James Holden

It's hard to pin down James Holden's latest left turn into psychedelic techno territory... but watch us try!

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 10 Sep 2013
  • min read
Just when you think you’ve got British techno wizard James Holden pinned down, he pulls out a mind-melting record followed by a trance-inducing 15-minute live festival set.

Always pushing boundaries and never staying still, James has navigated through his 15 year career with plenty of hand break turns and eye-watering lurches to the left, much to the benefit of his musical output.

He first emerged as precocious young talent back in 1999 with the release of his nocturnal debut single Horizons. Recorded during a summer break from university, the track instantly opened doors to a string of fizzy remixes for the likes of Madonna, Britney Spears and Depeche Mode.

In 2003 he founded Border Community, a label that has showcased his eccentric electronic tastes with genre-defining releases from peers Nathan Fake and Luke Abbott.

Earlier this year, James released his sophomore album The Inheritors, which was seven years in the making. A thrilling mix of English psychedelia and analogue experimentalism, it has single-handedly redefined British dance music.

Here we catch up with James to find out about The Inheritors lengthy distillation process…

It’s a mix of both. I knew after the last album that I had to move on and get better. It’s like [the fable] 40 Days and Nights in the Desert – except it took seven years! I was flailing round for a while and it started to make sense after a point. It crystallised out of going against all the things I didn’t like about dance music – the straightness, the predictability. I wanted to find ways to make music without those things that I didn’t like.

There was a strong manifesto behind it?
Yeh, basically there was. I thought there was no point putting out a record if it sounded like everyone else’s record. In going against things like rules and structures it makes it easier to be different. I feel like it’s still a dance music record in the way that it’s very simple and it’s all about the dynamics – the way it rises and falls through songs – that’s basically all come from dance music. DJing for so long was bound to have an influence on me. Learning to improvise over a whole night as a DJ you’re really tuned in to the dynamic of music.

It sounds like you’ve really played around with the song structure on The Inheritors – how did your DJing influence that?
When I first started dance records were so conservative because most DJs weren’t that good and they were mixing vinyl which was much harder than syncing on a computer so everything started with a 16-bar intro before any interesting parts came in. You’re not writing proper music if you have to put the jigsaw pieces on the end of it. As I got technically better at DJing I started being able to play the records I really wanted to play. Stuff like eighties synth records or seventies krautrock records that weren’t designed for DJing. But if you think about it you can think of a way to fit them together – it’s not difficult really.

I felt that I wasn’t going to panda to DJs in any way. I reached that conclusion quite a long time before I started on this album! In pandering to the DJ in making it regular and simple, you’re throwing something away. And I felt that it was too important to throw away. The sense of surprise when you press play on a track is too nice!

It was a bit of an evolution actually. The last album was more or less all out of the computer and some cheap keyboards that I recorded – nothing particularly nice. Then I bought a modular synth and learned to use that. And I’ve got a couple of nice keyboards and some weird broken drum machines. All that has affected it – but it’s also really similar to how I first started.

When I started out I used to use some free software called Buzz, which was modular. You could wire anything into anything and things could make feedback loops and everything would shift around a bit unpredictably. For ages I used that and people told the sound wasn’t good enough I needed something more professional. So I wasted quite a lot of time learning pro studio software but it was always so rigid and designed for making blocks of predictable arrangements.

I want music to have lots of movement and continuous change because that’s what music played on real instruments has. It’s also what early acid house had or early eighties minimal synth stuff, or krautrock. By getting the modular synth I felt like I’d gone back to where I started and really got into this method of trying to build instruments in the modular synth that weren’t really functional, that would go wrong. It was balanced on a knife edge the whole way through. One wrong turn and the whole thing could fall to bits.

So the album was mainly improvised?
Yes. I don’t really like music that’s really considered – it’s one of the things I hate the most, especially in electronic music. I hate it when you get a record that says, ‘this boy thinks he is clever with his computer’. That really depresses me to be honest, because it’s not clever and you feel sorry for them thinking it is clever!

How did you actually record it?
All the technical stuff like building instruments or programming stuff in the computer was done in preparation. The actual songs are just a performance using all that stuff I’d built. But because it’s a performance and it’s improvised, the conscious part of your brain isn’t thinking. I wanted to make it as visceral as possible. So everything I did, like recording it to tape, was so I could make it feel like an actual recording of an actual thing that actually happened. As opposed to a lot of music that has been drawn with a mouse, I think that my unconscious brain is a lot better at music than my conscious brain.

It sounds like an album you couldn’t have made seven years ago…
No it’s not. I’ve learned so much. I spent a year learning Max MSP, a year learning how to get the sounds I wanted out of the modular synth. It felt like I had to go and study, and it paid off I think, but now I can see there’s more stuff I have to go off and learn!

Do you see the record as a statement or are you just onto the next thing?
I’m quite pleased with myself if I’m honest! It’s one of the best things I’ve done in my life to date, but I don’t want to think about it too much or put it on too much of a pedestal because that makes it harder to move on. At the moment I’m back in the desert thinking about what I’ll do next!

Are you going to work out how to play it live?
I’m trying to do that at the moment, which is proving to be a funny experience. Normally when I make a record I don’t really listen to it very much once it’s out. I remember with the last record thinking, ‘how did I do this?’ Now I’m in that process of unpicking the recordings and working out the notes and stuff. Now I know how I did it, it’s changed the record for me.

What are you looking forward to most about the live shows?
I always wanted to have a band, but when I was at school I didn’t know anyone who liked good music or who was good enough. That’s why I went into computer music. So to finally have a band, after 10 or 15 years, is quite nice! I’m going to start out with myself and Tom Page, the drummer from Rocket Number Nine, for the first tour but I want to make it a rotating ensemble. Etienne is up for coming along because he plays on a track on the album as well. I’m working on a few other people to keep it different every time. Throwing new people in the mix is a real challenge.

You’ve said before that you’re not a confident person. How has that affected your music?
I’ve wondered about that as well to be honest. At the start I was really thrown into a world that I didn’t understand or had ever aspired to be a part of. To put out records and all of a sudden have Sasha and Digweed playing them - and then learn about a whole army of people who are obsessed by those DJs that have an opinion on everything they played – knocked me a bit.

People said nice things on forums but that washes over you and it’s the horrible stuff that sticks with you at the start. For a while it made it hard for me, but I gradually found the strength to go against what the majority of people in that world thought. I discovered that actually I wanted to annoy those people! It’s good if I make some people angry!

Going out and DJing has helped too. I wanna go out and play weird music but some people in the club just want a kick drum because they’re on E. I’ve realised there’s no point doing anything unless I believe in it.

I wasn’t thinking about anyone else on this record – I wasn’t even trying to annoy people. I reached a point where I felt quite liberated.

Does this album feel like a real turning point for you?
I’ve had a number of turning points but I think this is the best turning point. This is a much bigger step than any I’ve made before, and I’ve come out of it pretty unscathed!

The Inheritors is out now on Border Community.