“Yeah, that was me. Well, we formed a band but it was really shit. It didn't even have name because it never got far. It got to a couple of covers.”
Some of us are cursed with growing up in public, and Holden is almost embarrassed by his past. Mention the dreaded p-word and he shifts uncomfortably in his seat. In previous interviews he’s said that he wants his career to be judged from the creation of Border Community. Why?
“Because from that point it was entirely my own thing and what I believe in and my own free will. Before then it wasn't. It's that simple.”
Fact three: When James Holden sold “Horizons” to Silver Planet in 1999 he signed away his rights to his full name in perpetuity. Border Community was his bye-bye to all that, or maybe his middle finger. Holden could read the tea leaves: in 2003 the prog regime which ruled the UK was stagnating and all the adoration just made him wince. Ditching his first name, he headed out to the frontier, striking out on his own at the controls of a border community. His first release on the label was a revelation. Injecting the bigroom emotionalism Holden had honed as a DJ with a shot of the then unknown sound of Berlin, ‘A Break in the Clouds’ sounded, well, kind of foreign. How did he do it? The magic was in the shed at the back of his English garden - a radio. Bored of prog-occupied UK, he’d been secretly tuning into a Radio Free Europe broadcasting Kompakt, DJ Koze, and Michael Mayer.
“I think there was that point four or five years ago when suddenly the bubble burst and when you stepped back and looked at dance music objectively, it had evolved but everything had followed a path, grown in a certain way and just become this horrible, plastic, soulless thing. For a moment it seemed like everyone sat back and appraised what they did. There was so much exciting stuff around like the early Kompakt releases or more eclectic side of that.”
It's progressive with a few new plug-ins!"
Five years later, with the war almost over – Nazi trance just won’t quite fuck off – German minimal is now the default sound in clubs right across Europe. Holden had achieved a rare thing: the Proglanders and foreigners both embraced him. This time he didn’t flinch. DJs of all stripes found ‘A Break in the Clouds’ and his seminal remix of Nathan Fake’s ‘The Sky Was Pink’ an irresistible spin, genre be damned. How does victory feel? Holden squirms:
“Now it’s back to business as usual. We're all making electrohouse or minimal or something and it's just the same as when it was prog and trance. Minimal has no meaning. It's progressive with a few new plug-ins! Especially now you get these minimal geeks who think they are really cool because they like this ketamine music. I grew up with minimalist classical music – that’s minimal. And the bouncing ball delay effect out of Ableton - well done, you've loaded a plug-in! I don't really respect people that jump on the bandwagon and that is largely the problem because people put a word to what is trendy.”
Like Groucho Marx, Holden shies away from clubs that will have him as a member. He’s right though. If ‘minimal’ means Hawtin and Tejada, it doesn’t mean much. But ‘progressive with a few new plug-ins?’ Surely not. Minimal techno is one thing – and the techno Mafia have ruled that it must be made out of only electronic tweaks or say goodbye to your legs – but Border doesn’t make minimal techno. The label’s sound is a marriage between a techno sonic palette and the drama, chords, builds, and pop influence of prog. Some call this neo-prog I’m told.
That’s why techno purists waggle their fingers at Holden: he’s not one of them. ‘At the Controls’ brazenly mixes Plastikman into Massive Attack. Balance 005 lays Baby Ford’s minimal burner Bad Friday over Petter’s These Days in the finest prog fashion (and to devastating effect). So in a year when DC-10 and Amnesia in Ibiza promise to be full of lager louts in wraparound sunglasses instead of German girls in Ellen Allien mullets, should we expect a Gaiser remix of the MFA soonish?
“The purists can go kiss my arse. It's moronic. To be a techno purist is just to not really understand what music is. It's that kind of boy geek mentality of writing it all down on a clipboard while Digweed is playing it or something.”
Not to worry, the Border take on neo-prog is proving very influential nowadays. Minilogue’s 'The Leopard', Patrick Chardronnet’s 'Eve By Day', and Hrdvision’s remix of Chaton & Hopen’s 'An Area' prove that the producers are listening and channeling the Border sound into their own tracks. Does Holden think the label has a specific sound?
“It's not like we are consciously trying to do this thing. I think we're trying to be honest, or personal, and that's how it turns out. The problem with a lot of electronic music is that people don’t make what they really want to make; they're following rather than staying true.”
It's moronic. To be a techno purist is
just to not really understand what music is."
Border has a specific sound, but it’s far from a gated community. The delicious newie from Lazy Fat People is if anything dub trance. Extrawelt is the alter ego of veteran psytrancers MidiMiliz, an act more at home in fields full of hippies than clubland. And last Christmas Nathan Fake released an unholy electronic version of Silent Night. So how come it all sounds so, er, Borderesque? James Holden laughs.
“We all like different types of music but we mostly agree, well not 100%, but we all have the same perspective on electronic music. We were friends before Border Community. We agree on most things apart from the MFA, who we argue with!”
Fact four: Holden never listens to mix CDs. Catch him DJing and his sets are a million miles away from his latest ‘At the Controls’ mix on Resist, Holden’s attempt to fuse the very different – Massive Attack, Death in Vegas, Harmonia, Kalabrese, Trans Am – into a singular party-on-the-couch whole. Is this what Holden listens to at home?
“Yeah. We just have everything on a computer and always have it on random play. So you get Judas Priest and then Beethoven. Especially with the older music and stuff.”
Ah, electicism – the hallmark of the genre buried deep in the closet of many a dance producer: indie. But where indie efforts to make dance music have often failed, Holden succeeds by coming at the genre from the outside: ‘At the Controls’ is a proper dance album that plays around with indie textures. Labelmate Nathan Fake’s ‘Drowning in a Sea of Love’ is also very indie, which is why it is making such inroads into the dance-o-phobic American heartland. But the connection seems a natural: late eighties shoegazers such as Slowdive are not a million miles away from the dreamier end of prog and the sound has recently been revived by latter day electronic gazers such as Ulrich Schnauss, The Field and M83. Is that how it goes? Is Fake channeling My Bloody Valentine via M83?
“I think for Nathan it's quite direct to My Bloody Valentine! You can cut the M83!”
‘At the Controls’ also links modern dance back to krautrock: the segue from the motorik Meta.83 into Paul Kalkbrenner’s 'Gebrünn Gebrünn' is a connection German dance producers, never as in thrall with old krautrock as the English-speaking world, don’t often make (aside from Kraftwerk of course). Perhaps it takes an auslander like Holden to connect the dots.
“More and more as I get older I'm discovering now that I'm more open-minded and realising I could go record shopping every day for the rest of my life and still be discovering a lot of the older stuff, especially like the Krautrock on the CD. You listen to Cluster or Harmonia and what has anyone achieved in the 30 years since that was done? Really, it's embarrassing for the rest of us!”
Does Holden think there may be a backlash against Border Community for being too inclusive? Your average dance punter is hardly likely to wet his pants over Fennesz!
“To be honest, I don't really care if there's a backlash or not. We’re just doing the records we like to do and I don't care if they sell 10,000 or 1,000. It doesn't really make a difference. I have other plans. I want to form a band. Well, I've already formed a band. Just to have a little break from getting stoned and looking at Cubase. We bought a tape machine and we're circuit bending our own keyboards and stuff trying to do something a bit more natural. That should keep me occupied for a couple of months at least. I don't know long term, God knows, apart from my retirement at thirty.”
Holden laughs, but I’m not sure he’s entirely kidding. He doesn’t exactly churn ‘em out like John Dahlback, at his present rate he’ll only squeeze four more productions out before he can retire to the country and count his cash. But mansions are expensive. He must have another plan up his sleeve. How will Border Community achieve world domination?
“In the near future we actually have some releases lined up. There is Petter and The MFA and then finally my own EP is nearly finished. After two years of promising, it's going to be a dream.”
We’re not holding our breath. But the tortoise usually wins the race, and one suspects that Holden is secretly in this for the long haul. Especially now he seems to have found his niche with Border project. Unlike most anonymous dance labels it’s actually a real community with Holden holding fort as the sheriff, the artists his deputies, and even a website where the townsfolk (also known as the Border commies) gather. The label also runs civic projects, the last one being a colouring-in contest for the sleeve design of future releases. All very homey. So is this where Holden is going to be in the long term?
“I don’t know. Really I just want to carry on enjoying it. It's really rewarding seeing everything go on. Seeing our artists flourish in their own right is enough of an achievement I think. We didn't really aim to become a big label. We just did our thing and I don't think aiming for a result is really the way to achieve anything. No one can criticise us for anything really because it's what we believe in. What more could you want than to do what you like?�