Beyond button-pushing: Doing dance music live

When we first started Shapeshifter, there weren’t many live dance acts – the DJ was don. Roni Size Reprazent was the exception. I think we thought we had less chance of fucking it up if everything was live – we sequenced some songs at the start of our careers and we would go out of time with the backing track and it sounded hideous. So we jumped on the the live set-up and made it ‘our thing’.

The philosophy of our show has always been about big sound. We always prioritise the sound and have always toured with our own sound man, Tiki Taane, who has done every show with us for the whole time we’ve been together. Music-wise, we just play what we want really: our theory is if we are enjoying it then it will show to the crowd. Over the years we have changed our equipment a bit but things have generally stayed the same. We are playing keyboards and synths but there is still a simple rock band philosophy of bass, rhythm, lead, drums and vocals.

Without those ‘down’ moments, the set won’t have the dynamics. When we build right up and drop heavy, it has that added impact.

Saying that, I’ve seen many live dance acts who use sequencing and they are making decisions on where the music goes. It’s still tight and fat – the way dance music should be. I think that is just as commendable as a straight live act. The kudos goes to the preparation and the content of the art.

There are many live acts we all love from many different genres of music – old and new. I think we have always looked to older bands, especially Pink Floyd who use real old synths and really fine-tune the sounds they use. It’s the science of sound and finding those moments that could be new but sound nostalgic. Other bands like Shihad, Kora or Fat Freddy’s Drop are a great influence on us too for their energy on stage. Then there’s Horace Andy and Dub Asante for their laidback groove. There are so many class acts around and we often get inspired in different ways when we see acts live. James Blake live with his band, the drummer and guitarist, was the latest act to collectively blow us all away: a sight and sound to behold. It was innovative, dramatic, minimal and somehow also huge.

James Blake live with his band was the latest act to collectively blow us all away.

We think our sets should be uplifting, because people come to our shows for that. But we also have those moments where we take it right down. Without those ‘down’ moments, the set won’t have the dynamics. When we build right up and drop heavy, it has that added impact. Sometimes it’s hard to play something mellow in a frothing environment. We might think, “Oh no, the crowd’s going to leave!” But we just have to play what we want – and because we are live, our drummer sometimes needs a slower song to get his puff back. Maybe it gives the crowd a breather too sometimes. Generally though I think we want the live show to be uplifting.

I would say this to other live acts in electronic music wanting to step up: never give up, and always work on your sounds. Just lie awake at night thinking of ways your band could be better. There will be more punches then glory moments – by far. Be ready to take the punches and know that you’re doing it for the love and not for glory.