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James Holden

James Holden may be quiet and unassuming, but his music is as dirty as it comes. The Border Community head honcho went from being trance wunderkind to single-minded purveyor of mussed-up techno, with his second album, The Inheritors, released to high praise in 2013. In his lecture at the 2010 Red Bull Music Academy, Holden talks about wiring things up the wrong way, telling A&R men where to go and why you can mix anything, as long as it’s in the right key.

Hosted by Gerd Janson Audio Only Version Transcript:

RBMA

 To my right is a fine gentleman who lives in London, so it wasn’t too far for him to come here. I could go on now and do a really long introduction about his music and art, about idiosyncrasy in music, but his name is James Holden and he runs a label called Border Community and he makes very nice electronic music that makes you want to dance. So please, give him a warm welcome.

(applause)

James Holden

 Hi.

RBMA

 So James, what were your first musical memories in your childhood?

James Holden

 I don’t remember. My dad played the piano, we didn’t really have very much music in the house. It was weird, he just played the piano but we didn’t have a very good stereo. It was just that, him playing classical music, and I was really quite old before I even got a radio or a tape recorder, a teenager before I had my first tape player.

RBMA

 And he had the sheets of all the Kraftwerk stuff, that’s why you got into electronic music later on?

James Holden

 (laughs) I don’t know if it would be very good on the piano. It was an accident, I had an Apec computer and I was a nerd so I was programming it, and then making music with it seemed quite interesting. I was playing three sounds at once, sinewaves and then you had noise as well. I didn’t know any electronic music at all, I thought it was for idiots because of Radio 1’s dance music coverage. Then a physics teacher at school gave me Orbital and stuff like that, ’90s drum ‘n’ bass, that sort of thing. That Sunday I ditched all my rock CDs and moved on.

RBMA

 You were pretty young when you put out your first records.

James Holden

 I was, I think, 19 when the first one came out. It wasn’t really something I’d taken very seriously. I made a dance record because my mate had a techno night and wanted to do a CD. But he was never going to organise something like that. Someone played it to a record label – I hadn’t even sent the demo out – and then it just sort of happened. It wasn’t planned this was what I was going to do, the music I was making was another thing. But then this thing happened so I went along with it.

RBMA

 So you made it specifically for your mate’s night?

James Holden

 Yeah, I was interested. At the start, I was making all kinds of things: techno, electronica, trying to make drum ‘n’ bass as well. And I didn’t see that 4/4 music was going to be where I went with my life at all. It wasn’t planned, but then you’re quite quickly sucked into this tunnel.

RBMA

 You were at university at the time?

James Holden

 Yeah, it was a mate at university who played it to the label.

RBMA

 And from there on? It was like they dubbed you the wunderkind of trance or prog or whatever.

James Holden

 Which was really embarrassing (laughs). Because obviously, the record label wanted to make money so they’re pushing this thing. It’s a lesson. The first lesson, that once you’ve done something it’s really hard to get away from it. You have to step back and disappoint all the people who think you’re going to carry on doing that forever. But maybe doing that early stood me in good stead and I don’t feel uncomfortable doing that again now, or again in two years’ time.

RBMA

 Do you have some advice when it comes to signing to a record label?

James Holden

 It almost completely stopped the interesting bit of my career from happening. I signed my name exclusively to a terrible contract with a record label that wasn’t very good at putting out records. Never sign a record contract in the pub, never sign without seeing a lawyer. It seems really obvious, and I’d already heard people tell me that sort of thing, read about it or whatever. But, in the moment, you want this to happen, you believe this person and you just go along with it. Suddenly you’re stuck, spending all your savings on a lawyer to escape from this situation. I can’t say it enough. It’s no effort, lawyers aren’t scary. Phone them up, give them £200 and they’ll look at a contract for you. It can save you, I don’t know how much, a lot of heartache and stress afterwards.

RBMA

 But back then, the feeling of, ‘Oh, wow! I’m going to release a record’, just takes over.

James Holden

 Yeah, definitely. You fixate on it, when you’re making demos and no one’s hearing your music. Looking back, that’s the best time of making music, when you’re just playing it to your mates. You’re free and relaxed and what you make is good in that moment and then it’s gone. In a way, I’m jealous of that. The big goal of releasing a record is always an anticlimax, I felt at the time. If you make a difference with a record, that’s so much more important than putting some vinyl out that sells a few hundred and is over a week later.

RBMA

 What do you mean by making a difference with a record?

James Holden

 Just a record that people pay some attention to. The only way to get that is to make that record and not really care about making that release, not trying to make that happen.

RBMA

 Have you had such a record?

James Holden

 I don’t know (laughs).

RBMA

 I don’t know if most people here are familiar with your music or not. There have been a few things that have turned into big hits, touched a lot of people, so maybe we can listen to one of those things.

James Holden

 I definitely don’t have the first one, just check. (looks in his computer) This is actually the first one, from when I was 19 or 20, so it’s quite embarrassing for me to listen to it, so maybe we’ll just play a minute of it.

RBMA

 Might be fun.

James Holden

 Please don’t laugh (laughter).

(music: James Holden – Horizons)

I’m going to skip. Sorry.

RBMA

 You don’t have to apologise.

James Holden

 I do(laughs). That’s enough (stops music).

RBMA

 And now, maybe for another point of view, can you show us what you’re doing right now?

James Holden

 Yes.

RBMA

 That’s what you get if your physics teacher gives you an Orbital CD.

James Holden

 Yeah, and you’re a wide-eyed teenager who’s just been to raves for the first time. This is the last thing I finished, it’s a remix of Mogwai, completely different.

(music: Mogwai – The Sun Smells Too Loud (James Holden Remix) / applause)

This is the thing that made me realise I needed to buy bass traps for the studio. It’s a real mess on the low end.

RBMA

 I didn’t notice?

James Holden

 It’s just not quite right.

RBMA

 Is this something you pay a lot of attention to, the way you mix your music down?

James Holden

 Actually, no. I became really blasé about it, I just thought if what happens in that moment sounds good, then all this serious studio stuff of fine-notch EQs to make it sound clean and perfect compression and a balanced mix, it’s not really as important as the feeling and the atmosphere. I produced a track, co-wrote a track that was on Sasha’s album a long time ago, and because it was done in a big studio by a professional person, it was mixed down in a way that I wouldn’t have done it, I just thought it sounded a bit cold and fake, didn’t really sound real anymore. And that makes it sound a bit cynical as well, it just takes away all the magic of the music, just polishing it way too much. The bad mix is just as important a creative decision as which bassdrum you use or the melody of the synth line. It places it, there’s a meaning of what this music is, its identity is coming from the bad production. Now, I’m deliberately trying to do bad production(laughs).

RBMA

 And you think a professional person who would mix down your stuff isn’t really attached to it?

James Holden

 Well, they’re just following the rules of how to make a good piece of music. I guess, you’ve all heard a lot of people telling you what you can and can’t do in a mixdown. I’ve read so much rubbish on the internet, people’s opinions of how to mix music.

RBMA

 For instance?

James Holden

 Just things about the right frequency balance, how compression should be used, never put a compressor on the master when you’re working. For years, the first thing I’d do when I turned my computer on was put three compressors and a limiter on the master. Then you put a kickdrum 20db too loud and it squashes everything – that’s a really exciting part of the music. You make the resonance much too hard on the synth or a bass part and it’s squashing everything else. When you’re at a live gig, the sound is too much, the band go too crazy, but that’s part of the experience, when it’s squashed through the speakers, through your ears, your perception, to make these ‘too-much moments’ that are really important.

RBMA

 And you mentioned Sasha, who – some people might not be familiar with him – is a big, big trance DJ.

James Holden

 He’d be really angry to be called trance. He’s progressive.

RBMA

 My apologies, Sasha, progressive. So how did you find yourself ending up there? If we want to go on pigeonholing you, some people call what you do shoegazing techno.

James Holden

 That was at the point where I left the first record label, or was about to leave, and was already sick of being in that pigeonhole, this English progressive scene. I really didn’t get on with that scene, especially that scene. Trance, progressive, even techno now to some extent, people get very fixed about what is progressive, this little box, and if you go outside, then it’s cheesy. Actually, really it’s cheesy to make this clichéd box music, that’s the cheesiest thing possible, and you can’t have any sort of purism that someone who’s outside of your box is cheaper than you. That’s a delusion of wilful self-indulgence. I just did it because it seemed interesting. He phoned me up and said: “Do you want to come and write a track?” I saw that whole world of professional, big studio, making an album for a major label, and I haven’t tried to get back into that world since.

RBMA

 And you also moved around that world as a DJ at the beginning?

James Holden

 I was more at the bottom of the ladder then, and also, I was quite unpopular with fans of that genre, because I was trying to play Boards Of Canada tracks and Pascal FEOS tracks in the middle of a club where everyone was just playing trance with bongos.

RBMA

 So after that, what did you do then, when you lost your interest in this kind of music?

James Holden

 That’s when we set up Border Community. I’d worked out what I was interested in. Maybe we should go backwards a bit, to the bad record. This is what I was talking about last night, because I was terrified of coming here, just waffling on, and scared of not having a huge amount to contribute. But with my girlfriend, we were talking about this time, and all the lessons I learned from this bad record label, we took forward to Border Community to try and be the opposite. If someone offers you a long contract, unless it’s a major label and they’re going to spend loads of money making you a big star, then a long contract is the stupidest idea in the history of the music industry. You tie yourself to someone, you both grow as a label or a person or an artist, and there’s no reason why you’re both going to go in the same direction. But you’re tied to someone with the expectation that he wants you to do a certain thing and he’s trying to tell you how to write good music. You’re never going to make good music in that pressured environment, it’s the worst thing for an artist. I had this experience and then with Border Community we tried to make it that we just sign a record. We never make or take a commitment for the future, we just tell them: “If you like us still, if we’re interested in what you’re doing, we’ll keep working with you.” Then they don’t feel like they have to deliver the follow-up, they don’t feel tied to us, they can go and make completely different music and it makes for much better results. They’re not stressing, going into the studio trying to make something. If you ever go in and think, ‘Today I’m going to make a hit’, that’s the day you make your worst record. A&R men will, a million times in your careers, try to tell you what to do, to change how you’re making a record, give you a bit of advice. If someone wants to change your music, they’re probably the wrong person to be putting it out. There’s one A&R person who told Nathan Fake to turn his kickdrum up 3db on the track, that was his contribution. Nathan told him to fuck off, obviously.

RBMA

 That’s quite a specific feedback, right?

James Holden

 Yeah. And it was completely wrong, the kickdrum was if anything too loud.

RBMA

 Nathan Fake is one of the artists on your label.

James Holden

 Yeah, I guess he’s one of our most successful artists.

RBMA

 Before we listen to something of his that you remixed, maybe, you really never told any of the artists on your label to change something, like constructive criticism?

James Holden

 It’s more like we pick the bits we like from what they do. They might get an idea from which ends of their music we’re interested in, and that might have an influence on them, but we definitely never say: “Make this more…” The A&R man who told Nathan that, I’ve seen other feedback from him and he’s said: “Can you make the breakdown more like this other record?” What a terrible way to make music, trying to make records that sound like another record. What’s the point? I firmly believe if a record sounds like another, then don’t put it out. I might be in a minority.

RBMA

 So you may have something with a kickdrum that’s minus 3db.

James Holden

 You really want me to play this?

RBMA

 There might be some people here who don’t know it.

James Holden

 Either you know this or you don’t, but for me it’s the millstone around my neck. You make a hit and the dilettantes will be asking you for it for the rest of your life. Even though you’re sick of it and everyone else is. So this is Nathan Fake and "The Sky Was Pink", my corny remix of it.

(music: Nathan Fake – The Sky Was Pink (James Holden remix) / applause)

I thought I’d just play the original as well, just to show I didn’t really do anything. This is Nathan’s original, which he just did in one live take. He’s mental, he just makes something, does a live take.

(music: Nathan Fake - The Sky Was Pink)

You get the idea. I had something to say about that. It’s gone.

RBMA

 Maybe he did it for different purposes. You said you liked the original more than your own take on it.

James Holden

 For me, yeah, I definitely like the original more, it’s just right. I’d been playing it in clubs, but we wanted to put it out and I thought, ‘Maybe I can make a remix that other people will play, find the fine line between these things’. At the time I was quite pleased, I found the line that turned Nathan’s shoegazing, or whatever, into a club track. It didn’t seem too corny, but now listening to it – it depends if you’ve followed the techno scene in the last few years – but to me it seems too corny because of all the copies I’ve heard. There are some artists who’ve made more than one cover of this track and not acknowledged it.

RBMA

 What happened with the remix, for anyone not following the techno scene? There are a few here who don’t follow the techno scene.

James Holden

 Lucky you (laughs). The point of the remix is that it stayed back a bit, there wasn’t a snare roll, it didn’t quite deliver in the breakdown, it didn’t quite drop right back in, it took a while, it was a bit awkward sounding. That’s what stops it being just a trance record or whatever, like cheap. One guy took the drums thing (imitates the drums), took the synth part, changed one chord, took the bassline, just one note different, tried to do a melody over the top, but just pumped the whole thing up like a big-room festival trance banger.

RBMA

 Like bodybuilding.

James Holden

 Yeah, exactly, and it just made me feel sick. I actually hate hearing the remix because of that. Maybe that’s entirely self-indulgent.

RBMA

 But you seem to have a tendency when you go back to your previous work to feel not too positive about it.

James Holden

 I think that one is the worst because of the context it’s been put in by other people. Once it’s out it has a life of its own and you don’t have any control over it, you can’t ever put them back in the box. Some of my old stuff, there’s one, I’m just going to play ten seconds of it. This is my second release, I still play it in my sets occasionally. This is a sort of deep house thing.

(music: James Holden – One For You)

That’s enough, that was when I was the same age as that first trance record and I feel happy with that, you can go back to things. Some of your little naïve moments should be kept in private (laughs).

RBMA

 And what does that Nathan Fake record mean for your label?

James Holden

 As a label it’s a bit like being a DJ, you’re trying to make people trust you, to buy your next unknown artist and to sort of believe in your identity and where you’re going. To have a hit like that did make it a lot easier, definitely, to have people follow you and pay attention and buy an unknown artist’s next record. But afterwards, people think that’s the sound of the label and you’re only going to do that for the rest of your life. And if a record you put out isn’t delivering as much as that, then it’s not so good. Then you have this second fight telling people they’ve got the wrong idea and should go and find somebody else to listen to.

RBMA

 So how do you decide what to put out and what not out of all the MySpace message links?

James Holden

(laughs) I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a MySpace link. Just if we agree, ’cause I run the label with my partner Gemma. If one of us likes something, but it’s usually if both of us feel we can live with it for the rest of our lives, then we’ll put it out. If not, then we don’t. It’s quite easy.

RBMA

 You make a decision in one moment, right, and you talked about naiveté…

James Holden

 I don’t have any problem with putting out naïve records or things that are outside the box, a bit cheesy or something. But the feeling we have when listening to something, if we both have it, then I just know it’s a good thing. It’s always worked.

RBMA

 Going back to your work as a remixer, the Nathan Fake thing was a successful remix for you. How do you work with all the offers you get for an endless stream of follow-ups?

James Holden

 Now I just tell people I’m not doing remixes, I’m just bored with it. Again, when I was young and I put out a record and it was a bit of a hit, then you do get a stream of people wanting remixes and it’s the easy option. You haven’t got any money and someone offers you £500 to churn out something…

RBMA

 Or even more.

James Holden

 Yeah. It went up, then the music industry died and it went back down again. But it distracts you from your own work, putting your ideas into remixes, and I always had the thought that I didn’t want to put out things I wasn’t happy with, so I put a lot of effort into the remixes. Looking back it’s the reason why I took so long to put out something of my own again, to make a proper album and all these things. A remix has a deadline as well, you do a job, you have a deadline. So your own music gets pushed back because there’s no one saying they need it two weeks ago, and it gets pushed back gradually further and further. I’ve realised now I’ve pushed it right to the back and I have to be a bit selfish and push my own thing to the front.

RBMA

 When was the last time you did a record of your own, an album?

James Holden

 That was The Idiots Are Winning, about 2007-‘08.

RBMA

 2006.

James Holden

 No! I’ve wasted four years of my life.

RBMA

 Why are the “idiots winning”?

James Holden

It was from a Chris Morris TV series, Nathan Barley, about a journalist. It was a self-effacing title. It was a character in this sitcom, who’s a journalist at something like Vice Magazine, who thinks he’s above it all and he calls all the trendies idiots. But he’s the biggest idiot, he’s a complete fool. I just thought I go around being quite negative about techno in general, but really, I’m the biggest idiot. But once it’s out in the world people take their own meaning and they say: “I’m an idiot.”

RBMA

 There’s even a track on it called "Idiot", which is different from your other stuff, the way it sounds, the way it works.

James Holden

 That track? OK.

(music: James Holden – Idiot)

I go to the loo whenever I play one of mine, especially when I’m uncomfortable watching you looking uncomfortable on the sofa on the screen there.

RBMA

 That’s your trick, right? If you don’t want to listen to your music, you pretend you need to go the toilet.

James Holden

 You’re going to think I have a bladder problem by the end of today.

RBMA

 I sometimes have a bladder problem, but we shouldn’t talk about our bladders here, it might be a bit self-indulgent.

James Holden

 The bladder is a very important part of being a DJ.

RBMA

 Is it?

James Holden

 Yeah, you have to hold it in for hours.

RBMA

 How do you work it out, drinking, DJing, bladdering?

James Holden

 I reach a point where I’m just sipping a bottle of water four hours into a set.

RBMA

 That leads us into your DJing. You mentioned earlier with your record-making that you try to convince people. Is that what you do with your DJing as well?

James Holden

 Yeah, to some extent, but try to have fun as well. It’s quite embarrassing to stand on a stage in front of loads of people and it’s even more embarrassing if you’re not 100% behind the record you play. So I guess, more and more I realised you couldn’t get away with just playing your favourite records one after the other. It took me a while to realise that, not just throw Boards Of Canada in and make everyone leave the dancefloor. But gradually, I realised through technical stuff you can make people not realise you’re playing the wrong music for the time.

RBMA

 And what is the technical stuff?

James Holden

 For me as a DJ, the key-mixing is the most important thing. So much of dance music, when you’re in a club, half the night you’re listening to intros and outros that have no information in them, just a beat, and they’re just there because the DJ can’t key-mix and he just wants to do a smooth mix between two tracks. I’d personally rather not hear those bits, just hearing a DJ throw the fader up and putting two things out of time, crossfading in five seconds. Listening to two minutes of a less-good drum beat than the rest of the track is just depressing. With key-mixing you can hear the musical links between things, and if you’re holding the arpeggio that’s the end of one track, and then playing an ambient track over the top of it and then something else in the same key, it all just feels like you can change mood very drastically, go from banging to not banging. But because they’re musically linked it just feels like a continuation of the same thing and that lets you play sets where you’re playing krautrock and techno, everything together, and on a good night it feels like it’s just one kind of music.

RBMA

 But to do that you need to be able to tell what key it is, which is something that’s quite hard for most DJs because they’re not musicians. So send them all to music school?

James Holden

 Yeah, I think so. DJing is so easy, really. Beat-matching… he always does it wrong though, my friend, I saw in my friend’s record bag he was using Mixed In Key or whatever it’s called. He had some of my tracks, so I was looking at the codes and then his wheel, trying to see what his crazy wheel system is, trying to work out what key it is in real music. That’s completely wrong, it’s not understood. I’m really lucky because I have Nathan Fake on the other end of my Instant Messenger and whenever there’s a track I can’t work out I send it to him and he tells me the answer in ten seconds. It’s not too hard to learn to key things, you know what a major and a minor chord is and you have a Casio keyboard, just play around until you find the one that sounds right, make a note of it. It’s just the massive effort of keying a whole record collection, that’s why people want software to do it.

RBMA

 And DJs are lazy, they don’t even want to carry records around anymore.

James Holden

 Compared to what you’re producing, that’s such a huge skill, you can learn it for your whole life. DJing, you can learn it for your whole life and the subtle skills of working a crowd and so on. But the technical things, anyone who thinks beatmatching is an achievement needs to try harder and get out more.

RBMA

 You get out almost every other weekend, right?

James Holden

 Yeah, I try to spend a bit of time at home, just to be normal.

RBMA

 Usually, DJing is turned into this great thing, you get flown in, this free dinner, great party, everyone wants to kiss you, but is it really like that? You don’t look like a guy who enjoys the Ibiza image of it all.

James Holden

 I like to have fun sometimes, but a lot of the things that go with it, they get old very, very quickly. Flying in, restaurants, staying in hotels. When I go on holiday now, I go in England because I can go in a car and not go into an airport. It’s like poison for your soul, I’ve seen a lot of people affected by it. When I was talking to my girlfriend last night, it was something she said, that if you have flaws in your personality and you enjoy a bit of success, then you will quickly find ways to destroy your own success, just end it. I’ve seen it so many times, people just get sucked into the drugs and the girls. Or both. Why would you want to have sex with someone who isn’t interested in you but your brand and image and persona? I can’t imagine ever wanting to do that. If you let yourself into that world, it’s a downward slope to a sad existence.

RBMA

 So Border Community makes you attractive for all the girls in the world?

James Holden

 Not all of them (laughter). There are a few nutters out there, but I don’t think if I hadn’t made records and had a record label and played records, then they wouldn’t be coming up to me in a club and being a bit weird. I can remember being in a club and girls not coming up to me. It’s good to keep a hold of that, I’m not the most popular person in the world, or the room. That’s nice, it’s fine to not be popular.

RBMA

 But the DJ thing is what pays the bills now, with record sales going down and la, la, la.

James Holden

 If you work hard with a record label it can do more than break even, but DJing is so much more. For the artists on the label as well, a record is some money, but one gig, two gigs, three gigs, makes as much money as the whole record will make.

RBMA

 So it’s the proverbial business card.

James Holden

 Yeah, everything is changing and I don’t really know where it’s going to end up. I find it quite interesting to read people speculating what the future is going to be like for the music industry, but really, we don’t know. I don’t know if giving music away for free is the future or not, but I don’t like the idea. One of our artists told me he only wants to do releases if he can have vinyl. Lots of them are like that, but he’s very purist about it, and I sort of feel the same. If you haven’t made a thing, if you haven’t had a transaction and sold something, then it’s not quite as [satisfying]. But maybe I’m just an old man now, talking about the good old days that have gone. When I was a boy!

RBMA

 Someone said the other day he has a record company, so he plays records. But you don’t?

James Holden

 I buy records, but records don’t have loop buttons or master tempo and reverse, so I record the records to CD and then play them. But I understand it gives a message.

RBMA

 And you also add a sampler to it when you play.

James Holden

 Yeah, just this cheap little Cycloops thing. Mine’s just a little thing, because I’ve been planning to switch to Traktor for three years, I didn’t buy a new one, even though bits keep falling off it. Now it’s an electric shock risk, one of the buttons doesn’t work and you have to jiggle the cable to make it work at the start. But I’m still not buying another one because I am going to get ‘round to loading Traktor and learning it.

RBMA

 But it’s all part of the performance.

James Holden

 Sometimes the duff connection has made a really interesting noise in the middle of a set and if you get thrown something you weren’t expecting, then as long as you’re not having a bad day, you can take that and go somewhere with it, play with it, a bit of distortion you didn’t expect. “I did mean to do that!”

RBMA

 When you’re 64 you’ll still be mixing records in key then?

James Holden

 The older you get, the more embarrassing it gets to be playing to people half your age or a third of your age. So I don’t think I’d want to be doing it when I’m really old.

RBMA

 So what’s the exit if you can’t sustain making records?

James Holden

 I don’t know. Maybe I’ll make a really good album one day and go in that direction. I’m interested in producing people. Who here is thinking about what they’re going to be doing when they’re 40?

RBMA

 (hand goes up / laughter)Oh, you need a microphone then, tell us.

James Holden

 That’s really good. Do think about it. I don’t know if there’s an answer, maybe it brings a mid-life crisis early.

RBMA

 Have you seen the documentary about a heavy metal band called Anvil?

James Holden

 Yes! That’s such a good film, everyone should watch that, it’s quite beautiful, the happy ending.

RBMA

 I was glad it had a happy ending. It shows how seductive the whole thing is, those guys go on to make a super-influential album called Metal On Metal. They were playing stages in Japan with electric guitars and dildos.

James Holden

 Really Spinal Tap but not a joke.

RBMA

 And then they thought, ‘Here we go, this is the career’. Then it all faded. And now they’re in their 50s, but they kept going and are still trying to make that one album that will be the final great success, they play all over the world. But you don’t want to be a one-person Anvil?

James Holden

(laughs) There’s a bit of that about me. If you have kids or something, your life is going to change. I feel I could stop. I feel like I could stop and I’d have done something and could just go and do something different with my life. I wouldn’t feel gutted about it at all now. That’s probably a good position to be in. If you’re desperate to be DJing so you can get free cocaine and girls every weekend for the rest of your life, then it’s probably not going to work out. But if you can just be relaxed and identify the time when it’s right to step back and do something different, then you can have a dignified death or whatever.

RBMA

 You obviously do your own parties, your Border Community nights. Is that the right setting for you? The nature of it is you obviously end up in places and spaces where you feel it’s not right to be here now.

James Holden

 Completely, and this weekend was a good case in point. We had a London BC night at Corsica Studios, which is a perfect grimy little venue with amazing sound and a really nice crowd of fellow, slightly hippie people coming along. You can play anything and we had a band at the start, and the guy from Fuck Buttons was DJing, Andrew, playing amazing stuff but outside the box. The next day I was at a megarave in Spain. Playing before me were Radio Slave, who I like, but we’re completely unrelated musically, to try to make the transition. Then after was Steve Bug, who probably wasn’t too thrilled about going on after me either. The home thing, it’s lovely having your own thing. The Border Community, 90% of the power of it is that you have ten friends who agree with you and who, when you do something, they’re: “Yeah, I understand what you’re trying to do there, that works, you’re getting there.” Having this gang around you, you feel a bit more confident when someone’s holding up a mobile phone with: “This is shit, please play "Sky Was Pink".” You feel a bit more confident if Luke Abbott is behind you dancing away or Nathan is in the crowd. Why would I care what that person thinks? They obviously see music differently from me, so I should block out their influence completely and just listen to the people I agree with. Maybe that’s the most important thing I’ve learned. Lots of people are going to disagree with your opinion, but it’s just finding some people on your wavelength. If they like the same music as you and they like your music, so long as they’re not just being polite, then you’re probably on the right track. If an A&R man doesn’t like your music, don’t work with him.

RBMA

 So you have to have a community on board?

James Holden

 At the start, before I had my own label I had my mates at college and it was the same thing. If you have a group of friends around you, a collective, you all feed off each other, help each other to grow.

RBMA

 You said the word “hippie” earlier and “krautrock” and I once heard you say that this kind of changed the whole way you approached music. We had Cluster here the other day.

James Holden

 I wish I could’ve come down for that.

RBMA

 You can watch it on the website.

James Holden

 Was it good?

RBMA

 I will check it on the website, but I hope these guys enjoyed it. But maybe you can talk a little bit about what these guys did that made you rethink your own music.

James Holden

 I’d quite like to play something first. This is a track by Cluster, it’s called "Hollywood", and the date on it is, I think it’s 1973. When I heard this, I suddenly realised the history of dance music with DetroitandChicago and Kraftwerk and everything, actually goes back a bit further. This record from 1973, they invented trance, they did it better than trance and that’s it. The whole thing was unnecessary from that point on.

(music: Cluster – Hollywood)

I think that’s perfect, that’s the perfect record.

Participant

 Who is it?

James Holden

 Cluster.

RBMA

 Did they play it the other day? You can’t remember, you weren’t paying attention. So that’s what you’re trying to achieve now, not the one-man Anvil, you’re the one-man Cluster.

James Holden

 They’ve had an interesting career, but I just want to be the one-man me, really. Always when I play a record I think of loads of things to say, and then it’s gone.

RBMA

 We talked a bit earlier about how it made you rethink the way your produced music, not just the kind of music but also the tools you’re using.

James Holden

 It made me interested in how the equipment is affecting the results, the method you use and the process you go through. I had been a disciple, like really into making music with just a computer. When I started, I had no money so it was only free software, I didn’t even know about cracked software then, so it was just freeware, and I was quite an evangelist for it. At the time, it was still the ’90s, people were still using proper equipment, people would say: “Ah, it sounds really thin from a computer.” So I was quite defensive of computer music, really into it and just stuck with it for a long time, didn’t buy any equipment. But then you realise, that although the computer can do everything, that’s also a problem. You’re sitting there in the studio and you have too many things to play with, too many options. Then your music has no character because you’re faced with the same set of massive possibilities as everyone else is and not really focusing yourself into a direction. So buying loads of analogue synths has completely changed what I do. I feel it’s a process I’m interested in and I’ll do that for a while and then the results change, because I’m quite limited by it, you’re working around the limitations. I think some of the stuff I made on my eight-bit Amstrad is better than some of the stuff I’ve made since. Because I’ve got three notes and some white noise, you’re working within the limits so you make something that pushes at them. So much dance music sounds like you’ve got too many plug-ins, big swooshy production, but no character or soul because of that.

RBMA

 So the saying goes a bad worker blames his tools. Is that right?

James Holden

 I’m a bad worker blaming other people’s tools (laughs). Electronic music has evolved since computers caught on and you hear it in, say, the massive over-compression of sound, which is trendy at the moment. And if you just go along with it and think, ‘Everyone else is putting ultra-maximisers on so I will too’, then that’s one less difference between you and everyone else. I don’t think you have to compete in the loudness war.

RBMA

 The “loudness war” in two sentences for people who haven’t heard of it.

James Holden

 Everyone’s heard of the loudness war.

RBMA

 Everyone?

James Holden

 The idea of making your songs sound better by limiting them too much.

RBMA

 One of the pieces of equipment you’ve bought in the last years that’s been influential for you is the modular system, right?

James Holden

 Yeah.

RBMA

 Your co-workers are still packing it up to get it here in time, right?

James Holden

 (laughs) No. Modular is a bit like taking up crack as a hobby, it’s quite addictive. You’ve got these big cases with loads of space in it, and you think, ‘Ah, maybe I just need one more oscillator’. And it’s really good as well. You’ve got the rack in the house and the modules come, and Gemma doesn’t notice when a module arrives in the post, so I just think, ‘I’ll get another filter and choose it for a day when she’s not around in the morning, I can get it screwed in before she’s even…’

RBMA

 Can you explain what a modular system is for someone who’s never seen it?

James Holden

 It’s a big rack with individual modules that are the component parts of analogue synthesis. Then you just patch it together with cables, sort of 3.5mm jacks. So, for example, you’ve got oscillators and filters, but because you can patch them incorrectly and your modulator can do things that really no synth has in it, you can make a synth out of delay and some noise and feedback to make a tone, that’s what I was doing last week. Or making fake drums, two filters in a feedback circle, and then the resonance, if you send it a little click, then the resonance of the filters makes a little noise which sounds incredibly like a drum. It’s really expressive, so you can go crazy. You can just spend the whole night putting cables in and seeing what happens when you turn it on in the morning. And it’s quite unpredictable, and it reacts to itself, what I really like. Basically, what I’m interested in at the moment, is making an instrument, not making a computer that’s predictable and controllable, and you draw curve with a mouse, and next time you press play it’s the same as it will be when you render it. With a module you’re making a thing that’s connected to itself, it’s chaotic and out of control. So you push a filter on a bassline and you’ve got it wired into something else and the drums go a bit wrong, then that’s a moment and you react to that and do something else. It’s like when I played the violin, it would always make the wrong sound when I was trying to make music. But in the end you go with it. ‘Oh, I’ve made a squeak, I’ll make the most of it’. The same with the best bits of my recent recordings, they’ve been accidents that have been made by myself. I like the idea of making music that’s not as good as it possibly could be, not as polished or as in people’s faces, not as perfect or hooky, and they have to see through the layers and fuzz and mistakes and the slight awkwardness of the arrangement to get to the beauty of it. Maybe I’m, just an old man, but that doesn’t seem as cheap as trying to make a pop record that’s straight away in your face.

RBMA

 And you can’t go back and recreate this same sound?

James Holden

 No, never.

RBMA

 Not even if you write down what you did?

James Holden

 I don’t have time to write it down. I tried to take a photo of it once, then half way through I just gave up trying to put the cables back in, it’s too confusing. Usually, when I go back in the morning I don’t remember what I was trying to achieve and I just turn it on and see if it still works. Usually, it doesn’t and you have to wait for the room to get hot and all the oscillators go back into tune.

RBMA

 So it’s alive.

James Holden

 Yeah, with the krautrock stuff, for instance, Conny Plank was the guy who produced a lot of Cluster, Harmonia, stuff like that. There are a lot of great interviews with him on the internet where he’s talking about their production methods. He was around at the point where sequencers were invented. I like the idea of being able to do it, but the metronomic thing, he didn’t like it. So the sequencers [in the Cluster track] were triggered from within the drummer in the band and the drummer would play a rhythm on electronic drums and those triggers would feed the sequencers. The whole thing is natural and moving around itself, the timing is varying, the bpm goes up and down three or four bpm through that track.

RBMA

 So no quantizing?

James Holden

 Yeah. I never use quantize now. I think it’s coming ‘round again. We’ve had this trend of music getting more and more perfect because of computers but then people like Flying Lotus who’s coming in this afternoon, his timing’s amazing because it’s loose, it’s the natural placement of the beats, you can’t do that with a mouse. Well, you can if you’re gifted, but rhythm is innate and completely inexplicable. What’s the difference between good funk, good swing, and someone who’s a bad drummer. You can’t draw a graph and say: “This is the good swing pattern, this is the bad one.” It’s more complicated than even melody and harmony. To leave it to Logic 16d swing, or whatever it’s called, is crazy.

RBMA

 Shall we open it up for you guys to ask a few questions?

Participant

 I was wondering – my name’s Juan, sorry – my favourite stuff is like what I do and it’s very naïve, but then I say: “Oh, it’s not loud enough, it won’t sound good on a professional stereo.” Is there some advice you can give to balance the two, the naiveté and the [professionalism]?

James Holden

 It’s hard to make something that competes with straight, properly mixed, pumped-up music without losing the feeling, the soul. My technique was to let it distort a bit, to push it a bit on ultra-maximiser but not to make it well- mixed and punchy. What kind of music are you making?

Participant

 I don’t know. I call it pop, but some people look at me horribly when I say that.

James Holden

 That’s the best answer, definitely. If you can’t describe it, you’re one step ahead. If you’re like: “I make house…” OK, bye! I think eventually I found a way where my sound, that I could be happy with, was also working with other people. But it did take a long time to evolve. But also the reason why I haven’t done anything since 2006 was I had two years where nothing was right and I was trying to get away from all the old tricks I had and learn some new ones. And it does take a long time. I’m lucky because I get to try some things out in clubs and without that it would be harder. Almost the hardest thing in music is finding your own aesthetic, what works, your own thing. That’s why I think the copyists are so cheap, they have missed out on the most important part of music. If you’re committed to doing that for yourself it pays off because you end up completely unique because people that hear your music realise that and will recognise the character in it. It’s a lot of hard work. Sorry, I haven’t got a better answer.

Participant

 I just very recently started a label and I was wondering if there was some kind of advice you can give me because I’m completely clueless. I don’t know what I’m doing.

James Holden

 If it’s any comfort, we were at the start. What kind of music are you doing?

Participant

 House (laughter). Actually, the first release was dub and the second was gospel.

James Holden

 Awesome. That sounds like a good label. The first thing you must realize is: it is a business. For a record label, the difference between making money and losing money is often bothering to chase up all the tiny bits that people owe you, bothering to join all the societies that pay you, the performing royalties, the tedious stuff. Doing that is quite a big part of it and you do have to detach yourself, do that, and then go back to being a musician. But also, for us it was finding people in the world that feel similarly. I was only really known in this English scene that didn’t really like me, but I’d been going out and buying Kompakt Records and just thinking, ‘These people are thinking along the same lines. So if I can reach out and make them realise that we’re kindred spirits then that’s going to help, we’re gonna feed off each other. I’m going to meet their fans and we’re going to connect’. Just the specific people who are completely on your wavelength, they’re the ones who are going to support you and help you get somewhere. It is hard, so good luck.

Participant

 So running a label has a lot to do with people?

James Holden

 Yeah. And I obviously have the worst social skills ever, so it is possible to do it even if you’re not charming.

Participant

 One more question. You actually prefer to use CDs than vinyl?

James Holden

 Yeah, but it’s because of this key-matching thing and I play a lot of music that doesn’t have intros and outros.

Participant

 How do you do the key-matching?

James Holden

 I sort my CDs by key and with vinyl it gets much more complicated, you have to have much more music with you because you’re more limited in your choices because of the key-matching. I have huge numbers of CDs and if it was vinyl I’d have to have five or six cases if it was that.

Participant

 When you change the pitch on a CD it also changes the key.

James Holden

 Yeah, so I know that 60% is one semitone so I remember that. I have a little table, if it’s 115 bpm and you go up four keys…I’ve got a maths degree and I can’t do that (laughs). But also a master tempo, although it’s a bit crappy sounding, you can use the master tempo to slow the track down and then you’ve moved to a different key by doing that. So you’re a vinyl-lover then, are you?

Participant

 I like vinyl but I also use Traktor.

James Holden

 Traktor has a much better pitch-shift in it.

Participant

 It has the key locked so you can change the tempo without changing the pitch.

James Holden

 And you can move it up two semitones and it still sounds alright. That’s the magic.

RBMA

 That’s why you don’t have time for all the vices of the DJ life, you’re too busy with maths.

James Holden

 And adding seven to numbers.

RBMA

 Any other questions?

Participant

 You say you don’t like a lot of dance music, the crap bandwagon-jumping stuff, is there any you listen to in the house, any you think is good? Phil Kieran has that thing on your page so I saw you listen to that.«Speaker: James Holden

»That album is quite dancey, but I’d still have it in the car.

Participant

 Would you have it in the house, though?

James Holden

 It’s so hard to keep up with all the things you have to listen to, this perpetual stream there’s too much to listen to. And then I feel I should hear classic things I haven’t heard, so I put it all in the server and listen on random play. There is something like 5% of dance music that I won’t run to find the remote and skip it when it comes on. Like DJ Koze, for example, his music is so warm and interesting and human and surprising, I could listen to that all day and not get bored. But a DJ mix recorded in a club, it doesn’t seem right.

Participant

 That was just a curious question, nothing really deep and meaningful like a lot of them.

Participant

 I just want to get deeper into people being on the same wavelength as you. Something you said before, about how you have you and your group of friends and your circle and your vibe and that’s right. Perhaps you perform a DJ set and some guy’s like: “I want you to play this tune. I’m not into that.” “This is me and that’s you, so you can fuck yourself.” I’m not saying that’s how you are. How do you make a balance between what you want and what people want?

James Holden

 I see what you mean. It’s a fine line. I always imagine if I was in the crowd in the club, what would I like to hear? And that’s really who you play for. If you play music you believe in and you’re not crazy, and there are some other people who see music in the same way, then you’re just playing for them and you don’t have to think about anyone else. Trying to please people seems to be…the question people always ask DJs: are you an entertainer or an educator? Both seem patronising and a bit of an insult. If you’re trying to please the crowd, implicit in that is a certain disrespect for them, as if you think they’re stupid and you have to play stupid music for them, cheap music. It is a bit arseholeish to be “fuck you” to people who ask for things and I am aware that I am a bit of a one-of-them. But I think it’s the least-bad option, you’re not being as rude as if you patronise them by playing something you didn’t 100% believe in. I’m lucky because what I like is semi-populist so I can get away with self-indulgence.

RBMA

 So what’s the international hand gesture for ‘play more stupid music please’?

James Holden

 I’ve seen it a million times. It’ll be a boy, sweating, maybe with his shirt off, who’ll come up and go (gestures upwards).

RBMA

 That’s it?

James Holden

 It’s incredibly hard to face up to criticism right in your face. Some people are equipped to deal with it, but I wasn’t when I was younger. Now I just smile, and if someone is negative: “Can you play some different music?” “You obviously like different music to me so I think you should go to a different club.” I can do that and not feel bad, but I remember lying in hotel rooms after gigs super-depressed. The lowest you can feel is that bad-gig feeling and dealing with it without it affecting what you do is really important. You have to be able to say that some of this negative feedback is just irrelevant. You can also take from it. ‘Maybe if I work harder these people won’t realise they don’t like this sort of music, they will get this thing. Maybe I can find a way to work this in’. My first sets, when I was clearing the floor with Boards Of Canada, I did have to learn something from that. And now, because I can key-mix it and put a beat under it, I get away with it. That’s as much of a compromise as you need to make, find a way to sell it without changing what you’re selling.

RBMA

 Any more questions? No one. It’s slowly fading away. We will be depressed after this, lying awake in our rooms (laughter). You said earlier you haven’t made any music since 2006. That’s not true.

James Holden

 Some remixes.

RBMA

 Including a remix for a band called Radiohead.

James Holden

 Yeah.

RBMA

 What did you do that with? Using the modular system?

James Holden

 It’s funny, they asked me to do a remix and told me who else was doing it. “What are your plans?” “We’re gonna do a 12”.” Then they changed their minds and had a competition and posted all the remixes they’d paid for on the website as if they were competition entries. It’s really weird, I felt a bit uncomfortable that I looked like I’d entered a competition. Maybe it’s arrogant to be embarrassed by that. Other than that, I know you’ve got it in the CD player so I don’t have to use Windows desktop search again.

RBMA

 Where did you end up in the competition, what place?

James Holden

 About 1020 (laughs). I haven’t asked everyone on my MySpace to vote so I don’t know. It’s meaningless, isn’t it? I was talking about this with another artist last week: the wisdom of crowds is a really dubious thing, the most popular thing. It’s this thing of whether an opinion is relevant to you. It’s a big weakness of the internet. You read lots of opinions, but you read it in your own voice. You don’t realise that if you met that person you’d think their clothes were shit, their music was shit and every other thing they believed in was shit. But you read their opinion disconnected from that. Really, the only opinion that matters is the close one. So this vote-in thing, I’m happy I can completely ignore it.

RBMA

 Shall we listen?

James Holden

 This is entirely the modular and because I made it old fashioned it doesn’t have polyphony or anything, I made a max-patch, which you send MIDI, which is polyphonic or not, it just takes it in turns to send it to a different MIDI out. So it was a different oscillator, a different filter, I think it’s only two-note polyphonic in the riff that you hear in it. It’s just something the modular opened up, I didn’t really think about it, I just realised this pattern, which is six motes divided into two different voices, you can split it into two patterns by changing the sound of one voice. It’s really like an accident I arrived at that.

RBMA:

So here we go.

(music: Radiohead – Reckoner (Holden remix) / applause)

James Holden

 Your name is Juan? I got it right. This mainly answers your question. For me, the bad mix of this is really important for its identity, it wouldn’t be the same if it was mixed properly, you wouldn’t get away with it. The kick’s rubbish, the bass doesn’t come in properly at the end of the drops, everything’s in 6/8 time apart from the hi-hat and that speaker, which is in sixteenths. It’s all out of time and sounds like water has been poured in the equipment. The vocal’s mixed wrong, I really butchered Thom Yorke’s voice. All these things were necessary for me, I felt I didn’t want to make anything any easier than that. But because it’s quite loud and intense and I think I got the arrangement about right, I think I got away with it. That’s about all there is to it, making something that works for some of the people and having the confidence to throw it out there, is all you need to get away with doing your own messy thing. I hope that helps more than the first answer.

RBMA

 And unlike the other idiots, it makes you take your shirt off. OK, if we don’t have any more questions, please give Mr Holden a nice goodbye.

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