James Holden is – finally, perhaps – a big deal.
The producer launched his own label, Border Community, almost 10 years ago, and waited seven before releasing his second album. Yet with the imprint now rightly hailed as one of electronic music’s most distinctive voices, Holden finds himself in the odd position of becoming not only accepted but widely hailed due to the success of said second full-length, ‘The Inheritors’ (Clash review).
Far from being intimidated, though, it’s something the producer has taken in his stead. “Yeah I’ve been pretty happy. In fact, I couldn’t be happier. No complaints!” he laughs, before musing on Border Community’s lasting stamp: “When people you respect, who have done something unique of their own, cite it as an influence that makes me really happy. I’ve got to admit, that’s as much as anyone could want from making music or putting records out.”
Switching from a straight DJ set to a full live show, Holden has been able to experience his music afresh. Whereas before the producer was forced to continually re-write the rulebook, his live show allows for refinement, for the continual exploration of ideas in a lateral and progressive fashion without needlessly leaping ahead.
“When I was just a DJ, just the idea of playing the original version of the song loads of times for a year... that does wear thin after a while, definitely,” he admits. “But playing it live has sort of opened it up in a new way for me: being able to re-interpret it, see where the songs can go, see how much you can string them out, see how far away from the songs you can go. It’s kind of fun, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of that.”
Faced with a hectic schedule running through to the end of this year and into the next, Holden is showing no signs of fatigue. “I don’t think it’ll get old,” he says. “The ideas that make it onto the album, I mean that’s one way of putting them, one way they can take shape. But I’m curious what other shapes they can make, so if you look at it upside down and underneath then that’s also interesting.”
Supporting Atoms For Peace on their North American tour, Holden was able to road test his live show on a patient and willing audience. Unlike a club setting – where the crowd can dictate the tone – the concert space seemed to place the power in Holden’s own hands.
“It’s just been eye opening, so much fun and so exciting,” he enthuses. “It’s made me realise that with DJ sets you don’t have as much control over it as you think you do – it’s more about the crowd than the DJ, a good set. Comparing that to a live set, it almost doesn’t matter if a crowd goes with it or not, for a live set. If you play good you still feel good irrespective, whereas if you pull off loads of neat mixes and the crowd doesn’t respond then it’s an empty, hollow feeling. It’s a learning experience for me, after all these years of DJing. I’m quite into it.”
Set to perform both live and DJ sets at this year’s C2C festival in Torino, Italy (November 7th-10th), Holden is also due to play an intimate show at London concert series Illuminations. Joining him for these shows will be Rocketnumbernine drummer Tom Page, whose introduction has added new elements to the way the producer approaches improvisation.
“We’ve got a few things in the live set where his drum kit is connected to my computer and my modular synths, so his hits trigger whole sequences of actions coming from the computer and the modular synth. It all sort of feeds back into a circle. That’s the most exciting track to play in a live set, because I’m planning to react instantly to every nuance in his playing just to keep the wheels from falling off. I think I’d be up for doing some more recording along those lines, doing real, proper live jams.”
Ever keen to move forward, Holden has even been inspired to buy his own percussion. “I bought half a drum kit off Tom (Page) and I’m going to start teaching myself, I think. I like being a dilettante about these things – badly, half learn an instrument and then see what comes out of that.”
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James Holden, 'Renata', from 'The Inheritors'
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A trained musician, the producer seems to rejoice in these uncharted spaces, using mistakes as a means to open up new avenues for investigation.
“I learned piano and violin properly – I did the grades and everything,” he explains. “And as a result, my fingers always fall on the right chords, the right notes, and after a while that gets a bit boring. You’re limited by your training, almost. I don’t know how to play the guitar but every time I pick up the guitar I have a lot of fun and come up with a melody, sort of because my ears are doing it and I’m not thinking about notes, or what key it’s supposed to be in. I’ve built lots of wacky instruments, in software or using funny controllers. That way you don’t know what the notes are, so you’re playing more naturally. That’s kind of what I really want to get at in my music: setting up lots equipment and just hearing, feeling and disconnecting from all the stuff I’ve learned.”
For personal reasons, I decide to ask Holden the meaning behind ‘The Inheritors’ album highlight ‘Rannoch Dawn’ (audio below) – a true burst of Highland techno if ever a genre could be coined.
“My mum and dad live close to Fort William, so we’ve been up on the sleeper train and driven up a few times as well. It’s lovely up there, it’s a really magical place. When we went up on the sleeper train dawn was breaking just as we were going through Rannoch Moor, it’s quite amazing. Hence the title of the track!”
As it turns out, when Holden was learning to play the violin he was given plenty of jigs and reels to practise. From the off, the aspiring musician was drawn to dance music – to the thrills and ecstasy of repetition. “Those were my favourite things, because in folk music you play in a more expressive, guttural manner – it’s okay to be brash and vulgar and loud,” he says. “Then quite a lot of your violin repertoire is retentive, restrained or whatever. Having this instrument which could be really beautiful but also really ugly sounding was something I was trying to get at through electronics.”
Musing on this, the producer adds: “I’ve always liked repetitive stuff, I think, or stuff which has a pulse. There’s magic in loops, or at least it always seemed that way. The first time I started hearing electronic music, like early trance, they were layering up loops independently and then it all made sense together. I thought it was just the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard, so I must be pre-disposed to it genetically.”
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James Holden, 'Rannoch Dawn', from 'The Inheritors'
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Words: Robin Murray
James Holden is set to play Alfa Mito Club To Club (November 7th to 10th). More information HERE.
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