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Interview: James Holden

Intriguingly coiffured techno boffin James Holden has paved a relentlessly singular path in electronic music, from his early – and still revered – trance singles, to his work as founder and chief of the Border Community imprint and remixes for everyone from Madonna to Kieran Hebden. Despite a relative paucity of original material in recent years, he now stands as one of the most respected figures in British electronic music. With a suitably eclectic looking DJ Kicks mix on the way, Juno Plus caught up with Holden to discuss techno depression, his changing sound and why the UK scene is thriving.

Tell us, how did the DJ Kicks mix come about?

Well it’s funny because I said that I would never do another mix, because I thought they were redundant in the modern day and age. But I was speaking to Gemma who works with Border Community and she said a DJ Kicks mix was one of the only ones worth doing, and two months later they got in touch with me – she must be a witch or something (laughs). I think the DJ Kicks series has a good history, they are one of the only mixes that stand up as artistic works even years after they have been released. Plus there was no pressure, there’s no one forcing me to do a techno mix, I have room to move.

It’s a pretty fascinating mix, a quick look at the tracklisting reveals a wildly eclectic rangs of genres, but when you listen it all makes total sense. How did you go about putting it together? Where did you look?

I put it together in much the same way as I organise my DJ sets – basically I stick all my music onto a computer and put it on random play. When something comes up that I like, I’ll note it down. And after a year or so of doing that I had about 60 amazing tracks, and tried to license as many as possible.

Was there a certain track that inspired you to take it in this direction?

Well I have had the opening track – “Wintersport / Cross-Country” by Piano Magic – in my CD wallet for years and I knew I would use that to start my mix. Then I remember going out for a drive, and by chance Kieran Hedben and Steve Reid’s “Departure” started playing in the car and I thought, ‘yes, this is the track I need to put halfway through,’ which was a nice coincidence.

I was interested to read in your press comments that you made a point of saying, yes this is dance music. How do you think this mix compares to one of your club sets?

It’s the same thing as me playing in a club. Sure, in a club I probably push it a bit harder, but all of the tracks in the mix are things that I play out when I’m DJing. There’s no line in my head between club and home, there’s a continuum between home listening and club sets.

That’s an interesting point because many artists will draw a line in the sand between club music and headphone music, like they are mutually exclusive…

My opinion with music that is made only to be heard in a club, is that I wouldn’t want to hear it at home or in a club (laughs).

“The point was I was trying to make with this mix is that all of these different kinds of music can work and exist together, in this wild pagan, post-techno environment. When you have DJs playing a whole evening of generic techno, it’s not very difficult to mix and it’s not very interesting”

How would you say this mix compares to your last effort, At The Controls?

I like this one more. I’m happy with how it flows, maybe At The Controls felt more disparate in terms of the kinds of music that I put in there, but I think that’s just because I’ve done a better job this time round. You know, now I think I can actually convince people Lucky Dragon and James Ruskin can coexist happily on the same mix. The point I am trying to make is that all of these different kinds of music can work and exist together, in this wild pagan, post-techno environment. When you have DJs playing a whole evening of generic techno, it’s not very difficult to mix and it’s not very interesting. I think you can find a connection between lots of different styles, and I think that is what you can see happening in the UK scene at the moment. You’ve got lots of people doing new stuff, from different angles, different sounds and even different tempos, but there is an underlying connection there – an idea, a feeling. These are kids who grew up with Warp Records as the norm, I think they have a different perception of what can work together. I think it’s a super exciting time for British music and it’s actually really positive for a change.

Which British prodcuers are you really feeling at the moment?

There is a long list…Bullion, obviously Kieran Hebden – I loved the Four Tet album. Caribou’s new album is great too, then there are goys like Zomby, whose way with rhythm and sound and arrangement is so unique and engaging. When I’m DJing I’m always looking for new things to play, so I’m always looking for new sounds and ideas. With the label, I can see it creeping into the influences of our different artists, although it’s not a case of just finding the next bandwagon to jump on.

It’s funny that you mention Caribou, as I read an interview recently in which he cited you as a major influence behind the more electronic vibe of his new album. Do you guys talk much and are there any plans to work together?

Yeah I like Dan, I just finished doing a remix for him actually. Guys like him, Kieran, the English Border Community guys, we email each other quite a bit. We’ll talk about albums we really like or send each other half finished tracks. It’s always how BC has worked and it’s great to welcome new people in.

There’s a much anticipated new track from yourself on the DJ Kicks mix. How long did that take to come together?

It’s more a question of how long it didn’t take to come together. Being a DJ and running a label doesn’t leave you with much time for making your own music, and I’d found techno had become a bit depressing and horrible, with loads of generic copies of what we were doing in 2003. So I decided to rebuild my studio and I think I found a new, interesting sound, after a period of depression. “Triangle Folds” and my Radiohead remix that came before it, were my first steps on the path. I think the Caribou remix is the next one in that direction too.

And can we expect any more material in the coming weeks/months/years?

I think it will mostly likely be years. Now that the Caribou one is done, I’ve quit remixing until I’ve finished a record of my own. To be honest it gives my immense pleasure to say that!

“I can see new sounds creeping into the influences of the different Border Community artists, although it’s not a case of just finding the next bandwagon to jump on”

Do you still have the same drive and passion for music as when you were an 18 year old sending demos into M-nus?

(Laughs) Yeah I do. I’ve got more cynicism about the music industry now, and I’ve heard too much bad techno for one lifetime too. I have a low tolerance for it now. I occasionally hear good stuff, usually at the BC nights to be honest. We invited Andrew from Fuck Buttons down and he played a killer set, and Kate Wax was playing recently and she was great. And a few times around the world you’ll see great residents. In London I’d rather go to a gig – the other week I saw Suicide, yes, they are an old band but they are one of the best live bands in the world. But I’m sticking my finger in a few pies at the moment, but it will be a while before I stop being a DJ and techno producer. It’s all going quite well, I’m usually grumpy but I’m actually quite happy at the moment (laughs).

You have a pretty busy summer lined up with gigs – are you looking forward to that?

I’m not opening my Google calendar at the moment, it fills me with terror. But I enjoy touring, although as you get older you don’t like being away for as long, but it’s all worth it for those two or three hours you actually play.

And what does the future hold for Border Community?

There’s been a bit of a blockage recently with various hold ups, but we are on the verge of releasing a few things, which is exciting and frustrating in equal measure. We’ve got a Luke Abbott album coming this year which is amazing, it’s pagan, psychedelic, post-techno. Avis has got a disco record coming out, which will be our next release and we’re also going to be releasing some stuff from this Italian band called Margot. The family expands, some people go off but they always remain welcome. It’s a loose collective in that sense, which is nice. BC is funny, every time I’ve liked a demo and got in touch with someone, we tend to get on, without exception, and everyone gets on with each other. It’s a nice coincidence, but maybe I should start interviewing people whose demos I get from now on? No, probably a bit harsh (laughs).

James Holden’s DJ Kicks mix will be released on June 7 – you can grab it from Juno Records and Juno Download.

Interview: Aaron Coultate