James Holden Talks Trance, Music Snobs, and His Border Community Label
These days, trance is sort of the punchline to a joke among electronic dance music fans. It's become a style given to drab formula and commercialism thanks to play-by-numbers DJs like Tiësto.
But that wasn't always the case. Listen to 1999's "Horizons," the breakthrough hit of a then-19 year-old James Holden, and you'll find that trance was once at the cutting edge of EDM.
Holden hasn't just stuck to trance, though. His ever-evolving body of work and Border Community imprint run the gamut from progressive house to minimal techno and IDM.
This Friday, James Holden will be making his first Miami appearance in years at the Electric Pickle with SAFE and Crossfade got a chance to pick the sonic iconoclast's brain.
Crossfade: How did you get first drawn to electronic music and when did you start producing/DJing yourself?
James Holden: I started messing around on the piano, but I couldn't play what I wanted to, so I was drawn into making music on my 8-bit computer and just went from there.
You studied mathematics at Oxford before your music profession. Is there a connection between math and music for you?
Apparently, they're related in the brain. And math is certainly useful when you're working in Max/MSP and with a modular synth. I don't think about it much though. I just did math because it was the easiest subject.
Trance has become a much-maligned genre of electronic dance music among underground music snobs. What's your take on the matter?
"Underground music snobs" usually have terrible taste. Trance, the genre, might have become conservative corny shit. But in my opinion, so has techno and house. And dubstep's on the way. Doesn't mean all trance, techno, house, dubstep is shit. Just genre music generally tends towards a bucket of effluent about a year after a journalist first puts a name to it. Trance is the most wonderful idea of them all, a word that describes everything from African music to Detroit techno to Steve Reich.
What was the concept you had in mind for Border Community when first launching the label? And how has it evolved over the years?
We just wanted to be free, and for our friends to be free. The music is the result of that idea, I think. And remembering that idea is why the sound has continuously evolved -- not running to the next bandwagon but following what interested us, and slightly influenced by a need to put some distance between us and all the terrible cunts that tried to copy our sound (incorrectly) in the mid 2000s.
How did you first hook up with singer Julie Thompson for Holden & Thompson and what is the status of the project these days?
I wrote the xylophone part whilst drunk (originally, there were five beats in every bar -- that drunk) and asked some friends if they knew any singers. I really enjoyed working with her. But after doing those two tracks, I realized I'd exhausted my interest in female vocal pop!
What have you been up to in the new decade, in the studio and otherwise?
I've been busy. I had my 40 days and nights in the desert thing going on for a while -- locked up working out the axioms and limits of a new sound. Next year, there will be a record from me. I'm already proud of myself and I haven't even finished.
You've always been lauded for your forward-thinking approach to EDM. Lately there seems to be a lot of nostalgia and the recycling of classic house and techno sounds. Why do you think producers are looking to the past for inspiration instead of the future, and what do you think the future of EDM is?
Most people making electronic music don't invent their own sound, because doing that is really difficult -- working out what works within it and what doesn't. So the Detroit/Chicago revival is just all the unimaginative people finding what a minor seventh chord is. Or finding some Detroit presets in their soft synths. But against that, there are people -- Hieroglyphic Being, for example -- who are making very personal, real music in that area. Music is a dialogue, a big conversation among all the people who have real ideas. There is a future. There are new things still to be discovered and invented. But it'll be multifaceted and fragmented over the net, and I'm sure I'll only like five percent of it.
You're known for your eclecticism as a DJ. What are some of the classic cuts that never leave your bag? And what are you currently digging?
I try and at least rotate the old stuff that I keep in my bag! But there are some things I could listen to forever. Plastikman's "Glob" for example.
In the past, you've been critical of digital production tools like Ableton. What is your own process in the studio and how would you say that approach brings more value to the finished result?
To put my criticism clearly: With democratization of the tools, we all need higher standards. If you made something that sounds like techno, using a load of tools designed to make something that sounds like techno, you haven't achieved anything. So don't show it to anyone. Ableton is a wonderful piece of software. Democratization is a great thing. Just want to be clear about that!
In my studio, Ableton is mostly MIDI-sending, from a bunch of half-done Max-for-live patches I've made -- semi-unpredictable stuff -- and then Ableton records what comes back from the synths. I don't really use many soft synths or computer effects at the moment, just recording live takes from the "real" instruments. There are good soft synths, but I don't like clean music. It isn't some sort of objective higher value I'm creating, it's just what I like -- wooly, loose, animalistic music. What you hear actually happened. For me, that's like the ultimate achievement -- the intangible realism.
What does the future have in store for James Holden?
Finishing the record I've started this year. Then we'll see what I feel like doing. And Border Community is busy over the coming months. The Kate Wax album is coming, which is incredible.
What can Miami expect during your performance at the Electric Pickle?
I am looking forward to it a lot. I love playing in that type of space. So you can expect to see me enjoying myself, which is when the best sets happen!
James Holden with SAFE residents. Friday, September 2.
Follow Crossfade on Facebook and Twitter @Crossfade_SFL.