Interview: James Holden


Berlin Beat Footprints (1)Footprints #13 will be dedicated to James Holden’s second studio album, The Inheritors, which takes its name from author William Golding’s second novel. The people behind Footprints decided the event was as good an opportunity as any to talk with Holden via email about both music in general and the album in particular.

James Holden: Your night sounds interesting — I have a friend who does “listening in the dark” events very occasionally and I loved that; It made some music very powerful.

What made you pick The Inheritors?

Footprints: With this album, you have created a beautiful fabric between the analog and electronic elements. How do you relate to The Inheritors in comparison to your other albums?

JH: Well, how you relate to your own records is always odd: You’ve heard them so many times making them, and then playing them on tour, that they’ve changed meaning. The Inheritors to me feels like a place I guess, or a time and place. That’s how I wanted it to feel, so I suppose I consider it a success!

Listening now, the more forgotten songs — the ones I don’t play live — jump out, and I wonder if the quiet moments of the record (“Some Respite,” “Self-Playing Schmaltz”) are what really define it, I like the contrast between intimate and grandiose/epic that this record has.

FP: How is it for you to play the album live?

JH: It became something different as soon as Tom (Page, drums in The Animal Spirits) and I tried it — I see it as the LP is one way you could play these songs, and the live shows are exploring other shapes the ideas can take. But the process of playing it live strongly influenced the LP that followed — I wrote The Animal Spirits for the band, and for the tone and energy of the kind of live show I wanted it to be.

So in a way now, hearing The Inheritors I hear the solo-ness of the record — all these live takes are me, accrued in layers. And I suppose I hear that process: its good sides as well as its flaws.

FP: We also felt there is an interesting tension between ancient/tribal atmosphere and futuristic/contemporary sounds. The album cover and title reflect it to some extent too. Could you elaborate on that?

JH: I guess they’re the ingredients for the place/feeling I wanted to create. It was meant as a sort of alternate history parallel evolution record. What would happen if those old ideas (e.g. Krautrock, early synthesis, etc.) had grown toward the present in a different way to what really happened? I think also by this point I’d started to see the ritual/magic part of music as very important — not just in my own music, but everywhere, even ultra-pop stuff — and these sounds were ways of getting at that idea.

And when the record was written, we didn’t have the word Brexit yet, but I knew it was about England in some way: the rose-tinted lie of its faded glory, the darkness under the surface here. Funny how I can be so sure some instrumental music is about something…

FP: It is very interesting to think of The Inheritors as a political/social album. How and where would you imagine the ultimate listening experience to it?

JH: Some of my favorite times listening to it have been while driving. I thought a lot about the English countryside while making it. It’s a beautiful island, even if its people are lost right now (and you have to drive at night because the British are the most annoying people to share a road with).

The other favorite time was when I watched the dancer Lucy Suggate perform her work “Pilgrim,” where she dances to (almost all of) The Inheritors. It let me hear it with fresh ears somehow, seeing her embody it.

FP: In our listening events, we focus on recorded music. Would you say that recorded music needs a dedicated public listening space, the same as visual arts and films have? How would you imagine such a place?

JH: I really like the idea of the ritual attached to playing the recording, the idea that it begins now, you should pay attention, you came here for this. I suppose the only important things beyond that are the comfort and the speakers. Thinking back, my friend’s “listening in the dark” event was almost perfect: We had comfy seats and good weed, and sitting in total darkness made the thing so focused, so intense.

Once (for the mastering for The Animal Spirits) I went to a studio with a pair of £10k ATC speakers driven by a £20k DA/tube amp combo, in a specially built and treated room. I have never heard anything like it — hearing well-engineered live recordings on that setup was magic, all these details hanging in perfectly defined 3D space. But hearing The Inheritors on these might depress me a little, as they would show the limits of my abilities at that time. So I’d kind of rather hear it on something like the (vibey, flattering) 70s Tannoy LRMs I have at the office for listening for pleasure.

FP: Our last question is more about you as an artist. Let’s say you have all the resources needed to execute one musical project. What project would it be?

JH: I think I learned early on that you can’t force good things to happen — putting that pressure on a single project would break it before you began, at least for me and my psyche. But in a way, I see my whole career as this; the real work of a career is like tending the earth, farming, managing your growth so that you can gather what you need — material and mental resources — to make the best things you can. Sorry this is not really an answer.

James Holden (born 1979) is an electronic music artist and DJ from England. He grew up in Leicestershire, UK, and began his musical career in 1999.

Holden founded the record label Border Community in 2003 as a vehicle for both releasing his own work and helping launch the careers of young electronic musicians such as Nathan Fake and Fairmont.

He has released three albums — 2006’s The Idiots Are Winning, 2013’s The Inheritors, and 2017’s The Animal Spirits— and regularly performs DJ sets across Europe. 

is a series of active listening events dedicated to recorded music. In an age of multitasking, we find it important to create a time capsule with the suitable mental conditions for listening to a studio album from beginning to end.

Footprints #13: The Inheritors
Sun 25.2.2018, 18:30 at Keith Bar
Schillerpromenade 2, 12049 Berlin

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