I’m waiting for Mica Levi, Raisa Khan and Marc Pell of Good Sad Happy Bad (formerly Micachu and the Shapes) to call from New York while listening to Waiting, a track off their most recent album, also named Good Sad Happy Bad. The coincidence of waiting while listening to Waiting is not lost on me. It’s serendipitous, a hint that a “fortunate happenstance is soon to occur”.
That’s good, since talking to bands on a record company’s money can sometimes be a hopeless task: there’s often a danger you’ll be cut short just as you’re getting going, especially if they’re already running over and they need to claw some time back. The band is in New York promoting their latest record, the third since their formation in 2009. Tonight is the launch gig. This afternoon? Press and promotion.
But let’s remember that Micachu and the Shapes aren’t like other bands. They’re far less bound by structure and the typical industry practices — in all areas, whether it be interviews, approach, creative processes or the general way in which they operate.
Pell insists he likes to think of them as a band “rather than as a collective or orchestra”, but if this is the case, they’re redefining the word, rather than just challenging the stereotype. Band members are not joined at the hip, as in traditional rock bands who get locked into a cycle of write-record-tour (which usually ends up with everyone hating each other by the fourth album, or sooner).
Each band member works on his or her own projects in between recording sessions. Since Never, their last studio album, Mica Levi has worked with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and also composed the moody BAFTA-nominated soundtrack to director Jonathan Glazer’s film Under The Skin starring Scarlett Johannson – a film based on the eponymous Michel Faber novel.
Branching out is clearly working for Levi, but why did they go there in the first place?
“It’s about our attention span,” quips Mica, self-deprecatingly. “We’re just lazy. Certainly when [The Shapes] hasn’t been fun in the past we’ve just stopped doing it.”
“I would say it is also slightly personally political, in terms of branding: selling ourselves as having an independent relationship with music, and with each other. We are happy in our roles within the band, but we keep it open,” she concludes.
It all feeds back into the band’s brilliantly noisy pop and rock songs. Their sound is addictive to a wide demographic – perhaps against all odds, since the music has no ego or gender and squeezes unconventional off-kilter rhythms and chirpy melodies into the classic verse-chorus-verse song structure.
If that sounds eccentric, the band are also renowned for using unorthodox instruments: everyday objects, such as a frying pan or a pack of cards, or even making their own. Sometimes they work on a laptop, other times with a live orchestra. Every album has been experimental and Good Sad Happy Bad is no exception: it was originally a jam recorded on a mobile phone.
“We were in Caprice studio in Hoxton, a rehearsal space. We went there to have a catch-up and play together, and Marc recorded it. There was something we liked about it and it developed from there,” explains Mica. “It felt really natural, although yet again, it was a really different way to work for us, a whole new process.”
It’s refreshing – and fitting – to hear that the core of Good Sad Happy Bad comes from an overdue get-together of friends rather than a fixed date on a contract dictating when to start recording the next album. It’s the artistic expression of what mates (who met while studying composition at the Purcell School of Music) do when they’re together again. That is: self-reflection, cheering each other up, tossing around ideas in conversation and putting plans in place.
The album could easily be called 30-something – a decade that’s just around the corner for Levi – since it’s this stage of life that is often regarded as the spiritual years; the time when you uncover revelations about the human condition and make peace with yourself. It’s a far cry from being a gloomy self-help record.
For all the cleverly applied composition, every song on this album represents a basic feeling: Relaxing, Sad. Peach is exactly that: sweet, ripe, a joy. They seem fond of one-word titles.
“I hadn’t thought about it, but I guess we do try to get the overall feeling of a song into one word,” muses Levi. “But then, with this album every song seemed to reflect both sides of a feeling. It was intentional but also spontaneous at the same time.”
Suffering doesn’t sound like suffering, though. It’s delicious on the ears. “It’s about bad habits versus long songs, things like co-dependent relationships which can be positive or just a bad habit,” she offers by way of explanation.
LA Poison really sounds like a slow-working kind of poison, creeping aurally into the system. “Yes!” Mica affirms. “It’s about one moment being there, in Los Angeles, and I just couldn’t really understand the place very well at the time. I guess the amount of space, no one around, no breeze…”
The track that arguably forces you to pay most attention, however, Unity. It’s melodic yet discordant, sweet yet sour. “For me, Unity has a lot of energy,” says Levi. “It’s trying to be its two contrasting states [at once]. It’s quite a chilled song: the lyrics a refresh, a revamp, a restart. So there’s a chilled-out feel, but that also has to come with [an angsty] ‘getting rid of stuff’”.
They can make as much mess with their stuff as they like, thankfully, because there’s no one in the background cracking the whip or claiming the plaudits: they do all the production themselves. For the last album, they also directed and produced videos to go with each track. This goes some way towards explaining why every recording seems fresh, with new ideas and new processes, yet remains distinctively them. Truly progressive; truly brilliant.
Photography by James Drew Turner
Good Sad Happy Bad is out now via Rough Trade