Australian favourite James Zabiela is returning down-under this May, bringing with him label mates George Fitzgerald and Alex Niggemann. Ahead of the tour, Pulse's Henry Johnstone got on the blower with the always affable DJ and chewed the fat on warming up, mix CDs, his new label and his latest production, which he lets slip is set to appear as a remix on Sasha's upcoming Involver 3.
Pulse: So you just returned home from Snowbombing right? How was it? James Zabiela: Exhausting, but a lot of fun. I do it ever year, it’s kind of my holiday. Though I’m not sure it’s really a holiday when you come back more knackered than when you left.
What else aside from its amazing location makes it such a talked about festival? I just think the line up is absolutely brilliant. You can literally go to a gig every night. You can go to five gigs every night and see loads of really cool stuff. The guys that program the lineup really know what they’re doing – there’s something for everyone musically. There were loads of things that I wanted to check out, but I didn’t even end up seeing half the things I wanted to. Even if you were going there not to snowboard but just to rave, it would still be totally worth the money. And actually I know a lot of people do that.
Did you get to watch any of the other acts? Who blew you away? Well I did a party there with George Fitzgerald, who’s coming with me to Australia, and it’s the first time I’ve actually seen him play and he was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. He totally filled the dancefloor from nothing to a packed room – he built the room up perfectly. It’s sort of a lost art I think, the opening set, but he really nailed it. The peak time part of his set he played perfectly too. So he was probably the best DJ I saw there, and not only just there, but the best that I’ve seen in a while.
That’s cool that he was able to do such a great warm up. I think you’re right in that it’s something that’s a bit of a lost art these days. I remember when Danny Howells last toured here he had a bit of a problem with a DJ that opened for him. Yeah I read that actually.
I think it’s something that kind of needs to be addressed. DJs should know how to warm up. I came from the school of Sasha and John [Digweed] where I played before those guys and you sort of knew and understood how they played their sets. You knew not to go above say 123bpm or play anything with a heavy 909 kick in it. It’s weird, I think it’s changed a lot in the dance music scene. It’s kind of gone back to the rave culture in a way; you’ve got a 90 minute set, you play all your biggest tracks, kick the doors down and then leave. It’s this sort of festival mentality. But in a club that’s open for eight hours or longer, people want to go there and enjoy the whole night. And it’s hard to do that when someone’s banging the shit out of it before midnight.
I’ve always thought that a lot of your downtempo mixes – like some of the FOUR series or the more chilled ‘disc ones’ from a few of your commercial mix CDs – that that would be something cool to tour. That’s definitely something I might look into at some point. Perhaps if I were playing a whole night somewhere I could do something like that, where I could play like that the first half of the night and then transcend into more dancefloor stuff. But it’s kind of difficult to find the right venue or place to really do that kind of thing. For those types of mixes I’d almost feel like I’d have to give out chairs to people!
So what’s happening on the production front for you at the moment? I think the last thing we heard from you was Blame? Yeah, that was ages ago. I haven’t released a track in well over a year. I’ve got this new track that I’ve finished – which actually going back to what we were just saying – isn’t a dance record, it hasn’t even got a kick drum, unless you count the sound of me tapping my fingers on a cardboard box. It’s electronic, by all means, but very organic. No one’s really heard it yet. Sasha’s done a remix of it and some people have heard that because he’s been playing it out a bit – though it’s not anything like the original. So I guess it’ll be appearing on my soundcloud soon, because it’s going to be the first release on my new label.
What’s the new label going to be called? It’s going to be called ‘Born Electric’.
Nice. And you mentioned Sasha’s done a remix of your new track? Yeah Sasha’s done a remix and he’s using it on his next Involver album. There’ll be a few more remixes to come as well to accompany the release, which I’m pretty excited about.
I saw something last year about a collaboration you did with Al Doyle from Hot Chip. What happened with that? Yeah that’s right. I’ve still got all that stuff sitting on my hard drive. My plan is, when I’ve got a chance, to get back into the studio and finish it all and use it for the label. We started about five tracks and I just have to shape and arrange them into something danceable. They’re all techno-ey type tracks. I’m also working on a few other things, which I can’t really talk about at the moment, but the plan is to get at least two of those tracks finished and released.
You’re well into your UK bass sounds like Ramadanman, and as you mentioned earlier you’re bringing George Fitzgerald on tour with you to Australia. Is that kind of sound something you feel you’re moving further towards, or is it just one piece of the all encompassing Zabiela sound? Just the one piece I think. With anything like that I get kind of bored and need the contrast of sounds when I’m DJing. After an hour of playing one particular genre I need to switch it up a bit. I don’t know why that is, it’s just how I’ve always been. The thing that I like about that bass scene is that a lot of them now are all playing a mixture of techno and breaks and dubstep and house as well. Midland is a good example of that, who I believe is down in Australia at the moment. He plays a lot of house but a lot of it is bass influenced – Bashmore sounding stuff with a heavy low end.
You said a few years back that the last Masters Series you did was the Mix CD you’re most proud of, compared to other past ones that you almost can’t bear listening to. Do you still feel this way about that last Masters Series, or are you looking to better yourself even further with the next one? Will there be another one? I do still feel that way about that Masters Series because I approached it much differently. When I listen to it now, because of all the field recordings and the tracks that are on there, it just reminds me of where I was and what I was doing and what was happening when I was making it – it’s like a diary or a scrapbook. It provokes my memories, so when I listen back to it I’m really quite fond of it.
I’m probably not going to make another one though. The whole mix compilation thing doesn’t really excite me much anymore, and not many people buy the things! That’s the other issue. And they cost a lot of money to put together – there’s much more value in doing something like a podcast or an Essential Mix. I did a free Mixmag cover CD and because it’s in all the newsagencies and on all the street corners, the exposure that I got from that was enormous, probably way more than I achieved with any of my commercial mixes! It’s kind of made me realise what’s the point? And with the commercial mixes you’re really restricted with what you can use as well. With my Essential Mix I raped the Moon film of samples – I was completely free to sample the hell out of things and do as I please. That’s where the best mixes come from.
Well the door is always open for you to record a Pulse podcast! I’m working on quite a big one at the moment, which I’m a little nervous about. It will probably be done in the next two months or so.
Speaking of films, I’ve always thought with the way you construct your downtempo mixes that you’d be well suited to produce soundtracks. Maybe something for later life? Definitely, but something for later down the track. I enjoy DJing and traveling too much to have the patience to sit down in a studio and do something like a film soundtrack. God it must be so time consuming making one. It’s almost too much like real work to me! [laughs]
I can’t let you go without asking you a Doctor Who question, it wouldn’t seem right. Which of the Doctor’s assistants did you find the most effable? Sorry, could you repeat the question?
Ahh, which of his assistants did you find the most effable? That’s just a pleasant word for f***able! Leela? Sarah-Jane? Maybe Ace? Oh right! [laughs] I used to like Peri. She was the American one.
Colin Baker’s assistant? Yeah. She was the end of Peter Davison and the start of Colin Baker. You need to watch their regeneration scene where she’s bent over the Doctor with a low cut top on. It’s funny there’s an interview with Peter Davison where he says, ‘No one was watching the regeneration, everyone was just looking down her top!’ Very funny.
Thanks James. No worries. I'm going to eat my sandwich now before the next interview!