|James Zabiela: The Future is Now
Once in a long while there seems to be a certain youth that is truly gifted in a sport or activity. Apart from being an extraordinarily naturally talented, they grasp information faster and seem to look at things a bit different than those that have preceded them. James Zabiela is one such person.
At this point almost everyone has heard the story of him winning Muzik’s Bedroom Bedlam competition and the infamous tape that caught a certain someone’s attention at the offices of the Excession Agency. However, there has been more than one that has caught a lucky break early on, but then thrown it away for one reason or another. Not James. He has taken every opportunity that he has earned and ran with it. He has come a long way in only a few short years. His adventurous spirit and boundless energy behind the decks, CDJs, DVJs, mixer, laptop, Cycloops, midi controller, and efx unit have never wavered. His touring never ceases to stop and he has already released his first EP and his fourth mix CD.
The young man is certainly busy, but luckily “Resident Evil” was able to get a few minutes of his time to get caught up, sit around for a few laughs, and chew some Carefree Bubblegum.
On your earlier CDs you were big on the 'live' concept (not ProTooled). On your new release your doing one disc live and another on computer. Is this reflective of the change in the role of the DJ/producer?
Now I’ve gone back completely on what I said. [laughs]. That is why I still did one CD completely live. The first CD was about learning something new for me [the one done with Ableton], that is why I did it. I’m still completely anti-ProTools. I think it is a misrepresentation of what a DJ can do. With Ableton you can do all that stuff in a club. Even someone that can’t mix can DJ if you know how to walk-marker. That's when you have a record and you put the walk marker on each beat and it calculates the tempo so you can sync it to other tracks. Providing you can do that, you can play 50 records at once. You can say, “Here mum, do me a set. That key plays that track, that one plays that track,” and she can do it for you, and it will all sound great. People can do that [mix a cd] with ProTools. That’s an engineered mix. You have DJs that are using it. For a while I was real bitter about it. When I was sixteen I would have these mix CDs, not to mention any names, from certain DJs, and I would say, “How did they mix that with that?” I had the same records and I’m like, “I can’t do it!” That section goes on for too long, that doesn’t happen, there is no breakdown there. I felt cheated. With Ableton, it’s different. There is a level of spontaneity, it is not mixed by some guy. It will be Superstar DJ XYZ, new mix CD. And you look at the sleeve notes [and it says] mixed by Cheeky Paul.
You recently put out your first EP, which contained three regular tracks but you also added a portion called the “Utilities Suite: Samples and Sounds.” Do you feel that releases should have a bit extra added to them?
I just did that as something that I would like to buy. If I buy a record, it would be cool to have all the little parts and loops and stuff. To put them in my CDJ or Ableton and muck around with them. So, I figure there are people out there, sitting in their bedrooms, making strange sounds and stuff.
Do you have any other production works in the pipeline?
If my tour goes on like this, nothing will happen soon. Having said that, all those tracks were made on airplanes and in hotels with my headphones. So who knows, I could be on a flight next week, have no sleep, and start thinking, “I have a great idea for a track!” I have this great kicking sample that I have been waiting to use and a track could come out of it, so, I don’t know. I will do some more tracks, definitely, but I don’t know when. That was such a huge thing for me to get over [releasing his first track]. I’ve started like fifty tracks and not really liked any of them. So, when I did some that I was really happy with, it took a lot for me to release it. I played the EP to Renaissance and I thought, “I don’t know if this is any good, or if they’ll like it.” [But] they were really into it. I gave it to a real mixture of people, Hernan Cattaneo, Paul Woolford, Meat Katie and Future Funk Squad. House DJs, Breaks DJs, Progressive DJs, and they all really liked it. I was like, "O.K., I’m going to release it." If it is good enough for them to play, then it is alright to release it. It turned out that everyone I gave it to played it. I was really happy that I had written a record, or an EP, that had something for everyone. Fergie and commercial DJs were playing it on their radio shows. And then you have really cool underground people like Paul Woolford playing it as well. That is what really made me say, "OK, I’ve got to release it."
"We just stayed at my house,
nerding on the equipment,
being proper losers.
It was fun."
You've also got a reputation for pushing the technology - what kind of things are you working on, and how do you think these developments affect the way you approach your music?
It is like being a kid again. As soon as a new piece of kit comes out, I’m nerding on it. Phil K stayed at my house a few weeks ago and we were nerding on the EFX unit because we helped design the firmware, which is basically the software inside the machine that tells it how to behave when you turn certain things. We just stayed at my house, nerding on the equipment, being proper losers. It was fun. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking about the next CDJ and the one after that.
You helped in developing the new EFX machine for Pioneer. How big of a step up is it from the EFX 500 and has it added to your DJing?
I made some videos for the 1000. If you go to renaissanceuk.com/DoinMoreMadStuff/ [you can see them]. It is quite different. If you look at the unit, it is not that much different. The way it performs and the different parameters on each effect. You know where you use the echo to create a four beat loop with the sample with the EFX 500. On the 1000, you can do two loops. Actually, you can do sixteen as there are two sample loops and sync it up with the BPM, so the sample is quite nice. There are little tricks on the unit, like hidden features - hold down this button and press the other one, it will half the BPM for you so you don’t have to tap it in. You get a perfectly accurate [loop]. The BPM reader on it is pretty good and then you half it and it is exact. It is pretty sweet. There are loads of little things you ca do with it. If you just look at it, you think, "Why pay an extra XYZ dollars?" But once you discover the things you can do with it, it is worth the money and it sounds really cool.
You used Ableton for the first time in a club recently. Are you thinking of permanently switching over?
I just want to use it where appropriate. On Sunday I did a Josh Wink mash-up thing, or using sections of five different tracks, or making something cool - that is when it comes into play. But as far as going one track to the next, I would rather mix it live.
You've never been into partying - pretty much sticking to drinking Pepsi or other colas during sets. Do you think having a clear head all the time allows you to get more work done and create more?
Probably not, because I am really badly organized. I could show you my hotel room, and you’d be like, “You’ve trashed the room!” There are underpants everywhere, socks on the floor. I could not find the room key on Sunday night, and I was like, “Where’s the key!” I was almost late to play, because I couldn’t find it! I’m just messy. As soon as I get in a DJ booth I plug this in there and that in there, making a complete mess. I’m finding a new apartment at the moment and I have to find somewhere quite big as I am going to trash the place. My place right now, you know the trash compactor in Star Wars where the walls are cruching in? That is like my house.
You have to put the pole up to stop them!
You are known as an incredibly nice fellow to everyone you meet. This was exemplified by thanking everyone in your liner notes by using your mobile phonebook, answering questions on forums, speaking to people at gigs, smiling, etc. Are you really that nice? What keeps you humble?
Common courtesy I guess. It is always good to read nice things people say about your gigs. I like to say thanks. I feel I owe it to them. I just really appreciate it. You also learn from them [the posts]. It is good to go on and see what the people that pay to see you say. I know a lot of DJs read those boards. Not many of them post, but I know they read them. Sometimes if someone says something mean it can get you down. A million people can say great things and one person can say something shitty, and you want to jump out a window [laughs]. No, it’s not that bad. You just have to take it all, take everything that everyone says, or just take half of what they say.
How important are visuals to a DJ set? Are they an equal part or a supporting role? How do you source your visual material? Or the DVJ?
The video stuff only really works in certain venues. When I was in Tokyo, I didn’t get to do it there because I had two EFX units, and the new pioneer mixer and that was enough. The time before I did a DVJ set and it worked really well. The video panel was behind me, so they could see everything and it worked really well. I did it at Zouk and the way the room is set up it was like Wimbledon. It made it weird. It didn’t work so well and some place like Cielo it wouldn’t work so well because the ceiling is so low. Where are you going to put those huge screens? It is a lot of work as well, making all that video stuff. I don’t do it, I have my girlfriend, Greta, do the video stuff. I do some of it myself, but if you want to do a DVJ set, the software out there at the moment - you have to sit there for a long time to make a good music video. To make twenty tracks, that is a weeks worth of work. That is a lot of time. I think Pioneer should get together with iMovie or some Mac program or some application. There should be something where you can load in all your footage, stills, and it will read the BPM of the track like Ableton does and you can use the clips, and loop them or chop them in time with the beat. Muve Audio Producer 4 does that kind of thing, but it is kind of restricted. When a new program comes out, I think a lot more people will use the DVJs because a lot less work will have to be done. For myself, I won’t do a DVJ set booked next week. It just wouldn’t be any good. I need time to do the video stuff. You are doing the job of the VJ as well. There is no mixer right now that does both video and sound, so you are using two mixers. So you are there like this [moves around frantically], trying to get the whole thing to flow nicely. Once you’ve done and it’s nice, you feel good. I’ve done demos for Pioneer at some technology fairs. I’ve been to Germany, London, done some in France.
In the early days of hip-hop, DJs used to cover the labels of the records they were playing and in dance music some DJs try to keep secret the big tunes they’ve discovered. You have taken a completely different approach by always telling how you do things. Even putting a video in Alive (British version), and how you mix things in your liner notes. Why?
That is the job of the DJ. To sell the records of these artists.
You've done a bit of A&R for Hearing Aid and others. What’s that like?
It is me and a friend. We put out a record when we can be bothered, so in like three years, we’ve had three releases. We've just released a Jeff Bennett track. It was a track on my “Alive” CD at the end of disc one and loads of people asked me about it.
How does it fit in with your DJ duties? Do you get handed loads of promos?
The thing is, the whole A&R thing is not a job. Maybe that is something I’ll look at doing when I am not DJing. I want to focus on DJing, production, and live sets. I don’t want to get involved with the whole running of a record label. All it is, occasionally I hear a tune that I like and it isn’t signed so I’ll put it out. If no one else is going to put it out, I may as well do it. We are not actively looking for stuff all the time. We do not have a release schedule.
Does your wardrobe include anything but Sci-Fi T-Shirts? And free records T-shirts?
[laughs - James is wearing a Native Theory records t-shirt] I’m not a big fashion person, as you can tell. Except for these jeans that I bought yesterday. Yes, it does [include more than Sci-Fi]. Wait, no, it doesn’t. It is all Sci-Fi stuff. I have non-sci-fi clothes. I bought these jeans because I had to, because the airline lost my luggage. I got back today, but yesterday I started to smell. I had one pair of socks, one pair of pants. I had to go commando down to the store. I’m just glad that no one opened the door when I was trying my jeans on! [laughs].
Any plans on the horizon for a haircut and/or possibly growing a beard?
That is a good question. If you would saw me this morning, I almost had a beard. I’ve gotten to the age where I can almost grow one. I’ll get a haircut as soon as I get back [to the UK]. I’ll cut a few inches off. I actually have blue hair dye at home that someone bought me. I don’t think I’ll use it though. It would be quite cool to have blue hair though, but that stuff never works. “I want blue hair,” but it comes out green.
James Zabiela’s “Utilities” and “Utilities EP” are out now on Renaissance.
Check out www.jameszabiela.co.uk for tour dates, news, and possible photos of new robot acquisitions!
(Special thanks goes out to Betty at Plexi and rchinn for their assistance.)