Q & A: James Holden

Q & A - James Holden

We had a long distance chat with James Holden ahead of his much anticipated Australian tour. The UK based producer will play a serious of live shows on our shores and needless to say, we’re pretty excited. 

Liam: Hello!
Benny: Hi!

James: Hi.

Liam: Where are you at the moment?

James: Just at home.

Liam: How long until you hit Australian shores?

James: My flight is tonight, in a few hours.

Liam: Sorry to do that to you…

James: Hahah.

Liam: How are things?

James: Yeah alright, pretty good. I’m enjoying my life at the moment.

Benny: That’s always good to hear.
Liam: Do you look forward to your trips to Australia, or is coming this far just a pain?

James: It’s like a mixed feeling…I’m quite looking forward to getting there.

Liam: We’ll stop playing around. We love hearing about how the musical journey began for the artists we speak to- when and how did your connection to music begin?

James: That’s quite easy. My dad played the piano, so when I was about five or six I asked him if I could learn- and that was pretty much it.

Liam: Did he teach you himself?

James: Yeah, yeah.

Liam: Was it an immediately natural process for you?

James: Yeah I mean it took a while- it wasn’t easy at first. I was terrible at rhythm. I used to sort of kick the piano to keep a beat. It took me years to learn that. I’m not a prodigy or anything- it actually took me ages.

Liam: It seems as though in your last album a conventional method of rhythm has been abandoned. What was the thought process behind that? What was your approach for the new production?

James: I wanted to make something that was new…to move on a bit. It took a long time. I spent a lot of time not really knowing what I wanted to do before it started coming to me. The feel of it eventually came, and I started imagining it in depth. But I guess the overarching idea was to move away from that conventional structure. Dance music makes rhythms and melodies very obvious- it’s all very…you know…it’s on a grid and it’s easy to work out. I was just sick of that. As you get older and you’ve heard one thing loads of times it stops feeling the same.

Benny: How has that changed from your early days in electronic production?

James: Yeah, I’m not that teenager who went to sweet parties in England and got really excited about dance music. That was a long time ago. More than ten years. It’s kind of like I’ve heard these things enough times…hahah…again and again.

The simplicity and straight up presentation of dance music was never really the bit of it that I was interested in. In my first records I was trying to create confusing, disorientating effects in the less conventional parts of the sound. Then, as I got better at rhythm I began to feel like that sort of quantised stuff barely even counted as rhythm or something…it’s just not the same. I wanted to make everything feel real and live and like it actually happened.

Liam: How did you undergo that process? Dance music is often maligned by it’s detractors for being less ‘real’…how did you overcome that?

James: I ended up playing a lot of the rhythms myself- just drumming and stuff. Also I’ve done a lot of work – both during The Inheritors and since – on making stuff feel human. Natural timing errors and stuff like that. Now in the live show I have a drummer, so he’s the source of all the timing errors. The computer takes his timing and regards it as more important than even it’s own digital clock. It creates a simulated human reaction to the drummers timing. It’s really important- the feel of it, and the meaning of it.

It isn’t straight up dance music, it isn’t the same thing that Paris Hilton plays or whatever- there’s a line in the sand for that. It’s not just about positioning it and saying what it is, either. It’s about the effect of it and the way it feels- it’s a slightly disorientating thing.

Benny: The show that you put together for your last album combines a lot of visual elements with that vibe that you were talking about. The realness of the percussion and production in general all come together to create that feeling. What is to be expected in the live show that you are bringing to Australia? What hand do you have in creating the visual element?

James: I guess first and foremost- this is a proper band. We’re playing live. You know, kind of improvising and changing the songs as we go. I think it needs to be stressed, that’s the main thing to watch. Tom’s a great drummer, I’ve got my synths. They are the things I want people to watch. I always considered the visual to kind of be a…like, I wouldn’t want to let it lead the whole thing. Quite often you get electronic live acts and they want to like play their videos and whatever but that means they can’t improvise. If they do that they can’t change how the shape of the song is or anything, so they end up just slapping some effects on a WAV file and playing. Which is less of a performance even than a DJ…even some quite underground people do that. Some quite esteemed people who want to seem cool are just miming to a WAV file basically. That was the last thing I wanted to do.

When I was DJing it was very improvisational and reactive with regard to the crowd and how I felt. It would be stupid to not conduct the live show in the same way, so it’s as live and as wild and as free as you could possibly make it. It does change around quite a lot. The visual I just wanted to be an aesthetic or an atmospheric addition, rather than some sort of prescriptive thing. You want it to give a feeling, but you don’t want it to be the thing that people stare at for the whole show.

Jack Featherstone did the cover for my last record and did the video for Renata. In doing both of those he generated tonnes of different material, so he moulded that into this sort of looping, aesthetic background for the live show.

Liam: You’ve spoken a lot about the emotion and vibe captured in the live show. Do you find it difficult to convey the emotion of your music aptly? Do you think you can be emotionally understood through your music?

James: I don’t really look at electronic music as really for communicating a specific emotion. I actually read an interview with a producer who said that he sat down first and thought about the emotion he was trying to convey before writing a song- but his tracks were all rip offs of other people’s music. So he sits down and says, “I want to write a melancholy song- James Holden has written a melancholy song…I’ll rip that off.”

(collective laughter)

Liam: Is that just an example or did that really happen?

James: That did actually happen, but I’m not telling you who it is.

(collective laughter)

James: Yeah, but music is just music. Emotions are something that the listener feels through it. I feel like electronic music is as powerful as any other kind of music. Definitely.

Liam: What sorts of records are doing it for you at the moment?

James: At the moment I’m on the spiritual jazz.

Liam: What’s the background there? Is that anything to do with your musical upbringing?

James: No, it’s just my current obsession. My upbringing was mostly littered with classical music. My mum had some Beatles records but I figured out pretty quickly that I hated The Beatles. Since starting DJing it’s just been this voyage of discovery. I was always bored with mainstream dance stuff, even 15 years ago I was tired of that, so I found myself desperately searching for things to play and records for inspiration.

When I was making my first album it was Krautrock, I was digging through the history of that. Then for around the last year and half or so, it’s been spiritual jazz. The genre of my band introduced me to a lot of stuff as well. I also have this friend who has been a big part of my musical discovery…it’s just kind of the people I’ve met I guess. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Don Cherry and Pharoah Sanders, that stuff to me seems really linked to electronic music. It’s this really free structured stuff that plays for a long time and really allows you to get lost in it. I kind of see those people as quite related to what I do….hold on someone is at the door.

Liam: We’ll give you a moment!


James: Alright I’m back.

Liam: Are there any records in the spiritual jazz movement that are of particular inspiration to you?

James: …(pause)…sorry my brain is going slowly.

Liam: Or even the first 12” that you ever bought…

James: Oh yeah fuck that- I can’t remember that.

(collective laughter)

James: It was probably from the bargain bin. Anyway- a really good spiritual jazz record is Pharaoh Sanders- The Gathering. That’s a great album. Tom recommended that.

Benny: You must draw a lot of inspiration from the young artists that you sign to your own label, Border Community. Do you feed each other’s inspiration?

James: Yeah, totally, but it goes in circles. At the beginning it was super inspirational- Nathan and MFA and stuff were really pushing each other forward. Then, in the middle of having a label, there was a period where it felt like my partner and I were doing all the pushing.

Then, yeah, Luke Abbott…since we met him he’s been a huge inspiration, particularly with regards to playing live. Months have been spent just talking about music or talking about how lame someone else’s live set is…or what the point of it is, or even what kinds of things are meaningful to do on the stage. I mean, without Luke I don’t think I would have got to the same place that I am now. Then there are also people who aren’t on the label who are of inspiration. It’s generally people who have a similar area of interest to me, but produce a totally different result. That’s definitely inspiring.

Benny: Did that change with time? 

James: I guess as well with the label when we started we were all friends and equal. The people who came along later weren’t just friends making music- they were people who sent demos to a successful record label. Luke sent a demo to a successful record label and was a completely different person. I shouldn’t be too negative though, some of the people we signed in the middle were really good. I was super happy when we met Extrawelt, and we were able to be a stepping stone for them to redefine what they did. They never asked for anything from us either. It wasn’t all negative, but when you’re running a record label the social side of it can be quite difficult.

Benny: Yeah I guess that’s always the struggle with something that starts so naturally and then becomes a business.
Liam: Yeah, we are just hoping that doesn’t happen to us.

(collective laughter)

James: Yeah often from the wrong side. We didn’t set this up to be for money, we just wanted to do something good. I think some of the people who came to us did so because they thought we could make them famous. That was probably the root of the falling out- we don’t wanna make anyone famous…hahah.

(collective laughter)

Liam: Any particular Australian things you’re looking forward to this time around?

James: I’m quite looking forward to coming back. Last time I didn’t absorb enough but this time I’ve got ten days, which should be good.

Benny: Yeah you’ll be in thick of it at Meredith.
Liam: Right in the bush.

James: Yeah I’ll be shirt off.

(more collective laughter)

James: …yeah probably not.

(even more collective laughter)

Liam & Benny: See you at Meredith!

Tour Dates

Saturday 6th December: Subsonic Music Festival – NSW
Wednesday 10th December: HiFi Bar – Melbourne
Friday 12th December: Meredith Music Festival – VIC
Saturday 13th December: Oxford Art Factory – Sydney

James Holden Facebook / SoundCloud