Interview: James Zabiela

Hailing from Southampton, James Zabiela has been part of the UK electronic music scene since the early noughties. In that time he has shaped a house sound which fuses breakbeat influences and tech-house elements, and has remixed the lies of Royksopp to Ladytron. Having been invited to mix multiple compilations for Renaissance, he has established himself as a truly influential DJ. Juno Plus spoke to James about UK music and what goes on during his mixing processes…

What do you think of the UK electronic scene?

At the moment very healthy, it’s had a hard time with the explosion of the guitar hero generation but I played at Stealth in Nottingham recently and there was a queue around the block before the club even opened. I’m not attributing that to me but to the fact people are wanting to go out more again. This is probably brought on by the state our country is in. The last huge recession in some ways lead to the explosion of the rave scene in the 90s. Recession spawns creativity, so bring on the economic downturn! As I arrived at the club (Stealth) it reminded of me of when I used to excitedly go out and queue to see a DJ. I had a nice flashback of going to see Sasha and Tyrant at the Bomb, then I woke up from my momentary daze realised I was late and meant to be DJing myself!

What kind of thoughts went into your Renaissance mix? Was it hard to compile and mix?

Yes and no, musically, in a way it was easy because it consists of all stuff that I listen to on my iPod day in, day out. The hard bit was getting so many styles to cohesively work together, then of course going through hours and hours of additional field recordings can be a bit mind numbing. Recording them was the fun bit, but listening back to many hours of ambient sound to find bits that complimented the music or were interesting in some way took a lot of time. Overall I really enjoyed getting stuck into this project and count it as my best mix so far but I guess time will tell and more importantly its for others to decide. I have to say many of my previous commercially released mixes I can no longer stand to hear. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m ashamed of them but they were all stepping stones to this mix. For example, the last Master Series LP, I tried out a new concept and way of working with the first disc where I first included field recordings and additional narration but I spent so long on it the second suffered as a result and it ended being just another mindless club mix that now sounds dated, in my opinion of course (sorry to those who actually like it). I desperately wanted to avoid that this time which is why I made the first disc meld into the second and gave myself much more time to compile and mix it, even cancelling a holiday I had booked to go snowboarding – and anyone that knows me will tell you the only thing I love more than music is snowboarding!

“The last huge recession in some ways lead to the explosion of the rave scene in the 90s. Recession spawns creativity, so bring on the economic downturn!”

How well do you feel you fit into the Renaissance aesthetic? Are there any labels you feel a particular affinity with?

I never felt I fitted with them at the start of my career given their previous ‘Prog’ label but they were very supportive and let me do what I liked and were there to just offer useful advice rather than demanding I changed my mixes in some way to fit ‘their sound’. Something previous labels I worked with made me do in the early days of my career in the compilation world. Renaissance now have broadened musically and have putting out comps and releases from all kinds of genres. One thing you can be sure of is that their stuff is chosen carefully, for example the new Paul Woolford compilation is superb.

What is your production process like?

Hmmm, its pretty haphazard. I basically play around until something sounds right. Then I play it out (if its a club track) and tweak it after each gig, sonically and the arrangement too. After about 5 plays on different systems I usually settle for something I’m kind of happy with. ‘Burnt Bridges’ that features on the first disc of ‘Life’ is inspired by Jean Michel Jarre, Moderat and Radiohead. All things I was listening to as I made it the track.

What influences you to make music?

Everything and anything can spark creativity. I rarely run out of ideas but I’m limited by technical knowledge in the studio. By experimenting and trying to get an idea from your head into something you can physically hear often spurs happy accidents.

You’re always considered relatively young in the tech/house game, do you feel this benefits/hinders you in any foreseeable ways? And do you feel you have gone past that stage now anyway?

Yes, because already I feel I’ve had years of experience and I now feel I’m that I’m finding my identity musically as a DJ and as an artist but I do think perhaps I wasn’t taken as seriously back at the start of my career being so young, I also felt a lot of things happened too quickly for me and as a result made some mistakes, with my commercially released mix CDs for example. In a way its a shame because I’d be willing to wager this mix will get less attention because of the volume of mix comps I’ve put out in the past that got really great PR, when I feel its this new one that I really want people to hear. As you say, I still have a few years to get things right and probably make more mistakes but that’s part of the fun and part of growing as artist.

“I have to say many of my previous commercially released mixes I can no longer stand to hear. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m ashamed of them but they were all stepping stones to this mix”

Where was the best place you’ve played?

There is no one place but I had amazing gigs all around the planet now, I feel lucky to have been a part of incredible parties in places like Lima, Serbia, Tokyo, Lithuania, Romania and er Southampton. Just some of my faves.

Where was the coolest place you’ve heard someone play one of your tracks and who played it?
Probably Digweed at Creamfields last year, I’d grown up hearing about these legendary raves up north and then in Winchester near where I live so when so he played ‘Tylium’ there I was stoked. Its a track of mine he released on Bedrock. So both of those things were a dream come true for me last year.

What’s next from you?

I may work on some new music of my own if I get time. My touring schedule is pretty heavy but I’m hopeful in between flights and hotels I can snatch some time to make some more beats. I’d like to release another EP this year but it may or may not happen.

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