Interview: James Holden

Read some highlights from Holden’s couch session with host Gerd Janson at the London Academy in 2010 for lessons on modular synths, mixing on key, and the trials and tribulations of running a label. Watch the full video of his lecture from our archive. And catch Holden live on the Red Bull Music Academy stage at Sónar São Paulo on May 11 – you know, in case you happen to be in the area.

A man of youth and many talents, James Holden does things in a very idiosyncratic way. The Exeter born student of mathematics debuted in 1999 with the trance-as-trance-can-be single “Horizons”, but went on to create a world of his own – being tagged the fresh wonder boy of British trance came with a collar. Freeing himself with his aptly named Border Community label and the genre-defying melodic anthem “A Break In The Clouds”, followed by his album The Idiots Are Winning, his imprint quickly became a home for like-minded people like Nathan Fake, Avus and Luke Abbott. Holden himself remained busy remixing artists like System 7, André Kraml, Caribou, Radiohead, Depeche Mode and even Madonna herself. Today, the music of James Holden is in the best possible way electronic, diverse and exciting – an approach similar to his kindred spirits Kieran Hebden and Caribou.

The greatest thing about Holden might be that he makes you struggle for words. Like his beloved modular synth, it is impossible to say exactly how he does what he is doing. Taking inspirations from krautrock, minimalism and a general leftfield philosophy in life, he manages to make music that works in festivals and clubs without ever giving in to the kick drum imperative. The same goes for his arcane DJ sets: swirling between his laptop and custom-built controller, he melts melodies, tracks and musical particles into a gigantic stream of sound, hitting like a sledgehammer without ever touching one. Best heard in a club near you or on his mesmerising DJ-Kicks, the bottom line is next level music-for-dancing-to. Ladies and gentlemen, the Peter Pan of kraut-trance.

RBMA: You were pretty young when you put out your first records.

JAMES HOLDEN: I was, I think, 19 when the first one came out. It wasn’t really something I’d taken very seriously. I made a dance record because my mate had a techno night and wanted to do a CD. But he was never going to organise something like that. Someone played it to a record label – I hadn’t even sent the demo out – and then it just sort of happened, so I went along with it.

At the start, I was making all kinds of things: techno, electronica, trying to make drum ‘n’ bass as well. And I didn’t see that 4/4 music was going to be where I went with my life at all. It wasn’t planned, but then you’re quite quickly sucked into this tunnel.

RBMA: You were at university at the time, and from there on? It was like they dubbed you the wunderkind of trance or prog.

HOLDEN: Which was really embarrassing (laughs). Because obviously, the record label wanted to make money so they’re pushing this thing. It’s a lesson. The first lesson, that once you’ve done something it’s really hard to get away from it. You have to step back and disappoint all the people who think you’re going to carry on doing that forever. But maybe doing that early stood me in good stead and I don’t feel uncomfortable doing that again now, or again in two years’ time.

I signed my name exclusively to a terrible contract with a record label that wasn’t very good at putting out records. Never sign a record contract in the pub, never sign without seeing a lawyer. It seems really obvious, and I’d already heard people tell me that sort of thing, read about it or whatever. But, in the moment, you want this to happen, you believe this person and you just go along with it. Suddenly you’re stuck, spending all your savings on a lawyer to escape from this situation. I can’t say it enough. It’s no effort, lawyers aren’t scary. Phone them up, give them £200 and they’ll look at a contract for you. It can save you, I don’t know how much, a lot of heartache and stress afterwards.

RBMA: But back then, the feeling of, ‘Oh, wow! I’m going to release a record’, just takes over.

HOLDEN: Yeah, definitely. You fixate on it, when you’re making demos and no one’s hearing your music. Looking back, that’s the best time of making music, when you’re just playing it to your mates. You’re free and relaxed and what you make is good in that moment and then it’s gone. In a way, I’m jealous of that. The big goal of releasing a record is always an anticlimax, I felt at the time. If you make a difference with a record, that’s so much more important than putting some vinyl out that sells a few hundred and is over a week later.

"If you ever go in and think, ‘Today I’m going to make a hit’, that’s the day you make your worst record."

RBMA: Is the way you mix your music down something you pay a lot of attention to?

HOLDEN: Actually, no. I became really blasé about it, I just thought if what happens in that moment sounds good, then all this serious studio stuff of fine-notch EQs to make it sound clean and perfect compression and a balanced mix, it’s not really as important as the feeling and the atmosphere. I produced a track, co-wrote a track that was on Sasha’s album a long time ago, and because it was done in a big studio by a professional person, it was mixed down in a way that I wouldn’t have done it, I just thought it sounded a bit cold and fake, didn’t really sound real anymore. And that makes it sound a bit cynical as well, it just takes away all the magic of the music, just polishing it way too much. The bad mix is just as important a creative decision as which bass drum you use or the melody of the synth line. It places it, there’s a meaning of what this music is, its identity is coming from the bad production. Now, I’m deliberately trying to do bad production (laughs).

RBMA: And you think a professional person who would mix down your stuff isn’t really attached to it?

HOLDEN: Well, they’re just following the rules of how to make a good piece of music. I guess, you’ve all heard a lot of people telling you what you can and can’t do in a mixdown. I’ve read so much rubbish on the internet, people’s opinions of how to mix music: things about the right frequency balance, how compression should be used, never put a compressor on the master when you’re working. For years, the first thing I’d do when I turned my computer on was put three compressors and a limiter on the master. Then you put a kickdrum 20db too loud and it squashes everything – that’s a really exciting part of the music. You make the resonance much too hard on the synth or a bass part and it’s squashing everything else. When you’re at a live gig, the sound is too much, the band go too crazy, but that’s part of the experience, when it’s squashed through the speakers, through your ears, your perception, to make these ‘too-much moments’ that are really important.

RBMA: And you mentioned Sasha, who – some people might not be familiar with him – is a big, big trance DJ.

HOLDEN: He’d be really angry to be called trance. He’s progressive.

RBMA: My apologies, Sasha, progressive. So how did you find yourself ending up there? If we want to go on pigeonholing you, some people call what you do shoegazing techno.

HOLDEN: That was at the point where I left the first record label, or was about to leave, and was already sick of being in that pigeonhole, this English progressive scene. I really didn’t get on with that scene, especially that scene. Trance, progressive, even techno now to some extent, people get very fixed about what is progressive, this little box, and if you go outside, then it’s cheesy. Actually, really it’s cheesy to make this clichéd box music, that’s the cheesiest thing possible, and you can’t have any sort of purism that someone who’s outside of your box is cheaper than you. That’s a delusion of wilful self-indulgence. I just did it because it seemed interesting. He phoned me up and said: “Do you want to come and write a track?” I saw that whole world of professional, big studio, making an album for a major label, and I haven’t tried to get back into that world since.

RBMA: And you also moved around that world as a DJ at the beginning?

HOLDEN: I was more at the bottom of the ladder then, and also, I was quite unpopular with fans of that genre, because I was trying to play Boards Of Canada tracks and Pascal FEOS tracks in the middle of a club where everyone was just playing trance with bongos.

That’s when we set up Border Community. I’d worked out what I was interested in. Maybe we should go backwards a bit, to the bad record. This is what I was talking about last night, because I was terrified of coming here, just waffling on, and scared of not having a huge amount to contribute. But with my girlfriend, we were talking about this time, and all the lessons I learned from this bad record label, we took forward to Border Community to try and be the opposite. If someone offers you a long contract, unless it’s a major label and they’re going to spend loads of money making you a big star, then a long contract is the stupidest idea in the history of the music industry. You tie yourself to someone, you both grow as a label or a person or an artist, and there’s no reason why you’re both going to go in the same direction. But you’re tied to someone with the expectation that he wants you to do a certain thing and he’s trying to tell you how to write good music. You’re never going to make good music in that pressured environment, it’s the worst thing for an artist. I had this experience and then with Border Community we tried to make it that we just sign a record. We never make or take a commitment for the future, we just tell them: “If you like us still, if we’re interested in what you’re doing, we’ll keep working with you.” Then they don’t feel like they have to deliver the follow-up, they don’t feel tied to us, they can go and make completely different music and it makes for much better results. They’re not stressing, going into the studio trying to make something.

"For me as a DJ, the key-mixing is the most important thing."

If you ever go in and think, ‘Today I’m going to make a hit’, that’s the day you make your worst record. A&R men will, a million times in your careers, try to tell you what to do, to change how you’re making a record, give you a bit of advice. If someone wants to change your music, they’re probably the wrong person to be putting it out. There’s one A&R person who told Nathan Fake to turn his kickdrum up 3db on the track, that was his contribution. Nathan told him to fuck off, obviously. The kickdrum was if anything too loud.

RBMA: Nathan Fake is one of the artists on your label.

HOLDEN: Yeah, I guess he’s one of our most successful artists.

RBMA: You really never told any of the artists on your label to change something, like constructive criticism?

HOLDEN: It’s more like we pick the bits we like from what they do. They might get an idea from which ends of their music we’re interested in, and that might have an influence on them, but we definitely never say: “Make this more…” The A&R man who told Nathan that, I’ve seen other feedback from him and he’s said: “Can you make the breakdown more like this other record?” What a terrible way to make music, trying to make records that sound like another record. What’s the point? I firmly believe if a record sounds like another, then don’t put it out. I might be in a minority.

As a label it’s a bit like being a DJ, you’re trying to make people trust you, to buy your next unknown artist and to sort of believe in your identity and where you’re going. To have a hit like that did make it a lot easier, definitely, to have people follow you and pay attention and buy an unknown artist’s next record. But afterwards, people think that’s the sound of the label and you’re only going to do that for the rest of your life. And if a record you put out isn’t delivering as much as that, then it’s not so good. Then you have this second fight telling people they’ve got the wrong idea and should go and find somebody else to listen to.

RBMA:  Trying to convince people, is that what you do with your DJing as well?

HOLDEN: Yeah, to some extent, but try to have fun as well. It’s quite embarrassing to stand on a stage in front of loads of people and it’s even more embarrassing if you’re not 100% behind the record you play. So I guess, more and more I realised you couldn’t get away with just playing your favourite records one after the other. It took me a while to realise that, not just throw Boards Of Canada in and make everyone leave the dancefloor. But gradually, I realised through technical stuff you can make people not realise you’re playing the wrong music for the time.

RBMA: And what is the technical stuff?

HOLDEN: For me as a DJ, the key-mixing is the most important thing. So much of dance music, when you’re in a club, half the night you’re listening to intros and outros that have no information in them, just a beat, and they’re just there because the DJ can’t key-mix and he just wants to do a smooth mix between two tracks. I’d personally rather not hear those bits, just hearing a DJ throw the fader up and putting two things out of time, crossfading in five seconds. Listening to two minutes of a less-good drum beat than the rest of the track is just depressing. With key-mixing you can hear the musical links between things, and if you’re holding the arpeggio that’s the end of one track, and then playing an ambient track over the top of it and then something else in the same key, it all just feels like you can change mood very drastically, go from banging to not banging. But because they’re musically linked it just feels like a continuation of the same thing and that lets you play sets where you’re playing krautrock and techno, everything together, and on a good night it feels like it’s just one kind of music.

RBMA: Usually, DJing is turned into this great thing, you get flown in, this free dinner, great party, everyone wants to kiss you, but is it really like that? You don’t look like a guy who enjoys the Ibiza image of it all.

HOLDEN: I like to have fun sometimes, but a lot of the things that go with it, they get old very, very quickly. Flying in, restaurants, staying in hotels. When I go on holiday now, I go in England because I can go in a car and not go into an airport. It’s like poison for your soul, I’ve seen a lot of people affected by it. When I was talking to my girlfriend last night, it was something she said, that if you have flaws in your personality and you enjoy a bit of success, then you will quickly find ways to destroy your own success, just end it. I’ve seen it so many times, people just get sucked into the drugs and the girls. Or both. Why would you want to have sex with someone who isn’t interested in you but your brand and image and persona? I can’t imagine ever wanting to do that. If you let yourself into that world, it’s a downward slope to a sad existence.

RBMA: Someone said the other day he has a record company, so he plays records. But you don’t?

HOLDEN: I buy records, but records don’t have loop buttons or master tempo and reverse, so I record the records to CD and then play them. But I understand it gives a message.

RBMA: And you also add a sampler to it when you play.

HOLDEN: Yeah, just this cheap little Cycloops thing. Mine’s just a little thing, because I’ve been planning to switch to Traktor for three years, I didn’t buy a new one, even though bits keep falling off it. Now it’s an electric shock risk, one of the buttons doesn’t work and you have to jiggle the cable to make it work at the start. But I’m still not buying another one because I am going to get ‘round to loading Traktor and learning it.
Sometimes the duff connection has made a really interesting noise in the middle of a set and if you get thrown something you weren’t expecting, then as long as you’re not having a bad day, you can take that and go somewhere with it, play with it, a bit of distortion you didn’t expect. ‘I did mean to do that!’

RBMA: You said the word ‘hippie’ earlier and ‘krautrock’, and I once heard you say that this kind of changed the whole way you approached music. We had Cluster here the other day, maybe you can talk a little bit about what these guys did that made you rethink your own music.

HOLDEN: This track by Cluster, it’s called "Hollywood", and the date on it is, I think it’s 1973. When I heard this, I suddenly realised the history of dance music with Detroit and Chicago and Kraftwerk and everything, actually goes back a bit further. This record from 1973, they invented trance, they did it better than trance and that’s it. The whole thing was unnecessary from that point on.

RBMA: We talked a bit earlier about how it made you rethink the way your produced music, not just the kind of music but also the tools you’re using.

HOLDEN: It made me interested in how the equipment is affecting the results, the method you use and the process you go through. I had been a disciple, like really into making music with just a computer. When I started, I had no money so it was only free software, I didn’t even know about cracked software then, so it was just freeware, and I was quite an evangelist for it. At the time, it was still the ’90s, people were still using proper equipment, people would say: “Ah, it sounds really thin from a computer.” So I was quite defensive of computer music, really into it and just stuck with it for a long time, didn’t buy any equipment. But then you realise, that although the computer can do everything, that’s also a problem. You’re sitting there in the studio and you have too many things to play with, too many options. Then your music has no character because you’re faced with the same set of massive possibilities as everyone else is and not really focusing yourself into a direction. So buying loads of analogue synths has completely changed what I do. I feel it’s a process I’m interested in and I’ll do that for a while and then the results change, because I’m quite limited by it, you’re working around the limitations. I think some of the stuff I made on my eight-bit Amstrad is better than some of the stuff I’ve made since. Because I’ve got three notes and some white noise, you’re working within the limits so you make something that pushes at them. So much dance music sounds like you’ve got too many plug-ins, big swooshy production, but no character or soul because of that.

RBMA: So the saying goes a bad worker blames his tools. Is that right?

HOLDEN: I’m a bad worker blaming other people’s tools (laughs). Electronic music has evolved since computers caught on and you hear it in, say, the massive over-compression of sound, which is trendy at the moment. And if you just go along with it and think, ‘Everyone else is putting ultra-maximisers on so I will too’, then that’s one less difference between you and everyone else. I don’t think you have to compete in the loudness war: the idea of making your songs sound better by limiting them too much.

" have to wait for the room to get hot and all the oscillators go back into tune."

RBMA: One of the pieces of equipment you’ve bought in the last years that’s been influential for you is the modular system, right?

HOLDEN: Modular is a bit like taking up crack as a hobby, it’s quite addictive. You’ve got these big cases with loads of space in it, and you think, ‘Ah, maybe I just need one more oscillator’. And it’s really good as well. You’ve got the rack in the house and the modules come, and Gemma doesn’t notice when a module arrives in the post, so I just think, ‘I’ll get another filter and choose it for a day when she’s not around in the morning, I can get it screwed in before she’s even…’

RBMA: Can you explain what a modular system is for someone who’s never seen it?

HOLDEN: It’s a big rack with individual modules that are the component parts of analogue synthesis. Then you just patch it together with cables, sort of 3.5mm jacks. So, for example, you’ve got oscillators and filters, but because you can patch them incorrectly and your modulator can do things that really no synth has in it, you can make a synth out of delay and some noise and feedback to make a tone, that’s what I was doing last week. Or making fake drums, two filters in a feedback circle, and then the resonance, if you send it a little click, then the resonance of the filters makes a little noise which sounds incredibly like a drum. It’s really expressive, so you can go crazy. You can just spend the whole night putting cables in and seeing what happens when you turn it on in the morning. And it’s quite unpredictable, and it reacts to itself, what I really like.

Basically, what I’m interested in at the moment, is making an instrument, not making a computer that’s predictable and controllable, and you draw curve with a mouse, and next time you press play it’s the same as it will be when you render it. With a module you’re making a thing that’s connected to itself, it’s chaotic and out of control. So you push a filter on a bassline and you’ve got it wired into something else and the drums go a bit wrong, then that’s a moment and you react to that and do something else. It’s like when I played the violin, it would always make the wrong sound when I was trying to make music. But in the end you go with it. ‘Oh, I’ve made a squeak, I’ll make the most of it’. The same with the best bits of my recent recordings, they’ve been accidents that have been made by myself. I like the idea of making music that’s not as good as it possibly could be, not as polished or as in people’s faces, not as perfect or hooky, and they have to see through the layers and fuzz and mistakes and the slight awkwardness of the arrangement to get to the beauty of it. Maybe I’m, just an old man, but that doesn’t seem as cheap as trying to make a pop record that’s straight away in your face.

RBMA: And you can’t go back and recreate this same sound? Not even if you write down what you did?

HOLDEN: No, never. I don’t have time to write it down. I tried to take a photo of it once, then half way through I just gave up trying to put the cables back in, it’s too confusing. Usually, when I go back in the morning I don’t remember what I was trying to achieve and I just turn it on and see if it still works. Usually, it doesn’t and you have to wait for the room to get hot and all the oscillators go back into tune.

With the krautrock stuff, for instance, Conny Plank was the guy who produced a lot of Cluster, Harmonia, stuff like that. There are a lot of great interviews with him on the internet where he’s talking about their production methods. He was around at the point where sequencers were invented. I like the idea of being able to do it, but the metronomic thing, he didn’t like it. So the sequencers [in the Cluster track] were triggered from within the drummer in the band and the drummer would play a rhythm on electronic drums and those triggers would feed the sequencers. The whole thing is natural and moving around itself, the timing is varying, the bpm goes up and down three or four bpm through that track.

RBMA: So no quantizing?

HOLDEN: Yeah. I never use quantize now. I think it’s coming ‘round again. We’ve had this trend of music getting more and more perfect because of computers but then people like Flying Lotus who’s coming in this afternoon, his timing’s amazing because it’s loose, it’s the natural placement of the beats, you can’t do that with a mouse. Well, you can if you’re gifted, but rhythm is innate and completely inexplicable. What’s the difference between good funk, good swing, and someone who’s a bad drummer. You can’t draw a graph and say: “This is the good swing pattern, this is the bad one.” It’s more complicated than even melody and harmony. To leave it to Logic 16d swing, or whatever it’s called, is crazy.

James Holden performs on the Red Bull Music Academy stage at Sónar Sao Paulo on May 11. Listen to him break down some of his records and influences through his Headphone Highlights show on RBMA Radio.

By on April 20, 2012

On a different note