“I've got a really short attention span,” admits 21-year-old Mica Levi, the sprite-like frontwoman of Micachu & The Shapes. “I listen to music, and I just skip to the next track. So with this record, I predict that other people do that as well, so I try to fit it in before they press 'next'—get in everything we want to say before they skip on.”
Despite Levi's modesty, her London-based band's kitchen-sink pop album Jewellry (out April 7 in the U.S. via Rough Trade), produced by electronic music mastermind Matthew Herbert, is more likely to prompt fingers to hit "repeat.” Filled out by keyboardist Raisa Khan and drummer Marc Pell, Micachu & the Shapes bombard their concise, catchy melodies with collages of jittery acoustic guitar, vacuum cleaner and a wealth of percussive clangs and chimes. (Elsewhere, Levi's patchwork artistry includes grime rap and a piece composed for the London Philharmonic Orchestra's Young Composers series.)
During SXSW 2009, Paste sat down with Micachu & the Shapes at Austin's Driskill Hotel to chat about miniature guitars, music school and nude muses.
Paste: How did the group come together?
Pell: We all knew each other at university, Guildhall School of Music in central London. We all did music composition, either electronic or classical. It was simply out of Mica's need to get a band together.
Levi: I wanted a three-piece band for ages, just an idea. Last time I was in a band, really, it was when I was like 14, which was bad. It was trying to play like Rage Against the Machine and not really achieving it.
Paste: Have your professors heard your music?
Pell: They love it. They're really supportive.
Levi: Getting jobs in music is really hard and that's the purpose of the college—it's a music college. They're just happy that we're supposedly making a living and doing this.
Pell: From a classical composition angle and an electronic composition angle, it's interesting to see the diversity of this project from what we usually study. It's not classical composition but it's still composition.
Paste: What's your studio space like?
Levi: Raisa's kitchen.
Paste: Hence the pots and pans on the drum kit?
Pell: I don't think so.
Khan: It's because we've got three posters up. One of Bruce Willis, one of Orlando Bloom and one of [English actress/model] Abi Titmuss naked.
Levi: Like, doubling onto herself.
Pell: Titmuss on Titmuss action.
Levi: With her boobs pressing up against herself and it's the weirdest thing you've ever seen. It's totally narcissistic. She's wearing nothing but these really ugly heels.
Paste: How did you get the nickname Micachu?
Levi: Basically, there were these rappers I used to work with called Bruva May and Baker Trouble. I used to do a bit of hip-hop production and grime and stuff like that. When they did a shout out at a show, they nicknamed me Micachu. It's like Pikachu. They'd be like, "Mica-CHOO."
Paste: What about "The Shapes"?
Pell: That was Raisa's idea.
Khan: Just so we could have T-shirts.
Levi: Just so we wouldn't have to worry so much about what we wear. Just stick on the T-shirts.
Khan: They're literally just shapes.
Pell: Just acrylic paint, really.
Paste: And you have lots of different ones?
Levi: For hygiene reasons. Marc loses his at every gig.
Pell: I've found them all now. They were all in the same place.
Paste: How do your musical sensibilities mesh?
Khan: We don't have the same musical tastes at all, so when it came to writing music together we all kinda clashed.
Levi: We make compromises. We're still too polite to each other. We'll just try things out. We'll do it Raisa's way for one gig and do it Marc's way for one gig.
Pell: It's nice like that because you get honest reaction because you're doing it right in front of the audience. It's a really brutal analysis of how it comes across.
Levi: Sometimes people who are listening are like, "This is awful."
Khan: Sometimes we're listening and are like, "This is awful."
Paste: Mica, can you tell me about your guitars? Why are they all miniature?
Levi: There's lots of reasons, really. One, that [acoustic] was just the guitar I had. It was only 10-er in the charity shop, so I just got used to playing it. It's actually got a really nice sound to it because it's so small. The intonation is a bit skewered as you go higher up. It's just so battered and played in. It's got this kind of... It doesn't sound like a normal acoustic guitar. It's not as rich as that. It's more like tinny and lo-fi.
Pell: You bought another one recently, didn't you?
Levi: Then there's the electric. I prepare the guitars a little bit. Weaving train tickets into the strings. It's sort of percussive. If the strings are too taut and too far away, you have to tune it. It's a small distance, the strings are looser. You can get more bends and they slap back onto the paper. If it's too tight, it's like it presses down on the strings so much that notes come up. It doesn't matter if it sounds good.
Paste: Raisa, was that a rail ticket you were using to play [at Emo's Annex last night]?
Khan: It was actually the hotel card. It's anything I can get my hands on. Picks are too small, they just fly out my hands.
Levi: I find guitar shops really intimidating. They're like guitar virtuosos. If you don't know the name of the thing you're after, you just feel like an idiot. So, if you can just find it at your house, then stick with it.
Paste: There are a lot of telephone songs that seem ripe for a commercial tie-in. Is "Golden Phone" your foray into product placement?
Levi: Not at all. That's song's over a load of rubbish, an absolute load of crap. Or, it ties in with suicide in America.
Pell: Golden Gate Bridge.
Levi: Golden Gate Bridge? San Francisco. It's actually a load of bullocks. But it actually ties up into total sense if it's about suicide. Because lots of people kill themselves on that bridge, and they have phones there named golden phones that you call and someone talks to you and says, “Please don't jump off the bridge.” So if the song's about that it makes sense. If not, it's just about enjoying nonsense and enjoying sound that doesn't make sense. It's really poppy. No, we don't want to be endorsed by Motorola or anything like that.
Paste: Are there different parts of the brain that figure into what you're doing now?
Levi: I don't put on a different hat, do you put on a different hat?
Khan: If anything, we've got to think a bit less, like feel a bit less technical. When you play classical music, you can be doing a 20-minute piece and every single thing has to be perfect. You walk off stage and if it's not 100 percent perfect? We can't do that with gigs.
Levi: The joy of writing it and working it out is doing it out of the brain and it's really free. We do think about things technically in a way, but it's more to achieve a sound that we've imagined up as opposed to making it a certain way to please tradition. More and more, it's how you dress it up. You can arrange a song that we've done for an orchestra and make the harmony a bit weirder and make it a bit longer. They're essentially the same thing as an orchestral piece.
Paste: What's the next project going to sound like? More Jewellery?
Levi: Probably not. We're going to record a lot live and any editing we do we'll just record over it. It might be a little less poppy.
Pell: Texture and sound quality will be the focus. And groove. Just messing around with recording techniques.
Levi: Being a bit blunt with it, it might be very nasty. It might be a big, smug pop album. How cryptic is that?