The first and only time I saw Micachu & the Shapes was the first and only time I've ever had cankles. You know, when the calves meet the feet without remembering to make ankles in between. It was 2009, and my band was touring from Seattle to Austin for the fantastic hellwagon that is South by Southwest. Our Astrovan, having had enough of Arizona's bullshit blowtorch weather, broke down IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT (cue spaghetti western Morricone whistle, ooeeooeeoooo). Thankfully, other vans carrying other bands were traveling the same stretch of road for the annual southern migration, and we were absorbed into our friends' giant Ford. The 12-hour, 10-person drive meant no sleeping or adjusting your body in any way that resembled comfort. We arrived in Austin 20 minutes before our daytime outdoor show, just in time to hear the strangest music coming from the venue's shadeless patio.
And there was Micachu—a sprite of a person squinting in the bright heat. Wearing an oversize white shirt painted with yellow rectangles (handmade shape shirts are still the band's uniform), she was urgently strumming out dissonance on a battered guitar that resembled a toy. The drummer (green triangles) kept syncopated time on a mini drum kit while the keyboard player (red circles) kept her own rhythm—quickly plunking out notes and noises that hopped around wildly. I couldn't really pin down what was happening to my ears, except that it was the best. I approached Micachu after the set and gushed in a way that only a sleep-deprived, disheveled heatstroke victim could. She grinned politely.
Micachu is Mica Levi, a 25-year-old classically trained musician from Surrey, England. She attended the Purcell School to study violin and composition before entering the Guildhall School of Music & Drama on a scholarship. In 2008, she was commissioned to compose a piece for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Contrarily, Levi was also a DJ in the London grime scene (grime is a dark and computery genre, a descendant of dancehall and UK garage that super-young, super-foul-mouthed London urchins [the best kind of urchins] pioneered in the early '00s, uh, something something breakbeats). "I got into making beats in my teens, which led me into what I do now. I still make beats and DJ them out. It's a nice way to see how they get on, on the dance floor." She gained attention in the club scene with a mixtape called Filthy Friends—a scattered mishmash of her collaborations with other grimy artists (it's an hour's worth of crazy, but no one "song" is more than three minutes long).
Levi formed Micachu & the Shapes with fellow Guildhall students Marc Pell (drums) and Raisa Khan (keys). I asked her to choose a favorite bandmate, but she would only say, "We get on really well, just like Fleetwood Mac did."
The Shapes' music is terrifically overwhelming. It's everything I want in pop music, without the obvious predictability, and everything I want in noise/experimental music, without the pretension. Experimental/noise music can be an emperor's new clothes situation—someone puts on a record of furious bees in a can being struck with a D-tuned guitar made of zippers. Everyone in the room closes their eyes and NODS ALONG. Yes. This is great. THESE BEES SOUND GREAT. Right? No one wants to look like the uncultured music novice! And before you know it, everyone is critiquing the barking of the neighbor's rabid pit bull, not realizing the "music" has stopped and now just ACTUAL TERRIBLE NOISE is happening.
If pop tunes are mama bear, and cans of bees are papa bear, then Micachu & the Shapes are just right. Jewellery, their first album (2009), is a jumble of catchiness with a mechanical backbone—like a wind-up dancing circus toy that malfunctions and starts up again, only to dance backward this time. Levi makes and modifies instruments that account for some of the cacophonic quality: "Early on, I had been interested in preparing my guitar, for instance with paper, or a bow." She also incorporates household items like the vacuum. "It's about including the dull hums that we hear all the time. Our gear hums a lot anyway, but it makes more of a point out of it. Like when you turn off your fridge and realize how loud it was. I did a lot of music listening while vacuuming and liked the idea of starting off a tune with it; it's interesting to me that an everyday sound in the right context becomes something of note."
Out last month, Never is the Shapes' second/thirdish album (they collaborated with the London Sinfonietta last year for a live performance album called Chopped and Screwed, but Levi doesn't consider it to be a proper follow-up to Jewellery). I listened to Never for the first time by watching the 14 music videos made for the songs. Flat, bright, and cheerfully creepy, the band starred in and made the videos themselves. Levi is pleased with the results, "We did the vids ourselves—beginners' directing job! We were going for quantity not quality, but with a consistent visual idea."
The new songs are darker than the last batch and radiate bipolar energy. Imagine rusty forks and cotton candy in a blender, with a drill and also another blender (a blender blended in a blender, y'all). There's also a microwaved '60s-style love song, a few minimal slow numbers, a muffled phone call, and an array of other curios zipping by on a moving sidewalk, with the last song being pret-ty close to a regular old electric-guitar punk song (but with, you know, loud breathing, a bumblebee buzz, and splices of other songs altogether). The Shapes' exhilarating poppiness is there for bouncing around your room to, but those rusty forks can scratch itches in your brain that you didn't know were there!