The “T” Word: James Holden Interviewed

James Holden’s excellent new album, Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities, is out next month on his own Border Community label. John Doran speaks to him about the etymology of the word trance, the evolutionary purpose of music and maintaining a sense of radical optimism

James Holden by Laura Lewis

There’s a reasonable reading to be made of James Holden’s musical progression to date. It goes something like this: with all the idealism, energy, rapidly-crystalising intelligence and wide-eyed naivety of his late teenage years, James Holden started producing trance records which were enhanced rather than hindered by the fact he had grown up geographically and socially isolated from the major hubs of European dance music culture. This culminated in a remix which helped shift the course of dance music and cemented for him what looked like a career as a big name DJ, remixer and producer. But, instead of simply galvanising his position, with a first class ticket on a gravy train for life, he began an excavation into the deeper etymological layers of the word ‘trance’ in order to apply lessons learned to his own practice. At first this happened in parallel to his mainstream career as a DJ but then became the ultimate focus of his work, with each new iteration of this interrogation feeding back into his production work, ultimately leading to the creation of some of the most invigorating ‘electronic’ music of the last decade.

It’s a fool’s game trying to apply such a sweeping narrative arc to the complexity of someone’s quarter-of-a-century long creative path, but when I mention this to Holden he nods and says, “That’s basically it!” But even if he’s not simply being polite to me, the word “basically” means, at best, it’s not really the full story. I went into this interview with a secondary, less well-considered reading that Holden was a golden ager, albeit the best kind: someone who was too young and too far away from a revolutionary moment in the global counterculture – in this case the UK iteration of acid house – to experience it firsthand, but instead drew upon the notion of a platonic ideal of how things could be, how things should be, in order to create utopian art himself.

And after talking to him for several hours I come away convinced that this is (basically) true as well, but both perceptions intertwine to form the top layer of a more complex psychological palimpsest. What feels like a deeper, knottier picture begins to emerge; one of optimism running bloodily and repeatedly up against reality; dented and creaking but ultimately as yet unbroken utopian thinking; cyclical skirmishes between self-doubt and clear-eyed innovation; and fluctuating levels of faith in human nature and the concept of progress itself.

Holden arrives at a friendly, independent high street coffee shop in West London, with his long term partner Gemma with whom he runs label Border Community, and a dog in tow. Heidi, a Staffy, is a relatively recent addition to the family; a ten year-old rescue dog who used to live on the street with her homeless owner until he died a year and a half ago.

Underneath a very nice parka, supplemented with a fancy scarf, Holden is wearing the same sort of clobber that no doubt saw him through his student days; a cheerful, brightly-coloured sweatshirt, jeans and DMs. He has youthful good looks, augmented with, rather than challenged by, the encroachment of silver at the temples; something that has arrived with his forties. He doesn’t dodge any questions, only really pausing to gently push a couple of particularly funny, slightly grim stories about superstar DJs off the record. (If you have any biases against the idea of Superstar DJs, suffice to say, these tales would have done little to alter them.)

He says goodbye to Gemma and Heidi as they leave us to it. Heidi isn’t their first dog; they were cut up when their last dog Buster died in 2020. This resuce, “a chunky little ginger Staffy Jack Russell cross”, contracted bladder cancer and caring for him became part and parcel of the couple’s lockdown, creating a strange and melancholic background to the creation of his new album Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities: “It was a really miserable time. The vet said he had two months and he lived for a year and half after that. We were living in my studio because our house was leaking. Then the pandemic hit but we had no money so we were stuck in there with no hot water. It was super intimate and an intense period where I wrote most of the ideas for the record.”

Using a technique Luke Abbott – a producer who occasionally releases work on Holden’s Border Community label – introduced him to, he surrounded himself with a halo of speakers (“shit old speakers, speakers we found out by the bins, crappy digital speakers”) each with a single sound routed to it. Using that set up, he sent an organ-like patch from his modular system, via a chain of reverbs and resonators, to a big pair of PA speakers in the studio foyer to create a huge warehouse-like sense of space, and got to work playing an ethereal, drifting arpeggio. He says: “Because Buster had bladder cancer he just needed the toilet continuously and also would just wee on the floor. If you listen to that demo, after about ten minutes you hear Gemma go, ‘Oh no! I just took you out!’ So there’s this super-heavenly, floating-with-the-spirits kind of song, which is interrupted by pissing, and crashing about, and the door slamming.”

When Buster died, the whole project was shelved for a couple of years. He says: “I’d go back to the recording and think, ‘I have to do something with this, it’s really special.’ But for years I would play it and then get to the sad bit on the tape…”

He describes the death as his first big loss and something of a watershed moment: “Eventually, once I had gotten over it, I guess, I was playing this recording in the studio. I reached over to the Prophet synth, switched it on, found a good sound almost immediately. I hit record without thinking about it, and the track became ‘In The End You’ll Know’.”

He acknowledges that the idea of ‘imprinting’ music with intense emotional experiences is unusual terrain to traverse but not always in predictable ways: “I made a track once after going through an incredibly intense experience with my family. After it was released a person got in touch to say that this particular track had helped him get through a really difficult experience. And it turned out to be almost identical to the thing I’d gone through with my family. It was as if something had connected us at some level.”

Since The Inheritors in 2013 Holden has been engaged in a project to combine soft and hard synths, electronic and acoustic instruments with coding, in order to create something that looks and breathes like an organic whole, while not straying too far from the grid of electronic dance music. This dazzling approach is the basis of the new record but his actual set up is applaudable in its minimalism: two synths, a modular and a computer. It’s clear he doesn’t fetishize gear: “Luke [Abbott] was showing me some new synth and it was four or five grand, and we worked out how many Spotify streams you’d have to get in order to be able to make it pay off…” He cracks up laughing, before adding: “When you buy a synth from a store, in a way, you’re buying a set of decisions that have already been made for you.”

A relatively simply-patched modular is used for making nice tones, the computer for generative sequencing, MIDI, chord augmentation and production of LFOs: “Half the composition is building the instrument. I build a system and it doesn’t quite work, so I correct it, or it doesn’t respond quite in the way I think it will but something interesting comes out of it. But if I buy a synth from a shop, I’ve outsourced my favourite bit of the creative process to some company, and given them way too much money for a lot of plastic and metal that doesn’t need to be in the world.”

The title of the album Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities offers a doorway into his process beyond its unashamedly transcendental surface meaning. He momentarily mocks himself before offering context: “‘Oh, so you’re a stoner hippie are you?’ Actually, I found this phrase one morning, scrawled in my notebook from the night before. When I’m writing the software I get hyper focused. I wait until everyone is out of the room, and spend hours at it until I’m busting for the toilet. There’ll be a full ashtray next to me and I keep going until I’m too tired to continue and I’m falling asleep. Then I come back to it the next day and find out what I’ve done. On this occasion I found a three dimensional drawing of a space with this phrase scrawled across the top of it. It was to do with something quite mundane that I’d been thinking about, like when you map controllers to things, how do you define the space, because there are all sorts of possibilities. But then it was obvious the statement could also be talking about a lot of other different things.”

The notebook has since been stolen along with the contents of a bag, but this in turn is symbolic of his process; the act of remorselessly chasing down creative ideas, crystallising abstract theory into sound before these thoughts vanish completely for good. Holden, you would hazard a guess, actually has trouble concentrating on one thing at a time, and a trance-like approach to his work probably suits him. In the past he has built himself a BPM and key matching DJ mixer, he makes his own plug-ins and could clearly move into hardware and module design if he wanted. At one point he starts talking about an idea for a rhizomatic, decentralised, community owned version of Bandcamp, perhaps working along the same lines as Mastodon before catching himself and steering himself back on course. He adds: “Coding is trance inducing to me. And I know when I’m miserable about something I can focus on something like that. It says something about how my brain works that I just really enjoy being in a trance state.”

James Holden by Laura Lewis

If Holden has spent the last 25 years interrogating what it means to be in a trance state via the access point of hypnotic music, this isn’t something he inherited. However, if his journey from the periphery of dance music to the very centre in the first years of his career was rapid, this is something that was possibly aided rather than inhibited by his relatively unusual childhood.

His maternal grandmother was Greek and suffered lifelong complications traceable back to the tit-for-tat expulsion of Greek nationals from Turkey during the 1920s. She grew up living near Adana, in the south of Turkey, just north of Syria until, aged five, she walked halfway to Greece, while her Dad was interned in a camp. He says: “This coloured my Mum’s childhood and my Dad’s family had problems of their own. They were quite isolated I think, they found each other and huddled together. The were quite inward looking.”

He admits he was once quite “pissed off” about aspects of his childhood but jokes about it easily now: “Dogtooth. You want to know what my childhood was like? The film Dogtooth is a documentary about my childhood.”

After being born in Exeter, the family moved to Leicester when he was five, where his southern accent initially caused him difficulty at school, ending up with him sometimes speaking with a Midlands accent with friends and a more RP-leaning accent at home: “My parents weren’t rich, but they had a very classist view of society. They were left of centre but super conservative socially and I was really starved of any culture that wasn’t approved.” It’s telling that when I ask him about the biggest trouble he ever got into before adulthood, he tells me it was when his Dad caught him listening to a Walkman (and not even cottoning on that the young Holden was enjoying the strictly verboten ‘Squeeze My Lemon’ by Led Zeppelin).

Despite being taught piano at home, his real education came via a physics teacher at school: “I had an eight bit Amstrad CPC 464 computer which you could programme to make three beeps at once. My school had an Atari with Notator and a couple of Rolands. The real epiphany came when the GCSE music teacher played what I’d done to Mike, the physics teacher. He started handing me tapes of Orbital and Black Dog.

“Every day I’d copy the tape and go back to him and say, ‘What else have you got?’ And he’d be like, ‘This is Future Sound Of London.’ I don’t think that people who are quite a bit younger than me really understand the concept of only having ten CDs, twenty tapes and that would be the entirety of your culture. If you play me any excerpt from Lifeforms, I’ll tell you the exact sound that comes next.”

He says that this education was at odds with finding out about club culture: “When I first went down to London I was still a student but I knew that Nick Warren was probably going to play my record so we went down to see him and we’d come from this culture of lovely free parties and community hall raves, Chris Liberator playing in the East Oxford Community Centre and then you end up in Turnmills and it’s rammed and everyone’s miserable. It was horrible. But then I ended up spending half my working life in that environment.

“When I was a kid, the media ran what was like an advertising campaign for being a new age traveller. That’s how it seemed to me. All these shock horror stories about raves and crusties and acid. I saw it and said, “This is great. I want an army truck.’ But you’re chasing after a dream that never actually existed really, right? But that’s a good thing because that was an aspiration and that’s where my initial idea of emancipation originated from.”

When asked directly if the attempt to connect with rave and UK acid house prelapsarian idealism before the fall, of superstar DJs and megaclubs and stadium techno with party cannons and so on, is golden ageism, he agrees, to a degree: “‘I never got to go to Castle Morton!’ During my whole life there’s been an aspect of this, but it isn’t just that I was too young to go, but also that the dream is different to the reality. I don’t know if there’s ever been a ‘Fall’ in dance music, because I don’t know if every free party was welcoming, or a safe space for everyone who went. Even the ones I went to as a kid… I went to this illegal party in Leicester with two of my mates after my A-Levels, and I was thinking, ‘This is great! So amazing!” but after ten minutes my friends were like [puts on a stressed voice]: ‘We’re leaving. Now.’ And I was like, ‘Okay…’" [laughs]

His experience of making music during and after leaving university was initially one of negatives, each one ratcheting up higher than the last. To an outsider it must have looked like a dream. Early industry promise with the ‘Horizons’ single (1999), the game-changing ‘The Sky Was Pink’ remix for Nathan Fake (2004), remix work for Madonna, New Order and Depeche Mode: “Initially in my local scene in Oxford I had met pure-hearted people putting parties on in community centres, with a more or less anarchist method of organisation, reward and power. It was beautiful. What I wanted to be involved in.” But as soon as he started releasing music his own experiences with indies were harsh and then soul-deadening at the major labels, culminating with his entrance to the realm of the superstar DJ: “I had this conversation once with two big DJs and… I want to tell you about it, but if you published it you’d get sued for libel for a lot of money. But this thing was said and I thought, ‘I want to get as far away from this as humanly possible.’

“But to complain about dance music as a whole is wrong. It’s not binary. I’ve met so many people in really brilliant small scenes across America in Northern Ireland/ROI, across England, across Europe, so many beautiful little ideal little communities, but the closer you get to the heart of mainstream dance music, the harder it is to locate that community. And that part of it corrupts, and this corruption spreads via a set of fixed ideas about what music should be delivering or what a party should be like.”

We talk about many different aspects of the dance music industry and even on subjects where I consider myself fairly cynical, Holden turns out to be much more hardline than I am. When I mention being conflicted by Boiler Room – these streams ‘teach’ people how to act in clubs way before they ever get there codifying the whole experience, but what about the access to people whose circumstances mean they’ll never get to these clubs – he sets me straight: “I think what Boiler Room offers isn’t access to that club. What it offers is the illusion of access. There’s nothing like the actual experience to be had from a Boiler Room stream. People used to trade bootleg recordings of my DJ sets and I just thought it was the stupidest thing. Sure it’s okay music, but an mp3 of a set is about 5% of the experience of hearing it in a club. And similarly the streaming video of a DJ set is 5% of the experience. And you are killing this experience by observing it. It’s the observer’s paradox. The level of risks that [DJs] are willing to take changes if the set is being recorded forever. Boiler Room’s goal is to extract things from club culture for free and then to sell them to someone else via an asymmetrical power relationship. Most of the problems in dance music stem from these extractive practices.”

I tell him that there’s some jigsaw evidence to suggest an element of something that maybe isn’t quite misanthropy, but is maybe more a kind of depression about human nature, running through his work. His excellent 2006 debut LP The Idiots Are Winning is an obvious example, but also the name of his short lived band The Animal Spirits has definite animist overtones, while The Inheritors was named for the book of the same name. William Golding’s persuasive and disheartening 1955 novel is ostensibly about the extinction of what may be the final tribe of Neanderthals, supplanted by fire-using and weapon-brandishing humans.

Holden says: “Yeah, you’ve spotted something there. The Inheritors deals with the tragedy of progress I guess. So if you’ve spotted this idea, it’s not necessarily supposed to be misanthropic, just the idea that the progress itself is wrong. I’m super pissed off with a conversation I had with my brother recently about Google AI music. If you open the app and type in ‘Trance song with guimbri and vocals’ and something that’s a bit like music comes out the other end. His reaction was callous about what it’s going to do to me. I said my concerns were more to do with what it was going to do to music generally speaking and he said, ‘Well, it’s just progress. Everyone benefits from progress.’”

But is an AI genuinely going to come up with ‘The Caterpillar’s Intervention’ – the incredible schaffel-like free jazz rave centrepiece of The Inheritors?

He concedes: “No, it’s probably not is it? So maybe I shouldn’t be scared of it but it is still going to dent the ecosystem. There’s already too much music out there. The worst aspect of music is finding the good stuff, so we don’t need more mediocre derivative stuff. And the really scary bit is we’ve just handed bad actors the means with which to flood the internet with shit.”

Then he adds: “You’re right. I do have some disillusionment and the knowledge that the dream was never real to begin with. It’s not an ‘at peace’ world, I’m in. But when you’re optimistic and you push for something that doesn’t exist, sometimes you succeed. That’s what it’s about. The early days of Border Community were like that. The guy who does my visuals now, we didn’t really know him back then, he told us that he came to our nights at Corsica studios and they were the best nights of his life. The dream occurred in London. If you go to Wigflex in Nottingham, for example, you can see that the dream is still alive today.”

His big revelation after doing The Inheritors was that he wasn’t just “a muppet sitting behind a computer” but he could actually play live and collaborate with other people; an idea that has definitely flowered during his ongoing collaboration with Wacław Zimpel, with whom he has an album planned: “Wacław taught me so much about improvising. I sort of carried The Animal Spirits to a certain degree. There was a sense that if my computer crashed, the music would just stop while I rebooted. There’s no way the music would stop with Wacław.”

Holden with Floating Points, Morocco, 2014, by Camille Blake

But this revelation really sank in properly after a trip to Morocco to play with gnawa musicians: “It was one of the most important revelations of my life, like the biggest door opening.”

In March 2014, James Holden and Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points, went to the Fellah Hotel, near Marrakech, for a week-long residency in order to collaborate with Maalem (meaning Master) Mahmoud Guinia and his band, a session which resulted in one of this site’s favourite releases of recent years, the Marhaba EP. Although Holden found his first attempts at a musical fusion were awkward – he’d come prepared to add beats, not realising how far off grid the session would go, "I realised I wasn’t a musician, just a man with a box" – he spent his first night furiously repatching his modular to become a playable instrument. The first track of the next day’s session, ‘Bania’, remains the highlight of his career so far.

When you listen to the track now it’s thrilling to hear how quickly Holden finds the right chords before there is interplay between electronics and the gnawa call and response, the plucked guimbri and the thunderous cast iron castanets called krakeb. He says: “There was one point at which Guinia just cut the percussion and orchestrated, what to me, was a trance breakdown, with me on the pads and him building up the bass until he nodded for the drums to do the drop. And it’s really trite, but trance music is really universal in that sense. His instincts to do with what would make this track connect with people were really to do with tension and release.”

Floating Points, Maalem Mahmoud Guinia’s band and James Holden, Morocco, 2014, by Camille Blake

Holden has collaborated with musicians from the Guinia dynasty since; once after playing together at a European festival, he was invited with the musicians to attend a Lila, the complex public ritual which addresses the nature of existence, in which supernatural spirits are invited to take possession of attendees who then lose themselves in ecstatic dancing until they collapse.

He pauses lengthily before adding: “I want to describe it without othering it, because really, apart from the fact it has a heightened level of religious significance, it felt very familiar. It happened in a courtyard of a house with balconies all around and everyone sat on the floor, with people dancing in the middle. It was all generations from the very old to very young, and half way through they handed out food to everyone. But people would get up to dance, put themselves into a trance, have a fit and pass out, one after another, all the way through the night. It’s not something I’d seen anything like before but at the same it didn’t feel that different to a free party. People would pass out after dancing for too long but everyone would be there looking after them. It felt like the nicest thing. Like when you have a friend who’s taken too many pills and you find a total stranger just looking after them. It felt like that.”

You said ‘bar the heightened spiritual significance’ but that’s quite a big difference isn’t it?

He answers: “Well people have a spiritual belief in their musical experiences but I also don’t want to insult anyone’s faith either.”

Either way, he said he came back to London thinking about the purpose and function of music in a different light: “There was a feeling that there was a commonality, that this was in fact a universal experience. I already thought of music as serving an incredibly important social function, or being pseudo religious, having a therapeutic function. But this is what music is: it brings communities together. And that’s what I think its evolutionary purpose is.”

Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities is out on 31 March via Border Community

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