An Enlightening Conversation with SHPONGLE

How do you go about describing the Shpongle experience? That’s really a problem, because , as a 16-year veteran of the electronic music scene, Simon Posford (the driving force behiond Shpongle) deserves better from those like me. Honing the live show as festivals from Tokyo to Topeka, Shpongle is a fixture at events like Coachella, Electric Forest, and Wakarusa. How to describe Shpongle live? A synaesthetic convergence of visual and sound. Part DJ set, part Laser-Floyd. Future-primitive. Shpongle’s music? Calling it “psychedelic electronica” is a disservice, because it is so much more, encompassing cultural music from all over the globe, and the solid grooves of modern club music. Even as I write this, I realize it doesn’t come close to encapsulating the live experience. Fortunately, Shpongle will be performing at the Vogue on May 8 on the Masquerade Tour with the full production in tow, and is an experience not to be missed in such an intimate venue. With four albums behind him and a fifth as-yet-untitled album set for release, I was finally able to get in touch with Simon to for this exclusive interview for

RK: Well we finally got this done, after a few false starts and some illnesses. Glad to have you on the phone. You will be coming to Indy on the Masquerade Tour, and we wanted to get in touch with you beforehand because you have been at this for a pretty long time.

SP: I am on a day off today, a rare day off. I don’t know my head from my elbow right now; my head feels like a Frisbee (laughs).

RK: What has it been like for you, because you have been doing this since 97-98, to see Electronic Music, which is standard fare in Europe, become so big in the U.S?

SP: You know, it’s very exciting to see Skrillex on the front of Rolling Stone Magazine. It is a good thing to see for someone like myself who has been pounding my head against the wall for the last 15 years or so playing Electronic Music and basically living as an unknown and an unloved musician. It is good that people are finally starting to get EM (Electronic Music) over here.

RK: I think part of that is due to folks like you that have been so big on the festival circuit. Doing not only just DJ sets, also doing live PA’s and working with live bands. With the complexities of a modern DJ show, what are the differences between doing a live PA and working with a live band or just doing the DJ tour?

SP: We never really set out to be a band, so when we do Shpongle as a band initially it was more for our own entertainment and for the challenge. As an artist you have to keep challenging yourself and trying something new. If you have heard the Shpongle music, it is very multi-layered and very complex. The idea of pulling this off with musicians really excited me. We got initially a band of 12 musicians together, and they were all phenomenal players. Luckily we made the great move of surrounding ourselves with people far better and more talented than me and my partner Raja Ram, who plays the flute. At the moment the lineup is Joe Russo on drums, who plays for Furthur which is one of the Grateful Dead spinoffs. He is a phenomenal musician, and is probably one of the best drummers in the country. We have a cello player who just wrote a piece in Dubai for 300 musicians and 200 singers. He arranged and composed the whole thing. We have an amazing jazz guitarist, singers, drums, bass, whatever we can bring to make the music sound good and for us to amuse ourselves. We have Brazilian dancers, Contortionists in a box, and giant fluorescent slinkies. We add whatever is needed to make the show look better. However, logistically and financially as you can imagine this is a huge challenge. For example, there is a legendary venue in London called the Roundhouse, which is a 3,000 person venue. For example we also performed at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York and also a venue in Oakland. All of these were about 3,000 people and we sold out every time, and we made no money (laughs). We just liked to make the shows entertaining for ourselves. To sell those venues out and make no money shows how much of a challenge it really is. We do it for our own amusement and fun and its great and we love it. Going on tour like that I don’t think we would ever do, especially since my friend Raja Ram is 71 years old this year. He has more energy that anybody I know, he probably has more energy in his big toe than everybody I know combined.

On the other hand, doing a DJ tour which is sort of what I am doing now. It is boring watching a DJ at decks just spinning tunes, so I go up there and play my own tunes on a laptop. I try to mix it up so you can’t really tell what the boundary is between one tune and the next. I will play parts from different tunes together at the same time, mix it up all the laptop and play some synth over the top and play effects. We also have this visual structure called Masquerade, which is 3D projection mapping and a very aesthetically pleasing structure. I am trying to make something that psychedelically stimulating and visually exciting combined with top quality audio as possible. Occasionally the Masquerade is so big that it will not fit in the venue, which is always a little disappointing for me. This means I have to go back to the old style of DJing of playing off CDs and playing off my laptop without the full show. We try to avoid those shows, but some venues are just too small and don’t accommodate those situations.

RK: Visuals and psychedelia have always been associated with Sphongle performances, do you have any specific artists that you prefer to collaborate with to try and tie the visual aspect of this tour, specifically the Masquerade tour, together with what you are doing musically?

SP: These guys at the moment we are using, Lucid Design and Technology, they built this structure. We have a guy called Xen who is the visual guy working on it and a good lighting director. They are both fantastic and really good; I couldn’t hope to be working with a better team. Last year we had a fabulous team. We had a VJ named Zebbler, I don’t know if you have heard of him. He is the only guy I know who has managed to close down the city of Boston with one of his art projects (laughs). Some of your listeners might have heard of him, it had something to do with the Cartoon Network.

RK: Ahhhhhhhh, Yes.

SP: He put these little boxes on bridges and buildings that would spring to life and project some animations on these buildings. To the unaware, they looked like little metal boxes with wires sticking out of them.

RK: So of course, it means terrorism.

SP: Next thing he knows, Boston is closed down, the FBI is knocking down his door, and he is under arrest. Being the difficult artist that he is, he refused to answer any questions about why he was arrested. He would only answer questions about 70’s haircuts (laughs). So if your question is not about 70’s haircuts, please don’t ask us because we won’t respond. All these guys are very interesting and great visual and luminary visionaries. I am happy to be working with such high caliber people.

RK: With as crazy as Shpongle performances are known for, working with these kinds of anarchist mindsets has got to really influence what you are doing in a live setting. How much flexibility do you have in your music choices as a DJ, since the audio and the visuals are so tightly tied together, does it let allow you to go in different directions as an improve kind of deal?

SP: That is the problem. I do like the visuals really synced up to the music. The lighting guys do want a set list before the show. But I also like to encourage people to think out of the box and throw them in the deep end sometimes. I will change everything at the last minute and throw them into confusion and see what happens. I can also take a tune, like for example Divine Moment of Truth, and throw in bits of other tunes while still keeping it Divine Moment of Truth and confuse them a little bit. I do have to keep it fairly structured. I do like that mess with that when I can.

RK: It sounds like there is a foundation set list, but it gives you a structure from which you can do improve if you want to while still maintaining cohesion between what you are seeing visually and what you are hearing sonically. That is going to be really great to see. The venue is the Vogue here in town, and for my dollar it is the best room in the city to see a show.

SP: Is it good sound?

RK: It is one of the better sounding rooms in the city. From my experience, I think there is one room in the city that sounds better and it is built as a performance hall for musicals and things like that with standard seating. As far as best of both worlds, this probably the best you are going to get in Indy.

SP: Great, because it is always a luxury. We have got our visuals down, and I have got my performance of the sound down, but we are very much at the mercy of the venue. So it’s a bit of a lossery (?) if you turn up, and we don’t bring our own PA on tour, we have to hope that the sound is good in the venue.

RK: The sound is definitely good in the venue. We are talking about sound and technology, I have recently been to the larger festivals and I have seen artists do sets there and then I have seen artists do sets at a more intimate venue like the Vogue here in Indy. As an artist, do the festival sets that you do differ from a solo headlining set in a venue? What kinds of things are you free to do in the solo setting that you can’t do at a festival?

SP: Normally in a smaller venue you get a longer set. At a festival, it’s a very fast changeover. You may only have an hour, my shortest has been 45 minutes which is barely time to get my pants off, so to speak (laughs). I like the intimacy of a smaller venue; you can really connect to a crowd there and play a much longer set. But you know there is nothing like the vibe of the festival with having a lot of musicians around and people really there to have a good time and be open to all kinds of music. Festivals are great since they are outdoors. I think Shpongle in particular is meant to be heard without a roof over your head.

RK: Fantastic. You have mentioned “Shpongletron” briefly that is part of the visual setup that you are touring with. Can you kind of describe that, and as briefly as you can since it’s a complex entity (laughs). There are going to be folks that have seen it before, that haven’t heard of it and have their heads opened up by what they see in here.

SP: Yeah, the translator into language is very difficult. It is a multi-sensory, visual, sonic extravaganza. I know this sounds all blah, blah, blah (laughs). It really has to be seen to be believed. It is a great pyramid like structure that is projected into a very 3D, psychedelic way. It should provide a slightly mind-expanding experience. You know some people will of course be prone to taking substances to aid that. Hopefully those that don’t will also find it extremely stimulating and exhilarating.

RK: You have a new album that is scheduled to come out this year; you want to talk a little about that? I have not heard of an album title, so hopefully we can get a scoop here.

SP: Yes, we haven’t got an album title, but I can give you a scoop. Each time we come for with an album title, we end up using it for the name of the track we were working on. The first track was ‘Museums of Consciousness’, which I kind of like as an album title. We had ‘Further Adventures in Sphongleland’, which has also been used as a track title. The rest of the tracks are unnamed. We are about half-way through the album, I would like to release to it on December 21st, 2012 for my own bit of fun (laughs). Sometime when people predict that the Mayans thought the world was going to end, which clearly is not the case. I think it would be a good time to release an album anyway. I am really into numbers and I think that is a great number.

Shpongle and the Masquerade Tour stop at The Vogue on Tuesday, May 8. Tickets available at the Vogue box office.

Rudy Kizer is the host and producer of “Hit The Decks” on X103, and is dejected that his mask-making skills for this show are sub-par.