Art Goes Pop: Introducing Micachu and The Shapes

Feature by Georgina Merry | 08 Apr 2009
  • Micachu and The Shapes

Having recently released their debut album on Rough Trade records, experimental pop band Micachu and The Shapes have been attracting a significant amount of interest from musicians and critics alike. Fans include Bat for Lashes and the leading lady in experimental music herself, Bjork, who was spotted dancing at one of their gigs.

Lead singer and guitarist, Mica Levi, has been already made a name for herself in the London hip-hop scene, performing with artists such as Mayhem and Ghost Poet. She is in her fourth year of music at Gilford Hall and is one of only four in her year to be chosen to study Composition. It was there that she met electronic music students, keyboard player Raisa Khan, and drummer Marc Pell and in December last year they got together to form Micachu and the Shapes.

Although they simply class their music as 'pop', they adopt a wide variety of styles to create an innovative sound quite unlike any other. Raisa uses two upturned wine bottles for percussion and Mica uses a vacuum cleaner in their song Turn Me Weller, which works to great effect. Of course, these are not attributes that one would immediately associate with pop music in the classical sense.

Speaking to the band in a small room taken up by a gigantic golden bean bag backstage at The Voodoo Rooms, I ask what it is about their music that defines it as pop in their collective mind. They smile knowingly at each other; this is obviously a question they’ve already come to address often.

“My reason for calling it pop is because our record, particularly as it stands, is not distinctively one way,” says Mica. “It’s not like a hip-hop record or a doomcore record or something like that. I’d say that the songs have a watered down influence of a lot of different dance styles and a lot of different styles of music. So it’s much like Britney Spears who’ll have a record and there’ll be a latino tune on it and there’ll be a more rocky one and a hip-hop one or something like that. That’s why I call it a pop record; because it’s not very consistent in style."

Far from the more fashionable girl groups commonly associated with Micachu's genre of choice - with all their pristine make-up and designer clothes - she and The Shapes have an altogether more relaxed, bohemian appearance. “I think it becomes such a headache trying to think about it” Mica says, wrinkling her nose, “I mean we don’t really feel like we’re in some sort of particular movement at the moment either. Maybe we are, but we don’t feel like we are.”

They clearly see themselves in more lucid terms, with an understanding of the problems that arrive with being pigeon-holed. Drummer, Marc Pell, offers a concession: “It does fall in with styles like Man Like Me and… well that’s the only one that I can think of!” he laughs. “Again, like pop, but more influenced by things like reggae and hip-hop.”

I probe a little more, asking exactly how they would describe their music, which is - concurrent to this notion of 'pop' - also considered experimental. “Beatsy,” Marc says with certainty, nodding his head. “Definitely beatsy; that might be down to the production.”

Mica looks off into the distance, struggling to think of what to say: “I don’t know how to describe it, that’s something we’re still working on, trying to get a bit more clarity.” “Grunge,” Marc offers, although this time not so self-assured, “It’s a bit Grunge.”

“It’s still something we are trying to work out,” insists Mica. Howe4ver, it's telling that the band cite composer Harry Partch, famous for his revolutionary approach to music making as well as inventing his own instruments, as a big influence. “I personally admire his totally instinctive approach to writing music,” says Mica. “He had to create his own tone system and his own instruments in order for him to realise his own music. He had a totally fresh approach and in a way almost an electronic music approach to sound. A lot of people delve into electronic music but don’t seem to come to the conclusion to make their own acoustic instruments.”

Mica also makes instruments of her own, including one made out of a CD rack and 'the Chu', a personalised guitar which she plays on stage. “The instruments I’ve made so far aren’t very good,” she states modestly. “I mean, I’m just feeling my way in there, it’s more for fun really. I think we do strive to imitate electronic sounds or sounds which aren’t traditional.”

Was she making instruments before she’d heard of the composer? “No, it’s is totally off the back of Harry Partch. I bought a CD of his ages ago; I’m into collectors’ records." It seems that making instruments has become a personal project of Mica’s, though she concedes that “I’m just mucking around with it, and it’s not something that’s very… solid. We use what we’ve got, you know, what ever I can find.” Marc nods his head in agreement: “I think that’s the most important thing in this band, using what we’ve got to the best of our ability and stretching them sonically as much as we can. Raisa uses a zither (a musical string instrument, most commonly found in Eastern Europe) which gets used in three songs.”

“It’s very out of tune…” says Raisa, speaking for the first time. Her voice is quiet and gentle. Seated to the back of the giant bean bag I get the impression she prefers to remain in the background. “And some of it’s just messed up and some of it’s just wild,” adds Mica. “Yeah” Raisa grins, enjoying the description. “Mica gave it to me, there are bits that don’t make any pitch, they just rattle.”

It’s obvious that all three members of the band are passionate about making their music as diverse as possible. Although Marc plays drums, Raisa plays percussion amongst other instruments: “I’m the “Stuff” Girl,” she offers. Mica laughs impishly. “We basically chuck everything to Raisa: percussion, keys, a bit of guitar sometimes…drum machines.”

I ask Mica what inspired her to make the leap from the hip-hop scene to performing with The Shapes, and the answer is simple: “I wanted to play live more and I started meeting people who were more into guitar music. I wanted to find some people who were committed and wouldn’t get me into too much trouble.”

So how did the shapes ultimately come into being? Raisa smiles sheepishly. “Me and Mica got drunk in our Uni bar and I was having a bit of a ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ crisis.” She and Mica exchange knowing looks: “‘Be a keyboard player!’” Mica recalls: "I was like, ‘Yeah, cool.’ and then we watched a brass band play Christmas songs. We were very drunk!”

Marc leans back on the golden bean bag and offers his perspective: "I didn’t know Mica that well but me and Raisa were doing the same course. Mica put a bulletin on her MySpace saying that she wanted a drummer for a band and we got together a couple of weeks before we started playing as a group. That was it really.” Having experienced playing in other bands, Marc feels that becoming part of The Shapes has been ideal: “I played drums in a covers band and then a metal band, but this band is perfect! This has phat beats and I get to have a little wank on stage every now and then.”

I presume he means musically. With regards to their choice of band name, it would appear that it falls simply down to a convenient way to dress. “We thought the T-shirts with shapes would look cool,” says Raisa. She’s right. On stage each of them wears a white patterned T-shirt that’s reminiscent of a minimalist painting. A variety of shapes and images are then projected across them whilst they play which makes for an energetic, visual spectacle.

However, the band insists that although they want to give a good show, what they strive for is a sincere performance. “We try and be honest,” says Mica. “We don’t have a concept, or anything dramatic or theatrical, we just play. We’re not very good actors; we just try and be ourselves. It’s nice to try and make gigs a sort of open–minded space to try things out. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t.”

It’s likely that the propensity that these talented musicians have towards making innovative music will no doubt gain them even more attention from the music world. It’s only a matter of time before they're asked to perform with more established artists. Interestingly, the band list Dave Okumu from The Invisible, and Jay-Z as artists they’d most like to work with. “Or Bjork?” Marc suggests, “Bjork would be great” Raisa looks a little nervous at the prospect of performing with someone who she clearly holds in high regard. “That would be a bit scary…” 

So what’s next? “More gigs,” offers Mica. With regards to the long-term it seems that the band prefers to take things as they come. “We’re so new to this really,” Mica admits. “We said before that our ambition was to be able to make a living out of being musicians. It doesn’t have to be a ridiculous living, you know? Just like…” Marc finishes the sentence for her “…pay the rent.”

When I ask Mica if she plans to market her instruments the question is met with much laughter. “No, no plans, I’m afraid there’s no cynical reason behind it. It’s just a boring interest in DIY.” Finally, I ask what success means to them. Marc and Mica seem unsure of how to answer but Raisa confidently replies: “Growing my own vegetables.”

Their 7” single, Golden Phone, is available on Rough Trade or iTunes and there’s also a free mix-tape you can download from MySpace here.

Debut album, Jewellery is out now on Rough Trade.

Micachu plays Hinterland Festival, Glasgow on 30 April. Tickets are available here.