Interview: James Zabiela
This month, I got the chance to chat for an exceedingly long time about what every superstar DJ dreams of talking about in an interview: Basingstoke. Or as James Zabiela, my incredibly patient DJ interviewee likes to call it: Amazingstoke. But aside from talking up my home town, he also chats about his new label, his favourite new sounds, his love for Japan, DJing with an iPad and playing Time Out Live's Nite Sessions club night at the beginning of the month. Basingstokers (and all the millions of Zabiela fans out there), enjoy…
We finally got hold of each other! You must be one of the busiest men in dance music… 'Probably the busiest and the laziest. It’s not a good combination.'
How do you keep yourself motivated? 'I don’t know really, it’s quite difficult sometimes. Coffee is helping me today.'
Thanks so much for curating the next Nite Sessions. 'I’m really looking forward to it.'
Good. What’s it going to be like for you play such an intimate venue? You’re used to playing to thousands of people! 'Really good, although I’m actually more nervous about this than I am about doing big raves. Because it’s so intimate, people can really see the whites of your eyes and I find it quite intimidating sometimes. But it means that musically I’ll get to play a more interesting set and I can take more risks, whereas if you’re playing a big rave or festival, you have to play to that size room, just larger epic tracks than what you can play in a small club. I don’t get to play small gigs that often, just occasionally, and it’s something I do enjoy. I love doing the big rave gigs because they’re really exciting and have lots of energy but there’s just something about doing a small party with people you know and friends and stuff. In some ways, it’s more of a social thing.'
What can we expect from your set nowadays? 'I’ve always been someone who plays a bit of everything, but recently I’ve become even more eclectic than usual. I’ve been listening to a lot of music and some of it wouldn’t always translate so well on the dancefloor. So I guess what I’ve been trying to do is finding ways to play things that aren’t so much dancefloor records or geared for the raves, but that are just electronic. Part of the challenge is getting to play those tracks and programming them into the set.'
I’ve noticed that you’ve been getting into all that ‘future’ electronic stuff like Ramadanman and Untold… 'Yeah, definitely. Ramandanman is a bit of a late discovery for me but I’ve been talking to him and he’s been sending me some of his new stuff and I love it. The space he gets in his productions is incredible. They sound quite stripped back and bare but really full at the same time and he’s such a huge talent. I just assumed his name was Dan because of his name, but it’s actually David.'
What do love about those sounds at the moment? 'The reason I’ve started to get into it more recently is because that wobble stereotype LFO bassline dubstep, that really gnarley stuff, has split off into its own thing, and the kind of stuff that Ramadanman and Midland and some of the other guys are making is that it walks the line of different genres and speaks to me on different levels. I’ve never had this issue before with filing music in my iTunes, but this is far more difficult: I can’t decide whether it’s a house record, or a dubstep record, or techno, or breakbeat. Now that these guys are branching out, the genre line is blurring and they walk the fine line between techno, deep house, electro-house and dubstep and it’s really refreshing to see all those things mixed up. And it’s perfect for me because I’m the most confused DJ in the world and have so many different styles. I got this amazing Headhunter remix the other week, who we were going to get to play the night, but it didn’t materialise in the end, and it was 140bpm and it was all made with what I would consider deep house pads and organs and stuff but with a dubstep-type rhythm underneath it. It’s just great to hear things that are made in different and more exciting ways. I’ve never been a fan of trends and stuff so as soon as the dubstep thing exploded a few years ago I got disinterested in it. The same as the minimal techno explosion. In fact, most of the music I play comes out of Germany, but none of it is minimal techno, just amazing great electronic artists like Modeselektor and Moderat and Ellen Alien and Apparat. It’s nice that this isn’t this attitude where it’s like, you can only like minimal techno music, or, you can’t play any music with key changes in it.'
You said this gig was going to give you the opp to play stuff you wouldn’t get to play. How do you put your stamp on it and make it suitable for the dancefloor? 'There’s been a lot of technical advances for how you mix music together, you can stick things together in a more seamless and eclectic way that you could do with just vinyls. Just talking about vinyls, I just Tweeted a picture of me holding a new vinyl I ordered. I probably just sound like a bit of hypocrite. But I’ve still got a lot of records and I record them into the computer and store them and they’ll either go into my Ableton section or they’ll go into my SD card depending on what I want to do with them. If I want to be really creative and experimental with a track or do something with a track that I wouldn’t easily be able to play or programme into a set… Ah wait, I’m getting attacked here, there is an evil baby crying right next to me. That’s what it’s like here.'
It’s the same story in Basingstoke. I’m from just round the corner from you. 'Ah, Amazingstoke. That’s my Geography teacher used to say, Mr Angel. He was from there. I don’t think I’ve ever been there, actually. I think I went there once to get the mini serviced.'
Everyone has a really crap Basingstoke story. Whenever I say I’m from there, people are like, Oh, I went past there on the train or, yeah it’s got loads of roundabouts. 'And an industrial park.'
Exactly. Southampton has, or had, a much better club scene than us though. Totally. 'Oh really?'
Basingstoke has a Lloyds Bar… That is all. 'We’ve got a Lloyds Bank!'
So, pre-baby screaming, you were talking about how you divide up your music. 'If there’s something I want to play that is quite difficult to play or something I’d like to re-edit live on the fly then I’ll chop it up and put it into Ableton to make different loops and add my own percussion to it and strip it down and put it back together live in a more dancefloor-friendly way. Or, if it’s just a great track as it is, then it will go straight onto my SD card. I play off CDJ 2000s now, which aren’t actually CDJs, you can play off a USB or SD card or straight from your laptop. They also double up as midi controllers so you can use them to control any DJ software. It’s kind of like CDs are old school already.'
Obviously you’re at the forefront of these technological movements in DJ software and you consult for a lot of companies – how does all of this affect the art of DJing? 'I really love mixing still. I really love physically beat-matching with my ears and not by pushing the sync button on Tractor. So I’ve kinda got one foot in the old school and one in the new school. I’m using my iPad over a wi-fi network to control stuff in Ableton one minute, and then I’m scratching and beat-matching in a more traditional way the next. I think there’s an element of performance there, which I think the audience would probably miss if I suddenly decided to go completely internal with the laptop. And it wouldn’t be as much fun. I actually used Tractor for 10 months and it’s not just for me. It’s just not as reliable, especially in a sweaty, hot sticky club. But I get really excited about the developments and I get really excited trying to incorporate them. Not only am I quite confused musically but I’m quite confused in the DJ booth with all the different equipment I use.'
Can you tell me a bit about using an iPad in your sets? 'I bought it butI felt guilty because it’s one of those of luxury items that you don’t need and no one needs if you’ve got a phone and a laptop. Well, I wanted one, but I felt bad about owning it. I couldn’t really find a use for it to be honest except, like, sofa-surfing. So there’s a little programme called Touch OSC, I think it’s a free application, and you can design your own controller with it. You can use Photoshop or one of those kind of things to draw what you want where, then you can send it to a Midi-translator and it makes it. You can download other people’s ones to use too. And then through a programme called Osculator, which is what I use, and then you can set up a wi-fi network where you can send midi data over it. I’ve been messing around with it and you can go a good 50m away from your computer and still DJ. This venue is quite small so you could probably leave the venue and DJ from outside. It’s pretty gnarley but it’s great fun because you can mess about with it, and change the layout of it and drawing silly things on there. After every gig I go back to the layout and add a knob here and tweak something there.'
Are there quite a lot of people using iPads in this way? 'I’ve seen Carl Craig do it at Space in Ibiza. Actually, going back to Ramadanman, Carl Craig, obviously a legendary techno DJ, has just edited Ramandanman’s new record, which is on Will Saul’s new label, who is also playing at the night. It’s obviously got his attention, this kind of music, if he’s making his own edit of that tune.'
He’s actually playing at Plastic People on the same night as Nite Sessions. It’s pretty amazing that you can see the likes of you, Will Saul and Carl Craig at different venues in one area on the same night in London. 'You wouldn’t get that in Basingstoke!'
No, definitely not. How do you strike a balance between being a masterful DJ technician and creating a great party? 'I struggled with that for a long time. When I get a new toy I have to use it to the maximum and for a while, I was probably not getting the balance between putting a great musical set together that’s going to work in the context of people going out and having fun and turning into a guy noodling in a DJ booth just pushing lots of buttons and being in his own little world. I think it’s really easy to go down that path but I’ve restrained my trigger fingers now and I’m always thinking in terms of those things. Obviously the music is the most important thing. You could be the worst technical DJ in the world but still play great music and everyone’s going to have a good time and they’re going to forgive you inability to mix in key. It is difficult. And it’s only something that I’ve improved on in the last couple of years or so. When it starts to take away from the music and becomes its own thing that’s a bit of a spectacle, it transcends the DJing and then becomes a show and it’s not something that I’m particularly interested in I suppose, at least not at the moment. Sometimes, if I’m honest with you, I just remember the times that I used to turn up with a box of records and mix them together and that was it. So there’s an element of simplicity that has been lost.'
Are you experimenting with anything new at the moment? 'Actually, yeah. I had the Pioneer guys from Japan down at my flat the night before last. One of the engineer’s names is Shogo, and he works on all the future products. I can’t actually talk about some of the things I’ve seen, it’s very cloak and dagger, but I’m still torn because I love all that technology and getting involved and I’m always looking for the next thing for my DJ sets but it’s just about being restrained with it I think and keeping a balance. But in the last few years the technological side of DJing has moved on massively. For 20 odd years people just played records. But now performers and DJs have so many different choices. But now what I’ve seen is that when you turn up to a gig, each different DJ has a different way of playing their set and different tools. I think that’s interesting because I’m always keen to see what they’re playing, but it’s interesting for the crowd too because it now gives younger artists the chance to be more individual – you’re not armed with the same tools as everyone else, you get to choose and design your own set-ups. If you want to show up with Nintendo Wi controllers and play your set over a wi-fi network, you can.'
What’s your Tokyo connection? Is that through Pioneer? 'Many years ago, I did a small little demo display at Pioneer’s trade show event in London and they’ve been sort of following me ever since. I suppose I did something thing with their CDJs and their FX unit that they weren’t really designed for. I’m sure most people are the same, but I never read the instruction manual with anything, I just plug it in and figure it out and see what it can do. So now they pick my brains on things. And that actually works, not just in my favour because I find stuff that I didn’t realise I could do on them and they’re like, yeah, it’s in the instruction book! So it can work both ways. I don’t just work with them, I’ve just got an all-round interest in DJ technology. I’ve done some testing for Native Instruments, I flirted with that for a little while but I decided it wasn’t for me, and then I’ve done a little bit of testing for Serato and Ableton; they’ve got this little bridge thing which is really great now and quite exciting, where you can DJ with Serato with records or CDs or whatever and you can fire off your Ableton clips in time; the two programmes are now linked together. It has just opened up another line of creativity for people that want it.'
You’ve mixed Mixmag’s next cover CD too, which I read was inspired by Tokyo too? 'It’s got all different recordings on it that I made during my time in Tokyo. Most people write a diary but I take a little recorder around with me and record everything. I’ve got hours and hours of probably what most people would think sounds like boring ambient noise! But when you go and do that in Tokyo, you get loads of different sounds – it’s like a sonic and visual explosion. And obviously there’s the technology thing there as well. I like it because it’s so hectic but it’s also very regimented and there’s a certain calmness when you’re there – you can be on rush hour on the tube where they’re stuffing people onto the train to the point when you don’t know whether you’ll make the journey alive but everyone’s so calm and falling asleep on each other, it’s mad!'
What’s the dance music scene like there? 'I’ve played at Womb – and a few others – which is massive. DJing there is a bit like a religious experience, or what I imagine it would be like. For a moment you forget what you’re doing and start looking at the lasers because the lighting guys over there are just incredible – they get their names on the flyers next to the DJs and rightly so, because they’re amazing. They’re a collector’s nation and that’s something that I identify with, collecting ‘Star Wars’ toys and stuff, but they’re also enthusiasts for music and it’s probably one of the only places in the world that shifts good quantities of vinyl. A lot of producers in the UK and Europe will sell the majority of their tracks in the record shops there. I still have that affinity with it: I’m not actually DJing with them and ruining them but I collect records and they’re still in their plastic sleeves and neatly filed in chronological order – nah, that’s not true, they’re all over the floor, but they haven’t got my fingerprints all over them or little drawings on them. “Massive hoover breakdown at three minutes” and “hectic rave synth at 2:66” – that’s the kind of note I’d write on the labels of my records to remind me what was on there because I had so many. But now of course, with the CDJ 2000s, you can upload all your notes from an SD card and it’ll come up on the screen in the player and you can put it all in iTunes.'
Did you get your record collecting instincts from your dad? I read he used to work in a record shop and got you into acid house? 'I know, it’s mad. He used to listen to the stuff I listen to now. I think it’s a punk rock thing, because he came out of that and then went straight into rave music. It’s a similar anti-establishment attitude, illegal-rave-in-a-field, that kind of vibe. But he soon discovered a love of hard techno, which I hated as a kid growing up, because I just wanted to listen to Nirvana. But I think everyone rebels against their parents, so I automatically hated that music as a 13-year-old boy. In 92, 93, he’d be going out to these strange places, tuning his radio in and turning up at some bar or some warehouse somewhere. I remember being at home on a Sunday and he’d be coming in from raving at 11 in the morning or later. He was pretty mad.'
But you haven’t adopted those same party instincts? 'No, I think it’s that childhood rebellion thing again. Both my parents are smokers and I don’t smoke. It’s just a deep psychological thing that’s built in, that you must not do what your parents so. I actively tried to stay away from acid house, but now I like it.'
Your nan also sounds very cool. I sound like your stalker now… 'My nan actually is my stalker! She is quite mad. She’s got a list that she gets my mum to make her of all my gigs that she writes up by hand and sticks on her kitchen wall. I think I might have to take a picture of it next time I go there. She’s amazing. They’re just so proud of me and every year when the DJ Magazine Top 100 DJs comes out, they get upset that I’m not number one. Super fan gran. She’s also a guerrilla knitter. Going back to when I was 9 or 10, she knitted me a ‘Dr Who’ jumper. I grew up watching ‘Dr Who’ so she knitted me Sylvester McCoy’s jumper with all the question marks on, it must have taken her ages. And she knitted me an 11ft Tom Baker scarf with different colours all away along it. I should probably enter her into some sort of competition. The craziest thing she’s every made me? She made me a tardis, a knitted tardis – a three-dimensional object with stuffing inside it and she also knitted my a Dalek, which sounds impossible but she did it. And just recently, I went round there and she had knitted me the same Sylvestor McCoy jumper in my size now. I did have an idea of having a Halloween party one year and I could go as all of the Doctors and wear one item of clothing from each Doctor that she’s already knitted me.'
That would be awesome! So, tell us about who you’ve got playing at Nite Sessions. 'Midland did this really cool mix for FACT so I’ve had that going around on my iPod, listening to it on the train, and that’s how he’s ended up on the bill. I don’t know what to play on the night but his mix is definitely eclectic: it starts off with Boards of Canada and goes through Massive Attack and then a selection of deep and tech-house stuff. It’s just stuff that I enjoy listening to so it will be interesting to see what he’ll play.'
How do you think that will transfer to the dancefloor? 'It’s a small venue so you can get away with doing so much more. Without doing your own edit, if you just want to play 90bpm Boards of Canada mood weirdness at a festival in front of 8,000 people, they’re all just going to stand there and look at you. But playing in a small venue gives you more creative freedom to noodle about a bit. And also, when it’s for a specific party, for those artists, people will come and they’ll want that, they’ll want some kind of experimentation and they’re coming there to listen to Midland or whoever specifically, not just to hear the headline DJ bosh out the biggest tracks from Beatport that week. It’s exciting to have him on there, for sure.'
What about Will Saul? He’s been around for quite a while. 'He has. I’ve been looking to Will a lot in the last few months or so because I’ve been thinking about starting up a record label and I really love what he’s done with his labels Aus and Simple. He’s got that Carl Craig edit of Ramadanman [WHAT IS IT?] and that’s amazing. I don’t know how he engineered that to happen, but I really respect him for being able to be able to keep up a pretty decent DJ career and run an amazing record label. It’s something that I look up to him for. And I’ve been looking at what he’s been doing a lot more closely, especially recently, because I’d like to do a similar thing myself. But I’m just not a very organised person. I believe he used to work at Sony so he comes out of working at a label and he has that advantage, he knows what he’s doing a little bit, but next year, that’s something I’d like to do.'
Do you have an idea of what you’re going to do yet? 'Not really. I haven’t even got a name or anything yet. I’ve started working on some music for it…but I’ll figure it out. I’ll be releasing my own stuff on it and do it, you know, exactly how Will’s done it. He probably thought, this Ramadanman is great, I’ll release some of his music. It’s not just going to have my own tracks but a lot of artists that I respect and look up to as well. I’m not going to have any boundaries for it genre-wise, so if I want to release some krautrock ambient noodle-tech I can do that – I just made that up! – or if I want to release something for the dancefloor then I can do that as well. That’s the only thing I know about the label so far, is that it’s going to have no boundaries. And I really love how Will has blurred those lines between techno and dubstep and is releasing great, interesting music.'
So, what have you been up to this year? It’s been a while since you’ve played in London. 'It’s been mental because I’ve just been touring. It’s been quiet on the production side of things because there’s just no time to do anything else except touring. I did a small thing at Plan B for SW4, but it was just a little after-party and everyone was absolutely hammered. It was really, really messy. I DJ’d to the most sloshed crowd ever. But that was cool because I had my friend Tom Budden DJ’ing, who is also playing at Nite Sessions, and a guy called Mouij, who is going to be helping me with the label next year, Reset Robot, who are from Portsmouth down the road from me. Technically I should hate him because I’m from Southampton and he should hate me. We’re not allowed to be friends; that’s how it works.'
How do you feel about Basingstokers then?! 'You’re at a safe distance so we’re not threatened by you! You’ve got your roundabouts, and we’ve got our traffic lights. Did you know that there’s more traffic lights in Southampton then there is in any city in the whole of Europe? We’ve got the most traffic lights. Here. It is ridiculous! The council just think, oh, we need something to spend money on, let’s spend it on traffic lights.
What’s life like on the road for you? 'I’ve got used to it now, but the travelling part is the worst part of DJ’ing. The rest of it is great, but that’s the worst part. I think, after a while, you’re just in a bubble. The headphones go on and the blank expression comes over my face and I just sort of go on autopilot around the airport or on the train, wrapped up in my hoody. That’s the only way to do it.'
You’re about to go on tour again – and you seem to play in a really bizarre assortment of places. 'I go all over the place. There are still some places I haven’t been to – I haven’t been to India. I’m been to some really bizarre places but not been to some more obvious places, it’s weird. I actually find some of the strange places that you wouldn’t expect to have a big scene are often the best because I don’t suppose they’ve got a big club night happening there that often. So when you go there it’s a speciality and people are more appreciative. The best party I did this year was in Beirut in Lebanon. I played there on my birthday and there were 8,000 people going bananas and I just didn’t expect it at all. I suppose it’s a country that’s had a very erratic history, politically, and I guess that reflects on its people because they just want to go out and forget about all the crap that they have to deal with in their day-to-day life. It was such an amazing party: there was lot of enthusiasm from the crowd, lots of lovely messages, I still get messages all the time about that party. It was easily the best birthday I’ve ever had. That kind of thing happens a lot: look at Exit Festival in Serbia, that’s a country that came outn of communism, out of a regime, and now they put this amazing hectic party on ever year and the people are just properly into it. I played at those same castle grounds where they hold Exit, I just did a gig there on my own, and it was raining and no one left, they were just like, so what. I can imagine that that’s sort of how what it was like in the UK in the early ’90s, where people were so excited by dance music. But things go in and out of fashion and you can play somewhere one minute and it’s cool and the next minute it’s a dirty word. Which is why I try to stay away from pigeonholes and getting sucked in to one genre.'
Like breakbeat? 'Yeah, totally. And even progressive house: that’s been a dirty word for a long time. But, for me, I just don’t think like that at all. I find it hard to even get in that mindset. For me, there’s just good music and bad music, I either like it or I don’t. If it’s a progressive record or if it’s a dubstep record, it makes no difference to me.'
What’s next? 'Well, I suppose I better think of a name for this label and start moving on that because I’d like to come out with it at Winter Music Conference or around that time. Or at least have a plan ready to go for that. I should get my nan to knit all the record sleeves, that would be quite cool. And then I’ve got some time off to work on music of my own. I’m just going to go in the studio and mess about. Because of my huge touring schedule, there’s just no time for me to have the energy to make any music. I don’t want to go into the bat cave, or the ‘bat loft’ as it is in my apartment at the moment. I just come home and want to sit on the couch and watch ‘Eastenders’! So I want to make music, whether that’s music that’s going to be on my label or music that’s going to go on an eventual artist album which I’ve been threatening for a long time now, I don’t know.'
An artist album isn’t at the top of your agenda? 'I mean, it should be. Yeah, it is. I’m taking some time off to specifically make music and I’m going to sneak some snowboarding in as well.'
Are you a fan of Snowbombing? 'Ah, yeah. I love Snowbombing, it’s so cool. Everyone goes on about Winter Music Conference, but Snowbombing is the week after so you don’t often get people doing both. WMC is a weeklong party and is the furthest thing you can think of from doing snow stuff up a mountain with a sheet of Perspex attached to your feet. But I love it: I would happily not bother with WMC but it’s a necessity, unfortunately. I get really depressed at these things, but maybe it’s an ego thing, I just feel so small. Everyone is vying for attention and it’s definitely a small part of my motivation, speaking honestly, to do this label. Like Ovum Records did an amazing party with Drumcode that I went to, and it was incredible and I’m there wishing that I could have done something of my own. ADE and these things are great but they’re sort of machines where DJs, labels and everyone goes to to whore themselves around. And the nicest part about it for me is just to see people that I meet and see around the world in one place who I don’t normally get to hang out with. So that’s the good part. But I get really depressed at these things, it’s too much competition. WMC have asked me a few times to be on panels and do speeches and things but I’m not the best person to be doing speeches, that’s for sure.'
You should just start your own in Southampton. 'Actually, we’ve got so many producers and stuff down here and in this area, we could probably do something pretty cool. We’ve got Reset Robot, we’ve got Alan Fitzpatrick, who lives around the corner from me and he played at the Drumcode night at ADE, he’s playing all the time and has a lot of gigs in Germany. We’ve got Tom Budden, who lives around the corner as well. There’s a couple more commercial guys, DJ Ridme/RYdney, who is a million miles away from what I’m into, but he’s a success nevertheless and has just done a remix for David Guetta. There are a couple of young guys that I want to sign to the label too. My ex girlfriend was a teacher and one of them was on a music tech course there and she gave me some demos that she got hold of and we’ve been friends since then. He makes some really wicked downtempo electronica that’s really interesting and him and his friends have got this band with almost an album’s worth of material now. So if I get this label up-and-running, I’d like to help them by putting out their music. It would be a nice vehicle for my friend’s unsigned tracks. I’ve got a friend I went to school with – Herman/Erman, his name is – and he makes some twisted, weird, very trippy dubsteppy stuff and he’s got a computer full to the brim with music that he’s made, all of unsigned material. So that’s another motivation for me to do this.'