James Holden - The RFB Interview
06 Nov 2013
"I actually feel less worried before a live show than I do before a DJ show - which is perverse really..." RFB speaks to James Holden ahead of his performance at Illuminations.
James Holden has long been upheld as the enfant terrible of the electronic music sphere. Whilst that may seem like a bit of a cold assessment for a man who is head of one of the UK’s most forward-thinking music labels, it’s a reputation that he doesn’t shy away from, rather, it’s something that he’s proud to embrace, a perverse badge of honour for an artist who has always been resolutely singular in his aesthetic and ambition.
Releasing his first single, ‘Horizons’, at the age of nineteen whilst still studying a Mathematics degree at Oxford of all places, it laid down a marker for a young producer who was unafraid to shock and challenge the then-strictures of what electronic music was perceived to be. The inception of his Border Community label followed in 2003, which has since gone on to become an institution for cutting edge electronica with a roster that includes like-minded artists Nathan Fake and Luke Abbott. A serial remixer, you can count Britney and Madonna as well as Radiohead and Mogwai among Holden’s subjects, and it’s with this eye and ear for the unexpected that made his debut album The Idiots Are Winning so revelatory. A seven year gap followed, and now, off the back of his follow up record The Inheritors, Holden has been prepping a live AV performance that he will showcase at two special Rockfeedback Illuminations shows on 10th November at the Roundhouse Studio.
What have you been up to recently, James?
I’ve just got back from America actually; I did a support tour with Atoms For Peace. It was amazing, probably the best thing I’ve ever done. Just playing live… I thought I’d enjoy it but I didn’t really realise how much I’d really enjoy it. I feel like I’ve opened a door to a new thing.
Why do you think you left it so long to start performing live?
I’d always thought that I just wouldn’t play live to be honest, I’d put too much work into being the best DJ I could possibly be, and DJing is pretty special when you have a connection with a crowd. Also, the way I make my music it’s so complicated it would be difficult to reproduce it onstage. But then when Thom Yorke emailed and asked me, I just realised ‘no I’m being silly, it’ll be fun’. I’m really glad that it happened, I feel like I’m going to play live a lot more, and it gives me ideas to record new music.
Did you feel nervous ahead of those first shows?
I got a bit stressed when I was trying to make it all work, because quite a lot of the songs would be pretty hard to write with just a computer, there’s lots of sequencing through chaotic systems and modular synths, and it’s quite hard to work out the notes afterwards. Then I got quite stressed thinking ‘well, is this even going to work?’ But by the time we did a private practice gig in front of a bunch of our friends in the studio just before we left, it was so much fun, and by the time we were due to walk out on stage, we were just feeling pretty relaxed and excited about it. I actually feel less worried before a live show than I do before a DJ show - which is perverse really.
How would you compare the two, because I’ve read that when you DJ you stay away from tracks that you know will get people dancing - to what extent do you see it as a challenge to keep people moving when you’re incorporating non-dance tracks into the mix?
It’s like walking a fine line, trying to find the best possible compromise so that everyone can have a good night. You’re so aware of the audience’s energy level, and the feedback you’re getting off them continuously for hours, and for a DJ, before you arrive at the show you don’t really know whether it’s going to be good or bad, and you don’t really have much control over it because it relies so much on that feedback circle between you and the audience. So when you’re choosing the next track you really feel like excited and happy, like ‘I know this is a weird track but I know these people are cool and they’re going to go for it’. And that’s a really nice feeling, but when it’s the opposite like ‘oh I’d love to play that but these people are going to hate it’, then I find that quite difficult to deal with. I come away from it quite miserable. When I’m playing live, I feel like people are expecting a different thing. There’s this idea that a DJ is meant to entertain the crowd, but with a live act it’s just the music; you like it or you don’t like it, and it’s not my fault if you don’t. And then it’s just about nailing the songs, and the feeling that once you finish the song of ‘that’s the best we’ve ever done that, that’s great’. It’s a whole different set of emotions playing live.
When you are performing, how would you describe the interaction with the audience? Is there a bit of a gap there, compared to when you’re DJing?
You can sort of gauge a bit of energy from the crowd, but you’re much busier playing live. As a DJ I don’t really believe in whacking around with effects just to look busy, so quite a lot of the time there’s really nothing you can legitimately be doing apart from looking at the audience and thinking about where you’re going. Live, my hands and eyes are busy for the whole duration of the song, so out of the corner of your eye you have an impression of whether it’s working or not. But definitely when you feel something back halfway through a song it definitely helps. There is some level of interaction, it just doesn’t change what the thing is so much. The connection when you’re DJing is part of the performance. When you’re playing live, it’s not necessarily that important.
Is there a similar risk-taking element to your live performances - do you ever go offpiste or do you stick to the way in which the tracks were originally written?
They kind of change from how they are on the album as we’ve got more confident, it’s started to change shape. That’s the thing I’m excited about, where it’s going to go. I know the line up of my band is going to shift and change over the next year, and I know that the way the songs were on the album, that’s one way they could’ve been, and the way we’re playing them now is another way. Turning them upside down, looking at how they work and re-arranging it. I feel like some of these songs, they could take any number of different shapes. I know we will have rehearsals and try to extend one of the songs, but then some of it just happens on the night. There was a really good night on the Atoms For Peace tour when one song just fully went off on one, and that’s a really nice feeling as well. When you’re connected enough with the people you’re playing with, they know where you’re going next as much as you do, event though you’ve only just had the idea to do it that way. Tom Page from RocketNumberNine who is playing drums for me at the moment is just a fantastic musician and he’s from a jazz background so he gets my music, what I do and don’t want in it which also comes from improvising. So it’s an amazing feeling when you think ‘that’s a good idea’, and you look across and see that he’s seen what I was doing and he’s already on it. For someone who’s spent the last fifteen years basically only working with electronic items, I’m really loving having such a good musician to work with.
Going back to your youth, I read that you grew up playing in school orchestras. Did this inform your early relationship with music in any way?
I don’t know, school orchestras are so rigid. Junior level classical music education, you’re just trying to scrape through to the end of the piece without everyone finishing at a different time (laughs), so there’s no room for improvisation. A couple of music teachers tried to introduce the idea of it to us, and I remember thinking how it was quite cool but the thing that really made it possible was the thing I did with Caribou, that Vibration Ensemble and a little mini-tour. I’m super grateful to Dan for asking me to do that because it took me out of the studio and made me realise that my own process of when I’m recording is improvising, and made me realise that I could just take that and do it with a bunch of other people. It gave me a bit of confidence in myself I guess.
Having discussed your improvising, I’m interested in the dichotomy between that and maths, which you studied at Oxford. How much of a bearing would you say that had on your musical career?
It’s definitely informed a lot of what I’ve done, even though I wasn’t particularly good at getting a degree or anything. High level maths isn’t so rigid, it starts to become a bit intuitive and it’s all so complicated, it becomes like nature, something quite fluid, like you just have a feeling and you intuit your way to how to prove something. And although everything is rigorous and provable and solid, it’s not so prescriptive and dry as you would think it would be. And stuff like chaos theory, it’s beautiful and it’s there and you see it in nature, in the world around us, in social interactions. Everything can be described like that. I program the computer, lots of stuff in the modular is using it as if it’s analogue computer, and all that stuff it is quite serious but the idea of it is that I do all that thinking and work around how I want to perform, and then having done all that work, when I’m performing either in the studio or on stage, it’s just another instrument, it’s no longer a complicated maths thing. I’ve made a computer into a more expressive instrument than it otherwise would be. So maths is really useful for that. It definitely has to be kept in its box, and I want to get into a place where every time I’m playing, I don’t want to be thinking about anything, I just want to be feeling my way through it. And that’s my ultimate aim. Definitely the less you think, the better your music is.
Was your maths background something that drew you to accompany Marcus du Sautoy’s lecture at the Barbican?
It definitely made me confident that I could engage in that sort of subject matter. It was very interesting, all the research all around it, giving me lots of ideas that I hadn’t had time to explore yet, and just made me think about music and how it works on people. But at the same time it was pretty intimidating; Marcus is a lot better at maths than I ever could’ve been - even if I had smoked less dope (laughs).
How did you go about composing the music for a subject like consciousness?
Quite a lot of the research came from the way that sound can affect your state of consciousness, and there are quite a lot of scientific studies that have shown that repeated tones at certain frequencies or repeated rhythms will make your brain align to them and sync up. The rate at which your brain is firing governs whether you’re wide awake or panicky or calm or unconscious or whatever. Psychiatrists have done stuff where they’ve put people in a sort of hypnotic trance and there are all kinds of ethological research that shows this stuff happening in tribal rituals. So, that was my main jumping off point, I wanted to make things pulse in that way, just to play around with what interesting ways I can find of prodding someone’s brain at 18 hertz or whatever. After talking to the people who put that lecture together, I felt like there were ideas germinating of how to do that in an even more intense way...
And the music was playing whilst he was giving the lecture?
Yeah there was background music throughout, and then we did the 20 minute live performance. Afterwards, I had a really good discussion with this guy called Vincent Walsh who’s a neuroscientist and quite a challenging character. I said to him ‘as a scientist, how can I make music change people’s state of consciousness, is it possible?’ And he said that asking a scientist was a stupid idea and as a musician I already know much more than the scientist… But he also said that the social and cultural signifiers in music are probably as powerful as any brain alignment that’s yet to happen.
I wanted to talk to you a bit about your new record – I’m fascinated by the length of it. By its very nature dance music seems averse to full length albums, let alone one as long as this…
I did want it to be monolithic, heavy in some ways and a bit hard to get around your head - I don’t really know why actually. I don’t have a very coherent reason for imposing that much on the listener but I knew it would be important to do that right from the off. I really don’t know why, maybe to try and make a whole world? I wanted it to stand apart. I thought that if it’s huge and covers every possible corner of the universe then it makes it easier to stand apart I guess…
And did you want listeners to go back and uncover new things with every listen?
Yeah definitely, it’s not very laboriously worked over, I didn’t put every bit of detail there myself by hand, it would all be down as me and machines performing together. I could spend hours listening to my live takes on repeat, thinking ‘oh that’s good, I didn’t realise I’d done that!’. I had done it, my brain had chosen to do it, but it was faster than I could keep track of. So I felt like I would want other people to have that experience when they’re listening to it, you’ll hear new bits every time you play it hopefully. The way it’s mixed, there’s thing hidden below the surface, and when you buy a better pair of speakers you’ll hear a whole new level of stuff. So many people make music now and it’s so easy and the tools are free if you don’t mind breaking the law. It’s so commodified. Ableton is only two steps up from playing Guitar Hero isn’t it? I wanted to make something that’s heavier than your average album, denser and fuller. That was the aim. I have some sort of personality disorder where I don’t really like having anyone too similar to me. I get aggressive about it. So everything about it is about standing apart, which I’m aware is a flaw but I’m pleased with the results.
If someone tried to ape your style would you immediately distance yourself from that and change your whole sound completely?
It’s happened in the past, and people trying to ape it has made me realise what was wrong with it. And they get it slightly wrong, and the difference between us is very apparent to me but maybe not to everyone else. But that’s definitely helped me move forward, to the point where The Inheritors evolved. I have to be grateful for some of the acts that tried to copy what I’d done previously because they did make me realise where it was lacking, and gave me some perspective things.
Would you almost encourage people to try and copy you so you can see your shortcomings if there are any?
Yeah it does help. It’s good to be pushed forward isn’t it? If there wasn’t someone snapping at my heels I wouldn’t try as hard to move forward with the next thing. That said, it is also a personality defect on my part…
Would you call it a defect though?
Yeah, I think so. Most people who make music have something wrong with them (laughs). If you’re happy and well-balanced you’d have a family and a stable job. It’s for the attention seekers, for people who want to pick up the lamp posts of culture - who want to become musicians.
Would you say this is an example of your rebellious streak that was touted around the time of your first album’s release?
I wouldn’t ever describe myself as rebellious because it makes you sound as though you’re trying too hard doesn’t it, like Miley Cyrus or something. But I am quite disagreeable I guess.
How does that lend itself to working in your band? Do you take the lead and the others just follow or is everyone on an equal footing…
I’m not dictatorial at all, kind of the opposite. You want to get everyone into a comfortable place where they feel like they can improvise without thinking ‘will James approve of this… Should I do it?’ It’s too late by that point. I remember Tom was telling me how James Brown used to have a little signal that he’d do on stage for if anyone missed a beat or if they were a bit off, which would mean ‘you’re getting fired ten dollars’. The thought of having time for that in a performance, I don’t think I’ll get to that point on stage, not for a while.
You’re playing with the live band for us at Illuminations, how do you feel about the show?
I’m spending this week screwing some more modules into the modular so that I can add a couple of songs, something that’s not off The Inheritors, and see how that works out in rehearsals. I’m pretty excited, the room’s nice. We’ve got Jack Featherstone who did the album art doing visuals as well. I’m excited to see what he does in response to the music, how it’ll add something. This is our own show not a support slot, so we have more space to wriggle around and see where things go. Looser and freer than what we’ve done so far. It should be fun, I’m looking forward to it.