The Aston Shuffle

The Next Act

After eight years of underground stardom, The Aston Shuffle’s new album may finally bring them crossover success; and it’s been a hard road to get here, as inthemix found out.

Tucked away in a cramped rehearsal room in Sydney's inner city, Mikah Freeman and Vance Musgrove are discussing snares. In detail. Seated behind his electronic drum kit, Mikah cycles through a seemingly infinite array of snare sounds one by one while Vance commentates.

"Nope. No. No. Definitely not. Is that a steel drum? These are all wack."

"These are the wackest snares ever," agrees Mikah.

"Everything's so wet. We need something dry."

This process continues for the next twenty minutes. Snares bleed into one another until it's impossible to tell whether we're back at the beginning or if these are fresh variations on the wack ones we heard a quarter of an hour ago. At one point Vance cocks his head thoughtfully and starts the backing track for 'Never Take it Away', a Mayer Hawthorne-led indie dance anthem that they're playing live for the first time the following night, at the launch of their new album 'Photographs'. Mikah takes the cue and sets to drumming, eyes cast towards the ceiling as he falls into the beat. After a few bars, Vance cuts the music abruptly.

"Nup. It's still weird. Sounds like it's sitting on top of the track."

Mikah nods and scrolls on to the next option, and the next. From an outsider's perspective the snare had sounded fine, but watching them at work you get the feeling that "fine" isn't a word that features heavily in The Aston Shuffle's vocabulary. Fine suggests a compromise, or giving up, and when you've got this much to prove to the world, you're not going to stop until every last detail is perfect. Suddenly, a snare pops.

"I reckon that's it," says Vance.

Mikah hits it a few more times experimentally. "I'll pitch it down a bit."

"Cut the delay a little too." A few more hits, each one marginally shorter and sharper than the one before. Vance listens intently, entire body unmoving. His eyes seem to be staring into the soundwaves as they fill the room. Another hit. "That one! Perfect." He starts breathing again, and finally a smile reaches his face.

"Time to give it some fucking volume!"

'Photographs' may only be their second album, but Vance and Mikah have been making music together in one capacity or another for more than a decade. "We've always been friends, though,” Mikah says, “first and foremost."

The depth of their friendship is apparent in the easy rhythms and idle shit-giving that defines their conversations. Mikah and Vance talk with the common codes and verbal shortcuts of lifelong brothers. They finish each other's sentences and can communicate complex ideas with little more than a grunt or a quizzical "yeah?" Half the time they seem genuinely oblivious to the presence of the journalist seated not five feet to their left, so wrapped up are they in their dynamic.

Yet in many ways the two could not be more different. Vance grew up in a well-to-do suburb of Canberra, learnt the piano from the age of three, and the first record he ever purchased was Oasis's 'Wonderwall'. Mikah played the drums, was a self-proclaimed 'wigga', got into trouble constantly, and the first record he owned was NWA's '100 Miles and Running' EP, purchased when he was nine.

"My mother was a big believer in freedom of expression," Mikah says. "I probably shouldn't have played it at school though." When Vance went to uni he studied Law and Chemistry. When Mikah left school he started throwing parties. Vance is focused and technical. Mikah is ebullient and easy-going. If it wasn't for the microscopic size of Canberra's dance scene, it's hard to believe the two would have ever even talked to one another.

"The Canberra scene is super small and super tight," Vance says. "Techno dudes and prog dudes and hip hop guys and drum'n'bass guys and the hard dance guys – everyone still knew each other and went to each other's events. So, I already knew of Mikah as this guy who was putting on parties."

The two met properly in 2003 when Mikah was working in the city's only dedicated dance music vinyl store. "Mikah was the guy I'd see every week when I went in to buy new tracks," says Vance.  "That's a really big part of this culture that's just not there anymore – some guys ordering records and then giving them to actual people in the store. There was such a personal connection in those days that's just hard to replicate online."

They initially bonded over a shared love of progressive house, back in the genre's Global Underground-led heyday. "It was all that Sasha and Digweed shit," Mikah recalls. With another friend of theirs, Ross, they began making tunes in various configurations: Tangleray, a collaboration between Mikah and Ross; Muz and Mann, Mikah and Vance's first pairing; a one-off EP between Vance and Ross under the name Musgrove and McGrath.

Dissatisfied with the record label options then available, the three started their own as a platform to put out their tracks. Its name: The Aston Shuffle. It sounds meaningful, but it's not. "We came up with the 'shuffle' first," says Vance. "We wanted to say dance without using the word dance. Then Aston was basically us meshing together the Canberra suburbs that we were living in at the time." Their aspirations for the label were humble, their successes mild. Back in those days being a DJ from Canberra meant that the best you could hope for was the occasional support gig in Sydney. Getting out of the state, let alone the country, was an almost unthinkable prospect.

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But then MySpace arrived and the global electronic scene was catalysed with a new Cambrian explosion of music. In those early days, before the service was choked to death by top down forces, MySpace was as close to a level playing field as the music industry had ever seen. In conjunction with increasingly affordable home recording software, the scene was set for a prodigious shift in the nature and accessibility of electronic music. The Aston Shuffle positioned themselves at the forefront of this new wave.

"Mikah got onto it early and started adding everyone he could find. It was so fresh back then that when you saw someone add you who was a musician, you'd reply personally and listen to their stuff and give feedback, all completely unsolicited."

Mikah friended the German electro-house veteran Malente during one of these binges, who was sufficiently impressed with their sound that he asked them to do a remix of his tune 'Killer Applikation' on spec. They did, he loved it and it came out at the end of 2006. "Everything happened pretty fast after that," Vance tells me. They released a few more high profile remixes in early 2007, including their barnstorming take on Claude von Stroke's 'The Whistler'. Ministry of Sound signed them in the middle of the year and their first single, the fidget-monster 'For Everyone', came out a few months later. By the end of the year, they were touring non-stop all around the country. "We might have played 100 gigs that year."

Then, at the beginning of 2008, Ross decided to leave. "We'd had this gruelling run of shows around New Year’s 2007: too much partying, too much time away from family. I think it hit Ross that perhaps this wasn't actually the life he'd been dreaming of." Ross's departure was a defining moment for Vance and Mikah. "We really had to sit down and decide whether this was something we were serious about," says Mikah. "Vance had just finished his law degree and I'd been with my girlfriend for eight years and was beginning to think about marriage and kids and all that grown-up stuff."

In the end, they realised that the opportunity Ministry had offered them was so unlikely they needed to see where it might take them. They farewelled Ross (he remains a close friend and even wrote the beat on 'Photographs' slow jam 'Astronaut'), quit their jobs, tightened their sound and started working out how to take over the world. The Aston Shuffle had arrived.

We had this gruelling run of shows in 2007...too much partying… We really had to sit down and decide whether this was something we were serious about.

Back in the Sydney rehearsal room, the guys are waiting nervously to welcome Elizabeth Rose. The fast-rising singer and producer did the vocals on album stand-out 'Back & Forth'; she’s been recruited to sing it live at the launch party the following night, a daunting prospect for the duo.

"We've never worked with a singer live on stage before," Mikah says. "It's kinda scary."

The Aston Shuffle has been playing live since New Year’s Eve 2010, when they were tapped by Fuzzy to play their mammoth Shore Thing party. "They say the biggest thing you can possibly do in your life is getting married or having kids," Mikah says with a wry smile. "I'd say playing live for the very first time on New Year’s Eve with David Guetta and Armand van Helden in front of 20,000 people is probably equally up there."

While DJing was their life at that point – that year they'd reached #1 in the inthemix Awards' poll of Australia's favourite DJs – becoming a live act was a natural progression. Their first album 'Seventeen Past Midnight' was due a few months later, and they realised that if they wanted to be considered legitimate recording artists, they would at some point have to learn how to play the tunes they'd created live. So they bunkered down, broke all their songs down into their constituent parts and tried to work out how to make them playable by two people. Then they showcased their efforts at the biggest gig they'd ever played.

"I don't think I've ever been so nervous for anything, man," says Mikah. "I wasn't even that nervous at my wedding. We really put our balls on the chopping block. It was us declaring that ‘we're proper artists who write songs and do albums now’. That we weren't just ‘those club guys’ anymore. Thank God it actually came off..."

In those early days, Vance and Mikah dedicated themselves wholly to the live aesthetic. Armed with masses of equipment, they made it a point of pride to build their tunes from the ground up. They didn't want to be one of those "backing track" bands. "But the problem was we had so much stuff going on that we couldn't even engage with the audience," Vance says. "Our heads were just permanently buried in synthesisers and drum machines." Mikah chimes in, "That, and our shit broke all the time."

These days they play with custom backing tracks, constructed to allow Vance and Mikah as much freedom as possible to build on the base tune with their own drums and synths. It felt a little cheap to begin with, but as Vance sees it, "It's the question of what people want from dance music. Grizzly Bear fans expect them to be incredible musicians, but people come to dance music gigs with an entirely different set of expectations.

"You think about the Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Simian Mobile Disco. They all have this deliberate aesthetic that comes through 100% in their live work. They don't get distracted by the question of making it properly live – they only care about how it works for the crowd. I really respect that."

Eventually Rose arrives. Waifish and gently spoken, the powerful husk she produces when she opens her mouth comes as a total surprise. They launch into 'Back & Forth'. It's tentative at first, but as the three settle into the track a strange alchemy starts to flow through the speakers. Working her loop station, Rose begins layering her voice higher and higher, delicate strands gradually combining into a surging whole. An already-powerful track, the extra element kicks it into the stratosphere. When the track finally fades out, leaving behind the final wisps of Rose's voice, the effect is legitimately shiver-inducing.

Vance and Mikah look at one another. "That was fucking great. Let's do it again."

They say the biggest thing you can do in your life is having kids. I'd say playing live for the very first time in front of 20,000 people is probably up there.

In many ways The Aston Shuffle is the antithesis of the instant hit wunderkinder currently occupying the top of the dance charts. At 33 and 29 respectively, Mikah and Vance have been honing their craft and their passion for dance music since before CDJs were a thing. In that time they've seen entire genres come and go, bursting into life in a flare of hype and fading away just as quickly. Through it all they've methodically established their distinctive sound, putting consistency and quality ahead of fashion; and in doing so they've achieved something rare in the music world: longevity.

"From day one we always wanted to have longevity," Vance says. "It's all about navigating a path through genres without becoming a mere puppet of a particular sound. The second that you put out something that cynically jumps on some bandwagon, you lose anything special about you. We've always been really careful not to let anything out the gate that does that."

In a system so obsessed with young, bright stars, there's something refreshing about seeing two guys who have come up over the course of many years and approach the game with adult seriousness. They're canny businessmen, self-aware about their place in the dance music hierarchy and realistic about what they represent and what they've achieved.

"It is weird being in this position after eight years," Vance tells me. "We've been around for long enough that when we started the heroes of Aussie dance music were the Presets and Cut Copy. We were in that first wave of slightly younger dudes coming up on the back of what those guys did. But in 2014 anyone who's older than Flume is basically put in the same category. We've almost got legacy act status. So we get put in the same group as all these bands that we haven't quite reached the same level as. But the fact that we're eight years on and still going strong, still making a living out of it, that is really amazing to me."

They've been fighting for this album for more than two years now. And I'm still not bored of it, so I figure that must be a good sign.

After spending a few hours with them, you start to understand why everyone in the industry has such goodwill towards The Aston Shuffle: they're irrepressibly warm natured. Even after so many years they still sound genuinely excited by the opportunities and the possibilities afforded by dance music, and genuinely blown away by the fact that they get to do what they do. It's hard to imagine anyone – promoters, label bosses, radio managers – taking a dislike to them.

Mikah's wife Jenny is sure it's because of where they grew up. "You hit the top in Canberra and so what? It's hard to have pretensions of greatness when you live in a city that literally has two clubs." Mikah and Jenny have been together for 14 years now – they're expecting their second child, another daughter, in June – so she's witnessed every phase of their evolution, from Canberra prog house wannabes, to electro stars, to their current status as one of Australia's most enduring electronic acts. "There were certainly times I doubted it," she says. "But they're just so determined. They've been fighting for this album for more than two years now. And I'm still not bored of it, so I figure that must be a good sign."

‘Photographs’ is a "big" album, both sonically and conceptually. For Vance and Mikah, it's quite literally an album they have staked their careers on, and one that's seen them hit both their musical peaks and their professional nadirs.

After the dust from their 2011 debut 'Seventeen Past Midnight' had settled – "It did... OK" – both Mikah and Vance realised that if they wanted to actually become the sort of outfit that was known for its albums, they were going to have to do more than simply cobble together a bunch of party jams. They were going to have to deliberately build something from the ground up – something cohesive that stood as a definitive articulation of where The Aston Shuffle was heading. As Mikah describes it, "With 'Photographs' we wanted to make something that resonated on a radio level, a home listener level and a festival and club level, but also something that felt like a connected body of work."

Unfortunately, they were also grappling with the difficulties that come with being at one's professional peak: playing upwards of 150 shows a year and trying to write tracks in hotel rooms or on planes between gigs.

"We were getting a bit burnt out on all of the ancillary shit that goes with being in music," Vance says. "We wanted to create a bubble where all we were doing on any given day was working out what to eat and what track to work on. So we pushed things back, we made some room, we found a month and we just did it."

In February 2012 Vance and Mikah decamped to the tiny beachside town of Ulladulla on NSW's Central Coast. With a new focus on writing pop hooks instead of simple synth jams, they laid down the basic elements of the record that was to become 'Photographs'. While most of the tracks remained in a primordial state, they released 'Can't Stop Now' in September of that year, attracting the attention of a label head by the name of Amanda Ghost, who signed the band to her label through UK giant Polydor, placing The Aston Shuffle among the few Australian artists to have ever signed with them.

In early 2013 they moved into SARM Studios in London's Notting Hill, a legendary outfit that has worked with the likes of The Clash, Pet Shop Boys, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin; the studio they'd booked time in was sandwiched between Liam Howlett's and Mark Ronson's.

"Recording in the UK was a dream come true," says Mikah. "Getting to work in these massive studios and slam music until four in the morning. We'd be working 16 hour days every day and then getting drunk in the studio at night."

Working closely with Ghost and close friend and producer Styalz Fuego, Vance and Mikah started refining their demos, working on melody lines and bringing in a string of vocalists to flesh out the more radio-ready aspects of each track. At the end of the month they left SARM with a record almost ready to go. Keen to get the campaign started, Polydor released 'Can't Stop Now' in the UK. But the song struggled to get traction in the local market, and shortly after the UK label decided not to proceed with the album.

Suddenly back out on their own again, Mikah and Vance decided to forge an independent path and finish the record off their own bat. In the year before being dropped by Polydor, they'd put out a single track that had been available online for over a year, but unburdened of the top-down requirements that come with working in a major label environment, they were able to release new material more organically. 'Comfortable' came out in September 2013, and 'Tear It Down' a few months later. Buoyed by these fresh releases, by the time the album was due to drop The Aston Shuffle was well and truly back on the dance music radar.

Mikah is philosophical about the way it all unfolded. "It's just the highs and lows of a career in music. Playing live for the first time in front of 20,000 people, and then making an amazing record and having it canned before a single person gets to listen to it." He pauses for a moment. "Getting dropped like that was testing, but we'd been in the game for long enough to know that this was the music industry. It's a fucking rough ride sometimes."

So after everything they've gone through for the album, do they need outrageous success, just to make it all worthwhile? Vance is thoughtful. "I dunno. You think about a track like Gotye's 'Somebody That I Used to Know' – that's the sort of song that you could live on for the rest of your life. But I'm not sure if I'd want a song I could retire on. What enthuses me about music is the work, the actual making, not the success at the end of it."

Getting dropped like that was testing, but we'd been in the game for long enough to know that this was the music industry. It's a fucking rough ride sometimes.

The album launch happens on March 26, a Wednesday. The Aston Shuffle doesn't really make midweek music, but this is a showcase more than it is a club night: a chance to show their friends and fans what they've been toiling over these past two years.

Tonight they're performing at an intimate, retro-themed bar called The Soda Factory. When we arrive the area in front of the stage is filled with tables and chairs, laid out in a cabaret style.

Mikah winces. "I presume they're going to remove those before the show."

The Soda Factory opens at 5pm so they have to sound check agonisingly early. "We're not on until 10:30. This is going to be a long night." If they could perform right then and there to the five bartenders preparing for the gig, you feel like they probably would.

As people start to trickle in, both Mikah and Vance wear haunted looks, their eyes staring off into the vast unknown of the days and weeks and months after their album is released into the world. They remain friendly as ever, but you can see a sort of existential terror unfolding behind their slightly-too-rigid smiles. After Mikah gives another monosyllabic answer to one of her questions, Jenny leans across to me with a knowing grin. "He's always like this before a big show. Kinda there but not there at the same time. He says the right things, but he's not really engaging with you."

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At 7:30pm one of the EMI reps drops off a stack of freshly minted CDs. Their arrival punctures the mood. For the first time the guys can actually hold physical proof of their two-year odyssey. Mikah cradles a copy of the album in his hands. "It's pretty cool. Pretty surreal." He looks across at Jenny and grins. "Now let's see if anyone wants to hear it."

Soon the night has its own momentum. Sitting on couches in the corner of the venue, Mikah and Vance receive a chain of well-wishers and old friends. The mood is buoyant, expectant. They've been involved in the scene for so long that everyone seems legitimately invested in seeing them succeed - not just because they happen to be at the launch, but because these are friendships that have been forged over the course of countless gigs and parties and ill-advised late nights. By the time they're due to play, The Aston Shuffle look properly pumped to be there.

Finally, a shade after 10, the curtains part, revealing Vance and Mikah poised behind their keyboards. In twin black t-shirts they look more like brothers than ever. While the crowd screams and whistles they take a moment to look over the room. Vance speaks. "Hey guys. We're The Aston Shuffle. We'd like to play you a few songs from our new album. It's been a while coming, so it's pretty great to be here." The crowd loses their shit.

From the moment the first chord of 'Can't Stop Now' detonates over the speakers, it's clear that this album demands to be heard on a full club setup. Despite their pop crossover aspirations, you get the feeling that this is where The Aston Shuffle will always thrive – in a packed room with a big sound and charged atmosphere.

The differences that make Mikah and Vance such an odd, compelling creative duo become even more evident when they play live. Face locked in concentration, Vance feels the music in an almost granular, beat-by-beat way. Second-to-second, you can see him making methodical corrections and calculations, parsing everything he does with mathematical rigour. By contrast, Mikah is governed by instinctual responses. When the beat drops he sets to the drums with boundless enthusiasm, as if it's the first time he's ever played that particular rhythm. Grin permanently etched on his face, he's a natural focal point, mugging for the crowd and initiating cheers. Tonight, he looks like he's having the time of his life.

The set finishes with an explosive rendition of 'Tear It Down', and a dancer dressed in an outfit built entirely out of mirrorball fragments emerges onto the stage, as the strobes and lasers bounce epileptically off her reflective bodysuit. Phones pop up throughout the crowd and the room goes into raptures. "Thanks guys. We've been The Aston Shuffle. Thanks so much for coming out tonight." They leave the stage with a final wave and a weary smile.

The bar is almost empty by the time an exhausted-looking Vance and Mikah have finished packing up. You get the feeling they're relieved to not be in a throng of fans hoping to party. They each crack a beer and drink it deliberately.

As they settle into the couch, I ask them what they want from 'Photographs' now that it's officially out in the world. "Look, it doesn't need to sell millions and millions of copies," says Mikah. "As long as people can love it as an album, as a cohesive group of songs, that'll be the final tick of the box for me."

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Vance chimes in. "I'm really fucking proud of this record that we've made." He pauses thoughtfully. "Now there's just that overwhelming feeling of fear that people might not like it."

A week later I talk to Vance and Mikah one more time. They've spent the intervening seven days in a nonstop whirlwind of publicity and performance. The idea of indulging in a post-release holiday seems like a far-off fantasy. However, they sound exuberant about their experience so far.

"God, you're always sweating bullets right up until the album drops," says Mikah. "You're expecting some sort of huge backlash, but the response so far has been great!"

The album debuted on the Australian charts at a more-than-healthy #12, and the relief is palpable. Plans are being made for a huge national tour in August – they're waiting on the birth of Mikah's daughter – and their focus is already starting to turn towards America. But they're not resting on their laurels. Mikah tells me they've already signed on to "a tonne of remixes" and have begun planning their next writing trip. "It's definitely not going to take two years for the next one to come out."

Now that they're here, eight years on from the first time anyone ever used the phrase The Aston Shuffle, what do they make of everything they've been through?

Vance takes a moment before answering. "I never expected that we would be at the point that we're at. I always had faith that we could do something big and make an impact on music. That we had something to say that was worth saying. But to still be here after so long is pretty amazing."

Mikah adds, "Not too many people get to do what we do, in terms of finding this thing we're passionate about and turning it into a sustainable career. To be able to sit here, talking to you, eight years after we decided to give this a crack is a pretty incredible feeling. We're grateful that we've achieved the things we've achieved, but we're also hungrier than ever."

"It's great that we still have expectations, even after all this time," Vance says. "However big we've become, whatever level of success we might have had, I like the fact that we're still regarded as a band that's on the up. In some ways hearing a 20 year-old kid reminisce about 'For Everyone' is weird, because that song is seven years old now. But for people to still have that sense that we're growing after all this time is awesome, because I never want to feel like we've plateaued. I want to always be a band that's growing towards something."

'Photographs' is out now through EMI Music Australia. Grab it on iTunes here. Catch The Aston Shuffle live throughout August/September 2014. Dates and details here.