|James Zabiela Interview
James is in Miami. It’s 10pm US time and he’s doing interviews after The Matrix launch party. He did not see Keanu. He asks what time it is in Australia. It’s midday. “It’s Monday over there isn’t it?” I tell him it is. “You’re like… in the future.” This is a strange thing to hear from James. Everything we’ve so far heard about the twenty-three year-old suggests that it is me, not him, who is talking to the future.
It’s been a dizzying rise to fame and glory for you – how are you adjusting?
I don’t even think about it, the only thing I think about is how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing and I’ve got good friends at home, they keep my feet on the ground. They remind me how crap I am and that sort of thing. They sort me out and put me in my place.
You’re still a bit taken aback by your success?
Well, it’s really bizarre, it’s totally insane, my whole life has just turned upside down. Two years ago I’d never even been in a plane and now I’m flying all over the place. My whole life is a blur at the moment – in a good way. It’s pretty amazing, but it’s a real blur, kinda mad.
You don’t feel a bit like Drew Barrymore, you know, growing up in front of the world type thing?
[Laughs] No, I’m twenty-three now.
You’re Sasha’s protege, lauded by veterans and punters alike, heralded as a technical prodigy even. Do you ever feel like there’s a lot of expectation placed on you?
Yeah I do actually, quite a lot. It’s a good thing. I think it’s good to be nervous. I’m always nervous before a gig even if it’s like a hundred people or three thousand people it’s always nerve-wracking. The pressure’s there and that helps me perform. I think it if wasn’t there I’d probably, I dunno, maybe not care as much. I think the pressure’s there because I do care, I want to be good at what I’m doing.
So do you practice at home? Do you dabble?
Yeah, all the time. Muck around with all sorts of silly things. I’ve just actually got loads of practice in ‘cause I’ve just done a mix album for Hooj Choons, it’s a double compilation that’s coming out in July. They’re looking to get Pioneer to sponsor it see, and I used their equipment, the CDJ 1000 and TJM 600. Just doing loads of mad tricks and that sort of thing, so I’ve been practicing.
Good to hear. Just in time for your tour down here. I’ll pre-warn you that there are a lot of prog heads in Sydney who’ll be just watching what you do.
[Laughs] Well cool, I’ll have to make sure they’ve got the right equipment. I’ll have to tell Renaissance to get the right ones. You’ve got Phil K though, haven’t you?
Well, not me personally but he’s Australian, yeah.
Phil does a similar kind of thing to what I do, lots of scratching and editing and that sort of thing.
Um, yeah… Anyway, what got you started on the whole editing/ scratching vibe? Most DJs in Sydney don’t bother with the fancy stuff.
I started by just playin’ around. I think these days DJing has got to be more than just playing records. You’ve got to keep things interesting and use loads of effects and live editing and just make it fun for people to listen to and of course watch for them in the club.
Being as prolific and successful as you are, if there was one person who represented a ‘new generation’ of DJs, it’d be you. That said, how do you think the new generation will define itself?
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried, but it’s not that difficult to mix two records together to a degree where it’s okay in a club, but I think you’ve just got to do more, give more to the public in my opinion. It’s all right for DJs that are already massive and established, but not for people like myself and other up n’ coming DJs that aren’t known so well. And it’s kind of good for us that we’ve got to work so hard, ’cause I do feel like I have to try harder but I like it. It’s good, it’s challenging.
It’s almost as if the newer generation have to work twice as hard as the old guys maybe only get half the recognition.
It’s always the way of the underdog I guess…[laughs]
The Excession Web site describes you as ‘ever-affable’, now I’ve been talking to you for five minutes and I’m inclined to believe it. But, listing to your music, you wouldn’t be thinking, ‘This James must be a real jolly guy’, you’d think…
Yes. That you’re evil and twisted.
Those basslines, are they for real? I dunno, I guess it’s my dark side coming out. Vent all my frustrations through basslines. Actually at the moment I’m playing a real mixture of everything. I like techno, house, breakbeats, stuff with melody, that’s the kind of thing I like. I mean not having a style is a kind of style…
On the topic of styles. Renaissance has traditionally meant Dave Seaman. How will you be reinterpreting Renaissance for us?
I dunno. Well, I guess I’ll just do my thing. I guess they’ve chosen me for a reason, they just want me to do what I do. I’ve just managed to get myself a residency at Space in Ibiza every other week, which is a really major thing – the thing I’ve been jumping up and down on the sofa about for the past three weeks, since I found out about it. That was through Darren Hughes, the founder of Cream, he runs We Love Sundays at Space and I asked him why did he choose me to do this and he just said ‘Because you play a variation of music, a real mixture of styles’. He’s kind of in the frame of mind that DJing these days has to be a bit more live rather than just playing records, it’s more a live act. Also, just not five hours of the same music, I think that’s the way to go. Variation is the key.
So going to Ibiza every other Sunday – is that the kind of lifestyle you could get into?
I’m kinda doing it at the moment, just travelling all the time – it’s brilliant fun, it’s really good. I do get homesick sometimes, I’ve got my girlfriend and my friends at home, so I’m like, ‘oh maan…’ but I’m in no position to complain.
Do you miss your family? Your dad kind of got you into the whole thing owning a record store and all. Does he mix?
He was just a music lover. He had one technics turntable and just loads and loads of techno. He had a massive techno collection, until recently – he just sold a lot of it. He was really into Sven Vath and Carl Cox and this was while I was still at school. When I was 12 he was going to clubs to see these people. He was really into his German techno. I don’t know what he thinks of what I play. I think he thinks it’s a bit girly. Not enough balls, or something [laughs]. He likes his distorted kick drums.
He must be chuffed with you then.
He’s really proud, I wouldn’t say I’m living his dream but you know what I mean....yeah, he’s really proud. My gran actually came to a gig and wore a T-shirt saying ‘James Zabiela, number one DJ’. She got this t-shirt made, it was so embarrassing, I almost died. My nan’s great. You go ’round the house and she’s got a pinboard with all the flyers I’ve been on and this sort of thing. To be honest I don’t think she listens to the music that much, she’s just pleased for me. Like, she tried to listen to a tape of my Essential Mix and she wanted to know why I wasn’t speaking on it.
That’s something you can consider for the future perhaps. You have more family in Perth, I hear.
I’ve got a lot of family in Perth, a lot of which I haven’t seen for years and years. I think I’m in Perth for four days, so it’ll give me a chance to say hello to them.
There’ll be more pinboards no doubt. You’re obviously no stranger to praise, but what about criticism? Have you had any?
Well…[thinks]. I surf on the Internet and message boards. There’s always someone that doesn’t like you. That’s fair enough, not everyone’s gonna like a certain DJ or a certain type of music. There’s a lot of music that I’m not into or whatever. But I think it kinda helps. I always read the message boards, I always want to see what people are saying – gain some advice as well. It’s important.
Well, we’ve got some particularly scathing message boards over here, you’ll be pleased to hear.
Oh, brilliant, I’ll check them out. I always try to say hello as well. I’ve been on the Resident Advisor one a few times and said hello.
Speaking of RA, I’d better ask some music-related questions. Let’s talk about production – what have you been up to most recently?
Just sort of doing remixes. I’ve just bought a laptop so I’ve been taking that around with me and playing on that. I’ve just done a remix with End Recordings for a track that’s coming out in a couple months called ‘Drink Deep’ by Dave Brennen, a grungy breakbeat thing.
And what’s the bassline like in that?
Oh, it’s ridiculous, the bassline’s just totally over the top. But then I didn’t write the bassline, I just took it from the original. Although we did beef it up a bit but it was pretty beefy as it was. I just couldn’t help myself [laughs].
Will you be doing more production work after Renaissance or something else?
I’m going to be going to Space a couple of days after we get back then I’m going to be doing the End in London as well. I’ll just carry on DJing, I’ve got a really busy summer. It’s always the busiest time. I remember last August I think I played something like every third night of the week. The first time I went to America with Sasha, I did the Airdrawndagger tour supporting and we played eight gigs in nine days.
And how was the reception in the US?
It was brilliant; it was really good. I’d never been there before until last year and I’ve been back, this is my fifth time back. I’m getting booked again so that’s good.
Time for a stupid hypothetical question.
Just say Lee Burridge didn’t pass your tape onto Sasha, where do you think you’d be now?
I dunno. Probably still struggling, giving out my tapes. I was always going to give Lee a tape, I just went to Bedrock every month in London with pocketfuls of tapes. I had my big hip-hop hoody thing with a big pouch in the front like a kangaroo, full of mix tapes. I used to set the metal detector off going into the club so I’d have to take all the tapes out of my pocket. It was really embarrassing. I gave tapes to anyone, everyone. Lee listened to one and also Digweed listened to one. I broke three tape decks, just recording so many tapes.
You’ve said earlier that you think the scene needs and perhaps expects ‘more than a DJ’ now. What do you see has to happen in dance music to keep it alive and well?
I think to keep the scene alive people just have to try a bit harder. Give people some sort of more entertainment than just playing records, ’cause anyone can do that. People can stay home and play records, why would they want to go out hear someone else doing it – and not necessarily the records they want to hear? The more live aspect. And also, you know Homelands? [That’s] their ethos this year – they’ve got whole live arenas full of live acts.
And you’ve heard Infusion and like them?
They’re brilliant, and they were live as well. You see a lot of dance acts and they play a DAT and a couple of live songs over the top but those guys were completely improvising, it was awesome. They had all their hardware and software there [starts rattling off names of things] …and loads of energy as well. Actually, when I saw them I felt really bad because the club wasn’t that busy. It was the Tuesday of the conference and everyone had gone out on the Monday and Tuesday was going to be the dead day. Bedrock was on as well that night. But when they came on the whole club came alive, everyone instantly rushed to the front, just to see what was going on.
Standing around the equipment and that kind of thing… How do you feel about people gathering around the decks?
It’s kind of weird.
You’ll be getting a bit of that over here.
Yeah, it’s up to them. As long as they’re having a good time, that’s all that matters. As long as they’re enjoying what they hear. It’s important to give something to look at as well. I always really enjoy looking at those DMC tapes where the DJs are like scratching with snooker cues. That’s totally out of my league but it’s great to watch. I wouldn’t go to a club and dance to what they’re playing, I don’t think I could, it’s all over the place but it’s absolutely amazing to watch and I think somewhere in between that and the sort of smooth Sasha mixing is somewhere where I’m heading. Somewhere in between.
Ok, we’re almost out of time, so here’s the regulatory last question: In a perfect world, what will you be doing in five years’ time?
That’s an easy one to answer. At the moment I’m just so happy doing what I’m doing, if I’m doing half as well as what I’m doing now in five year’s time, I’ll be really happy. Just to carry on just making music and travelling around.
And coming down to Australia a couple more times.
Yeah, I’ve been meaning to come to Australia for a while now. I’ve never been, ever. The furthest I’ve been ’round that side of the world is Singapore. I’m not too sure about the creepy crawlies though. I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes to spiders and snakes.
Oh, you’ll be okay. Just remember to wear socks to bed because in wintertime they sometimes crawl in to keep warm.
Actually in winter there won’t be many spiders and snakes. There are no snakes in the city even in summer. Well, not in Sydney anyway, there might be in Perth, I don’t know about Perth…
Well, if for some reason at the last minute I don’t end up doing my Australian tour it’s because I’ve wimped out. I’ve watched too many Steve Irwin programs.
Well, I don’t know what part of Australia he comes from but it’s nowhere near where I live…
He’s really popular in England, is he popular over there?
In an embarrassing kind of way maybe.
Oh right. I think he’s great…
The conversation ended shortly afterwards, the mention of Steve Irwin the death knell of any intercontinental phone call. James plays Renaissance right round the country, playing five hours in Sydney. Check for tour details on RA.
Published / Monday, 19 May 2003