James Holden Interview
Robots, fondue and beatboxing from the Border Community boss.
Some DJs are relatively easy to categorise – whether a minimal maestro or a deep house don, you have at least a vague notion of what to expect when you buy a new release or hear them spin. James Holden, on the other hand, has built up a small family of producers on his Border Community label who make strange yet beautiful music which wriggles its way out of any pigeonholes you try and push it into - giving music journalists the world over a collective headache as they struggle to decide whether to put it in the house, techno, electro, leftfield or electronica pages. James Holden's label has become one of the best loved imprints in the UK, despite a total lack of PR hype or corporate publicity machine. Everything about it feels organic, from the warm, fuzzy sounds, to the way their fans design the artwork for the releases with the ongoing ‘colouring competition’ on the Border Community website. Half the time it seems like they’re a bunch of like-minded musicians having a brilliant time making music that they love, and it’s almost a bonus that clued up clubbers appreciate what they’re doing; you get the feeling they’d be doing it anyway, regardless of what anyone else thought.
With the next Border Community party on the horizon, Roz Wilson sat down with the head of this psychedelic shoe-gazing musical family to find out what he’s been up to. As it turns out, rather a lot – including touring Japan, raving in a cheese restaurant and building a robot…
Endclub.com: How was the Japan tour in June?
James Holden: It’s all really fuzzy in my memory already, everything just tends to blur into one! But it was great – it was just so much fun being on tour with Nathan (Fake) and Petter. One of the highlights was this really lovely, small, hippy electronic festival called the Taico Club festival that we played on my birthday. The crowd all sang happy birthday to me, which was brilliant! I was totally gobsmacked!
Any tales from the tour?
On the last gig, me and Petter went back to back, then Nathan ended up beatboxing using the headphones as a microphone. The Japanese are so polite that they just stood there and watched it. Maybe somewhere else in the word people would have started pelting us with cabbages!
Last time we did an interview with you we had a chat about your other great passion – cheese. And then you actually managed to combine your love of music and cheese and throw a fondue party! How did it go?
Yeah it was brilliant. I didn’t actually get to eat much of the fondue though, which was a bit disappointing. The St Moritz is a really cool venue - it’s actually a restaurant with a little club downstairs, and they have lyrics on the wall from some really legendary musician who played there and then wrote a song about the place – sorry, I can’t actually remember who it was! I think we might do another party there at some point…
You’ve also just done a party in the woods on the outskirts of Paris – tell us a bit about that…
It turned out it was in a half open building in the middle of the woods. It was a really good party - sometimes Parisians can be a little bit reserved, but they were all jumping up and down and climbing onto each other’s shoulders and stuff.
Your new recruit to the BC stable, Ricardo Tobar, is playing live at the next party here on 23rd August – can you tell us how you hooked up with him?
He sent us a demo, but Nathan had already spotted him on myspace. Although he’s from Chile, he’s mostly interested in UK shoe-gazing music. The rest of the Chilean scene is mostly made up of DJs who want to be Ricardo Villalobos or Luciano – I think he’s the only person in Chile making shoe-gaze techno! It’s really exciting to meet someone who’s from so far away, but who’s exactly the same as the rest of us. We all get on really well and we think about the same music all the time - it’s cool to have him as part of the family.
As well as Nathan Fake, you’ve also got another chap from Norfolk on the label doing some pretty exciting stuff – Luke Abbott. Since when did Norfolk become such a hotbed of musical talent?
Ha ha, well when we first found Luke, Nathan was really pissed off, and was like, “Hey, I’m from Norfolk!” Then he found out Luke likes birds as well – Nathan is a young ornithologist - and he was like, “but I like birds!” But now they get on really well!
Are you heading out to Ibiza much this year? Into it? Over it?
I’m not going at all, which I’m quite happy about. Ibiza has never been my kind of place. I really like doing our night at The End, or when we do label nights around the world, because then everyone that comes is interested in what we do, whereas in Ibiza they’re just coming to see you because you happen to be playing the week they’re on holiday. For me - being in the role of the DJ who has to entertain a lot of people who just like techno, that’s a lot less fun than having people there who understand what I’m getting at and are open to hearing it. The End is always friendly and nice, and the crowd we’ve been getting down at the Border nights are brilliant – they just really get it.
You’ve had a live guest at pretty much every Border Community at The End since it started – how important is live music for a club night?
It definitely adds something to the night. I’d rather the music was the focus, and I find that when there’s a live act on, people are forced to pay attention and really listen. With people like Nathan Fake, Luke Abbott and Ricardo Tobar, their live set is so intense that no DJ could ever play like that - it’s something completely unique that you can’t get from a DJ. You’re never going to hear it exactly the same again, which makes it really special.
How far does a ‘laptop live’ set constitute a ‘live’ set? Do you think there a quite a few artists who now bill themselves as ‘live’ when they’re really just pressing a few buttons in Ableton?
The change in dance music is that now everyone has a laptop and everyone can get a cracked copy of Ableton, so suddenly everyone is making what I call ‘Ableton techno’, and you get all these pedestrian records that just use the default sounds. When something is so common and easy to make, it has no value any more. I have to be careful as I always end up pissing people off who like that kind of thing, but I could be grumpy about it for hours!
The Border Community ‘sound’ is very hard to describe as it doesn’t really fit into any categories – but if you had to explain the ethos of the to aliens who’d just landed on the planet – what would you say?
Actually it’s pretty easy to describe it to aliens or to someone who has lived in a cave for a few years – I’d just say warm, human, melodic and free spirited. It’s much harder to describe it to people who’ve got the wrong end of the stick because they have only heard a couple of tracks off the label, and they think it all sounds like ‘The Sky Was Pink’. If you look at the whole Border catalogue there is such a huge range, from things at 70BPM to the faster crazy stuff.
Aliens would probably love it…
Maybe, we’d better ask Tom Cruise!
Can you tell us what’s coming up on the label in the next few months?
We’ve got some remixes from Fairmont, then another track from a new artist from Wales called Wesley Matsell. It’s kind of psychedelic-shuffle-kraut-techno. I don’t really like to give too much away with what’s coming up on the label – I think the idea that you should promo something really hard for ages before people can get their hands on it is pretty much over. To me it seems wrong to tell people about music when they can’t actually get their hands on it – it’s no wonder people download stuff for free! If we have a new track I’ll be playing it out, but beyond that we don’t go around shouting about it. We’re trying to be a bit more egalitarian about the whole process.
When we spoke to you back in September you told us you were in the studio making weird, noodley krautrock… will we get to hear this any time soon?
I’m really enjoying being in the studio at the moment. It might turn into a new album, but I’m not sure yet! I was feeling a bit disheartened before, because as soon as you create something you just hear loads of bad imitations of it. But recently things have kind of crystallised a bit and are coming together. I do keep getting sidetracked though, as I’m building a robot! I’m programming it to play different instruments, it’s quite fun – although so far all I’ve managed to get it to do is play the tambourine.
Do you think robots can have a mind of their own?
You know those robot hoovers? They’re not meant to be able to think for themselves, but somewhere along the line ours has fallen in love with our rug!
What is the most obscure record you own?
There’s a track I’ve been playing loads recently, which if you heard it you would never believe that it’s so old, as it sounds more modern than today’s techno, with maybe a touch of Throbbing Gristle thrown in. It’s off a compilation from 1984 called ‘The Sex and Bestiality Compilation’ – which only came out on a limited edition cassette tape. Most of the rest of the tunes are pretty heavy and really dark, but there’s one ravey synth track on there that’s just amazing!
You’re playing at quite a few festivals this summer – if you could curate you own Border-fest, who would be your dream headliners? You’re allowed to bring people back from the dead if you like.
I can bring people back from the dead? Brilliant! I’d have to get Queen to headline, so I could tell them I really liked them! I’d also get Suicide to play - but Suicide when they did their early stuff, plus Harmonia before they got really old and did a rubbish comeback gig, and Kraftwork before they got into the robots.