James Zabiela, a name that needs no introduction, a pioneer in taking electronic music to a new level, in breaking the boundaries of sound and in making ridiculously outstanding music.
If you’ve been to one of his shows, then you know what we are talking about. And if not, then you better. The man is pure genius and we are not the first, nor the last, to say it.
His recent compilation mix “Balance 29” is a live statement of how good he is in mixing sounds, tracks, vibes, but above all, feelings into creating the perfect recipe for your heart, soul and of course, ears. Top that with the brilliantly and extra-moving single “Vines” and you get what one would call crème de la crème.
However, the pureness of his sound doesn’t come easy, the process that lies behind taking months or even years. We talked with James about this, about music in general, on how he builds up his sets, gigs and of course, about his latest production piece.
As the interview reveals, we talked with James twice over the last five months, catching up with the legend shortly after his show from Kristal Club, in Bucharest, Romania on April 14 and just before the release of “Vines” on July 3rd.
Though longer than your regular type of interview, we ask only for a quick glance at the first lines, for we guarantee you won’t be able to let it go until you reach the end.
Radio DEEA: Hello James! You completed your World Tour for “Balance 29”. How was the experience?
James Zabiela: Good, mostly good. Each gig has been different from the next and one of the main challenges, being a tour for the mix compilation, is to somehow always represent part of that in the sets. Sometimes it can be difficult.
I did a gig in London where I played most of the night, so I played even the stuff from the first mix all the way to the normal club stuff. It’s been great, but there’re certain gigs where I am coming on 4am and it’s practically techno land so it’s a challenge to get part of the mix in there. I feel like I need to do that because I am promoting the album.
So that was the challenge in part, but it’s enjoyable to have so many gigs that are different from one another. For me that’s great because I get to do a lot of different things. I think that if I was a DJ and had a style and had to play the same style, some of the gigs I might had played in perhaps would have been a disaster (laughs).
But because I like different styles, I get to try doing different things, so most of the times I enjoy my gigs.
Radio DEEA: “Balance 29” saw the light of day on February. Can you share with us the process of putting it together? Because we know it took you over a year to make and choosing the right tracks is no easy job.
James Zabiela: I did listen to a lot of tracks, somewhere around 2000 and one of the things I struggled with was just that: I had so much to choose from. And I spent so much time trying to find this perfect magic mix moments that would work with one another.
Because I was so militant in my selection I was spending a whole day and I found so many mix moments which I couldn’t use so one of the biggest struggle in finishing the mix was actually saying NO to things.
There are a lot of good mixes that didn’t enter the compilation, as you can see the mix itself is cramped, but the final result was satisfactory. I worked up until the deadline day, because as the Parkinson’s law states, if you have to finish something in a week, you’ll do it in a week, if you’ll have to do it in a year, you’ll do it in a year.
Radio DEEA: How did the audience respond to this compilation and also, do you have a special way of presenting it to the crowd?
James Zabiela: A lot of people have been quite surprised by it, but in all fairness, they would have been surprised no matter what because it’s been so long since I had produced something. To be honest, when I first sat down to start it, I wasn’t 100% sure of the direction I will take, so it just built up itself piece by piece.
When I go to the clubs, obviously I can’t play the slow tracks. At a recent gig I had in London (where I played all night) I got to play some stuff from the first disk. For the first hour and a half I played really slow at 104 bpm and it was so enjoyable to do something different, to do it LIVE.
It was a small venue and the people who came were there just for this, so that was a real pleasure to do. I am going to try and engineer more gigs like that one. I think I could have done that at Kristal in Bucharest and I think it could have been possible if I had the time to implement it, but I came straight from a snowboard festival.
Radio DEEA: We are bit curious in finding out if when you build up your sets you do it considering the audience you’re in front of or on how electronic music is received and perceived in certain countries?
James Zabiela: Yeah, you must, I think. No audience is the same and due to the different type of gigs that I do, I do need to adapt.
For example, in April I played in Cluj. It was fun, but you don’t know what the opening DJ is going to play and sometimes you need to either follow on what they are playing or start over depending on what you want to do. Sometimes you press the reset button, put on a big intro to make people almost forget.
If you want to start slowing down that’s one way to do it, or you can carry on, on a similar way depending on how the energy is in the room and that’s what I did in Cluj.
Radio DEEA: You always think of new techniques and concepts when you are producing, and it feels like you’re completing a puzzle when you’re behind the decks. “Balance 29” is part of this too?
James Zabiela: You are right that it is like a puzzle and this compilation has definitely felt like a jigsaw puzzle sometimes. I had the feeling that “there’s a piece missing” because I had so many mashups; the way I made the mix was with a lot of mashups, so it did become a bit of an impossible puzzle at the time.
The compilation is a good representation of where I am now but it’s hard to say it’s my best work, maybe a year from now I will look back on things and decide one way or another. However, part of me feels quite confident with what I’ve done, that this will stand the test of time.
Radio DEEA: Now switching to “Vines”, can you share with us what lies behind the idea of creating it? What inspired you and what do you think Earlham Mystics and HOLOVR brought to the table in mixing the track?
James Zabiela: Vines was actually an unfinished track that I didn’t know what to do with. When the Balance mix came along it suddenly had a home to live in and so I finished the track in the mix session itself. I recorded some new vocals and messed around with them on my then new OP1 toy.
Getting it to make sense outside of the confines of a mix was really a challenge and the reason why I drafted in the remixers. I guess I was expecting something more ambient from HOLOVR having been a collector of his music for some time, but I’m pleased he put a tough kick drum to it as it contrasted from the ambient-ish vibes of my original.
Luke (Abbott aka Earlham Mystics) completely flipped it on his head and uplifted the whole release, and that’s when I had the confidence to put this out there on its own merit beyond the confines of my mix compilation.
Radio DEEA: Will “Vines” be part of maybe a future album which will also include tracks made based on moments of inspiration and not the need to actually release something new?
James Zabiela: I think I probably got the most out of the track for now, but never say never. I would love to write an album of this kind of stuff, but you have to be in the right place both physically and mentally for it to happen. To be honest I find the scale of something like that very daunting, but I’ll keep plugging away when I can.
The ‘need’ to release more music akin to ‘Vines’ has to come from me internally and not because I need to put some music out there for the sake of my career or whatever. I’m paraphrasing, but as Mark Hollis says, “if you’re going to play one note then have a reason to do it”. I’d also like to make some fun, less emotionally exhausting ‘bangers’ for the dance floor. Making people dance also seems like a good enough reason to me and some techno tracks only have a few notes!
Radio DEEA: What do you do when you’re stuck. No inspiration, it’s all black. How do you keep the musical journey going?
James Zabiela: Oh, that’s something that many people struggle with. I’ve actually started to make a list of notes on things that inspire me, because when you’re in that zone, you’re hungry to create, that’s obviously when you can do your best work. There are a lot of random things that can help me get into doing that, other than strong coffee.
I watched Noel Gallagher interviews talking about his song writing process and he is so funny and so sure of his opinions which I find admirable. He’s been in a huge band and he’s made these huge hits and now he’s in the place where he’s working for a passion project, making the music he wants to make, putting out his own music label and does the artwork himself.
Just getting lost in music, bouncing from one video to another, going to gigs, I find that very inspiring as well. Random places and things. So, when it happens the first thing I do is to write a note on my phone and get back to that feeling when I need it.
Radio DEEA: You’ve been to Romania many times and we talked about Cluj a few minutes ago. Have you noticed some changes on the music scene here? Has the taste of the audience changed as well?
James Zabiela: It has changed, definitely. First of all because the people that are going out now are probably not the same people that were going out when I first came here. Is not just Cluj, I see this everywhere now.
For me, I am at that stage when I go to a gig and I can see some older faces that know me and then a lot of faces that I feel I must win over. It’s a mixture of different ages at my gigs.
Radio DEEA: It’s no secret that you are a keen provider of high-quality music and you are always involved in entertaining the audience. Is this something that you’ve always wanted to do, or that you have developed over the years?
James Zabiela: I think that the whole performance of my set came later, and I didn’t really think about that until I was in front of an audience. I started by getting into the more technical part of the DJing because my original idea was me staying in the dark, with no-one able to see me.
Sometimes I have gigs where I am completely obscure because the deck is so high. In a way that’s refreshing because it’s just about the music that comes out of the speakers.
I am kind of shy person, so it’s easy to hide in the DJ booth behind the music. At the Fabric Nightclub in London, the DJ booth is designed by Craig Richards who is kind of an introvert as well, and when you play there you are kind of obscure, unless you are a tall DJ, which I am not (laughs).
Radio DEEA: What do you think about making music for movies, or maybe getting involved into creating other genre of music?
James Zabiela: Actually I think that I am more excited about writing music for other genres because when you listen to house records for 20 years and you know how house records are made (the structure, the arrangement, the elements need to be within a framework), when I go into the studio I prefer to do something that is beyond my capabilities.
Radio DEEA: What do you do when you’re not making music? What other crazy activities or projects are you involved into?
James Zabiela: I’m not doing any crazy projects. Well, of course a bit of snowboarding when I can. Right now, I’m sort of addicted to playing Star Wars online and getting my ass kicked by probably 13-year old American kids.
I am so happy that I got that for Christmas as soon as I finished Balance 29, otherwise I would still be working on it. I am at that stage where I would probably have to unplug my PlayStation and lock it somewhere in the basement.