James Holden Talks
Its been fourteen years since James Holden's debut single that sky rocketed him to fame, and seven years since his debut album 'The Idiots are Winning'. Needless to say this album, titled 'The Inheritors' has been a long time in the making, and here at R$N we had a chat with Holden to find out what took him so long, how his sound has developed since he found his feet in the world of producing over 14 years ago and what he thinks of the dance music scene at this moment in time.
I think I speak for a lot of people when I say Ive been seriously looking forward to this album. How come its taken so long?
Basically, things got in the way – DJing, the label, life. That accounts for about half the time. Learning took up the rest, and searching around working out how to evolve forwards.
Theres certainly some pretty unique sounds in your new material. What equipment have you been using of late?
The whole album is basically only a few bits of gear – the modular synth, the computer, my prophet 600 and some stuff with tubes and a few tape machines. The special bit is how it goes together I guess – lots of other people have modular synths but everyone tends to find their own way of using them: my way was all about building a single instrument to play each song – everything connected together, feeding back and forth between all the machines in an unstable way – then learning to play that instrument, getting the hang of it for a couple of hours, then recording it, trying to get it in the first take if I could. So all the 'thinking' part was kept in a box, and the actual performance that made it to the album was a thing that really happened, something unthought, unselfconscious. I think that's really important in music.
I think you got everyone excited with Triangle Folds back in 2010. That track seems as though it wouldnt be out of place on The Inheritors. Were you just testing the water with this sound back then?
I was working my way towards it yes. I actually wrote the track 'The inheritors around the same time, that was pretty much when I knew where the whole thing was going. Life got in the way a little but from that point on the creative process was really painless.
What was the music of your teenage rebellion?
I grew up in a house where only classical music got played, so it didn't take much to feel like a rebellion! I got into queen first, and to be honest that's left as big an impression on me as anything I've heard since.
How do you see your sound as having developed since The Idiots Are Winning?
In almost a straight line. 'The Idiots…' was the best I could do at the time, I'm a better person now than then though, that's the main difference. Confidence/not caring makes a big difference to the results.
If your sound was a visual thing, what would it look like?
Furry I guess.
I can imagine every track from the new album sounding incredible live. Do you intend on taking it on the road?
Yes! I wasn't planning to initially: modular synths aren't very stage-friendly, and I've worked so hard becoming the DJ I wanted to be that doing a club live set felt like a step back – I improvise more/do more in a DJ set than most of the techno/ableton live acts I've seen. But then Thom Yorke asked me to support Atoms for Peace and it suddenly seemed really obviously the right thing to do. Thanks thom!
You teamed up with London-based animator Will Samuel for the Renata video. How did this collaboration come about?
Via Jack Featherstone, who did all the artwork for the album and everything around it – we've been working with him for a while. I just fell in love with his work (and his eye) a few years ago. He totally rose to the challenge on the whole thing. I love the results – especially that video – the pair of them totally got everything the record was trying to be and caught it. Grateful.
As a DJ you are unequivocally a peak-time DJ, yet this album distances itself from the dancefloor altogether. Would you agree?
No to both! I'm happiest not being a peak-time dj really. That's why I've been doing all-night sets at select clubs around the album release – the freedom that gives you to play all kinds of music has been brilliant – most of what I like isn't peak time club material as most of that is pretty boring and I feel like the album is still basically dancing music – it's hypnotic & mantric and repetitive, and dancing to it will increase your enjoyment of it. Remember it's only in the last 20 or so years that music for dancing has been required to be mind-numbingly inane.
You recently provided the soundtrack to a performance lecture by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. As a former Oxford maths student yourself, how big a part does maths play when youre making music?
In the preparation stages – building my instruments etc, it's there a lot, like at the front: thinking about maths and then when I perform, it's all subconscious, but it's all still maths really – they overlap a lot.
Youve always been outspoken about popular electronic music. Where do you see dance music at the moment?
I feel like the whole world (even America!) is approaching this point where the idea of post-dance makes sense and the 'trad' brigade look as sad as they are. That's nice. To be honest though I don't care too much about the dance scene anymore because I don't feel like I have to put up with any of it. I'm quite happy at the moment – every gig I play I enjoy, there are lots of people making records I want to play. Past bitterness might've come from the gravity of that world pulling me into things I didn't really like, and I feel like I've escaped that.
First and last record bought?
I bought a tape of an Aerosmith album – fucking terrible. Most recent was Zomby's LP which me and the dog listened to yesterday. We enjoyed it.
Musically, who is doing it for you right now?
I loved the Andy Stott album (bit old now, but it took me a while to work out how to play my favourite tracks off it..) and the new Jonas Reinhardt one is great too.
Are there any big plans in the pipeline for Border Community?
The big plan is to keep BC under control so it doesn't take my time away from my own music.. we want it to stay pure and special.
What can we expect next from James Holden?
I can't tell you because I don't quite know myself. We'll see when I sit down in the studio next..
If you could banish one track to hell for all eternity?
I wouldn't: feels fascist to ban things.
Whats your favourite place on earth?
Cornwall. I love it there – liberal sunshine utopia, like california without the downsides.
Are you a kick drum, hi hat or a snare? And why?
I'm a sawtooth oscillator through tape delay.
What are you obsessed with at the moment?
A number of things. Ancient monuments of the British Isles. Neuroscience studies around hearing/music. Terry riley and above all, our dog.
What's your answer to everything?
That there is no answer. I think if less people thought they knew the answer the world would be better.
Finally, big question: Zapp or Zappa?
Zappa got mentioned on the field recordings that form part of Sky Burial actually: we were wandering the streets at night banging stuff and Matt started playing on a bike. A clearly irritated Luke Abbott is heard on the tape saying 'leave the bike Matt, Zappa already did that.'