He’s label boss to the very successful UK based Border Community label; an accomplished DJ and producer, a graduate with a 2:2 in Mathematics from Oxford University (that’s near genius clever for Aussies not familiar with the UK university system) all of which, in turn, has resulted in his unusual and astute understanding of the inner workings of modular synths and the ongoing delivery of his incredible sound engineering and recordings. Add to this his curation of a European music festival (Sonic City) earlier this year and his recently acquired full-fledged musician status, at just 35, James Holden sure has packed a lot in. In fact it’s amazing what a difference a year can make. Cyclic Defrost has been lucky enough to chat with this remarkable fellow a couple of times over the last few years, and having spoken to him again recently we found Holden’s mindset to be distinctly different from whence we last caught up.
“From January I’ve got my longest break I’ve had without playing a show since I was 21. So that’s brilliant and I’m really happy about that and I guess I’ll get in the studio.” He said, speaking from his home in London.
Holden has been rather busy creating throughout this year, but in a different guise to what his fans have grown accustomed to. For example, he’s authoring his own rhythm software through Ableton. The concept for which came via his discovery of a Harvard Research paper discussing how musicians playing together in an orchestra may fall out of time with each other and the subsequent rhythmic repercussions of such human error.
He patiently explains to me, a not quite so musically adept journalist that “if you and I are playing a duet, and I make a mistake, every timing of every note for the whole of the rest of the piece, for both of us, is the permanent link between everything you do and everything the other player does – and that’s what the science found.”
“I’ve managed to program Ableton, to do that, so that when the drummer – you can hear it – if he falls out of time, then all the computer parts are a bit out of time, just like a real band would do. So that’s sort of how I write music now, sort of with a living, breathing synth, fighting back against you. It’s the most complicated computery thing I’ve ever done, but it’s actually like the least computery thing, but then once it works – it’s not. It’s just like a little instrument.”
Holden is quick to reiterate that he still really loves his computer – just that now it’s pretending to be a human rather than playing things back perfectly all the time. Most of this year, he’s been programming stuff – and that is the foundation for what he hopes to do next year in the studio.
“I know that if I spend the time making music with a framework of tools that no one else has got, then I’ll make music that no one else can make. That’s sort of the idea.”
For fans of Holden here in Australia it might seem somewhat befuddling that he’s readying himself to play a few shows. His acclaimed release, The Inheritors from 2013 is still, at this, the business end of 2014, his principal focus with one slight and seemingly nuanced, difference. He’s now touring the album with a live band. A move, he says, that was motivated, in part, when a friend and musical counterpart, travelling and touring overseas, got in touch last January.
“I guess it’s about a year ago – and yes I know I’m touring the album late, because I wasn’t planning to tour it live – but Thom Yorke (Radiohead and Atoms for Peace) sent me an email out of the blue, he was doing his Atoms for Peace tour in America and that made me reconsider whether it was possible to play live and I realised I was being a dick and I realised I should try it,” Holden reflects.
“I’m really glad I did and I’m really grateful to Thom for giving me that prod, because it’s so much more rewarding than DJing. I guess, it feels like I’m doing something more meaningful. I’m actually performing now in front of crowds.”
In true Holden style, it’s not just any ole live show that he has spent time assembling. Together with his collaborating partner a renowned jazz Bossa Nova enthusiast – Tom Page (Rocket Number Nine and formerly Fridge ) on drums, Holden has pieced together a new, reinvigorated, sound from his album fodder to treat fans to.
“All the songs on The Inheritors, they were made live, and all my music seems to be repetitive and I build systems, almost like living computers, analogue synths – hybrids – that react against you when it’s live. So in order to play live, I figured out that I just need to recreate those systems and have a fight with each of these systems in turn.”
While he wasn’t really planning to do a live show until two weeks before he put it together, he’s happy with how it has been received so far by audiences in Europe, and considers it to be the special connection between himself, Tom and, of course, his computer that creates the unique auditory experience for those listening.
“When I write the songs, I’m feeling out the shape of them, I press record and see what comes out, and it’s kind of the same with the band. Tom’s so used to improvising that songs can change shape and structure and he and I have played together quite a lot. We can communicate quite well with each other, that you can sort of hear that we’re reinventing the music almost, which is the thing that makes it more interesting – as a dj you’re playing new records but it’s more surprising when your drummer throws you into a sort of breakdown.”
It was, however, Holden’s live DJ performance during last year’s Sonic City festival – a Belgian electronic festival that paved the opportunity for his being asked by Sonic City’s organisers to curate the 2014 lineup.
Speaking just days after the festival wrapped up, Holden recalled just how much this year’s Sonic City took out of him. Certainly the curation element was not especially hard. That, he tells me, was just a matter of sitting down and making a list of who he’d like to have perform and the promoters did the rest. More taxing was the adrenalin it took as a festival experience and drawing from the crowd, who were clearly inspired by Holden’s lineup choices.
“Everyone attending is into electronic music and the music that I like, because everyone that came seemed to like all of it, and I was into it all. So, you know, when you go to a big festival, they get a broad cross section of acts to appeal to everyone where as (having curated a specific lineup) has the opposite effect, everyone is super into the atmosphere and is really affected,” he said.
While it is only a few weeks since Sonic City was held in the small city of Kortrijk – it seems the boutique nature of the festival was an excellent warm-up for Holden who embarked last weekend enroute to Australian shores. Among his sideshows he will take to the stage this weekend for the Friday, alright early morning Saturday slot at the Meredith Music Festival, another niche festival that draws a limited but rather discerning crowd.
There is no doubt that Holden is looking forward to performing again in front of Australian audiences, especially as the type of fans he meets down here are always intrigued by his evolution and respectful of where he’s moving to next with his music.
“It feels like the people who are coming to watch are getting something unique and real, and I tried really hard at DJing but it’s always just going to be putting on one record after another, which is a really overstated art. No matter how good you are at it, you’re still only a really good DJ, which is like 300 leagues below a passable musician,” Holden says, laughing.
James Holden plays the remaining dates while in Australia:
Wednesday 10th December: HiFi Bar – Melbourne
Friday 12th December: Meredith Music Festival – Victoria
Saturday 13th December: Oxford Art Factory – Sydney