Features I by I 21.05.13

“A prog rock indulgence”: James Holden goes in-depth on his first album in seven years

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Seven years have passed since the former teen prodigy of trance James Holden released his debut The Idiots Are Winning.

More of a mini-album, it centred around two epic tracks, ‘Lump’ and ‘10101’, that threw done the gauntlet for what modern techno could be. Since then, electronic music has waned and waxed, as it’s wont to do, from dubstep to blubstep, aquacrunk to seapunk, bassline to plain bass. Holden, in the meantime, has released just one single – an eight-minute slab of tranquil krautrock titled ‘Triangle Folds’ – and a handful of remixes for artists as varied as James Lavelle, Mercury Rev, Caribou and Mogwai.

There were sightings – he built up a formidable reputation as a DJ and grew his label, Border Community, into a welcoming home for like-minded producers of intricate and euphoric headphones music, including Nathan Fake, Luke Abbott and Wesley Matsell – but hopes for another record faded as he sequestered himself in his studio to tinker with his ever-expanding modular synthesiser.

The outlook seemed bleak. Then in March, without warning, ‘Gone Feral’ appeared online – a fittingly deranged taster of The Inheritors, Holden’s forthcoming 15-track album of frightening complexity, chaotic systems, hypnotic throbs and heart-on-sleeve emotion, all deploying his homemade machine to devastating effect.

FACT spoke to Holden about the meaning of trance, the horror of being recognised in a club, and his shameless prog rock indulgence.

“‘The Sky Was Pink’ (Remix) was a watershed moment, but it’s become like a millstone – I never want to be asked to play it again.”

It’s been seven years since you released The Idiots are Winning. What took you so long?

I want to do a lot of things – I’m kind of greedy and overenthusiastic. Running the label, obviously. I spent about a year learning Max/MSP, which I had to, and learning a lot of stuff, so now I feel super confident about my abilities. I also spent quite a lot of time just focused on the DJing, getting better at it and building this controller that I use to DJ with. I had to learn 3D design and injection moulding and make friends with a Chinese manufacturing company.

What does it do that other controllers can’t?

It talks to the computer a bit more and it puts information on a little screen, because I’m trying to match the key as well as the BPM of records. That enables you to get away with playing a krautrock record, because no one even notices you’ve played it. It’s still really hard work, but when you’re bending the key to match the track, the controller makes that part easier to get your head around. ‘Cos you can’t do algorithms in your head, I’ve tried [laughs].

Any plans to market it?

We’re gonna do a boutique run of it maybe next year. But small scale. I don’t want to become a hardware company.

Even though you’ve barely released anything in the past seven years, your stock has really risen, especially as a DJ. Do you still enjoy DJing or do you do it to pay the bills?

There’s a pressure in DJing that pushes it in that direction – the worst gigs offer the most money, and everyone around you wants you to make the most money. But I was always fighting against that. I’ve kept making it more difficult for myself, so I’ve kept enjoying it basically, pushing what I play and what I can get away with further and further.

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Do you still like going to clubs?

Because I’m kind of introverted, going to a club in London and having someone come up to you and going, “you’re him” – I can’t relax after that point, and it really limits where I go out. So we find our entertainment more off the beaten trail or in other scenes where people aren’t going to recognise me, gigs and wacky events that friends put on.

Let’s talk about The Inheritors. It seems to me to be unaligned with pretty much anything else going on in dance music now, with the exception of your own label.

Brilliant. Yeah, we all influence each other. Finding Luke [Abbott] and Wesley [Matsell] in the last few years, they sort of feed into this chapter of Nathan [Fake] and me, and it bounces back and forth.

There are 15 tracks on it, though. Surely you could have released an album ages ago and be halfway through the next one by now?

They all went together, and I think none of those tracks would belong on the next thing I do. But also I wanted it to be enormous, too much – it’s going to be triple vinyl in a gatefold sleeve, a prog rock indulgence. But it’s my label so I can, that’s the wonderful thing.

‘Gone Feral’ and the title track are the immediate standouts, both really huge and complex. You must have made them with the massive modular synth you’ve been building?

Yeah, well it’s not like Rick Wakeman massive! It’s funny you ask about those two, because ‘Gone Feral’ was made pretty near the end and ‘The Inheritors’ was almost the first thing I was doing with the modular. ‘The Inheritors’ was more like feeling my way out, and the complexity of it is mostly me playing live on keyboards – the synth patterns and drums are modular and the squealy noises over it are keyboard sounds.

‘Gone Feral’ is much more developed in terms of what I was doing with the machine. That’s like the best chaotic system on the album. It was this idea of making a machine that’s in a fixed state but a bit unstable, so it will sort of vary around and if you push it the wrong way it’ll go completely off, it will just screw up.

“Trance is a great word for a kind of music, we just give it to the wrong kind of music, because what people call trance isn’t trance-y!”

So for the uninitiated, what is a modular synth and why would you want to have one?

A modular synth is a synth where you can choose the bits that go in it and choose the connections between them. In a normal keyboard you’ll have an oscillator, a filter and an amplifier, which make a tone, change the tone of that tone and the volume of that tone. Then you have things to change that tone over time, to make a spiky short sound or a long sound.

But in a modular, you don’t even have to build them in that order, you can just put wires in holes until it sounds good. So you’re totally free, you can do anything and you can do it quite quickly because it’s all there in front of you and you’ve got the wires. That means people use them in their own personal way. Some people use them to pretty much replicate that keyboard traditional layout but with a couple of tweaks. Luke does a lot of his sequencing in the modular and it’s just a giant hybrid drum machine, keyboard, 303, everything all at once. And for me, I’m really into these chaotic systems and using it almost as an analogue computer that’s connected to the real computer, back and forth, where there’s little bits of code.

You mentioned you taught yourself Max/MSP too. How does that work with the modular synth?

It’s a programming language for media and art and music – people use it for all kinds of things, like art installations. It’s modular as well, but on a much rawer level, where your pipes are carrying numbers instead of electrical signals. So I build really simple little devices that screw up the sequence or miss out a note or throw the timing off in a human manner, and use them as modular building blocks to make the whole thing unpredictable and interrelated.

So do you record a track live?

It’s like two days practising and fiddling around to make it perfect, and then one or two live takes. Then I’ll record lots of separate bits out at the same time and assemble them in Ableton. It’s all about keeping the live performance and just chopping out any terrible errors. When I was last releasing music I didn’t have all this fun stuff and I ended up just spending too long editing. And I started to hate the sound of that, especially as it’s prevalent everywhere in music – everything’s digital, everything’s super-tight, on the beat, and what’s common isn’t very interesting is it?

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Some would say that a great home studio full of controllers and synths and powerful editing software can paralyse you with too many options. Isn’t that the same with a modular synth, where your options are endless?

Yeah… but they’re kind of better options. The options in digital stuff especially, all these plug-ins, like an amazing beautiful reverb that belongs on a Top 10 record – it doesn’t belong in this kind of music. And with the modular you’re trying to make it play the notes you want it to play; you’re fighting against it.

In an interview last year you said you were “deliberately trying to do bad production”. This album definitely sounds messy and chaotic in places. Do you think that’s an under-explored area, the idea of leaving things unpolished?

Yeah. There’s a choice to make something as pumped up and airbrushed and spray-tanned as possible, but it means something and are you sure you want to take that meaning on? I mean, I’m not the only person thinking that – there’s Not Not Fun and 100% Silk, all of that sort of stuff, but of course it’s not very functional. Choosing not to be functional is maybe an indulgent luxury.

Yes, because without functional dance records you couldn’t have a night, could you?

They need something with a proper kick drum to play after their record, yeah.

Let’s talk about another track on the album – ‘The Caterpillar’s Intervention’. I mean, it’s prog, isn’t it?

Yeah [laughs]. I’d done the track and almost given up, and then had the idea to send it to Etienne Jaumet. I explained how I was doing multiple takes of the same thing and layering them up, making weird choirs of me or synths or drumming, so he did the same thing with the sax and sent me 10 tapes of him playing over the top. But his chord sequence comes in halfway through my chord sequence, so it’s totally out of phase but makes sense in itself. He intervened and sort of flipped the whole thing on its head, like the caterpillar does in Alice in Wonderland.

You couldn’t compose it in a conventional sense, unless you were autistic, because it’s too complicated – and that’s what I wanna do, make something uncompose-able, unwritedown-able. I was always trying to avoid the over-indulgence and the trying-to-be-clever-ness of prog rock. When people think music is clever, I find that a bit distressing – all the work and all the complicated set-ups are just meant to make it more direct. I wanted to make something that you can’t quite figure out, like you’re on drugs or something, rather than winning the prize for the cleverest person in electronic music. What’s the point of that?

One thread that runs through your music and the Border Community artists is a feeling of intense emotion, like your remix of Nathan Fake’s ‘The Sky Was Pink’, which was actually one of the first records that really got me interested in dance music.

It was never intended as schmaltz, especially that record. It was a watershed moment, but it’s become like a millstone – I never want to be asked to play it again. When you’ve heard it too many times and people have done fucking horrible remixes of it…

“I wanted the album to be enormous, too much – it’s going to be triple vinyl in a gatefold sleeve, a prog rock indulgence.”

Oh, like who?

I’m not gonna name names… one of them has apologised to me! But it’s that Freud thing of, “we hate in others what we don’t like in ourselves”. Seeing the copies it was like, how the fuck did they get it so wrong? So that whole scene happened and then I didn’t want to play any of those records. You gotta move forward, not just keep recycling.

Another element I think connects a lot of your output is trance, which obviously can be traced back to your first releases in the early ’00s, like ‘Horizons’ . Am I allowed to say trance or should it be “progressive”?

Ah, progressive is the worst name for a genre ever. It’s a super conservative form. Trance is a great word for a kind of music, we just give it to the wrong kind of music, because what people call trance isn’t trance-y!

What does trance mean to you?

It’s real, it’s not magic but real. Repetitious things change your state of mind. From the first moment I had the opportunity, I’d make loops and listen to a loop for ages, I’ve always just loved that. And Terry Riley and Steve Reich, that’s trance. And it’s almost the only way I can make music.

A couple of months ago, at The Barbican in London, you performed some pretty trance-like music as part of a lecture on consciousness given by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. How did that come about?

The woman who produced the show mailed me about it and said it was about hypnotism, and I thought great, I’d love to do that. It was a strange kind of journey of reading loads of science papers about clinical applications of light and sound – flashing strobes in your face like the psychiatrist in Twin Peaks.

There’s lots of stuff about throbbing tones being really important, like a basic noise for affecting your brain. Then I had this chat with Vincent Walsh, who’s like a travelling neuroscientist, and he just said, “why are you asking scientists how to make hypnotic music – as a musician, surely you know how to do that?” So I just let go of it and went right, let’s just make really psychedelic rock. We’re going to redo that lecture at Latitude this year.

A final big question: will we have to wait another seven years for the next record?

[Immediately] No, definitely not!

What might it sound like – are you still going to work with the same set-up, including the modular synth?

Yes, but maybe more real instruments and acoustic things. The thing that would be the most difficult for me, that would be the biggest push, would be to learn how to write a proper arrangement. Dan [Snaith], Caribou, does these amazing pop arrangements. I just do “it repeats”, that’s all it was meant to do! So maybe I’m going to challenge myself a bit and try and do the things I’m not good at.

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