frontwoman Mica Levi tells me—with full recognition of the irony—that the record is about “health, and ups and downs, reassurance, trying to relax. Smoking, and trying not to think about that.”
Good Sad Happy Bad, out September 11th on Rough Trade Records, sees the experimental London trio grow up—or, at least, think about it. Woozy and loose-limbed to the point of being psychedelic, it’s a record about figuring life out but not getting it right; embracing imperfection and letting the bum notes ring through with the successes. The specter of traditional adulthood looms large—with questions of depression, work stress, fights with lovers, and health—and yet the album does not inhabit that world, but stands outside peering in. Reluctantly almost-adult, Good Sad reflects a world in which 25 is the new 18, and watching Netflix is more appealing than planning for the future.
“Smoking is self-destructive,” continues Levi, mock-authoritatively. “But then there’s something in that self-destructive thing—you don’t want to love yourself too much... There’s something about, you know, not giving too much of a shit about it.” On album interlude “Thinking It,” keyboardist Raisa Khan delivers a similar apathetic manifesto about feeling jealous when she jogs past kids smoking weed: I went for a run this morning. It wasn’t the best, she starts, deadpan. This’ll make me live longer, maybe. So perhaps I’ll get to enjoy my old age if I’m lucky. That’ll be nice, I guess. “I guess,” says Khan, in the same hesitant tone as on the record, “approaching 30, a lot of people have the same thoughts.”
Seven years ago, the band were all students at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London when they first came together to make skewed pop. Levi, a classically trained viola player since childhood, was by this point singing and producing too. She’d collaborated with local rappers Brother May and Ghostpoet, releasing her Filthy Friends mixtape in 2008, and later teamed up with fellow experimental producer Kwes for the mixtape series Kwesachu. Having made most of what would become Micachu and the Shapes’ 2009 debut album Jewellery on her laptop already, Levi needed a backing band to help her play it live. She turned to Khan and drummer Marc Pell, who helped her finish the record, painted some white T-shirts with acrylic shapes to become their band’s signature look, and figured out how to recreate their colorful electronic noises in an acoustic setting. They became known for what Levi calls, with tongue firmly in cheek, their “acid folk”—using instruments they’d built themselves to produce the album’s surreal soundscape live.
They brought out the DIY instruments again in 2010 for a live collaboration with the 18-person London Sinfonietta chamber orchestra, the recording of which they released in 2011 as an LP called—aptly for Levi, who cites hip-hop as one of her biggest influences—Chopped & Screwed. The following year, with Khan and Pell now becoming fully-fledged co-writing members of the band, they released Never, a technicolor, punk-ish pop clapback to London’s murky electronic scene. Rapidly gaining a devoted indie following, Micachu and the Shapes were an antidote: every step other London musicians took right, they’d take left, and they scarcely put a foot wrong. But after their third release in four years, they took a break to pursue individual projects.
Khan worked on solo music and collaborations with friends, while Pell started a side project called MAXIXE, as well as producing for bands like Benin City. Levi has been prolific: in 2013, she produced the debut EP for south London singer Tirzah (plus a follow-up single this year), and at the end of 2014 she dropped a surprise instrumental mixtape, Feeling Romantic Feeling Tropical Feeling Ill. This year, she’s been commissioned to perform new compositions with the London Sinfonietta and as part of a collaborative performance piece with artist Hannah Perry. She also hosts a monthly NTS Radio show on which she features rising London musicians. But most significantly, she was thrust onto a bigger stage last year with her stomach-lurching score for the sci-fi horror Under the Skin, directed by cult filmmaker Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson. Combining synthetic sounds with full-bodied orchestral sequences, Levi created a magical soundtrack that illustrated the experience of being an alien in a human body (as Johansson is in the film). For many critics, her score was inseparable from the movie, and it won her nominations for major film industry awards, including a BAFTA.
In winter 2014, in the midst of these projects, the trio met at Kafri Studios for an aimless jam as they often do. “I'd say the bulk of our friendship has formed from playing music together, so it was just us hanging out with our instruments, lots of tea and feedback from the speakers,” Pell writes in a chirpy email from a vacation in Mexico. “I was eager to play drums, as I’d been sitting in front of a computer for months. I recorded it because I love recording things.” He sent the .WAV file of the jam to the others after the session, and it sparked something. “I put [it] on my phone and listened,” says Levi. “Some of them were full song structures that we’d sort of mushed out.” She took her favorite instrumentals from the session, filled a notepad with thoughts, and recorded vocals over the top of them. “It was winter, I was up in my room, I had quite a lot of privacy, so it was quite personal stuff,” she says, revealing a kind of introverted teenager writing process. “I think it was about not thinking. We were sort of taking our responsibility out of it. Like, this is what we did, so that’s what it is. It’s a diary entry.”
Falling stylistically between the candid quality of Chopped & Screwed and the tight pop song structures of Never, the unplanned album came from the band capturing a spur-of-the-moment inspiration as purely as possible. The tracks consist of only three elements: the instrumental (lifted directly from Pell’s recording), Levi’s vocals, and little blurts of field recordings that the band call “stickers,” used to patchwork over “faults [in the recording] that are just too bait.” One of these stickers is a car crash; another is Pell’s niece groaning. The twitches of noise are funny, jolting, and maintain the spirit of the original session rather than sculpting something new. “We all make music on laptops the rest of the time,” explains Levi. “At the moment I’m more interested in things that have occurred [live]...for me it’s not about the quality, it’s about what’s being captured honestly, and a vibe. Because you can fake so much with a computer, and put so much control in there that it becomes contrived.”
“For me, it’s not about the quality, it’s about what’s being captured honestly, and a vibe.”—Mica Levi
It’s a “go with the flow” attitude that also seeps through the album’s voice, which lingers between the distractible, sulky anxiety of youth and the gnomic authority of someone older. Levi tackles the love, life, and work concerns of most late-20-somethings hustling in London with a nonchalant shrug, and often a punchline. On “Relaxing,” she riffs restlessly, I’m stressed, I’m stressed!/ Now I’m relaxing! “Sea Air” (above), a ditty with frantic key changes, begins flippantly, even childishly: There are no messages, no messages for me/ I’m gonna get my stuff, I’m going to the sea. Like everything the Shapes do, the hyper-connected anxiety—paired with a contradictory escapist longing—is both genuine and a cheeky pastiche of itself. Levi sees humor as a vital medium for conveying miserable messages. “Every time I see a good film, it’s got real depth to it but also a real wit,” says Levi. “Even The Shining; it’s a scary film, but it’s full of surreal, hilarious moments. It’s got a brightness to it, as opposed to being heavy and sombre.”
Good Sad Happy Bad is not about clear-cut extremes, but a grey blend of almost indistinguishable opposites: being happy with being sad, taking the good with the bad. I ask Levi and Khan what makes them happy. “Having a good jam,” offers Khan. “A nice sky, a green lawn. Being in love. The bit after a break-up, when you’re in the positive stage.” Levi adds, “Getting old. That makes me happy.” What makes them sad? “All of the same stuff.”
The record shows Levi once again grappling with the mundane, everyday details that she’s always captured minutely in her work with the Shapes. But she’s also a different songwriter than she was on Never: one who’s had the other-worldly experience of not only composing a sci-fi soundtrack, but of being transplanted into a world of award ceremonies and film events. On “L.A. Poison,” she recounts time she spent in L.A. at the beginning of 2015, performing her Under the Skin score live. It was her first time in America without Khan and Pell, and she can’t drive. Imagine, please, the cars and people are equal, Levi’s distorted voice mumbles over the ramshackle beat. Crashing, gliding/ Smiling, dying. “L.A. is an extraordinarily weird place,” she remembers. “I was going to all this film stuff, in this film world. All the plants aren’t from there. Everything just felt like it was sweating. It just felt like another planet; or I felt like a trespasser.” Would she score another film? “I don’t know,” she says. “When the shoe fits the glove.” Khan bursts out laughing and repeats back to Levi what she just said. “Is that not the phrase?” she asks.
Back in the real world, life moves forward rapidly. (I’m stressed, I’m stressed!/ Now, I’m relaxing.) The band have many plans, and none: on the day of our interview, Khan applied to go back to university part-time, to study psychology and philosophy; Pell is currently on an extended trip to Mexico. Growing up is a haphazard process, but music is a constant: though they hadn’t planned to make this album, they now find themselves playing even newer songs in their live sets. “It’s hard to stop wanting to make more stuff,” says Levi. Asked what she has in the pipeline next, she’s evasive. “Always working, man.” She’s unable to give any details, but takes on a business-like air of self-promotion. With a smirk. “Just say I’m working very hard. No slacking.”