'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.
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.