HigherFrequency  DJ Interview


James Holden

Spearheading the revolution of dance music? Light years away from the gloomy, monotonous beats of many of his contemporaries? These things and more were said about the formidable talent that arrived on the music scene a few years ago in the form of James Holden, after his now legendary 'Horizons' was charted by Nick Warren. At a time when large swathes of the clubbing fraternity had finally accepted nobody was worth a million quid just to spin a bit of plastic, the arrival of a group of artists (James Holden, James Zabiela, Nathan Fake, Petter among them) creating bold, original, and futuristic sounds that came from an entirely different camp to their 'superstar DJ' predecessors, couldn't have been more timely.

While many of these artists railed against the hype, insisting it was only about the music, much of the press was quick to sound the glib alarm bells-yeah, right, give these boys a couple of years of first class flights, fawning fans and inflated pay checks, and they'll soon have egos the size of the Michelin man's midriff in a pie shop. Not so for James Holden, whose disarming modesty is enough to make you just want to buy him a pint. James' production work is virtually unrivalled in its eclecticism, as is his remixing work. At the helm of the Border Community network with mates Nathan Fake and the MFA on board, this is a label responsible for some of the most innovative sounds out there, and is firm evidence of the vision and maturity that dance music has reached.

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> Interview : Matt Cotterill _ Photo : Mark Oxley


HigherFrequency (HRFQ) : So, James... Japan... you're here! And Osaka last night. How is it so far?

James Holden : I'm enjoying myself already! Last night was really good fun, really nice. It's the one place, I guess I've been touring for a few years now, and Europe's all the same, America's all the same, Japan is just like another world. It's really exciting.

HRFQ : The post-'Horizons' James Holden, a lot of things have been written and said, how about the pre-'Horizons', I think a lot of people would like a bit of a story, about how you got involved in the first place.

James : My dad taught me the piano, he plays the piano just for fun, and he taught me. Just always I wanted to make my own songs rather than play other people's songs, so it just went from there. I got a computer,.. I didn't even like dance music at that point, but because I was making electronic music; I didn't have enough friends to form a band who could play musical instruments [laughs] I knew one guy who played guitar but you need more than that! So I was working on my computer and the music teacher played my stuff to a teacher at school who liked electro, techno, acid and stuff, and he started introducing me to all these sounds, and all the rock tapes went in the bin, and techno was my thing. He introduced me to all kinds of things. And from that, 'Horizons', I just made it for fun, then got signed to a label, and I followed that path for quite a while because I was tied to that label, and it wasn't entirely the music I loved. The point I'd like to be judged from is the point where I set up Border Community. Border Community, A Break in the Clouds, that's the point where everything, from then on, I'm proud of that. That's where I feel like I've accomplished enough as a producer and DJ. And it's my own sound, it's what I believe, that's the really interesting stuff.

HRFQ: We'd like to talk about Border Community of course in a second, but first; there's something on your website about listening to instrumental bands like Mogwai, Boards of Canada, also M83..

James: Yea, yea! You like them?

HRFQ : Yea, we're fans, we love those soundscapes, they're huge! How far have they influenced your music?

James : Definitely a lot, just because there's a freedom in the sounds in that kind of music, and in the structure, every element of the music is much more free: dance music is so limited as a whole. So taking that awesome wall of noise thing that M83 do and putting that in a club track; in a way that's what Tiesto does, but you know exactly what's going to happen next. But I want to make it a surprise as well as connect to some emotional sounds. Especially Nathan Fake, he just loves M83. I heard yesterday they asked him to remix their new single- he was over the moon, I've never seen a boy so excited! [laughter]

Chris Liebing Interview

HRFQ : You said you made 'Horizons' on Buzz, the shareware program. Can you talk us through your studio setup at the moment?

James : It's still more or less the same as it was back then. I've got a better computer.. but it's a PC, two speakers, and I've got a little midi box with knobs and sliders for controlling everything... I have a keyboard but I don't really use it, and I have a little Casio keyboard, like a ?20 battery operated Casio keyboard! And actually some of the best noises have come through the microphone on that, or that through a guitar amp, and just record that.

HRFQ : Does it have a Bossa Nova sound on it?

James: It does, yea! [laughs]

HRFQ : I used to try and make tunes with that myself but I was terrible at it...

James : And a one-finger bass! [laughs]

HRFQ : It's got that intro button so you get the beat, then you push another button and it starts, right?

James : And the fill-in button! [laughs]

HRFQ : I think it's really refreshing for a lot of the more cash-strapped people out there, because you're a big advocate of the accessibility of music making in your own studio. Is there any plugin or software you recommend?

James : Just Buzz, I'd say, because it's actually legitimately free. If you go on the internet you can get any piece of software for free anyway, but I'd say, be honest, get Buzz. Actually I use Cubase as well, I like the combination of the two, because you have that live madness of Buzz, and then I take everything into Cubase and try to add details and perfect the sound. But I'd say Buzz is a good learning tool.

Chris Liebing Interview

HRFQ : You're not a big fan of Final Scratch, I think I read somewhere.

James : [laughs] Only because I don't think it's very future, I think it's more like... introducing new technology to people who can't get away from mixing on Technics. Mixing on a pair of Technics, you're limited to just playing the record; on a CDJ, you can do so much more, you can re-edit the track, you can loop lots of it, you know, all the tricks, and with a laptop you can do all that as well. If you're using a laptop you may as well use the full power of it, and at the moment there isn't a good way to control a laptop. At the moment me and two friends are setting up a company to build a controller for a laptop that's more like a CDJ, it gives you control over everything. The possibilities are endless. I'm really excited that in six months' time I'm going to be DJing like that and have control over everything, to make bootlegs on the fly, just everything, it's amazing. And DJing then becomes more than you're just playing everyone else's records one after the other, and more like you're performing the music yourself, and that's much more exciting for me obviously. It'll be interesting to see; I think there's going to be a lot of change in the next few years for electronic music, with that, and downloading records, and so on.

HRFQ : The thing about downloading, I think you've said yourself, on the one hand you're happy that you can disseminate so much as an artist, from that perspective, but from the other perspective there's such a backlash against it.

James : I mean, obviously I want to be able to pay my rent [laughs], which is the main fear that everyone in the music industry has about the internet. But I mean now I go on web and buy the odd thing, but if it's Thursday and I'm going touring on Friday and I'm looking for new tunes, the internet shops, I mean it's all over them! You find something new, I've got so many things which I couldn't have found in record stores that I've bought off online stores, and that's really... I remember when I was getting into music and I had two friends who were real trainspotters and they used to fight, they'd have rare records, and they'd be, like, "Look what I've got!", and that doesn't exist anymore because you can just copy it and then play it. I mean they used to love that, but I always hated that thing of hearing a tune on the radio and then you could never get it. And there's so many records from my past that now, when I get time I think, "oh, I really wanted that", and you go on the store and see if you can find it. I think once it all becomes legitimate and once it's all in place, there's no reason why it's not going to become the future of music.

HRFQ : Can we move on to the remixing you've done, especially the Britney Spears, 'Breathe On Me'. We love that music. What was it about the track that attracted you to it?

James : They asked me to do it. I mean initially I was quite resistant to the idea of remixing Britney. Everyone has the "I'm gonna sell out" thing, but I mean, well, my mum's heard of it and my little sister's heard of it, which is quite a big factor! [laughter] But also, the original is one of the better Britney songs, it's kind of like Kylie, it's that side of pop music. I mean the guy who wrote it and produced it used to write as Brothers in Rhythm with Dave Seaman, it's actually his track. I didn't know that till after I'd done it, and he was quite sad that I'd just butchered it so brutally! [laughter] But you don't get that opportunity to have Britney's a cappella on your computer and do whatever you want with it. That's a chance I couldn't miss really.

HRFQ : Do you bring any criteria to what you choose to remix?

James : Yea, I mean at the moment I just get asked to do ten times more than I could. I don't know... the one's I'm choosing are things where I really respect the artist or the label. I'm doing one for Black Strobe when I get home because I love Black Strobe. The other ones, like the Safari track I remixed, 'Crosstown Rebels', which was a track that I'd bought in a shop and I'd been playing anyway. So now, DJing pays my rent, so the remixing, I'm not doing many, but I'm just doing the ones that I'm like, "Wow, I'd really love to do that!" Finally now, in the last two years, I'm getting the offers, getting asked by people who genuinely get excited about it, so I'm happy, really happy.

Chris Liebing Interview

HRFQ : Can we talk about Border Community? The talent on there is quite incredible; you've got Nathan Fake, the MFA. And I like the website, there's something very original an innovative about it. Are there any concepts you brought to that?

James : I mean, because I came out of this quite unpleasant situation of being tied to a label and not really free to do what I want to, and tied to a label that just didn't really do anything properly, that never put any effort into anything, and so getting free of that; I knew I had all these talented friends, we were all friends beforehand, and we'd always talk on MSN and we'd send MP3s of what we were working on and help each other. And I just thought, why not make a nice home for these people, give them a good start in the music industry, show them what a decent deal is like, how a decent label works, do the whole thing just how I believe it. And a lot of the time our distributers are like, "No, you can't do that, that's too risky, don't do that!", but we were just like, you know, "Shut up, we're gonna do it anyway!" And after a few arguments we did it, it worked, and so now I can do whatever I want, which is a great position to be in. I'm really lucky to have such talented friends, but I think it's that community thing, we're all similar in that we like all music, and we don't want to make like just House or just whatever. I mean, Nathan Fake, his album we're doing this year, none of it is dance music, it's all that M83, Boards of Canada, just rock music made on a synth, and it's so exciting that he's remixing M83, and at the same time he's playing the same club that Richie Hawtin plays in Berlin. It's worked, I don't really know why... I think we're just lucky! [laughs] Really lucky, I couldn't be happier!

HRFQ : It's a very exciting time, you know, the talent that's coming through and the way it's all unfolding. Is there anything that makes you choose artists for the Label?

James : Just what we love, we never tie artists to the label, that's a really important part of what we do, we tell someone we want to work with them, and they put together a release, or, the latest thing we signed we just went through the bucket of demos we've got in the house; a demo came through to my studio the other day and I was just like, "This is amazing, check it out!", and it was; that's what it takes.

HRFQ : Can you give us any sneak previews, anything in the pipeline from Border Community?

James : We've had quite a big rest, we just ran out of records we liked, the MFA were being a bit slow, Petter was being incredibly slow, and Nathan was just finishing his album, so we didn't have anything, and I'm always slow! But this year we've got, first the next release is gonna be these guys from Hamburg, who haven't even got a name yet, that's something I think we found in the demo box, and it's really exciting, I'll probably play it later. And then I've done an EP, I've just got to put a vocal on the last track of the EP, and I'm quite excited, it's more eclectic than my other releases. And then Nathan's album, which, already we're really excited.

Chris Liebing Interview

HRFQ : From the DJing perspective, are there any tunes that you're really into at the moment?

James : So much, I mean it's a really good time for music at the moment, like the German scene, I know it's reached its peak, and lots of people are jumping on that bandwagon, it's a little bit like progressive was a few years ago, everyone's jumping on it and the quality is slipping. But there's still these really exciting people, I mean, just obvious things like the Michael Mayer album, there's like four tracks on there that I play out, that's incredible. But then, that sounds like mid-nineties English progressive house, but in a fresh way. I mean, people like Alden Tyrell are just on fire at the moment. I'm trying to think what else... DJ Koze. He's in International Pony, a hip hop beat, fun kind of band, and they're just hilarious. We used to love that, and when I realized he was in it, it seems weird, he's in a hip hop band, but then he makes like dirty electro! Just everything he does at the moment rocks completely.

HRFQ : There's a huge generic crossover right now, and I think, from the journalistic perspective, I know that you're not really a big fan of pigeonholing and categorizing, and journalists... they do that.

James : That's their job, isn't it! [laughs]

HRFQ : That's how they pay the rent! But there's been a lot of talk in the journalistic community about how the rearguard of dance music is dying, all these dinosaurs of the industry are fretting that this new talent might be taking over, the underground scene is going more underground, the superstar DJ, all that stuff is gone... your take on where dance music is going?

James : We definitely had a period where those dinosaurs aren't relevant anymore. My girlfriend runs, as well as running Border Community, she runs a fanzine, an internet fanzine called themomobrow.com, and I was reading it today in the hotel room, and The End, in the next three Saturdays, The End in London have Jeff Mills, Laurent Garnier and Josh Wink. And that's much the same as having Tiesto, Armin and Ferry Corsten. Really, it's the big guns, and she was taking the piss out of that! But, really, I'd go and see all three of those people, but I'd rather go and see DJ Koze, or Superpitcher or someone. It's more about that, and I think the big clubs are going to realize that as well, but now the underground is much stronger than it has been for a long time, it's less about the big gigantic commercial interests. But then... this place is gigantic!! [laughs]

End of the interview

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