“I tend to get quite bored with music that’s just made in a club and is very functional,” James Holden admits while bemoaning the extraneous introductions of club tracks that exist purely so “not very talented DJs” are able to mix them. “Why do we to have suffer that, why do we have to sit through those bits? It’s unnecessary!” he laments with a chuckle. “When I’m in a club, I just try and play music that I would think is good if I was in the audience. That has moved away from traditional dance music a bit, but still it’s trying to keep a groove the whole time and build a dynamic. It’s still lots of things that techno has always been about, it’s just I got better at it”.
Since his debut release as a teenager, Holden has explored techno, progressive, ambient and even shoe-gaze rock influences in his productions and DJ sets. A forthright critic of his own output, Holden ranks his new DJ Kicks compilation ahead of his installments for the Balance and At The Controls series as the most precise distillation of his sonic sensibility to date. “When I listen back to it, it feels more coherent, like I somehow made the point I was trying to make with the other ones more effectively,” Holden reflects. “I felt like it’s still basically doing the same thing I’ve always been doing, putting these different styles together and making them feel like they’re one, but on this one I actually feel like it’s all one.”
Considering the scope of the music collated on the DJ Kicks album, the synthesis and coherence Holden speaks of is no simple accomplishment. From material by Caribou and Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) to cuts by Legowelt, the compilation breaks down conventions as to what should be played in a nightclub and what should be listened to under headphones. “There’s a middle ground between electronic and rock that’s really interesting,” Holden explains. “What’s interesting at the moment is this middle ground, like the Caribou album and the Four Tet album, people who are really on the edge of both things, making records that you can dance to but they have not really evolved in the dance scene. I really like the hypnotic, trippy, repetitive stuff that you get lost in and I don’t think I can ever see myself going away from that. What I see myself doing now is the same thing I always did, it’s just it evolved a bit.”
Having completed his most accomplished mix to date, Holden is now concentrating on a follow-up to his 2006 debut artist album, The Idiots Are Winning. “I spent a couple of years where I got really annoyed by the music that people saw as related to [Holden’s record label] Border Community,” he admits. “People were just doing copies of [Nathan Fake’s] ‘The Sky Was Pink’ and it really put me off that sound. I started to really hate the ‘computer techno’ sound.” The surfeit of ersatz imitations lead Holden to contemplate and redefine his sound, a process that he only now feels is complete. “I spent two years changing what I did in the studio, trying new approaches, switching to all-analogue production,” Holden reveals. “It took two years in the wilderness. With [new cut] ‘Triangle Folds’, the Caribou remix, the Mogwai remix and the Radiohead remix I feel like I’ve got there now, I’ve found the way to make the music I always liked but to do it in a way that doesn’t lead in circles. Now it’s time to actually do something of my own. I don’t know when it’s going to happen though – I’m not promising anything soon,” he adds wryly as an afterthought.
Holden’s inventive analogue-based approach to production contrasts the profusion of generic tracks flooding the dance market. “It’s hard to talk about it without being really negative,” he says. “Producing on a laptop and being able to release a record without needing the money to invest in vinyl - these should be great things. The only reason I have a career and can make music was free software and a cheap PC, but there has to be some sort of evolution in how we find music and how people put it out just to cut through this mountain of stuff which is unnecessary. I’d like to think that because it doesn’t cost you anything to make an MP3 release people can be a bit more adventurous,” Holden asserts. “I think probably in 5 years things will start to settle down, it always takes people a while to react to massive technological change.”
Until such a time, Holden’s Border Community label will remain a rare bastion of creativity drowning in a sea of banality, a refuge for producers such as Luke Abbott, Nathan Fake and Holden himself to operate at the intersection of different genres and challenge the stale blueprints that corrode the club scene. “I don’t really care what goes on in the middle of the dance scene to be honest,” Holden says, his tone laced with a fervor that affirms he is far from a detached production recluse either. “We can carry on doing what we’re interested in, and there are enough people in the world to find that interesting that we can just do it. It’s sort of healthy for the scene too; I don’t think monocultures produce good music. When producers try and fit in with the monoculture… well, that’s what happened with minimal techno and that’s why it’s basically dead now.”