Border Patrol: An Interview with James Holden

in Interviews
by Angus Finlayson about
James Holden

The British DJ/producer and his Border Community label set the tone for a swathe of European techno in the noughties, but found success to be a double-edged sword. We get his reflections and hear about the label’s new boundaries.

 

Think of James Holden and his label Border Community, and you may call to mind a quite specific strain of sweeping, melodious techno. If so, Holden’s soon-to-be-released The Inheritors—his first album in seven years—might come as something of a shock. It’s a knotty, sonically uncompromising record, owing far more to English folklore and the primal hypnotism of kosmische music than it does to dancefloor techno. And it seems to represent the beginning of a new chapter, both for Holden and for Border Community.

The timing is neat, coming at the end of ten years of success for the label. Holden founded Border Community in 2003 alongside his partner Gemma Sheppard, after the producer managed to extricate himself from a suffocating record contract which had blighted him since his production debut at the age of 19. In response to Holden’s experiences, Border Community set out to be as open and free as possible, serving as a mutually encouraging platform for a handful of producers who stood resolutely on the fringes of dance music—among them Nathan Fake and Petter, and later Luke Abbott and Wesley Matsell. However, in spite of the label’s self-styled outsider status, it quickly became something of an institution in its own right. In fact, the beginning of the label’s meteoric rise can more or less be traced back to a single track—Nathan Fake’s 2004 single “The Sky Was Pink”—or more specifically Holden’s remix of it, whose majestic, euphoric melodies spawned a legion of imitators, and seemed to set the agenda for certain portions of the European techno scene for much of the 2000s.

Holden, it transpires, didn’t take kindly to all this success. 2013 finds the label at a turning point, with Holden resolving from now on only to work with a handful of core artists from the BC roster. Angus Finlayson caught up with him to discuss the label’s past and future, the burden of success, and why, in the best tradition of Factory Records, Border Community artists “have the freedom… to fuck off.”

 

The Inheritors is your first album in seven years, and you haven’t put out much of anything, in terms of original work, in that time. Why the gap?

It wasn’t really deliberate. Between DJing and the label, that was basically most of my time gone. When you’re listening to someone’s 50 demo mp3s because they really want a release and you’re trying to give them a fair chance, that’s a lot of time gone. I realized a couple of years of go that it was—not quite ruining my life, but it was getting in the way. In the last year, Gemma and I have worked out not just who’s our friend, but who’s really contributing—who, musically, is really going somewhere, and who’s just trying to hang onto the back of us and see how much money they can scrape up.

Do you find the bureaucratic side of running a label is harmful to your creativity?

When you know that Companies House want some bullshit form that they’re not even going to look at, but they’re threatening to take you to court for not sending it, you can’t really concentrate on getting high in the studio! And some artists like to manufacture dramas, and that takes a lot of energy out of you. It’s not just the business side, or the pressing records, or the paperwork. The social side of it was draining. And, I have to say, it’s kind of my own fault. I spent a year teaching myself Max/MSP, building things that in the end I didn’t use. So, goodbye to a year but… it was worth it.

Your motivation for starting the label, as I understand it, came out of your own bad experiences with the industry.

Yes, I had this terrible experience, and I happened to have a bunch of friends who were all finding their feet and about to get really good. At the start, it was amazing because we were all friends—we were all bouncing off each other and learning so fast. That first couple of years was a really magical time. We’d watched 24 Hour Party People, so we’d seen this Factory Records model. It’s a funny thing—every time I have a sort of music industry life crisis, Channel 4 re-screen that film. And that quote about the wheel—the number of times Gemma and I have sat there with a glass of wine and thought, “Oh, that’s so true—it’s going to be alright.” [laughs] It happened a couple of months ago, something big happened and it was on again. And we realized, with this scene when he’s going over the contract written in blood. At the start we’d put the emphasis on the first part—“[The label owns nothing]. Our bands have the freedom.” Because what had happened to me had been the record company thinking it owned everything. But we’d forgotten the last bit of the sentence, which is, “Our bands have the freedom… to fuck off.” When we re-watched it two months ago, it was like, “Aha, we should have paid more attention [to that part] ten years ago.”

We were always trying to get away from being stuck in a cliche. These people who’ve made rip-offs of “The Sky Was Pink” for a career—that sounds like a punishment that happens in Greek hell, being one of these cunts who has to re-manufacture the same thing over and over again. I kind of feel sorry for those people, thinking about it [laughs]. Though for a while I would have happily run them over if I’d seen them crossing the road. So we were trying to get away from the cliches, but the people who come to a label that’s successful kind of want to ride on that cliche, to mop up some success. So that middle period—there aren’t any records that I’m not happy with… maybe one, I don’t know. And the whole thing, I’m happy with how it stands. But I don’t want to carry on like that.

So this period when Border Community was quite influential. I get the feeling you didn’t enjoy that?

That whole period was really depressing. My aim with making music was never to be the biggest, or to have everyone copying me. When you have a success, you get a different kind of person coming to your shows who expects that you’re going to play your hit. You just have to fight it, because the world’s not going to change. It’s my own fault to some extent; maybe if I’d put out more records, I wouldn’t have had to deal with so many people thinking that I was still in 2004.

Where do you think the label stands now? Are you outsiders again?

Yeah, we’re back to where we started. And we’re happiest being outsiders, definitely. 99 and a half percent of what coalesced around us, I just hated it, and it made me realize what was wrong with what we were doing. We perceived it one way, and then for other people to turn it into this emo schmaltz trance bullshit, they hadn’t got it. But then looking back, was it obvious enough? Do we have to be more aggressive? You could hear that in the remixes I was doing in that period, as I found my feet trying to find a new way of doing what I wanted to do, having the same effect but without having any of those elements which would lead to sort of… neo-trance.

So where is the label headed next?

It’s going to be focused down. It’s only Wesley [Matsell], Luke [Abbott] and Nathan [Fake] that we’re even thinking about working with in the future. It’s not going stop—I still feel like it’s quite an important part of our life. But having done my album, I realized that I want to give more time to myself again. And do another one quicker, obviously.

 

In his own words, James Holden on key Border Community artists.

 

Nathan Fake “Outhouse” (Fake’s 2003 debut single)

Nathan and I were friends on the internet [before the label started]. I remember Christmas at my mum and dad’s house, listening on my laptop to half an MP3 of “Outhouse” and thinking, “Wow, this guy’s a genius.” He’s kind of in a good place again now. Going from 20 to 30 isn’t easy, and being a touring musician isn’t easy. But he’s found his feet, I think. Nathan is a bit like me, being open and trusting. I’m less so now—you can’t get older and not get more cynical. So we felt really strongly [when starting the label], we have to be really careful about this, we can’t do to him what was done to me. Having Nathan, that was another thing stopping us from settling into the music industry average.

In some ways he can come across as quite rural or something [laughs]. But then you see him sit down in front of a computer, his musical abilities are just… There’s a story about—I forget which composer—I think Mozart. There was some piece of music [Allegri’s Miserere] that the Catholic Church wouldn’t let anyone write down. There was just one copy kept in the Vatican. Mozart, as a child, went and heard a performance, went home and wrote it down—the whole thing, just transcribed it. A similar thing happened with Nathan. I was playing a party in London. Nathan was battered—he had a really, really good night. The next day I picked up my phone and there was an email from him with an mp3 attached: “You played a song which went a bit like this, what was it?” And he’d done a perfect cover—the beats were right, it was in the right key; it was fucking insane. My reply was, “It was this one Nathan, but you don’t need it because you’ve done it better.”

 

Luke Abbott “Brazil” (lead single from Abbott’s debut album, Holkham Drones)

We found Luke from a demo CD. The demo box, especially after “The Sky Was Pink”, became really depressing. Gemma keeps this meticulous log. You open this book on a random page and it’ll say, “”The Sky Was Pink” rip-off. “The Sky Was Pink” rip-off. Fucking terrible, why do people make this music?” Another random page: “”The Sky Was Pink” rip-off.” But quite a lot of the people who would get the most hate ended up releasing something on Traum [Schallplatten] or Kompakt or something. So we felt not only depressed at the demos, but really angry at these labels, thinking, “This has no worth, you don’t need to release it.” And then Luke’s demo turns up, it’s screen-printed in thick fluorescent paint. Normally Gemma filters stuff first, but I thought, “That looks interesting, I’ll take that.” And luckily it was interesting! He didn’t really like techno at all before a friend played him [Holden’s 2006 album] The Idiots Are Winning, so he sent a demo to us as a sort of thank you.

Meeting Luke was a bit of a catalyst for thinking, “Ah, this is what a relationship with an artist should be like.” He gives a lot. He went to art school, and if he has an idea it comes out of his mouth. That’s the good thing about art school… and the bad thing about art school [laughs]. But yeah, he kicked the whole thing off a bit, kicked me into another gear competing with him, and the same with Nathan, I think. He’s quite a bullish personality, he butts heads with things. And him butting heads with this expectation of functionality that club crowds have really set us thinking about where that line is drawn—what functions, what delivers, whether you’re delivering too much or too little. At the moment, his live set is amazing. He’s found this improvisational space where it works and it’s different every night—completely different. It can be really wild and free, but it works.

We’re definitely going to have something from Luke next [on the label]. He’s been beavering away since the last album. There’s a period [after an album] where you’re kind of in the desert trying to find something new. Then there was this moment where he flipped and everything became brilliant. It’s exciting to work with people like that, because he’s doing things that I wish I could do myself, in a way.

 

Petter “Some Polyphony” (from 2006 single of the same name)

Petter is so unambitious for himself, he never seems to finish anything. But at the time when we were trying to get away from the “Border Community sound”, he realized the best way of doing it was just to stop and start again, with Studio Barnhus [the label Petter now co-runs with Kornel Kovacs and Axel Boman]. I respect him for doing that, because he wasn’t going to be happy playing to the people who want “The Sky Was Pink” every night. So all credit to him—he kept his self-respect, he didn’t want to do something he didn’t like just for the sake of making money, or sucking what money was available out of us. I have a lot of respect for that.

 

Wesley Matsell “Diffusion27” (from 2008 single Bernwerk)

You should follow Wesley’s Twitter, that tells you about everything you can know about him. He’s a mystic, he’s a polytheist. He’s Christian, but he also believes in, you know, aliens, everything—he has this sort of open belief. I’ve never really questioned—I don’t want to question him. I’m an atheist, but I don’t want to be a boring atheist who has fights with Christians, because that’s retarded [laughs]. I found him on MySpace. He looked like a hipster, he had colored sunglasses with fluorescent sides—this was a while ago—his music was this ironic happy hardcore rave, and his MySpace was all pyramids and aliens, flashing backgrounds and stuff. I thought, “This guy might be too hipster for us to be friends with.” But when you start talking to him he’s completely the opposite. He went to art school but didn’t really get on with the whole hipster art school thing. And now his day job is as an insurance analyst, or something like that.

He’s a totally unique person—super nice. The way he built up a friendship with Nathan—being really nice to Nathan when other people around Nathan at that time, some of them were a bit vampire-y. That was kind of a revelation: “Oh, this is what a nice person is.” We’d maybe forgotten how decent people treated each other. In the music industry, you forget what normal behavior is sometimes. So he’s inspiring on a social level. And then his musical influences—he’s into a lot of this tape-y American stuff, and a lot of old, proper techno. He’s introduced me to some good modern techno that I think otherwise I might’ve been too sick of it all to discover. As well as some Xenakis that I hadn’t found.~

 

Holden’s The Inheritors is out today via Border Community