Noise With Context: Micachu

Houston hip hop with London Sinfonietta

Genre lines are there to be crossed. Fresh from her latest mixtape – with Kwake Bass, no less – Micachu is now preparing to work once more with avant garde classical ensemble London Sinfonietta.

In the field of modern classical music the group have few peers. Tackling hundreds of projects, the collective have helped pull modern composition out of a self-imposed ghetto, finding a new audience in the process. For Mica Levi, the London Sinfonietta’s approach is refreshing – having studied music herself at the Guildhall she is aware of the strengths and shortfalls of classical music. A world away from the avant pop of ‘Jewellery’ new project ’Chopped And Screwed’ has its roots in a performance at the Proms.

Reminiscing, Micachu recalls the first time she caught the London Sinfonietta live. “I saw this performance they did in the Proms – it was £5 a ticket if you stood at the bottom. They played this piece and there was absolutely no one there apart from me and a few of my friends. That was great! One of the best musical experiences I’ve ever had. You had the massive Royal Albert Hall with no one in it and getting to hear a really good piece of music.”

The release of ‘Jewellery’ raised the profile of Micachu (together with associated group, The Shapes), and her classical background made her a potential sparring partner. London Sinfonietta approached the songwriter about a possible commission, which she immediately accepted even if the invitation was “overwhelming. Terrifying, really”. Going back to the drawing board, the songwriter began to question how the noise-pop vignettes of ‘Jewellery’ could translate to a large ensemble. “On the course I did at uni I had to write several different pieces of music for different groups of instruments. You would start off small, doing one for piano, one for brass, duet for woodwind – to try all the instruments out, basically, and to try them in combination. Then you end by doing an orchestral piece. So I have some experience of that” she explains.

The clue is in the title. ‘Chopped And Screwed’ is rooted in a form of hip hop which took off in Houston during the mid 90s, where a fad for cough syrup led to beats turning psychedelic. The woozy feeling of abusing prescription drugs forced producers to speed up and slow down their tracks, chopping and screwing as they saw fit. “I guess it sounds like a pretty cheesy title doesn’t it?” she laughs. “It probably would be if it was actually a chopped and screwed style thing. It would be like calling it ‘Rock’ if we were a rock band.”

“The structure of a mixtape was one of the main themes as we didn’t want to have to face people not clapping, or not clapping. I wanted to make it continuous, a bit proggy and ongoing. I thought that mixtapes were always continuous so that’s a good structure to base it on. I think ‘Chopped & Screwed’ personally is one of the more experimental styles of mixtapes and hip hop. I guess I thought that tied in with the identity of the London Sinfonietta”.

Micachu / London Sinfonietta Documentary

– – –

Working on material with The Shapes, Micachu then handed it over to the London Sinfonietta for a series of rehearsals. Approaching the tracks from a different perspective, the songwriter swapped the idea of a band – where all members are equal – for something quite distinct. “Everyone in the band is meant to be doing their own thing. See what I mean? It’s more functional” she explains. “In an orchestra the musicians are doing a job, they have a salary usually. Their job is to play as accurately as they can and as sensitively as they can what they’ve been told”. Micachu oversaw the entire process, but did allow for some elements of chance. “For instance on ‘Average’ the string parts, in fact most of the parts, are playing through some rap lyrics which I wrote down. I’ve allocated what notes they’re meant to play. They play it as they read it so there’s no rhythm or pulse or anything, it’s much more personal. There’s a different atmosphere, but the harmonies are still the same.”

Given its debut last year, ‘Chopped And Screwed’ is a remarkable project. The essential aesthetics derived from that form of hip hop remain, but sound physically vast. The slowed down, drugged up stupor of the mixtape is translated to the concert hall without losing its vitality. Yet this isn’t just an example of re-contextualised beats – the work relies on a sense of sonic development that could only come from modern classical composition. A difficult listen, for sure, what ‘Chopped & Screwed’ succeeds in is retaining the melodic quirks that fuelled ‘Jewellery’ and displaying on a much grander, more ambitious scale. Far from a complete success – as Micachu herself insists – the album is nonetheless a fascinating and engrossing statement.

Suitably stunned, Rough Trade stepped in to release the physical document (out this week – April 4th). Charged with mixing the record, Micachu decided that the studio entity would have a different character from the unchained concert. “There’s loads of mistakes on it. I cut a few things out, where people actually fucked up. I cut a few different bits. Basically, I dropped a song or two where someone really fucked up. That sort of thing you can maybe get away with in a concert but not on a recording. So I just cut out a few tracks”.

Asked to re-unite by the organisers of Ether, Micachu is busy preparing for a second performance of ‘Chopped & Screwed’. Due to take place in the Southbank Centre on April 5th, the concert will see the London Sinfonietta return to the composer’s original notation. “It’s pretty much going to be how it was, as we don’t have too much time to rehearse it. It’s just working on the bits we thought weren’t very good, which we’ll change. What we thought went alright, we’ll keep,” she says simply.

The latest move from Micachu, the London songwriter remains frustratingly difficult to pin down. A mixtape with Kwake Bass contained some new material, built upon some typically inventive beats. “I just do beats the whole time, which is basically like a computer game all day. You just sit there and it’s fun to work on. Addictive” she says. Continually writing new material, the composer is almost impossible to quantify. At ease in a classical environment, she also has a taste for underground styles which goes far beyond the mere trend-spotting, magpie qualities of some contemporaries. Working on new material with The Shapes, Micachu herself is lost for words when describing her material. “Hopefully underneath it all there’s pop songs. I think I mean ‘pop songs’ pretty broadly” she laughs. “Hopefully noise with context but I dunno that’s not necessarily up to me to decipher.” As for her future plans, the singer remains typically guarded. “I’ve mainly been making beats for the last year or so. We came off tour so I’ve mainly been beat making and doing little side things. Lots of little projects on the side” she says. “We’ll just have to wait and see, as Alex Ferguson would say.”

‘Chopped & Screwed’ is out now. Micachu & The London Sinfonietta are due to play London’s Southbank Centre on April 5th as part of Ether Festival.

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.