18+ have evolved. Following their 2014 LP Trust – which Wonderland was (near enough) first in line to feature, we’ll have you know – the woozy electronic duo return with Collect, an album that marries explosive ambition with their characteristic allergy to genre classification. Preoccupied with the dichotomy of public and private – apt, given their gradual emergence from anonymity into the spotlight – the album blends languorous vocals with layered production bridges to mesmerisingly destabilising effect.
The album’s lead track, “Drama”, chronicles the chasm between an imagined ideal relationship and its blunt reality; it hinges on the poignant refrain, “Deep deep down I really love you”. Accompanying the single is a suitably nostalgic video that marries home footage with stark clips of a production studio, foregrounding the artificiality of the romantic idyll.
The band – Samia Mirza and Justin Swinburne, to be specific – are currently in the midst of a European tour in support of Collect, which is out now on Houndstooth. Ahead of their London date at the Pickle Factory, subsidiary venue of Bethnal Green’s Oval Space, we met in a dressing room lit in sickly yellow, slouching on leather sofas beside a modest rider comprised largely of vegetable sticks. Our conversation spanned origins and ambitions, childhood and adult responsibility; keep reading for a glimpse into the mindset of the once elusive duo.
How did you first meet, and how did you start making music together?
Samia: We went to school together in Chicago – university – and studied art there, but we were in the same sculpture class for a number of years, so we just became friends naturally through that… And then when we graduated we both independently chose to move to LA for different reasons – Justin’s from California, I’m from Hawaii, so for me I just wanted warmer weather than Chicago and something closer to home – and then it didn’t happen with any plan, really. He sent me a beat that he had been working on and I told him I’d try and sing on this, and I did.
We just wanted to put it to video to share with our friends, something compelling or interesting just to let them look at and listen to, and so we made the first video which was Drawl. And it just got into the hands of somebody who had a big online audience. She shared it, and we didn’t even know that she was doing that, and it just spread really quickly within the week. It was something that surprised us. The amount of feedback and attention and interest in it was this encouraging force that made us think, “Let’s do it again.” So we continued to do it, we made another song, and it just happened. It was really organic and natural, just because of friends sharing it.
Have you been musical your whole lives?
Justin: I guess so, yeah. I was in bands growing up, but I never really took it seriously…and then in school I took a few sound art classes on sound installation and stuff – learning the basic analog studio stuff.
Samia: I taught myself the guitar, because I wanted to learn how to do that. I sang in choirs my entire childhood. We went on a really cool trip where we learned every Disney song in my children’s choir and then performed in Disney World – it was the craziest thing, this choir from Hawaii performing in Disney World! I sang a lot with my dad just in general growing up…a lot of Arabic songs, he’d teach me Arabic through that, so that was cool. And he really likes songs from the sixties. He’s a huge John Lennon fan, so I think my early taste in music was just, “Oh, Dad likes that – I like that”.
The name 18+ – what’s the idea behind that?
Justin: It’s an arbitrary signifier of adulthood. It’s a weird thing. It’s also super ubiquitous. It’s nice to have a generic title; if we can then reclaim that as a brand, that’s cool. It’s like being called ‘the internet’ or something. If you search 18+ and find us, we must be doing something right. And we wanted something that looked good graphically. All very practical concerns.
When we picked the name, it was the time Samia was talking about when the video had been posted without our consent. People were forwarding all these emails to us, and we were just like, “Oh shit, we’ve got to do all this stuff, we’ve got to pick a name”, so it was like an internet start-up company moment, where we had to present the format for this thing to move forward. We had to decide quickly. It was just like a brainstorming session.
What’s the theme behind “Drama”?
Justin: A disconnect between two individuals. I guess the effort to vainly try to hold it together.
Tell us about the video.
Justin: There’s two characters, played by Samia and I, but they’re obviously in different worlds, flickering back and forth, then rephotographed in this commercial photo studio, which is a weird sort of abstracting device making a 2D surface impression.
Your sound has developed a bit since Trust – how did that come about?
Justin: It’s just organic. We’re just trying to keep ourselves entertained. We’re trying to make it better, but better for us, not for anyone else.
Samia: I think we’ve also gotten really good at understanding what’s mixtape material and what’s album material…the organisation has changed a lot.
You’re now based in Berlin [Justin] and Hawaii [Samia] – how do you make that long-distance writing and recording process work?
Justin: Just a little bit every day! We have a file-sharing system. There’s folders for each song, so we’ll make a new folder, put a new song in, and then you’ll see a new folder and be like, “Cool, I have a new song I can work on”, add your bit, or don’t, or whatever. Sometimes things never get finished, and sometimes there’ll be 15 finished things. That system allows us to work whenever we want and not be reliant on the other person.
Do you think that disjointedness is important thematically to the album?
Justin: A primary tension of the music has always been displaced intimacies. Each of us are recording this intimate moment by ourselves about this intimate subject, and we overlay it onto each other; we’re not necessarily talking about the same things, but there are references to each other or maybe a poetic refrain, so it seems like they have a connection, but they’re usually talking about something else that either of us don’t really even know. That creates, for me, a valuable tension in the songs.
What interests you about the dichotomy between public and private?
Justin: It’s something we have to react to. Everyone has to react to it via social media and stuff like that. You’re constantly keeping both a public and private self. But specifically for us now, because we’re becoming increasingly public and going out to shows, and people are talking to us like they know us – from playing live, there became this palpable tension between how much you give and how much you keep, and I think that’s why we’re looking at it on this album.
How are you adjusting to the pressures of having a public profile, after starting out as fairly elusive figures?
Samia: Performing live makes you responsible for the things that you’re publishing and saying and doing, because then you’re repeating it in front of a crowd of people…I think for us, for the actual product it’s gotten way easier, being in the public this way, because I think we see a response and we can see people reacting to it live, and that gives us a whole different relationship to it.
But I also think that being in the public changes things in terms of responsibilities towards industry stuff, for us, which I think is where that gets difficult. Before it was just us, and there was no label, and now there is a label. They have an identity of their own…I don’t know if it’s pressures so much as timing, a lot of it. We’re people who download something we want immediately, and we also work really quickly, so when you’re waiting for traditional industry standards of pressing things or waiting for PR companies to do stuff, things that are new to others are pretty old to us by the time it gets out.
Justin: Which is why it’s important to us to have the room to make mixtapes to have that autonomy of, “Ok, this thing’s done. You may not even have heard this, but we’re just going to release it.” That’s how we have to do this or else we’re probably going to quit. We have to have that good feeling.
Samia: There’s an aspect of spontaneity and surprise that created this that needs to remain, as well as enjoyment, for this to keep running.
What’s next after the album and the tour?
Justin: I think we’re both making a lot of music. So much shit.
What’s your wildest musical ambition?
Justin: We’ve always talked about having design environments for a whole album. Like, if we release six songs – an EP – and then there’s six small rooms you have to go into to listen to each individual song. That would be really fun. But yeah, we’d basically want someone to give us a bunch of money to do loads of stuff. That would probably turn into a really good thing.
Samia: I always wanted an 18+ car. Just a car that only plays 18+.