James Holden steps out of the DJ booth and into the improv
Interview: Having mined the crossover between trance and techno and remixed tunes for Britney and Madonna, Holden has discovered the joy of live performance
James Holden has taken a winding, idiosyncratic path in his nearly 20 years of making music. His earliest releases appeared at the end of the 1990s, just as trance was peaking as a cultural and commercial force.
This early music was colourful, fun and full of open-minded, youthful enthusiasm, which means it hasn’t aged as badly as most releases from that era. The surprise success of his first single, Horizons, catapulted him into bigger and bigger nightclubs, and got him jobs remixing for the likes of Britney Spears and Madonna.
In 2003, Holden founded the Border Community label. Its first release, A Break in the Clouds, mined the crossover point between trance’s melodic exuberance and techno’s inexorable forward momentum. That playful yet complex sound, exemplified by Holden’s debut album, The Idiots Are Winning, and the mix CD Holden at the Controls, would soon dominate European dancefloors and “inspire” thousands of imitators.
After that first album, Holden went a bit quiet, going several years without a release of his own as he focused on DJing and running the label. His success, and that of his friend and labelmate Nathan Fake, meant a steady stream of gig offers and an endless pile of demos in the letterbox.
When he re-emerged in 2013, Holden was older, wiser and ready for a change of direction. The Inheritors, his second album, was drastically different to anything he had put out before, a swirling mass of disruptive beats and unruly modular synthesisers wrapped in a pagan aesthetic evocative of pre-Christian England. The melodic sensibility remained, but it was now obscured by uncanny textures and hair- raising blasts of barely controlled noise.
“It was kind of an obvious reaction to everything that was going on around me, this functional music,” says Holden of The Inheritors. “When I first went to a club, when I was a kid, it was like a free party organised by hippies where I lived in the midlands.
“That maybe gave me a false picture of what a club could be, in a way. I had this idealistic idea that it’s a liberal, free space where you can play all kinds of music and people are open to it. It does exist; there are great clubs and great crowds all around the world where that’s true.
“I thought the club should be an amazing place where you could play Krautrock and trance and techno and hippie music and jazz and everything. But it was a continual fight against some guy on pills making that gesture which means ‘play more obvious, please’. The Inheritors got me out of that expectation, in a way.”
Holden has gradually left clubs behind altogether. DJ sets around the release of the album were replaced by live performances, in which he operates the imposing modular set-up he used to create the album in the first place.
Listening to him talk, the excitement Holden feels about performing his own music live is obvious. He’s now joined by a drummer and often a saxophonist, so the songs are remade every night, changing shape each time they’re played.
When he was still DJing on a laptop, Holden designed his own hardware so that he could approach the task in a way that felt more intuitive. (He also gave it away for free.) He says that, in contrast to some other DJs who have made the recent transition to “live” performance, the effort to create something unique each time the band gets on stage is what makes the performances exciting.
“I don’t want to name names,” he says, “but sometimes I’ve been backstage and seen what someone’s performance consists of. It’s a one-hour-long audio file, and then they’ve got a couple of effects they can put on it. That’s ridiculous; it’s an insult to everyone.
“The realness of it is the most important thing about it for me. The songs can go any way, basically; they can change shape, things are just about holding together. I can ruin songs, likewise, for the other musicians who are on stage. I feel like that realness – it’s not just for me that it feels better, but an audience can tell that you’re doing something and connect with that, I think.
“When I used to stand in front of thousands of people playing someone else’s record, and they’d react to it or whatever, I’d feel a bit like, not quite a fraud, but it feels a lot better to get to the end of a song and get a reaction than it feels to play someone else’s record.”
The risk built into Holden’s set-up has turned out to be an inspiration. He talks about seeing the musician Charles Cohen perform on his trademark Buchla synth, and feeling the excitement latent in his freely improvised sets. Similarly, on a recent trip to Morocco he was stunned by the complexity of the trance-inducing rhythms of Gnawa healing music.
Ecstatic communal experience
Combined with the undercurrent of pagan ritual invoked by The Inheritors, Holden seems to be in search of that ecstatic communal experience hinted at by his very first rave.
“It’s the group, everyone coming together and this special feeling in the air, intangible stuff like that which you can’t really explain,” he says. “The freedom that lets you go wrong is also the freedom that lets you come up with something f***ing brilliant that you’ve never thought of before, in the moment.
“I love watching improvisers in noise music or in jazz because, in that moment where they hit something really beautiful, you see it in their face that they’ve never heard it or played it before like that. It’s in the air between the musicians and the audience as well.
“I remember feeling that at shows recently. You can see it in their eyes, and you’re part of that. You’re part of something that is never going to happen again the same way, and never happened before. And that’s worth your 15 quid.”
- James Holden plays next weekend’s Body & Soul festival at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath