Spirits Rejoice: James Holden reflects on a career spent escaping dance convention
Since his success producing euphoric trance in the early 2000s, Exeter-born James Holden has moved further away from dance music, reshaping his sound as his philosophy and taste has shifted – something that’s never been more obvious than on this year’s The Animal Spirits. Before his performance at Le Guess Who? on November 11, Claire Lobenfeld has a career-spanning conversation with the Border Community boss.
Believe it or not, James Holden had a late start with music. Growing up in a conservative household in the similarly restrained English city of Leicester – “the only good thing about Brexit is now I have an adjective to describe the place where I grew up” – most anything but classical music made it inside his house. “I didn’t get a radio or tape player until quite late in life. I had this huge gap in my knowledge,” he says. “The pop music of the ’80s and early ’90s, I just know nothing of because I lived in like a walled compound where none of that got in. [Music] never made it home, I never got to claim it as my own.” But with nearly two decades of rewriting the languages of dance music under his belt, it’s evident this slow start was hardly a disadvantage.
In a career-spanning conversation with FACT, Holden details many of the stories that brought his innovations to trance and progressive house to life. He takes us inside his experience traveling to Marrakech with Floating Points to find the synergy between trance and gnawa music. And he enriches our listening of his upcoming album The Animal Spirits by singing the praises of the live band he worked with, including Tom Page of RocketNumberNine, saxophonist and Zombie Zombie member Etienne Jaumet, British producer Marcus Hamblett, multi-instrumentalist Liza Bec, and Lascelle Gordon of the free jazz group Woven Entity.
Holden’s ability to build a diverse musical world will also be on display at Utrecht’s ambitious Le Guess Who? fetival next month where a lineup curated by the Border Community boss, including Hieroglyphic Being and Maâlem Houssam Guinia & Band, among others, will perform. To get ready for the fest, read our deep-dive into Holden’s catalogue as told by the man himself.
(Silver Planet Recordings, 2000)
“I wrote this on my mate’s computer in his room at university [because] didn’t have a computer. When he’d go to the bar, I’d go up and do a couple hours, bashing away on this free software and headphones. At that point, I didn’t know anything about the scene or the music around it. I wrote it in 1998 but it was the old days, there was no internet. I was trying to find all the music I could, but I had a late start due to quite an isolated childhood.
“Really what I liked was ’70s, ’80s metal when I was a teenager, but my school had an Atari and a Roland keyboard and you could kinda write music on that. I’d do some stuff like that. The music teacher knew one of the teachers at the school, my physics teacher, was into electronic music and would go out to raves, so he put us in touch. He just handed me tapes every morning — Orbital, the Trance Europe Express compilation, that kind of stuff.”
Nathan Fake – ‘The Sky Was Pink (Holden Remix)’
(Border Community, 2004)
“Nathan had already written all of what would become his first album Drowning in a Sea of Love. Gemma, my partner, and I were listening to it and she suggested I remix ‘The Sky Was Pink’. I could see what she meant because the original has this really soaring, epic quality to it, but it had a weird repeat in the chord sequence and it’s obviously the wrong tempo for me. It seemed quite like a stretch that I could make it work, but I gave it a go and sorta did what felt right. I remember I played it out the next weekend in a club in Greece and it literally cleared the dancefloor. It was terrible.
“It was like two years and it was still getting bigger and selling more each month, kind of, and just went mad. Having the experience of having a hit like that is weird and it changes everything. People come to your gigs who have only heard that hit. That affected Nathan more than it did me because I had more back catalog at that point. He’d have people at his gigs saying, ‘Play ‘The Sky Was Pink” and he’d just played it live, but not the remix. He wouldn’t play my remix, he’d play his song, of course. And then people would be like, ‘But it didn’t sound like the remix’. That’s torture for anyone. I don’t know if Nathan’s ever really forgiven me for that.
“People never stopped asking for it, but in a lot of ways that record affected the path we all went on after that. It would be two years after we put it out but I’d get a promo in the post that was a photocopy of it. They’d change one note but they’d have similar parts doing basically the same things and it was a bit cheesier and had a thumpier kick. That experience of loads of people putting out, basically, covers of your track — it kind of messed with my head. I thought we all loved dance music and we were in this for something good and positive? And then these are just parasites. Why are we allowing them? [But you learn from] hearing someone’s cover of your track and you’re like, ‘That’s fucking horrible, I hate that. It’s so corny’ but it’s not that far from what you thought was good that you’d done. Now I’ve got to cut out all that cancer out of my work that gave them that idea that they could do it in that style. It pushed me to go forward as fast as I possibly could.”
The Idiots Are Winning
(Border Community, 2006)
“I wanted the records I DJed with to be an album I could listen to at home and feel OK about. It was quite disjointed, but I felt like, here are several tracks that I want to DJ with, that’s what I was trying to make, and I put them out as a long EP. It’s kind of lucky that people accepted it as an album.
“That was the start of tearing away from the normal sound of dance music. People accepting it as an album gave me a lot of confidence moving on from that point so that now I am almost grown up enough to make the album.”
“Becoming friends with Luke Abbott was the first time since the very start of Border Community where I felt like I was learning a lot and the person I was talking to about it was also learning a lot at the same time. We were bouncing off each other. He showed me Ableton and, at that point, I bought my first bits of modular synth. It felt like Luke slightly opened a door for me and we went through it together. The label had also become draining and that’s why not much had really gotten done in the time in between The Idiots Are Winning and ‘Triangle Folds’.
“It was quite hard to find time for me in the studio. This was the start of me doing live improv, as well. I had this demo of it using a borrowed Behringer mixer off my mate. This mixer was a piece of shit and it just made it sound kind of plasticky and it didn’t sound like that coming from a synth. I thought I could just recreate it. But you can’t. It’s impossible. It was just a live take of me bashing buttons on my mononome that I had set up to trigger little states of it and turning knobs and playing with the delays, like an octopus running around. Even if you sat down and meticulously tried to copy it out or work out what you’d done, you’d never get back to that same feeling. I realized, sometimes the magic just happens and that’s it. You can’t do it again in the same way.”
(Border Community, 2013)
“This album was a continuation of this line where things were gradually moving away from being normal dance music. It seemed really natural to make the same music that just hasn’t got any of the same language as dance music in it. It’s still trance and it’s still as melodic as my first record, but it’s kind of grown up. Growing my modular and realizing the best stuff I could do was in live takes, but struggling to make sense of them: that’s the sound of The Inheritors. The tracks quite often came out as 30-minute, really extended things, so then trying to work out how to get that down to a two or three minute song for an album took a bit of effort. When I was a teenager and first starting making music, I’d be imagining that one day I could make something like The Inheritors – something that had a sense of place and an epic scale.
“Wrapped up in there is the fight ‘The Sky Was Pink’ kind of started, this rebellion against dance music. The tracks which I played in clubs or people could play in clubs, they’re still fighting against the conservative law of dance music. They’ve all got kind of wonky mixes, loose timing, as if a human, not a drum machine, played the kick track. It was all reacting against everything being digital and efficient and primed and Photoshopped and Instagram-filtered into perfection to try and make something that is a total mess but also just works in spite or because of that.”
Maalem Mahmoud Guinia / Floating Points / James Holden – Marhaba 12″
(Eglo Records/Border Community, 2015)
“Me, Floating Points, Vessel, and Biosphere got invited to do this residency in Marrakech collaborating with gnawa musicians. The email that I got from the couple that organized the residency was kind of out of the blue. It was near the time I would be busy for some other stuff and I was really inclined to tell them straight away no I don’t have time for this, it sounds too much. But I kind of just thought, best check if I got any music by these people in my library already and typed in the search and realized that I had dozens of tapes by Mahmoud Guinia thanks to Awesome Tapes From Africa and then tracking them down because I’d like them. It was probably the most demanding, intense thing I’ve ever done.
“[I was inspired by] having listened to Mahmoud Guinia’s collaboration with Pharoah Sanders. It’s amazing because they’re talking to one another across a cultural divide and language divide. That’s what I wanted to be doing. But turning up with a modular synth, you realize how shitty our instruments and musical skills are compared to this band who is so tight and so free and so able to twist and reshape the songs and fit them in around us. The first day I remember Vessel saying he was almost in tears that he couldn’t get his machine drum to stay in time with them because a machine drum doesn’t want to stay in time with a band.
“I’m really glad I thought about it before I went because this sort of philosophical question of, ‘Do you take this foreign music and squash it into your paradigm? Is that ok to do that?’ came up. And I thought no, it would really disrespectful to just take bits of gnawa and turn into western electronic music. It had to be a meeting in the middle where I have to take in and take on some of the things that are important in gnawa music and let it exist. Otherwise, I’m just gonna kill it and it’s gonna be something offensive and exoticism. I just had to play live and find ways to play all the notes myself. To just perform and improvise musically with this guy who is so many levels above me. We kept getting electric shocks off the modular because there wasn’t ground in the villa where we were working.
“My favorite track on that release is ‘Bania’. At the start, I can hear myself finding my feet and fitting in. There’s a moment where [Mahmoud Guinia] kind of looked at me and we connected, he heard what I was doing and it worked with what he was doing. He took charge and hushed down the percussion from the band and just constructed a trance breakdown, like a proper reach-for-the-lasers, the drums have gone and it just builds breakdown. Then the drums drop back in right on the peak. That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. We couldn’t really communicate that well with words, but in this moment, I was in their band. It was lovely. I didn’t expect for it to feel like that. I knew then that I had to start playing with other people because it felt so much better than playing with a computer.”
James Holden & Camilo Triado / Luke Abbott – Outdoor Museum of Fractals / 555Hz
(Border Community, 2016)
“Without having been asked to do a project in tribute to Terry Riley, I never would have been so presumptuous as to go anywhere near mentioning Terry in conjunction with my work. He’s the seed at the start of everything. He plays everything live and has this kind of monastic devotion and practices his ragas every morning at sunrise and plays ten hours of organ a day to get really good at it, I knew it had to be something quite taxing where it would be really live and nothing was really planned out.
“Camilo came round and started teaching me about how to understand [hindustani] classical music because that was a big deal for Terry and I felt like I couldn’t really get into responding to Terry without getting a bit of that. Then we got into connecting the tablas that Camilo plays into my laptop, feeding the timing information into it, so that the laptop’s kinda following the timing of them rather than the laptop being a dumb, robotic clock that he has to follow. The laptop is also feeding information about how his pattern’s changed into the little arpeggiators I’ve programmed and the laptop has sort of changed the pattern in response to what he’s doing. It took a while, but it was fun. Camilo lives in London and he came round a few times and that gave me a chance to experiment a few times with different ways of connecting a human into the computer so that the computer stops being so un-listening. We just kind of sat in my studio and would do two hour versions of it just getting in a trance again.”
James Holden & The Animal Spirits – The Animal Spirits
(Border Community, 2017)
“We were recording the album as Brexit was happening, so it was a strange time, but it was a lovely time because the Animal Spirits are all my friends. Given the joy of live music and all those experiences I’d had, I wanted to record quite old school as if it was being made in the ’50s – apart from the computer and the modular synth – but all the musicians in one room, playing at one time straight onto the ‘tape’. No studio bullshit happening, no cheating to make it seem ‘better’ or cleaner than we could manage ourselves. That’s a lot of pressure on the players but not really because they’re good players and they’re used to it. It just gives everything a certain intensity and that’s how I wanted the record to feel: it was just holding together, or like we didn’t really know where it was going.
“The week before the recording, I kind of realized so much could go wrong – I was engineering it myself, recording it myself, kind of having to play live; there’s not that much time to get everything right. By the time we did it, it was just the nicest. We’re all friends and we were playing together as friends. It just came out so easily. It’s kind of nice letting control go after all these years of being in control of absolutely everything because I was working alone with a computer. But live, it comes out better than you could have imagined in every way.”
Claire Lobenfeld is FACT’s news editor. She is on Twitter.