We spoke to the DJ, producer and Border Community head honcho ahead of the release of his first album since 2006's 'The Idiots Are Winning'.
On June 17th, James Holden will release a new album called ‘The Inheritors’. The 15-track, triple-vinyl record is only his second in a career that started towards the end of the 1990s, and comes after 2006’s ‘The Idiots Are Winning’. He’s been busy in that time though, mixing a DJ-KiCKS compilation, building a controller for DJing, doing a live performance designed to invoke a trance state at The Barbican, and running his label, Border Community.
‘The Inheritors’ was built from the ground up using his modular synthesizer and hand-coded computer systems, with each track recorded as a first take, without overdubs or heavy re-editing. There’s an unpredictable quality to a lot of the music – the bleeps and bloops twist and turn, and none of the music is deliberately structured for dancefloor functionality. There are excursions into out-and-out psychedelia, free jazz, post-rock, and krautrock, but these are all in attitude, rather than mere pastiches of sound – it still feels like a Holden record, through and through. It also has the landscape of the United Kingdom woven into its fabric, with track titles referencing places in Cornwall, the Highlands and Blackpool.
Ahead of its release, we spoke to Holden about the album, where he’s been for the past few years, and his favourite places in the country to visit.
Holden – Renata
Hey James! How are you, and where are you?
I’m well and happy, thanks. Sitting in the Border Community office with the dog at my feet.
It’s been seven years since you released your last album. What hobbies have you taken up in this time?
Hobbies!? LOL. I definitely haven’t been sitting round watching Countdown & doing jigsaws. Most of my time went on DJing and running Border Community. When you run a business, stuff happens to you – distributors go bust, stock gets burnt in London riot warehouse fires – and you just have to stop what you’re doing and deal with it, even if that takes you away from what you’d really like to be doing.
“I never wanted to toss out an album as part of a ‘product cycle’ just to get some more shows: I always wanted to make a grand statement record and this is it.” – James Holden
It’s a pretty hefty album. What’s the appeal of making a long, unwieldy, triple vinyl record?
Why not? I had a lot to say, it’s a whole world in a record. I just knew I wanted to make an epic album, something that required a map. I never wanted to toss out an album as part of a “product cycle” just to get some more shows: I always wanted to make a grand statement record and this is it.
I’ve read a couple of interviews with you where you seem a little dismissive of your Sky Was Pink remix, saying you never want to be asked to play it again. Rather than focus on the negatives: if someone were to ask you to play that song, what would you recommend they hear from your new record instead?
Of course I’m glad that people like it so much. I know that record means a lot to some people: people have told me some really moving stories about its place in their life, and I’d never want to take that away from anyone. But I can’t just go round the world playing that record over and over again: it was a moment in time and none of us can go back there. If that record was all I had to say then I would have retired by now, so if people are really interested in what else I have to say, they should listen to the whole LP, start to finish, as a ceremonial experience.
I saw your performance at the Consciousness lecture at the Barbican. Looking back on it now, how do you feel it went?
I enjoyed it hugely. With something like that though – with so much research and learning beforehand – it’s always going to be a bit frustrating how little of it can actually make it into a brief lecture. And, in terms of hypnotising people with music, some of the science said we should do things we weren’t allowed to do to the Barbican audience – flash strobes in their faces for 20 minutes for example. Luckily one of the neuropsycologists I spoke to said that following the science experiments was a red herring – as musicians we already know better than scientists what’s hypnotic/entrancing – that intuitive understanding is infinitely better than any attempt at an analytic one. So I clung on to that and just tried to arrange the trippiest space-rock jam I could. In those terms: 100% happy, although I’d love to see how it could work in a wilder environment.
Holden – Gone Feral
You’ve done some other live, group performances fairly recently too. Is this going to be a regular thing? Is the one man DJ operation losing its magic?
To the second question: No. DJing is really magic. From the neuroscience research: dancing is almost the same as participation in the actual music, meaning the level of engagement – brainwave sync etc. – is higher in a club crowd than a static gig crowd. I’ve worked really hard to become the best DJ I can, to some extent I’m just getting there, becoming confident (/aggressive) enough to play exactly what I always wanted to hear in clubs.
To the first question: not exactly regular, but I’m going to do it some more – special occasions, a rotating ensemble of musicians to collaborate with, because that’s also a kind of magic, and I feel really lucky that i’ve got the chance to do both things.
You’ve said some of your new stuff isn’t rigidly quantised to the grid like a lot of dance music, and some of the time signatures and arrangements don’t seem too straightforward either. This will probably annoy a lot of DJs – do you have any plans to appease them?
I’ve made some companion 12“s which deconstruct some of the album tracks into DJ-friendly (er) tool versions which’ll be out on Border Community around the LP. But: in my all night DJ sets I’ve been doing around the release I’ve managed to play a fair few of the original versions, and seeing people dance & get into them has made me very happy – confirming my ideas that you don’t need to play ‘DJ-friendly’ music in clubs to make people dance.
“It’s reminded me just how much I like writing music, so I’m determined not to let other things encroach on that in the future.” – James Holden
You have a big affinity with British geography – a lot of the new album takes its track titles from places like Blackpool or Scotland or Cornwall, places that have a very British identity and couldn’t really exist anywhere else. What are some of your favourite places in the UK?
A lot of the album places are wrapped up with childhood memories – early experiences of awe and wonder. I’m quite aware that returning to those places would only tarnish the memories though: I took Gemma to the town I was born in in Devon, visited a tea-room next to the block of flats the baby me lived in and the locals helped us stage a recreation of the tea-room scene from Withnail & I. Not going back.
#1. London: it is the perfect metropolis and beautiful with it.
#2. Cornwall. I only go on holiday in the UK now (as I have to fly for work a lot) and Cornwall is my favourite destination anyway. The light. The prehistoric artefacts. The food.
#3. Rannoch Moor, the highlands of Scotland. When you take the overnight sleeper train from London to Fort William you wake up with the dawn just as you cross this epic/beautiful/desolate plane between mountains. It feels like another world. The whole highlands and islands region is amazing.
What lessons do you feel you’ve learnt from ‘The Inheritors’ that you’ll carry along to whatever you do next?
I learnt a lot before doing it – production-wise, programming-wise – and some of those ideas will definitely be part of what I do next, but above all the sense of confidence / empowerment that comes with slapping a big statement record down on the table is probably the thing that’ll help me most in the future. It’s also reminded me just how much I like writing music, so I’m determined not to let other things encroach on that in the future.