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Baker's Dozen

Magical Experiences: James Holden's Favourite Albums
Rory Gibb , June 5th, 2014 15:08

Following last year's feral The Inheritors album, Border Community label head James Holden is about to take his newly developed live show on tour, including to Field Day and Sonar Barcelona. Rory Gibb catches up with him to discuss thirteen favourite and formative albums, improvisation and atheist spirituality

"Music that changes you, or that hypnotises you, or that you can get lost in," says James Holden of the underlying character uniting the thirteen albums he's chosen for his Baker's Dozen list. The techno explorer and Border Community label head is speaking over Skype from his home studio; behind him sits a formidably huge bank of modular synthesiser units, a veritable spacecraft cockpit's worth of LED indicators and control knobs. The instrument has become increasingly central to Holden's work over the years he's been making music, powering his trajectory from expansive trance-infused techno to last year's bold, wild and frequently excellent second album The Inheritors. Gathering some of his best and most ambitious work to date, that album found him guiding the modular's scorched, glowing tones into dense lattices of bristling noise, grit and chugging momentum; the results ranged from archaic yet futuristic percussive constructions that felt like the ritual folk forms of an unfamiliar off-world civilisation ('A Circle Inside A Circle Inside', 'Gone Feral'), lysergic jazz (The Caterpillar's Intervention') and phases of colour-saturated rhythmic drive recalling his earlier dancefloor music ('Renata').

Since the album's release Holden has been working on his first ever full live show. A few days ago, a tiny component in his modular system burned out, blowing the whole instrument up only a week before the group were due to head to Japan. Many hours of work later, it's thankfully fixed in time for the tour. "Now it sounds different from the last time I played with it," he admits. "But that's good. It's like a fresh element of un-control, where I can't have learned strategies for success, I can't just go through the motions onstage. I think that's important. Once you get into that [mindset of ] 'I know this'll work doing it this way', then the life comes out of it, and it becomes very apparent to everyone involved."

In contrast to the exquisitely constructed and immersive DJ sets Holden's become renowned for, his newly developed live show involves a full band, with him manning the modular system opposite Etienne Jaumet (saxophone), and drummers Tom Page and Lascelle Lascelles. "I've never really played in bands before, I'd just improvise opposite a machine, which I was trying to make as human as possible, but it wasn't a person," he says of the new possibilities the group offers. "And then having this experience, I can't quite explain it. It's when they throw you off, and you respond to it in the moment, that something new happens. You can come up with new stuff in a rehearsal or when you're jamming in private, but onstage it's different - something original happens onstage that's even better. Those ideas are worth taking home and thinking about. It's a lot of stuff that I believe about how you can't really do anything good thinking about it, that the subconscious is better. Having the band is like a dowsing rod or something," he laughs. "I'm starting to think about writing new music for this band, or this modular. I haven't got that far yet, but it'll be fun to start trying that out."

Improvisation is becoming ever more important to Holden - while The Inheritors was one step along that road, he plans for his next album to be even freer in process - bringing both his practice and sound further into alignment with a clutch of other contemporary electronic musicians exploring similar avenues, including London's Ralph Cumbers (aka Bass Clef and Some Truths) and Lebanon-born artist and Morphine label boss Rabih Beaini (aka Morphosis). Indeed, Holden also recalls with excitement a recent performance at London's Cafe Oto from Morphine-signed synth improviser Charles Cohen. "It was so magical. Charles' manner onstage, just the calmness he extrudes, it was wonderful, and his playing," he enthuses. "I was just lost in it. He started, and started making a noise, adjusted it very slightly, and then just folded his arms and let it play for a moment. What a great way to start a set! It's not cocky confidence, it's just centred, he's more Zen than I am," he chuckles. "He really made shapes and big dramatic gestures, and big things in his improvisations, whereas people often just get lost in amorphous, 'the machine is doing this', you can't see the line between what the machine would do anyway, and what is the musician's output. Whereas with him, I believed it all came from him."

Holden's selection of favourite and formative albums for his Baker's Dozen list, he says, is far from definitive. "I'm really aware that if you'd have asked me this two months ago, or two months in the future, the list would be completely different. When I put it in chronological order I realised there's nothing from the 80s, but theres loads of stuff I like from that era; it's just that what I'm thinking about at the moment leads me in a particular direction. Maybe I'm sort of thinking about what I'm doing next, and live performances, and a couple of projects I've got lined up for next year, which means I'm probably listening a lot to a certain sort of thing."

In addition, taking a step back from DJing regularly to work on his live performances has proved a relief, allowing Holden to step back from the constant churn of listening through new dance music releases for club play. "After a couple of weeks I started to think all this preoccupation with new music is just a capitalist aberration," he laughs. "I don't want to become the old man who only listens to old music, but I've definitely permanently changed into someone who's going to listen to a lot of old music.

"[Also], and this is so trite, but music's so personal. There's this narrative of what's hot and important and influential right now, but when you go back and you look at the critical reception to some of the records even in this list, you realise that... The most important record I've ever heard in my life got a really bad review in most of the press when it came out, and doesn't seem to be widely accepted as an important thing," he reflects. "Maybe the best thing I can do in terms of sharing any messages or music is to try and push away from this established central narrative. "How something interacts with everyone else, and what everyone else does in the light of someone's record, almost then redefines that record."

James Holden plays at Field Day in Victoria Park this Friday 7th June, and at Sonar in Barcelona, which runs from 12th-14th June, as well as a series of dates throughout the summer, listed here.

Click the image below to begin browsing through James Holden's favourite albums.