Micachu and The Shapes: The Art of the Happy Accident
There’s a catch to having ‘and the’ in your band name. People will infer that the named individual holds more influence than the rest.
More often than not they do. Bob Marley and the Wailers. Prince and the Revolution. Ian Dury and the Blockheads. So, seeing as Mica Levi is the songwriter, vocalist and guitarist in Micachu and the Shapes, you might forgive people for jumping to that conclusion.
But if having a front-woman was ever their intention, it doesn’t seem to be the case now. They refer to themselves as “we”. They cue up each others’ stories. They take turns in making the teas and going out for cigarettes. “I’m looking at everyone’s eyes to check I’m saying the right thing,” Mica says at one point. There’s a sweet moment where keyboardist Raisa Khan leans in to pick up Mica’s mug, and Mica thinks she’s going in for a hug.
When it comes to the band, they’re a trio – adamantly so at times. Following the widespread praise of her BAFTA-nominated soundtrack for Under The Skin, there has been a considerable increase in attention around Mica Levi’s projects, which range from classical performances at London’s Southbank Centre to producing lo-fi beats for her close friend Tirzah. I make the mistake of asking about their personal projects early on. “You sound like you work for the government,” Mica says. Even with the half laugh that accompanies it, there’s a defensive tone in her response. But deflecting attention away from her solo success and towards Raisa and drummer Marc Pell must get tedious.
I’ve met the band in a dimly-lit rehearsal studio one door down from Haggerston station. Mica’s on the sofa, Marc is sitting by his drums and Raisa is on the floor by the door. The three met at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where Mica was studying composition and Marc and Raisa electronic music. “It was all quite solitary,” Mica says. “I think we enjoyed being away from the computers, which is probably why we still end up together.”
Jewellery, Micachu and The Shapes’ first album, was produced by Matthew Herbert and released by Rough Trade in 2009. The record was playful, yes, but not a mess. Underlying their DIY approach (much has been made of the band’s use of household appliances and homemade instruments) was an acute understanding of composition and care for detail. Each song was like a passing comment from someone much wiser than they realise. In 2010, the band released Chopped and Screwed – an ambitious collaboration with the London Sinfonietta Orchestra – before returning to a hyperactive art-punk mentality for 2012’s excellent album Never.
Considering the potential for a ‘breakthrough’ record following Levi’s recent accolades, you might expect Good Bad Happy Sad to be more polished but in fact, it’s possibly their rawest work to date. Marc recorded the bulk of album on his Roland Edirol during an impromptu band get-together in this exact studio. “It was basically just a two-hour jam,” he explains. Thinking that what he’d recorded might be worth something, he sent the material to Mica. “It was the sound of the recorder that I liked,” says Marc. “It was as much about the recorder as the music.”
“It does feel really different to what we’ve done before,” Mica adds. “Instead of bringing a song into the studio like we’ve done in the past,” she says, “we just started playing then cut what we had into instrumentals.” She wrote some songs, added some vocals – black metal pig squeals on Unity, too – and that was that. They didn’t tamper with the original recordings at all. “We did everything backwards, basically,” she says. “It was all about hanging out in Raisa’s living room with the mic doing karaoke.” Some of the tracks, like the beautiful and brief Peach, don’t have lyrics at all.
The result is their most unassuming, laid-back offering yet. It almost feels like a demo, complete with the glitches that would conventionally be worked out during the production process. “We’re a live band,” Mica argues. “For us, capturing that is the most important thing.” Marc agrees. “This wasn’t particularly planned. That’s the nicest thing about it. It feels like we’re a three-piece punk band but instead of playing bass, Raisa is playing electronics. We’ve got our own musical language and every time we play it’s like we’re honing that language.”
As with Jewellery and Never, it’s quotidian detail rather than abject personal tragedy that makes it onto Good Bad Happy Sad. On Sea Air Mica leaves the drudgery of London and heads to the beach, where “all that crap means nothing to me.” Their albums have an unmistakably British sensibility. “I reckon that comes mostly from the lyrics,” Raisa says. “The phrases and expressions.” Mica has other ideas. “Marc,” she says. “It’s Marc.” He laughs. “My family have been looking into our family tree and apparently I’ve got a long chain of English heritage that goes back to pre-census,” he explains. “I think to the 1600s. So that might be what you can hear. I’m very three lions, or is it four?”
This summer, Micachu and The Shapes have dates played in various countries to promote the record. In late July, I caught them at Bold Tendencies, the disused Peckham car park that’s transformed into a music and arts venue every summer.
Rather than being directed to the rooftop where the sunset was setting in, we were shunted into a circular room on the next floor down, where hay bales had been set-up for makeshift seats. The event’s low attendance was somewhat disheartening considering the hype that had surrounded the event online, but the band were great, exuding the tight chemistry I witness during our conversation.
Critics might see Good Bad Happy Sad as a move in the wrong direction, but there’s something to be said for honouring the lo-fi. It has taken three years for Micachu and the Shapes to bring a new album out, but it’s one driven by a joyful simplicity. “There’s no pressure,” Mica says. “We like hanging around together and we like making music together.” It really is as simple as that.