18-05-2013 | 12.00
We had a Skype-chat with James Holden this week, with the track titles of his new album as the only guideline. This is the final part of a three-part interview.
Isn’t that an old environmental polluting British train?
‘This was the fast train from when I was a child. My dad worked on the railways, a romanticized British rail, kind of socialist enterprise. They developed their own train, like crazy socialist. It was a wonderful train with an iconic sort of horn, which gave me the idea of the title, because the train does BWAH BWAH, and the track has that in it. But when they introduced it the train drivers went on strike, because it needed one driver, not two: that was terrible. So this is an illustration of how thin that Great-Britain-in-the-past-idea is. It's a romantic, nostalgic track, definitely.’
You travel a lot by train?
‘I'm not a fan of the train. If you're at the wrong time it could be that it's packed with a whole football stadium of drunken football fans. I'm always the one standing up; I never really understood how you could get a seat. Only going to Scotland by train is much better than driving there. I also don’t like it because my life in the weekend is always on somebody else's schedule: there’s no autonomy in it, I’m the one on rails, from the train to the airport to a dark club to my hotel to the airport, repeat. Driving a car is ultra-luxury, being self-determined. For me, walking the dog for an hour is much better than going away.’
It sounds like you're not going to be a DJ till you’re 60.
‘Yeah, but I also find it hard to image really stopping.’
Can you stop if you really want to?
‘I imagine a life where you carry on trying to engage as much as possible. You know, Gemma and I live really modestly, I'm a vegetarian, I’m not a fan of expensive sake or anything. Even my modular synthesizers don't need to be that expensive. So I don't need to deejay as much as I used to deejay. That does me make feel free. I want to utilize this as much as possible, so I can move forward and make better music. I want to avoid being safe.’
What’s the hardest part of deejaying?
‘It's in your head. The progress of the set, the infinite choice between all these possibilities… The controller I’m making is a good deck to play on. It connects to Traktor and it gives you a bit more information than all the other controllers for Traktor. It's an instrument rather than a dumb box of knobs. Traktor has all the possibilities, but it's hard to make use of it’s potential with a normal controller. With mine, you can loop in a loop, looping backwards, moving loops, performing using a moving loop - which is fucking really cool to play with.’
Will it be released before Christmas?
‘Ahhh no, you need to save your tokens for after Christmas. It's nearly finished, it's a slow process.’
Why did you put so much work in building your own controller, while you where working on your album too?
‘A CDJ2000 does none of the stuff I find necessary to put dance music together, to make it enjoyable. It's just the fact that I've been deejaying so much that I wanted to make something as good as I could. But now my work on the controller is nearly finished. And I've never worked on the machine and the record at the same time, I would've gone mad.’
We still have some tracks on the list. How much time do you have left for the interview?
‘I know Gemma is waiting to go for dinner. And I have to walk the dog before it gets dark. What time is it? It’s about 8, isn’t it? Let’s trattle through some more tracks, so we can have the whole set.’
‘It's a place near Cornwall. Also, there's a really good exhibition from the artist Richard Long using stones from Delabole, we saw in the Bilbao Guggenheim. There’s also a quarry in Delabole, and I was born in that end of the country… that seems enough of a connection – NEXT!’
‘It's actually the name of a roundabout near our house. But it sprung to mind because the track is like a seven bar pattern, recorded in sequence, that cycle around.’
Is it a statement? Has James Holden gone feral?
‘Australian people use it for people who've recently fallen into mental illness. So yeah, it fits a bit. I have a friend who actually did go feral. He just stayed in his flat and lived as a fox for a while. Sometimes he came to our place and cooked food. I think he put down his roots now again. He is the one who does guest gibbering – speaking in tongues – on Circle of Fifths.’
‘That track had that title before the album had the title. Because the mood of the song fits the moods of my remembrance of the book. You'll hear it. I'm really proud of this one – it's good.’
Did you read the book as a child?
‘Fairly later, when I was around twenty. I’ve read Lord of the Flies in school, but this one got more to it than Lord of the Flies. It’s less childish. I really like it.’
Did the book stick to you since you’ve read it?
‘Yes, because it has this strong voice in it. The way it puts you in the head of the Neanderthal-characters. The story’s sadness made a big impression at the time, but it’s something I haven’t thought about since. I’ve recently read James Lovelock’s the Gaia Theory (about hypnosis, ed.), which reminded me about William Golding, so I’ve read more about him.
Circle of Fifths
‘It refers to the track itself: the melody is a circle of fifths. It’s just – you know – a bit brain confusing. That's it actually. It is what it says it is.’
‘This is a revealing title. It's a little peaceful moment. This whole section up to here is quite intense, and then you have some respite – a moment of rest.’
Like Intentionally Left Blank on The Idiots Are Winning.
‘Yeah, but this one won't get anyone angry.’
And some respite for you after working on your album for so many years?
‘Never thought about that, but it makes sense.’
Blackpool Late Eighties
‘Ah! I wrote this one in an airport hotel in Schiphol. I couldn’t catch my flight because of snow, so I took the train, bought a big bag of weed, came back to the hotel for the night and wrote that. I told you about Blackpool already. This song has the warmest kind of VHS-nostalgia.
Normally I don't write on the road, but now since I had a bag of weed it seemed like a good idea. Otherwise a hotel room is just a low-oxygen environment and then I don't really am in the mood for it. I started Ableton Live and found all the free VSTs (Virtual Studio Technology – digital music instruments ed.) I could download with the hotel room internet. Afterwards I touched it up in the studio.’
There are a lot of psychedelic acts like The Velvet Underground or Space Man Three who refer a lot to drugs in their music. You made this track with a bag of weed. Do drugs influence your music?
‘It obviously affects it and it changes the kind of music I'm interested in. I think a certain percentage of the audience listens to it in the same way. But it's not meant to be like dub. A friend of mine has a joke – actually I don't really like the joke, maybe you shouldn’t write this – but okay: what does a Rastafarian say when he's out of weed?
“What's this terrible music?”
When you're deejaying more than half of the audience must be on ecstasy. How do you experience that?
‘Since I'm hanging out with Kieran (Four Tet, ed.) I sometimes completely forget about that. I’ve been watching him coming into club land during the last few years and his reaction to deliberately playing the worst possible event just to see what it's like. On festivals, he would take tourist trips to see Skrillex and Deadmau5. Since I’m around him, I forgot about all this. But then a few weeks ago I saw someone pulling a good face a few feet from me and I remembered. It's been a while since I’ve done it.’
What’s the last time you went to a club to really dance yourself?
‘Probably around half a year ago – maybe to see Ivan Smagghe in London? I'm not sure, I don't have a very good memory.’
You tweeted about making an ‘E-record’.
‘That’s the techno-version of The Illuminations. Because it’s very intense, that’s what I like to hear on E. But that’s also the problem: you can take drugs, but I can’t guarantee you like the music.
Do you see drugs as an inspiration?
‘Yeah, I kinda think it's an experience everyone should have. Once you took something like mushrooms, you'll understand that the world and your perception of it isn’t as concrete as you thought it was. When it comes to musical inspiration: it’s always good to remember how it’s like to be off your tits. It’s a good way to imagine how the listener perceives the music you’re playing, so you can identify with the guy pulling that face.’
‘I made a modular chaotic system and it played all the notes and I only had to play the chords under it. But it ended up being a schmaltzy sad keyboard melody. Which is something that's hateful and deplorable, but because of the machine – it's own accident – it just walked the line, just got it about alright. And the fact that the machine is doing it makes it more wonderful. It's like robotic heartfelt music.
Which is kind of a reaction again towards this bogus emo dance music. I find all that quite distasteful. You know, The Sky Was Pink (Holden’s remix for Nathan Fake, ed.) wasn’t meant to be an emotional record, but a psychedelic record - an intense record. People making more emotional copies of became schmaltz, schlager. Reacting against this always was a part of what I was doing. And also self-playing schmaltz is a good job description of a DJ.’
Are you nervous for tomorrow – it's the first of you series of all night long sets.
‘Yeah, I'm a little bit nervous, you got to get your head around a whole other section of your record library of course. I’m trying to find special things for it. The first hours I'll be finding my way around, learning, playing the stuff I normally never play, making mistakes, choosing wrong paths, failing even. It could be terrible. But it would be real at least.’
This is the final part of an interview-trilogy with James Holden.
Text: Berend Jan Bockting & Luc Mastenbroek