Ones To Watch 2011 – James Blake Interview

The age of calm is upon us. Meet its restrained protagonist

James Blake is nervous, but he hides it well. His long expressive fingers dart from iPod to coffee cup, playing me a tune, spinning me a quote, reading me a poem. Less shit-scared cocky, more room-bound virtuoso.

Blake has a lot to be scared of. He is the hype of 2011, ‘the next xx’, peddler of the nigh-unwieldy freight of bass music – and experimental at that – with gospel vocals, that makes him an impossibly talented producer and impossibly talented vocalist in the same breath.

Sitting in the back of a Brixton pub during the first week of snow, Blake is dressed bleakly. Giacometti-long and dark in black scarf, fleece and hi-tops, he sits upright in his chair, his hard, sharp nose and cheek bones set above pliant droop lips and two endearing big front teeth.

The xx’s debut album in summer 2009 changed a lot of things for Blake. Jamie xx, he tells Clash, “warmed the seat” for him, changing forever the way “people listen to that brand of sparse electronic music.” Their sublimated landscapes made a new genre of music acceptable to the public, one which didn’t have to fight for your attention, which breathed. At this point Blake was ostensibly a post- producer – post-dubstep, post-house, whatever you want to call it – with contemporaries like Mount Kimbie, Floating Points, Untold, and across the pond Kyle Hall and the Brainfeeder label.

Even at this stage, the ingredient that was exclusive to Blake’s sound was its space, its ease within itself; air-cushioned solace in a world full of shit-talkers. His production style ranges from the cardiographic bass pulses and funereal piano of his harder ‘Klaviewerke’ single, to the plangent R&B samples, often compressed beyond recognition, of tracks like ‘CMYK’ and the album’s excellent ‘To Care (Like You Do)’, which features Blake singing. In these cuts he is redolent of Burial, and in other tracks he uses squeaky upwardly flowering effects used by Mount Kimbie and Flying Lotus associate Nosaj Thing.

The aforementioned space in Blake’s music is one aspect; in another noticeably mature attitude from the twenty-two-year old, he also makes himself sing in a flat, unflashy style, something he learned from singers like Sam Cooke. In the pub he plays me Sam Cooke’s ‘Lost And Lookin’’ to illustrate his point, one of various moments which he turns DJ during our talk.

The key to James Blake’s penetration can be summed up with a quote he trots out for me, which for all its cockiness, can be felt in his music: “Bruce Lee used to say, ‘When I starting learning kung fu, a punch was just a punch and a kick was just a kick. When I had learnt kung fu, a punch was more than a punch and a kick was more than a kick. And when I understood kung fu a punch was just a punch and a kick was just a kick.’”

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You’re definitely entering quite a rare musical space with your album. Mount Kimbie supported The xx last year – are you trying to join the dots between leftfield electronica and vocals?
Well, I would always have said that The xx are an electronic indie band. The way Jamie xx does things is totally electronic. Now that he does that live it’s different, but the way that he produced their album was totally in an electronic way. It’s a DIY production just like Mount Kimbie and just like me. But they did it first.

Is there a blueprint that they inspired?
I can’t say that I was inspired to write my album because of The xx, but what I can say is that they’ve made it a lot easier for me. They’ve kind of warmed the seat, in the way that when people listen to sparse electronic music, they are gonna be a lot less shocked by it now that The xx have released an amazing album. It’s made it a lot easier for me. Actually some of The xx’s stuff did inspire me – some of the live stuff – I was inspired by Jamie, and by the two singers, who have an amazing stage presence. The whole boy and girl thing they have going on is great to see.

I would put Jamie xx in a bracket with you.
Well…that’s definitely an honour, because he’s brilliant… (Laughs) He’s brilliant.

Is there anything outside music that inspires you?
Growing up I loved William Blake, I loved the way he managed to sum up incredible ideas and complex emotions in two stanzas. Take A Poisoned Tree: [Recites] “I was angry with my friend / I told my wrath / My wrath did end / I was angry with my foe / I told it not my wrath did grow”. See, it’s quite complicated. “And I watered it in fears / Night and morning with my tears / And I stunned it with smiles / And with soft deceitful wiles…” So it covers jealousy, a huge gamut of human traits, in quite a religious way. I’ve always been fascinated by biblical writing, even though I’m not actually religious.

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Your album is produced in a very spare unstructured style. What inspired that?
Outkast inspired me. They are a massive, massive influence – one of the biggest I have. I think they’re the best producer/rap outfit ever. Their attitude to production is so free. When they’re making something, it seems like whatever works for the vocal is justifiable. There’s a track called ‘Royal Flush’ where Andre [3000] does this verse. He just cleans up at the end of it! [ Blake gets out his iPod and starts playing the tune through its speakers] There’s something about how the voice works with his music that inspired me to allow the voice to dictate where the music goes; in which direction. Because Outkast seemed to have developed a way of letting their voices dictate.

There’s the whole dubplate culture in dubstep that you’re definitely not a part of. Do you prefer recording in a studio to the public experience of performing? It must be nice to play ‘Limit To Your Love’ to people?
I love them for different ways. Playing on my own yields this creative satisfaction, while playing to a crowd, delivering that music to people later on, it’s another kind of satisfaction, it’s a gratification. Playing ‘Limit to Your Love’ to people has been utterly unreal and slightly surreal, and glorious. Glorious moments of standing there in front of people, arms out, at the apex of this thing.

Because at the end of it all, for Blake it’s about moving people. Discussing it with him I find his album material has a new purpose: to relay and share the emotions he feels. I tell him about a time when I listened to his ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ and especially the lyrics “My brother and my sister / Don’t speak to me” on loop walking through London’s Fleet Street in late autumn; the frayed drum pace matched my own through the leaves, the organ notes matched those from St. Bride’s, and something in that couplet punctured me. He hears this, lets out a goofy tooth grin and tells me that’s the best he’s felt all day.

Words by Miguel Cullen
Photo by Nick Wilson

Pick up the current issue of Clash Magazine to read the full interview with James Blake.

Read Clash’s review of James Blake’s self-titled, debut album HERE.

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