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A Quietus Interview

Some Sort Of Magic: An Interview With James Holden
Harry Sword , June 25th, 2013 04:28

With enigmatic and exploratory new album The Inheritors, Border Community boss James Holden trips further beyond the walls of the club into wild, elemental territories. He speaks with Harry Sword about the importance of throwing off limitations of technology, mindset and genre

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There has always been a spark of mystery to the music of James Holden - submerged melody escaping the club and heading for the midnight woods. His 2006 album The Idiots Are Winning was an erudite, melodically complex record that giddily trod the hinterland between progressive grandiosity and functional nefarious night music. Seriously clever interplay, it was rooted in techno but left ample space for interpretation outside the usual structural confines of that world.  

But where Idiots was kaleidoscopically colorful, his follow-up The Inheritors is wild, elemental music that summons the spirit of early 70s krautrock, the great outdoors and the trigger-finger push/pull of live improvisation. The record is steeped in a sense of the natural mystic: an audio pillbox in the gorse, nestled between the primal thump of techno and the more esoteric outposts of krautrock. Imagine, perhaps, Neu! processed via Danny Wolfers' laptop in the Black Forest. Holden's musical focus is rooted in the physical thrll of sound, divorced from the self-referential rabbit warren that so much modern electronic music ends up falling into.

Indeed, Holden is one of relatively few producers that managed to quickly escape their genre shackles, at a time when they were far more tightly constrained than the present day. Initially making a name in the late 90s trance movement, his 1999 debut 'Horizons' was something of an anthem, but he quickly moved towards more eccentric and idiosyncratic pastures, his productions tempering melodic chops with a layered and increasingly hallucinatory slant.

Holden founded the Border Community label in 2003, which served as a home for his own productions while introducing fellow bedroom auteurs such as Nathan Fake and Luke Abbott. Working somewhere between techno and homespun electronica, and regularly eschewing traditional arrangement, the music released on the imprint struck a chord during the minimal heyday of the mid 00s, imbued as it was with a personality and soul so sorely lacking from the lumpen and druggy miasma that plagued so much electronic music of the time. Landmark releases such as Fake's 'The Sky was Pink' (and Holden's own stargazing remix of that track, which remains a fixture on dancefloors to this day) spawned a host of imitators, while the label's visual aesthetic – outdoorsy, psychedelic, beautiful - also added a unique visual counterpoint to the music.


'Renata', taken from The Inheritors LP

Holden has also explored increasingly abstract and adventurous avenues as a DJ: his 2010 DJ Kicks was a cinematic and fluid mix that highlighted his left field influences, and featured tracks from Mordant Music and Caribou alongside his own remixes and Border Community material. As remixer, too, he has long been in demand, working with the great and the good of the pop world (Madonna, Britney) alongside old guard electronic trailblazers such as New Order and Depeche Mode. With The Inheritors released this week, the Quietus caught up with Holden to talk musical telepathy, modular synthesis and the evolution of his sound.

I feel like I can hear a strong krautrock influence on The Inheritors. Is that fair to say?

James Holden: Oh, definitely. In the intervening period since the last album I've covered so much ground, musically. I became interested in a huge amount of music, and I've certainly gone through some transition in terms of listening. A lot more weird rock music and the like. I've come to the conclusion that there's no individual kind of music that I don't like. [laughs] It feels liberating, like, 'there is no generic reason that I wouldn't enjoy a record'. Of course, that's not to say that there aren't a lot of shit records about, just that preconceptions have disappeared, somewhat.

I discovered krautrock quite early on in that process and that led me into prog rock, something I certainly had preconceptions about from when I was younger - but yeah, the proggier end of krautrock, Amon Düül and suchlike have been an influence. They have an epic, bombastic element that I enjoy, almost Queen-esque at times.

There seems to have been a shift in focus on this record – it feels further removed from the club world than anything you've released.  Do the expectations of that world ever inform your writing?

JH: When I was recording this record, it was very much a case of doing what I was going to do, and fuck everything else. I wasn't thinking about the club, or preconceptions or expectations or anything like that, because once you do that, it's a creative dead end. I had to not think about it, or it would have been crippling.

The extent to which it delivers or doesn't deliver, in those terms… I guess it's a bit of a reaction against that, a manifestation of a permanent double-edged thing that I have with the club world. I still think that going out, dancing, is the most incredible way of experiencing music. In many ways it's the deepest level of participation that an audience can have; if you're dancing, you're engaged in it, you're really fully experiencing it. I went to a recent lecture at the Barbican on the neurology of music, and there was some discussion about measuring the brain waves of musicians playing together, discussing it as being almost telepathically linked. It's not, of course, it's more rational than that, but music is still something abstract in the air that is linking up brains, and it's impossible to truly measure. I find that absolutely fascinating.

Dance music is very much about rhythmic interaction - from an audience perspective as much as the performers. There's such a strong level of personal rhythmic interaction inherent in electronic music, between audience and performer. And that's why the old, established, rockist narrative – that electronic music is less serious, less about the music, more about the drugs - is kind of unfair. I genuinely believe that it can be some sort of magic.

There is certainly an alchemical element to The Inheritors – tracks like 'Ranoch Dawn', 'Seven Stars' and 'Gone Feral' have almost a pagan vibe.

JH: I used to holiday a lot in Scotland, and you can't spend a lot of time up Scottish mountains without it having some effect on you. [laughs]  And over the years I've spent a lot of time walking through that landscape with the headphones on, thinking 'ok, I want to make a record with this kind of setting in mind'. It can have a pretty extraordinary effect on music. Certainly when I was younger, records just sounded better up there. So it was always in my head that this was what my album should be, when I do a 'proper' album – it would evoke a certain spirit of the British outdoors. I like the idea of people enjoying it outdoors.


'Gone Feral', from The Inheritors LP

I'd like to talk about your use of modular synthesis on the record.  Am I right in thinking that it can be a relatively unstable process?

JH: That's the thing about modular synths - you're kind of steering this machine as it varies its tones. I wanted to make it really simple on this record, though. Two melodic parts, one drum part, the whole thing is in the dynamic with modular synthesis. It can vary with temperature, even. I was doing a lot of work with deliberate chaotic systems, which is really an idea from maths. For example, if you have feedback in the system, you can cause that system to be unstable - not always, but the risk is there. So I was doing a lot of stuff where a slight variation could cause, potentially, a very big change – a lot of feedback, turning it off and on again, which causes a break.

I played the violin as a kid and I used to love those strange tones where you'd hit a really brash open string chord and you knew that if you hit it just 5% harder it would squeal hideously, but it was right on the edge of control. It's the same thing with the synths - really being on the edge of my abilities for holding this thing together.

How does this work from a compositional sense?

JH: In terms of process, the first part may be about making it play the notes that I have in my head, or developing the patterns, then the second part is about making it respond as I play it and actually learning how to play it. And then recording a live take before I go to bed, and that's how pretty much all of it got done.

That's interesting. I remember an interview with the mastering engineer George Peckham, and he was saying that often producers he'd work with would say to a band 'go ahead and run through it, tape's not rolling yet' but secretly they'd set it rolling, and that was often the take that was used.

JH: Oh, definitely, that makes sense. I'm a little bit obsessed with music from Mali at the moment, and listening to that stuff, the recordings… it's a moment, it happened! And it feels so exciting. It isn't about the recording studio, it isn't about endless takes, the recordings still have a real vitality and are exciting to listen to. Virtuosity in that situation still has some real meaning, whereas studio virtuosity - it's like an airbrushed picture of a model, it isn't beauty, not in any true sense of the word.

Your music has seldom followed traditional electronic arrangements. There has very often been a much wilder and more progressive element...

JH: I found myself increasingly shying away from traditional arrangement since the last album, and before then, really. You can hear me getting more into it in some of the remixes I've done since, the music was becoming less arranged, more played, and I wasn't really concerned with lining things up perfectly, getting elements to drop in when they should.

The decade since Border Community started has seen a seismic shift in the way that many people listen to music. Has this had any effect on your writing?

JH: The choices you make about how you record things… the choices I've made… Lets just say I could make music that is designed to sound great on a laptop or playing through an iPhone or whatever. But, by doing that, I would have sacrificed a huge part of the fabric of the record, so I specifically made different choices. I was going against the tightness and the clarity of modern digital production, so I guess I've limited it to something that's best enjoyed by people who have really nice hi-fis. [laughs] It's kind of hard not to do that, actually.


'Idiot', taken from The Idiots Are Winning LP (2006)

Border Community quickly became a well known imprint, and attracted a host of rather blatant imitatiors. How difficult has it been finding music that you want to release?

JH: It's very, very hard finding music for the label. We've got a huge demo mountain, and the vast majority of it is people who are sending records that sound very similar to something that we've already put out. In a way, the label is responsible for how long this album has taken to make.

How has the feel of the label evolved over the last decade?

JH: At the start we were very much outsiders, friends making music together. But the middle period was this really uncomfortable time when we weren't outsiders at all, and people were really gathering around and making these horrible tracks that aped what we did in a really crass way - and we loathed a lot of the music that was building up around what we were doing.

But the main problem was that during the whole minimal era, people were doing these horrific copies, and you'd begin to hear pieces of yourself in something that you really detest. [laughs] Although in a way it did help to push the ball forward, and stop it becoming lame. I mean, Gemma [Sheppard, Border Community co-founder] listens to more of the demos than me, and she keeps a pretty comprehensive log of everything that we get sent. A lot of them have comments next to them that get more and more irate around that time – "fucking terrible, 'Sky Was Pink rip off". [laughs]

But then other times you get a sense that there is something else going on with a demo, an interesting aesthetic sense. For example, when Luke [Abbott] got in touch he sent us a demo covered in thick florescent paint, or Wesley's [Matsell] MySpace had flashing pyramids and UFOs and old school rave and all kinds of bizarre imagery, and you think, 'ok, lets have a look at this…' [laughs] Social relationships change because people start coming to you because you're a successful label, whereas at the start it was just us doing it as friends. That period has settled down, and now it's shrunk right back down, and the people we're working with now are genuine friends making great music... And it helps that people like Luke and Nathan are doing what they're doing, because it can be like 'fuck, that's really good', and it helps when I'm working on my stuff. Its pretty free, and there's not really any pressure on anyone.

What are your views on the democratisation of music technology on the wider electronic music scene? I specifically wanted to ask you this because you were one of the first producers who fully embraced digital technology, working entirely on a computer in the late 90s.

JH: I remember talking to people at the time and being told 'oh, it'll never catch on'.

There are a lot of things in the digital production world that could get your back up. Like YouTube videos of 'How you make dubstep'. There's a lot of lameness. But that said, I always thought that democratisation was essentially a good thing. A friend of mine put it quite succinctly: recorded music is kind of a blip, an aberration, in the history of humankind. It's only really in the last 70 years or so that most people have experienced music primarily as something other than that which they, or somebody else, have physically played. The idea of folk music is simply normal people playing music together, it's not made difficult or elitist. Cheaper music technology, even playing on Guitar Hero, it's actually got a lot more people participating in beatmaking than before, and I think that's a good thing. In the 80s it would have been a hell of a lot more difficult to get involved.

The whole process has opened up. I recently had a bit of a realisation that I can talk about any type of music in an interview without it being remotely elitist. But when I was a kid, if someone was talking about music that was hard to find, then it could be a little off-putting, limiting, certainly when you were younger and entering that world of highly specialised musical knowledge. By way of comparison, a lot of the music that we've mentioned today, somebody could Google that in ten seconds. That opening up of culture, of art, it can only be a good thing.


Nathan Fake - The Sky Was Pink (James Holden remix) (2004)

You've recently been working with the Caribou Vibration Ensemble. How was that?

JH: We did some rehearsals before we did the shows, where we worked out who would be playing what, but the shape of it comes together during the show. It evolved on the night. We all knew each other well enough, but then Dan [Snaith, Caribou/Daphni] threw a spanner in the works by inviting Marshall Allen [laughs], which was incredible.

I'm so grateful to Dan for asking me to do those shows. I've always held away from playing live, because I didn't know how my music would translate to that way of performing, but because of that I now feel that I can do this, and I'm definitely planning to do some live shows in the future, although not around the immediate album release. It was truly inspirational seeing the way that they work together, they're an amazing band. It's a complete machine, so tight that they can accept a load of new members without it falling apart. I can't think of many bands that could do that.

How do you feel your DJing has evolved over the years? Recently you've been incorporating a range of music outside the dance spectrum into your sets.

JH: It's continually evolving, and I feel like I'm getting to the point where I can listen back and feel genuinely happy. Even when I first started, I've always wanted to be able to play the whole thing, across the board, from really trippy stuff to heavy duty techno, but I didn't always make it work. Some of those early gigs were disasters. I'd be standing there following a Boards Of Canada record with a Chris Liebing techno record and I'd have people in furry boots coming up to harangue me in the booth. [laughs] But I was pretty naïve when I started, I suppose, but you sort of learn to get away with it – stepping outside of it, on forums or whatever, you can get a weird set of feedback about what's going on, and it's important to remember that the people who are the most vocal aren't necessarily the majority. Somebody might be talking about 'a big room, big tune, everyone on E, hands in the air' scenario.

But that's often the only reaction that a DJ in a big room can see – its certainly not the only reaction that's actually happening. But it comes from the whole process of getting older and wiser and braver with it. I'm also getting more adept at putting records together without butchering them, without having to do re-edits and shit like that, doing it respectfully and having them fit together so that people will keep dancing.

I played all night at the Trouw in Amsterdam a few weeks ago and I was ecstatic after that, I felt like 'I've done it, finally'. Preparation for that felt a little like revising for exams – you don't just need to know the records but how they all fit together, the tempos/key, everything. I spent the day before going through literally hundreds of tracks in Traktor folders, and by the end I had this weird thing where if I didn't know the name of the track or the artist, I could generally still tell which key it was in. It's just like revision. [laughs]

I realised a few years ago that that was going to be completely central to the way that I want to play. I don't want to be just playing straight house records which are easy to mix with a straight intro and outro. A lot of the records I want to play were never remotely considered to be played by DJs. If something follows on musically, and you're playing something old and weird after something functional, providing it's in the same key people will often interpret it as almost being a part of the same tune and keep dancing, and that's really exciting. I love it when I drop something that isn't expected to work in a club and everyone gets it. I feel much happier doing that than playing a record that I know is going to work and getting a reaction that I know is coming. I've almost stopped playing those records.

James Holden's The Inheritors is out now via Border Community