“If we want something different, we have to make it happen ourselves…” 909originals chats to James Holden

Since bursting onto the scene as a teenager with the progressive classic Horizons at the tail end of the Millennium, James Holden has long sought to keep things interesting. 

The Border Community label founder evolved his sound over the course of the decade that followed, remixing the likes of Madonna, New Order and Radiohead (not to mention his seminal edit of Nathan Fake’s The Sky Was Pink), before parking electronic music in favour of a spiritual jazz ideology, on albums such as 2013’s The Inheritors and 2016’s The Animal Spirits.

In recent years, his The Animal Spirits collective has evolved into a touring ensemble project, with Holden as band leader, incorporating ethnic sounds from around the world – the group’s most recent visit to Dublin, in 2018, will live long in the memory.

Fast forward to 2023, and Holden is once again tapping into the electronic sensibilities on which his career was founded on his latest long player, Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities, which he says is inspired by the transformative possibilities of the 90’s rave scene – of tuning into faint pirate radio stations and “dreaming of what raves would be like when I could finally escape and become a New Age traveller”, as he put it recently. The album is out now on Border Community, in 2×12″ vinyl, CD and digital formats.

As part of a busy summer of touring, Holden will be swimming by Ireland in August to perform his new live show at Another Love Story, one of the best independent festivals on the circuit. Ahead of that, and following on from the release of Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities, we caught up with him.

Read More: Another Love Story announces full lineup for 2023 edition

Hi James, thanks for talking to us. To start, this August sees you perform at Another Love Story. You have played in Ireland at all stages of your career, do you feel an affinity with the music, people and culture here?

Ha, I have to say yes to this, don’t I? Lucky it’s a nice place, so i’m not lying! I’ve had some lovely times in Ireland, the last Dublin show I did being the absolute highlight. It was one of my favourites of the whole tour.

How does the current James Holden live show differ from what we might have experienced before?

It’s a bit synthier and trancier than the Animal Spirits show was, I guess, but it’s still got that hippy/psych/70s kind of energy running through it, and still very free-ranging. The songs come out different every night. I think live shows broadly have to choose where they exist on a line that runs from real (and messy) to slick (and fake), and I’m always aiming for the former.

Having ‘abandoned’ dance music for The Inheritors and The Animal Spirits, the new album sees you re-discover all things electronic. Was there a particular moment, or influencing factor, that drew you back?

In a way it was just having enough time away from it to feel excited by it again. But also lockdown kind of reminded me of the feeling of being a teenager – waiting to get out and experience the world! – and I think I got back to the memory of how dance music seemed so utopian to me. That made me want to make it again.

What were the factors that made you fall out of love with electronic music a decade or so ago?

I never stopped loving electronics! But I did start to hate the international touring DJ dance scene – nothing about it was the wonderful utopia that child me imagined music would be. Also, at the same time, I discovered how much fun I could have in other areas.

Is the album somewhat autobiographical – in that you are returning to the sounds that forged your early career?

I don’t know if it’s meant to be, but the fact that it might be seen that way is, I guess, to do with me coming to peace with everything that preceded it?

We’ve read that the new album has been inspired to some degree by the early 90s free party scene, which you never got to experience first hand – with that in mind, the album has been described as a ‘dream of rave, a fantasy’..? 

I got to experience the tail end of it, I guess – post Criminal Justice Bill – but those parties had a big influence on me. I kind of expected every rave to be an open, inviting, accepting space where people adhered to anarchist/community kind of ideals and behaviours. I was so disappointed the first time I went to a big London club!

Following on from that, is that utopian ideal what the ‘High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities’ is all about?

Yes, I think it is.

There are a lot of producers these days seeking to re-create the music of the early 90s through the use of vintage synth VSTs and things like that – when producing the new album, we presume this was a path you deliberately chose not to follow?

Yeah, I was mostly using my own software for this one, but I did dig out the folder of low sample-rate drum loops I used to use when I started out making music on 16-bit tracker software. 

It was never meant as pastiche though, less about aping old styles and values than about deliberately throwing out modern ideas I don’t like and seeing what was left.

You have cited the likes of FSOL, The KLF’s Chill Out, and Orbital’s InSides as influences on the new album (we presume The Orb, Sabres of Paradise and Boards of Canada might be in there too). When you listen back to them now, have they changed, do they mean something deeper?

Some of these LPs are really a part of me now. I know them inside out, but they meant so much to me as a teenager I’m not sure they had any further to go!

There was a great line in your recent interview in The Quietus where you say, “I don’t think people who are quite a bit younger than me really understand the concept of only having ten CDs, twenty tapes, and that would be the entirety of your culture.” That really resonated with me, that idea of a ‘sonic bubble’ that you create for yourself in your formative years. Given the embarrassment of musical riches at our fingertips these days, have we lost that ability?

We’ve got something else instead, I guess? Teenage me would’ve loved to be able to learn faster, and broader. But it’s definitely a part of how I turned out – learning 20 LPs inside out instead of touching the surface of 2,000…

You have spoken before about your disillusionment with the ‘international DJ’ scene once you started being successful. Was that what you meant with the title of [2006 album] The Idiots Are Winning?

Back then I did quite like winding people up, yeah.

That was more than 15 years ago of course, and the level to which commercialism dominates the scene now has only accelerated. During the pandemic, people I spoke to had hoped for some sort of a ‘reset’ of this corporate culture once things got back to normal (which never materialised). Would you share that view, that dance music needs a reset?

It’s a nice idea – if there was a button I could press to make Instagram and Spotify vanish. But the reality is, if we want something different, we have to make it happen ourselves. The culture i got excited by in the beginning was sort of existing in the cracks, anyway.

Border Community is 20 years old this year. How has your approach with the label changed since you founded it, and what has stayed the same

A lot has changed! When we started, it was a bunch of friends just trying to do it our way. Then it blew up, and that was enough to change everything – suddenly everyone approaching you with demos thinks they’re going to sign to the big label and have a great career instantly, and you end up in a role you didn’t want at all, dealing with peoples’ expectations. 

The music industry has changed a lot – what the job of putting a record out involves. So at the moment it’s mostly a label for my projects.

We’ve been listening to your recent BBC Radio 6 mix from February quite a bit recently, and the opening track, Hidden Rung’s Happier Now, includes the repeated lyric “I’m happier now, because of this stuff… things have changed.” That could almost be a commentary on your return to electronic music?

That’s a friend of mine – he did gibbering on a track on The Inheritors, and is a big influence on all my stuff. Good, isn’t it? Things have changed, though. I’ve changed. It’s nice changing.

Lastly, and I’m sure you get this a lot. A massive thank you for your remix of The Sky Was Pink, it was such an influential track. At the time, did it stand out to you as being particularly memorable, or did its resonance take time to develop?

Lol, the first time I played it, it totally emptied the dancefloor. I think it took about a year to really blow up. It was my partner Gemma’s idea, actually – ‘You should remix this one’ – and I do remember, as it started to come together, thinking ‘oh, she was right!’

Thanks James for talking to us. Imagine This Is A High Dimensional Space Of All Possibilities is out now on Border Community.

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