|James Zabiela is still a nice guy
It took three calls to James’s voicemail, two calls to his girlfriend Greta and one text message, but eventually the following interview took place. He’d just got to London from Canada.
JZ: … it was two hours before they let us get off the plane, then they let us get off the plane, then they lost my bags with my phone charger in it. I’ve lost my records as well.
RA: Shouldn’t you be trying to track them down?
JZ: No, I’ve had to leave and hopefully they’ll be able to find them. My bags didn’t show up – my clothes or anything – so I’m wearing these smelly, horrible clothes that I was wearing 10 hours ago in Canada.
RA: Lucky you’re on the other end of the phone.
JZ: Yeah, exactly. I’ve actually just been able to get to someone’s place and borrow their phone charger.
RA: But what about your records?
JZ: I’ve lost them four times – they always come back. And I’m not too worried about my toiletries and underwear, they can keep that. I can get some more pants.
RA: Maybe someone took them on purpose.
JZ: Maybe I’ll see them on Ebay!
RA: At least you can buy them back …
JZ: If they wash them for me, I’ll think about it.
RA: So. Moving onward from your pants. What’s been happening over the past year? Or rather, what have been the best bits of what’s happened over the past year?
JZ: Um, probably the residency I had in Ibiza in Space last year. I started just after my Australian tour last year and I did that for seven weeks. I remember the first time I played there, I played some breakbeat records, and I don’t know if you are familiar with Ibiza very much, but breakbeat is not the synonymous sound. I kind of got some weird looks the first few times I played there.
RA: Because the terrace is quite cheesy.
JZ: Yeah. Well it’s known for its … housey house stuff and funky … I don’t know – but whatever sound is synonymous with Ibiza, it’s certainly not gnarly breakbeat and acid house.
RA: But it went down OK in the end.
JZ: Yeah. Eventually. [Laughs]. The first couple of times I played there it was like, ‘who is this guy, who’s, like, playing these weird records?’ It’s hardly summer music, but it did [go OK] in the end and I learnt a lot about, you know, reading the crowds.
I guess the other important thing was the DJ Mag poll, um, getting into that quite high was kind of a shock.
RA: Quite high? Don’t you want to say what number?
JZ: Eleven [laughs]. I certainly didn’t expect that. I remember from the last time I spoke [to RA] that was kind of the big thing.
[Interrupts self] Sorry if I sound a bit funny, I’m just eating baked beans – I’m going to smell even worse in a minute. I’m at a friend’s house in London and I’ve got to go and master this Renaissance CD today. I’ve already mixed it but I have to go in and fix all the sound levels.
RA: So … the album – tell us about it.
JZ: I called it Alive, because, unlike any other CDs I’ve done in the past, I wanted to capture a live set more than a studio mix. I mixed it all live, which is like, something I always swear by, and I did it all on three CDJ1000s and effects units and stuff. And just basically jammed in my bedroom at home where my decks are, just like I would in a club.
It’s got tracks by Jeff Bennet, Si Begg, and… who else? Tom, help me out – you’ve listened to the CD more than me. [Tom – the friend – says something in the background]. Oh, yeah, I’ve done like a live mash-up of Underworld – what’s the other famous guys on there? I can’t remember… I always do interviews and forget everything; it’s really terrible.
RA: Well, the CD must be wonderful!
JZ: [Laughs] I’m fairly happy with it, I tell you what I’ll do – I’ll email the tracklist.
RA: So where have you mostly been over the past year?
JZ: Actually, I’ve been in America a bit – quite a few two-week tours, at least every couple of months. I’ve just come back from Canada – I did my first tour of Canada. I’ve been to Toronto a couple of times and Montreal once, but I went to Vancouver this time and I also went to Windsor, which I’m told in the armpit of Canada. But I actually thought it was really good. In fact, it was the best gig out of all of the gigs.
RA: Any bad gigs?
JZ: I’ve been to gigs obviously where it’s not been so busy. I played Dubai to about ten people. It’s quite funny, ’cause everyone’s kind of really wealthy in Dubai and I just think the promoters thought, ‘oh, you know, we’ve got this money to waste, we’ll bring a DJ over and you know, we’ll have him play for us tonight – and five of our friends.’
It’s quite funny; I always fly economy everywhere I go and they paid for a Business Class flight, sent me over and actually had me there for three days in this really expensive hotel. I couldn’t stay there ’cause I had another gig – but I get there and there’s absolutely no one there, everyone was at the Enrique Iglesias concert down the road. I think he’s got a bit more sex appeal than me – I don’t know what it was.
RA: Have you considered DJing with your shirt off a bit more?
JZ: Yeah, exactly, get a tattoo or something.
RA: Date a tennis player.
JZ: She was there as well – there was actually an after party that they asked me to go to and it was like, ‘Anna Kournukova’s going to be there’ – that was the big selling point. I didn’t go – I’ve got a girlfriend and she’s got a boyfriend. I don’t think she’d fancy me anyway, not if she likes Enrique Iglesias. But then, I reckon I could write better lyrics than him.
RA: Maybe that’s something to consider in the future.
JZ: I could be a warm up, support act. Get some 303s on the go before he gets on.
RA: So, do you still practise?
JZ: Yeah, all the time. It’s not practise, you know, it’s just fun. Like mucking around. I’ve got these DVJX1s – have you heard about them?
RA: Yeah, sure. What were they again?
JZ: Well, they’re a new thing that Pioneer have just made and you use them like a CDJ1000 but you put DVDs in. If I put Blade Runner in, it comes up on the screen and the audio comes through the mixer. I can start like scratching Blade Runner and Harrison Ford will be flying all around the screen. You can have storm troopers, like, doing crazy dances. It’s really good fun, actually.
It’s quite silly. We have some sort of home video that we made with our friends and stuff – if you have a loop you can have them going back and forwards really fast – kind of like Benny Hill.
RA: Will you be bringing these down to Australia?
JZ: No, I’m gonna try and use them on some of the tour, but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to use them in Australia, just because of the shipping thing. I’m going to Japan as well, and obviously that’s the home of where they’re made, so I’m going to try and sort out something for that. Just to sort of road-test it to see how it goes.
RA: You’ll need eight arms soon, just to deal with your DJ set-up.
JZ: Yeah, tell me about it. You can use them just like CDJ1000s as well, just put a CD in and it will respond in the same way. It’s getting quite mad and exciting as well. I’m a proper geek when it comes to this.
RA: Apart from these DVJX1s, what else have you learnt this year?
JZ: I guess I’m still learning all the time. Every time you think you’ve got it sussed, you learn something new, whether it’s some sort of technical skill – I mean, technical skills are limitless, you can take DJing as far as you want to take it. Anything from that to reading the crowd.
I’ve learnt more in the last year about playing out than I have ever, since I first started DJing. I’ve progressed more in that short space of time than I have in the three years, prior to that. I dunno, maybe I’m trying too hard.
RA: Do you analyse your own sets afterwards and wish you’d done things differently?
JZ: All the time. Yeah, and I hate it when the promoter’s secretly recorded you and it’s ended up on the internet and it’s a mix that you hate, or you’ve done something that you’re really ashamed of. Like, I don’t know, played the records you shouldn’t have played or done a really terrible mix or all the records are not in the right order. Or that you can’t hear what you’re doing ’cause the monitor’s bad, but obviously people on the internet don’t know that, so they get the wrong impression.
Actually, when I played in Canberra last year, they recorded me. I didn’t realise it would go all over the internet, but it did and luckily for me, it was an alright set and I could hear what I was doing and stuff. It kind of worked as a massive PR tool – I couldn’t believe it. I have emails all the time: ‘Oh, the set you did at Lot 33, Canberra – I still get people coming up to me at gigs now, saying, ‘I downloaded this set from you in Canberra – it’s great.’ It’s like a year later.
RA: So what did you particularly like about the tour last year?
JZ: Just the people. It was almost like playing in England in some respects but they’re more into breakbeat [in Australia], which is great. I really pushed my luck with that. I could play breaks, techno, house and they would just go with it. I think that’s the one thing I really loved about playing in Australia last year, I felt really free to do what I wanted. It wasn’t like an after party in Montreal and I had to play a certain way, and I wasn’t just playing after Judge Jules and after Tiësto and I have to keep the energy up. I could start where I wanted and go down, and then go on and from last year it was really good and the crowd was fantastic.
RA: So when do you think all this is going to go to your head?
JZ: Um, I dunno. I got loads of good friends that still tell me I’m crap. And there’s always room for improvement, and so long as I’m still getting new toys to play with… I’m just a super nerd, really.
Hopefully I won’t be too big headed. You’ll phone me up next year and I’ll be like, ‘yeah, talk to the hand, talk to the hand.’ You’ll have to talk to my PA.
James tours Australia in June. The Renaissance Alive CD will be out soon through Stomp/ EQ.