Interview: James Holden dowses sonic heritage by Jason Richardson

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Magic exists in James Holden’s universe. It’s not a superstitious sort of magic though, more like a signpost for awe at the fringe of comprehension. Like the magic that comes from dropping the right track at a dance party.

“DJing is really magic,” Holden has previously told Dummy Mag. “From the neuroscience research dancing is almost the same as participation in the actual music, meaning the level of engagement – brainwave sync etc. – is higher in a club crowd than a static gig crowd.”

For a musician who references neuroscience research in interviews, one might assume magic wouldn’t coexist with science but this isn’t as surprising as the knowledge that James Holden can locate underground water.

“I’ve got a certificate that says I can dowse,” reveals Holden over the phone to Cyclic Defrost. He explains that as part of a festival in Cornwall there was a workshop that taught dowsing using divining rods. “I successfully found the water main,” he laughs before discussing neuroscience research into supernatural belief.

“I studied a lot of science but I like that this phenomena can have a basis in scientific theory. Dowsing sticks amplify tiny movements in a way that lets our subconscious be read by our conscious self. There’s a lot of research about the power of subconscious thought.”

“You don’t have to be some buttoned-up Richard Dawkins — you can experience magic,” he concludes and magic is a term returned to discussing creative practice and again it seems linked to the power of the subconscious.

One thing I find magic about Holden’s album The Inheritors is the warm tone that’s crafted from a palette of distorted mids. “Distortion is an important thing to have in a recording,” Holden enthuses. “Digital can be quite clinical, you can make it so there’s no hiss.”

“I wanted to use a recording media that wasn’t transparent so that you know it’s really happened. It’s an historical record. Part of finishing a track for me is putting it on a reel to reel.”

The process creates a sense of continuity across the tracks too, which is another angle on making an album: a cohesive work. Making an album is a challenge to create a cohesive body of work. Holden agrees before talking about the importance of creating work and imbuing it with your own personality. “When you’re using instruments that are global, I thought it important to make a record that’s really me.”

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The Inheritors is an album that sounds English to me. It’s like anglophile audiophile fed into a noisy blender. There are train-like rhythms, cascading noise that flows and folk-like chords.

“The Englishness is in the harmonies and modes and the scales. A lot of the composition came from generative music. Which isn’t to say it’s generated, rather a process of designing the parameters. Limiting myself to scales makes sense because otherwise you’ve got to program how a wider range of notes have to interact.

“Half the thought in composing went into sounds, the half went into to creating the parameters in which to operate. Improvising in a way, since the machine responds in a way that’s magical. It couldn’t have happened without being a nerd but no one wants to make nerdy music.”

There’s a good description of the result in Pitchfork‘s review of The Inheritors:
“You can imagine a shamanic Holden working amidst his machines, alternately reigning them in and provoking them. After dozens of listens, The Inheritors still feels like it could fall off the rails at any moment, that its wires could trip and the whole album devolve into a mess of feedback that will have you racing to unplug your speakers. Holden’s ability to wrangle a complex synthesizer isn’t unique; his ability to make that skill seem utterly necessary, is.”

Holden’s approach is alchemical in its nature, refining raw material with multiple passes while recording songs. “There’s some editing but where I took multiple takes I ended up using most of them. In the way you can hear how a string section sounds better than a violin, you can hear how different takes sound better layered-up.”

“With Renata I did six takes and stuck them on top of each other but poked holes in them. I wanted my music to be an engaging musical experience and not one people could break down easily. Then it becomes magic because you’re hearing things that aren’t there.”

Holden compares the immersive experience of video games to the block-y graphics of previous decades, though is quick to qualify that he doesn’t play many video games. The analogy underscores how richer detail can be seductive.

The earlier idea about creating a record in an historical sense leads me to ask a question crowd sourced online earlier in the day. James++ asked Holden ‘Which track does he think he’ll most want to listen to in 20 years?’

He nominates ‘Some Respite‘, the knowingly titled piece that Pitchfork‘s album review says “dials it down”.

“I come back to the weird corners of the record,” says James Holden. I suspect they’re the ones that hide magic.

Tour Dates
Tuesday 31st December: Sydney – Abercrombie
Wednesday 1st December: Melbourne – Let Them Eat Cake Festival

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About Author

Living in regional Australia led Jason Richardson to sample landscapes instead of records.