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James Holden interview

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Reader, we have a problem – the medium of this article is flawed. After about forty minutes with James Holden, we reach the nub of the issue: “I feel like music expresses so much more than words,” he says, attempting to explain his inability to articulate the emotional themes on his latest record, “but in such an abstract manner that you’re losing bit-depth if you try and translate it into words.” He backs up his digital compression analogy by citing the neurologist and science writer Oliver Sachs – the DJ, producer and Oxford University maths graduate is not afraid of an academic reference point or two. “Sachs showed that when people listen to music, their whole brain lights up – not just auditory centres but motor centres, memory, cognitive evaluation, the whole brain. So of course you can’t transfer that down to words,” Holden points out, “because words don’t connect to that much of your brain – they’re only localised.”

And there we have the premise: music as the emotionally lossless wav files to language’s crumby and compressed mp3s, stripped of the experiential nuances that make it so exciting and addictive. It’s a compelling argument and, unfortunately, rather renders the act of converting a musical experience into a few paragraphs of cheapened approximations at best daunting and, at worst, futile. The logical conclusion: Holden’s new album is called The Inheritors – go listen to the source. Why accept this paper-based mono conversion when you could have pristine 5.1 emotional surround sound at the click of a mouse?

If we were to keep things pure and good, the following account of an hour spent with Holden should really be rendered as a piece of music as abstract but approachable as his. Thankfully though, as that would be both impractical and impenetrable, Holden offers an out: “You can write about music, but it’s this over-reaching that gets me. It’s okay to say what you get out of music, I think, but to say that I’m putting these sine waves together purely to express what it feels like to go through the Scottish Highlands or whatever would be really reductive.”

For someone who’s only on his second album (and who dismisses his first, from 2006, as merely “a bulk plus some DJ tools”), Holden is something of a veteran producer. His first singles came out when he was still at Oxford in the late 90s and were, in his own words, “basically trance. At the time, I was into that and Mogwai, without realising that it’s essentially they’re same music – dynamics, repetition, an emotional payload at the end – but with different social signifiers.”

Being billed as the next John Digweed, however, didn’t suit; a hyper-restrictive record label that demanded Holden only make progressive house, paired with his assessment of the genre as “loads of swooshy noises, trying to be clever, devoid of interest and super conservative”, marked the first in a series of encounters where Holden felt the need to kick against the very thing that was offering him success. He would do it again a few years later after his remix of Nathan Fake’s The Sky Was Pink, an 8-bit-infused slithering techno monster, became an underground hit, this time on his own Border Community label. “We were just aiming to put out beautiful, unique records,” he explains of the imprint he set up with his girlfriend in 2003. “But once we’d had that wave of success, there were other people making terrible copies of what we’d done, which made me see the flaws in it all, and made me want to go further. It’s a difficult process to keep going and leave those people behind.”

Uncomfortable restlessness, it would appear, is par for the course. Holden agrees: “Thinking that you’re stuck on one thing and going ‘no, I’m not that, I’m the other’, – that’s like a continual part of the last fifteen years for me.”

For his latest rebellion, which began surfacing several years ago on remixes for Radiohead and Mercury Rev and has reached its artistic zenith on The Inheritors, Holden has shifted away from both his own gridded style of techno and also the current vogue in electronic music for order and polish: The Inheritors veers between acid, krautrock and smeary free jazz with a ramshackle aesthetic whose muckiness and unpredictability is closer to no-wave art punk than anything electronically synthesised. It lurches in and out of time signatures and conventional tonality with a woozy, bleepy confidence, an effect achieved by the tracks being recorded pretty much live on a modular synth – essentially a patchwork quilt of specialised analogue electronic instruments that the user can string together in whatever way suits, and which behaves differently depending not just on the internal settings but also, much like a traditional musical instrument, on things like temperature and how hard it’s played.

True to form, that desire for otherness was something that preoccupied Holden: “The underlying ideas on the record are just a reaction against all this digital, straight-ass dance music, so I did everything opposite,” he explains. “I remember being in an orchestra when I was a kid, and the conductor saying ‘here’s the bit where it slows down, but you lot won’t be used to that because all modern pop is on the grid, and has no soul’. At the time I was just like ‘fuck you, you elitist classical prick!’, but actually it stuck with me, and I’ve realised that looseness is a really big part of music that’s vanished in the last five years, since computers became really practical for music-making. But your brain is better than that – your brain is trained to pick patterns out of a mess.”

Indeed, that act of foraging and deciphering is one of the defining characteristics of The Inheritors, the mess a direct result of Holden building deliberately chaotic systems within his recording set-up. “Introducing errors was quite a lot of what I was aiming for,” he explains as the conversation turns to how exactly he puts together these impossibly knotty pieces of music. The short answer is that he writes his own software, builds his own instruments that react to each other, and then leaves them to wend their own way naturally, steering them occasionally until there’s a web so intricate that even he’s not sure how it came about. Not that this aim is anything conceptually new, he insists: “With something like Debussy, you don’t hear the individual notes, you hear the cloud of it, the shifting shapes,” he explains. “I want to create the same thing, something that’s indescribably complicated, but instead of being planned by some dickhead who thought he was being clever, it just happened, like nature.”

This naturalism is important to Holden, too, it would seem: “There’s a nice question that surrounds whether you make music or just find it,” he begins, scrabbling to articulate his creative process. “Like, was it there all along, and you’re just discovering it? I actually think it’s a bit like prospecting for oil – it’s there, but you’ve got to know where to dig, otherwise you’re not going to find it.”

To extend the metaphor, then, now that Holden’s struck oil, can he explain where it’s come from, and maybe what the dense textures and layers that comprise it actually express? It’s at this point that he tells me that words are too lossy to describe music, but he gives it a go anyway: 

“I guess it comes from everything I’ve ever heard and thought in my entire life,” he begins to explain, before invoking Marcus du Sautoy, the Oxford Professor of Mathematics and Professor for the Public Understanding of Science with whom Holden recently took part in a “performance lecture” at The Barbican. “Marcus got onto this thing of how an idea in your head is just a networked connection of neurons, so all ideas are basically encoded as shapes in high-dimensional space. So music is just shapes in high-dimensional space, and those shapes are just informed by what else has come in.

“So it’s all just a sequence of ideas and rhythms – things that are causing you to release dopamine and other interesting neurotransmitters. But I don’t find that sad, or cold, or overly scientific. I mean, being in love is just a rush of chemicals, but that doesn’t make it any less special – there are only a certain number of people in the world whose personality is the right set of high-dimensional shapes to fit with your own set of high-dimensional shapes.” At this he laughs, acknowledging the amusing dryness of his description of love, imagining how it would perform as a seduction technique, then continues: “And it’s not just chemical, but all the matrices of connections within you, that dictate compatibility – that’s why my music isn’t for everyone, I think.”

That’s a long way to say “I don’t really know”, but it’s an argument that’s convincing in the same way that Holden’s album is: on the surface it’s too much to take in at once, academically it can be broken down and parsed rationally, but it’s at the instinctive, almost subconscious level that it really appeals. Like a Rothko painting or a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, The Inheritors is the kind of record that people may not be sure they necessarily understand, but just know they really like. “Well that’s it,” Holden assures with a smile. “Then they’ve got it.”

Then again, if comparisons with experimental romantic poets and abstract expressionist painters make The Inheritors sound like it’s not for the faint-hearted, Holden is okay with that, too: “I don’t expect everyone to get it, but I’m fairly confident that there’s enough people who do that I haven’t just been wanking in front of a mirror for the last two years! I mean, there’s no such thing as weird any more, anyway – you can go on YouTube and listen to Xenakis and Don Cherry and it’s free and it’s there in front of you, and you can read Wikipedia and understand where they came from. I mean, if you think some music’s really weird, well maybe you should just listen to some more music, and put in a bit more work.”

Aware of his slight matronly tone, Holden qualifies himself. “I do expect work from my listener, yes, but not while they’re listening to my records – I want that to be an effortless, experiential process.”

That striving for effortlessness is reflected in how Holden tries to compose too. “I’m deliberately aiming for situations where my conscious brain isn’t really steering. That’s part of playing live – being in the moment, having a machine that you don’t know how to play, and reacting faster than you can think. The rest of your brain is much better than the conscious bit. The conscious bit trudges along to conclusions, but in terms of making music, you have to switch that part off as much as possible.”

It’s reasonably obvious that the conscious bit of James Holden’s brain is pretty scientific. In our hour together, he relishes analysis, always suggesting hypotheses and looking for proofs, challenging theories and exercising careful clarity of thought. But he’s also a romantic – just as often in the course of our conversation, Holden describes his scientific creative methods as nothing more than facilitators for attaining a sort of expressive higher plane – a kind of springboard to or backbone for untrammelled creative abandon, and the overall impression is initially a contradiction: a scientific artist, or a creative whose art depends on mathematical robustness.

But as Holden’s very existence might suggest, that art/science split is a false dichotomy – indeed, it’s only since about 1945 that the arts and the sciences have really been thought of as diametrically opposed. In less constrained times, Lord Byron addressed the Royal Society, Percy Shelly reviewed papers on astronomy by the guy who would eventually discover Uranus, and the entire 19th century has numerous examples across all academic disciplines of the optimism surrounding what science could offer to the realms of creativity and discovery. And that enthusiasm exudes from Holden’s work too. “I think had I not made it in music I would’ve gone into engineering in some form, because making stuff, I really enjoy that,” he says, trying to explain what makes him tick. “But equally,” he continues, “the science is just enabling me to play. That’s all it’s for – to set up a system, or an instrument or whatever, that allows me to just, well, express, for want of a better word. The academic stuff has to be hidden away. I want to make schmaltz, really…” He trails off, searching for the right word, perhaps acknowledging that whatever one he uses won’t quite say what he means.

“I don’t want to make academic music,” he finally says, unintentionally precisely. “I just want to make affective music.” The exact nature of its affect, though, is now proven to be beyond this article’s scope.