While Mica Levi first garnered attention amongst beat aficionados and club kids in London for her Filthy Friends mixtape, it wasn’t until she formed Micachu & The Shapes with Raisa Khan (keyboards) and Marc Pell (drums) and released Jewellery in 2009 that she found her calling. That album turned heads on both sides of the pond for its pop smarts and eclectic blend of instrumentation, which included homemade guitars and a vacuum cleaner. It was an astonishingly creative record on an indie landscape where even the eccentricities of the most quirkiest of bands seemed calculated.
After composing and performing with the London Sinfonietta (Levi studied classical composition as a child), which resulted in an album, Chopped & Screwed, Micachu & The Shapes finally released the follow-up to Jewellery last week. While the album courses with the same frenetic creativity that flowed through its predecessor, Never is a denser album. Clamorous where Jewellery was sparse, Never is thick with both traditional and leftfield sounds, making it both inline and divergent from rock’s long lineage.
I caught up with Levi on the phone from her home in London to find out more about the new album’s creation.
How long was this record in the making?
Mica Levi: I’m really bad at dates, but I’m pretty sure it was quite warm, so maybe it was last summer when we started recording.
When you work with the Shapes is it more collaborative than it used to be? I got the impression that Jewellery was your project.
ML: Yeah, I guess so. I think most bands have someone who writes the songs and the words, but you work on it together. I think it’s important to have a fairly strong idea of what you want and to communicate it because you’re sharing a feeling with some other people. It does sort of depend on the particular tune. Some things you have an idea and it’s completely straight, and other times it’s just bits of guitar chords and vocals and you work it out. I prefer it when it’s collaborative.
You have a history of making beats, and rhythm seems to be a focus on this record. Is that the basis for each song? Is that where things start?
ML: No, most of these songs started on guitar, and all of the beats are fairly relaxed and just roll along. The record is meant to be kind of traditional and trashy sounding. A lot of it is like ’60s stuff and stems from playing barre chords on guitar.
Yeah, I think it was “Nothing” that struck me as old time rock & roll.
ML: Yeah, I’m glad that you picked up on that!
In the past you’ve described what you do as “experimental pop.” Would you stick to that assessment now or do you think you’re moving away from that description?
ML: I don’t think I’ve ever said that we’re an experimental group. I hate that expression because I think everyone experiments with material. It’s a bit like saying you’re a “creative pop group.”
I don’t know that Britney Spears experiments that much.
ML: Presumably, she experiments and makes decisions between different bits and bobs. When I’m trying to get something together on guitar, I’m experimenting with different ideas. But that’s probably not my term of choice. I think it’s kind of a joke because I’m from the classical world originally. But you’ve got three sections in a CD shop, at least in England: classical, jazz and pop. I knew it wasn’t classical, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t jazz, so we must be pop.
Do you feel like this album picks up where Jewellery left off or do you feel it’s in another different direction?
ML: Oh, I don’t know. That was a long time ago, or at least it feels like it. You probably have a better assessment of that, to be honest.
I feel like it’s different. I was listening to Jewellery again for the first time in awhile. We were talking about pop and that one seems more “pop” to me than this one.
ML: Yeah, I think that’s true. That was more the intention there. This is more “band-y” and I wanted to punk out a bit. There’s some pop in there, but also some film music and really nasty stuff. It’s not as light and airy.
Yeah, it’s like there is more crammed into each song.
ML: Probably, it’s quite busy. I agree with that.
Did making the Chopped and Screwed album change things for you at all? Did you rethink your process?
ML: That was such a one-off thing. It was a live performance more than it was ever intended to be a record. That process was different because we were collaborating with an avant garde orchestra. There were different challenges. It must have had some impact, but not anything conscious that I’m particularly aware of.
I read that you made a video for each song on the new album. How elaborate was that?
ML: They’re homemade and pretty simple, but they kind of tie together visually. It’s been really hard work, but it’s been fun.
Did you do those yourself or did you work with someone?
ML: We just did them ourselves. We took the budget for one video and decided what we wanted was quantity not quality, and then made one for every song.
I was trying to dissect the sounds on the album. There’s obviously the vacuum again on the first track, but were you using the altered guitars on this record?
ML: No, not really. There’s trash, a Hoover and footsteps. There’s a few sound effects in there, and some faux film music in there as well.
In terms of using a vacuum, do you have a vacuum of choice or is it whatever’s at hand?
ML: It depends on what I’m using it for. For cleaning, it’s different. I just use the same sample of the other Hoover that I had, which Raisa’s housemates threw in the bin so I don’t have it anymore. It was a cheap Hoover. I’m quite into audio tagging and that’s the way of doing that.
People tend to focus on the sonic qualities of your music, but how personally invested are you in your lyrics? When you sing, “I won’t have sex because of STDs,” are we to take that as face value?
ML: No, I don’t think so, or at least not that particular song. But it depends. I like lyrics that have a fairly sardonic sense of humor in there somewhere. That song’s about being neurotic and overly cautious. I’m pretty happy with the lyrics on this new record. I like writing lyrics—I think. You have to do it... well, you don’t have to, you could do instrumentals. I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe the next record will be all instrumentals!
You’ve continued to do mixtapes. Does that satisfy a creative itch that making a record doesn’t?
ML: Yeah, because working with Marc and Raisa collaboratively doesn’t use the same production. Working as a band, you get something different and more exciting. It’s harder, but it’s better. Beatmaking you can just knock it out, and mixtapes are good because I can get sketches and ideas together without having to complete them. It means the sketches that you do just don’t go on a hard drive and have someplace to go.
I just have a digital file so I don’t have any liner notes, but the press release says you produced the record yourself. Did you go into a studio or did you just do it at home?
ML: Marc has a place in Stratford and we did the basic tracks there, then worked on it in our bedrooms, and then mixed it in a studio. It was done in stages. I don’t know if I’d go about doing a record like this again, but it certainly was an interesting process. It was the first time for us in a way, and we thought we should try to do everything ourselves and work out what we’re good at and what we’re not good at, see what we’re sure about and what we’re not and where we need someone else to step in. It’s really important to learn that kind of thing, and I think we did a lot of learning on this project. It sounds like a school report, doesn’t it?
So what’s next?
ML: I’ll do a few mixes and bits and bobs. I’m uploading the videos now—we just finished them—so once that’s done, I’ll have to do something else.