James Holden is far from your average DJ-producer. With his can’t-be-arsed-to-make-an-appointment-with-my-hairdresser shaggy hair and vintage Judas Priest t-shirts (with authentic holes) he sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the clean-cut short-haired bloke’s bloke DJs whose unremarkable faces adorn the pages of the dance music press. (“I don’t trust anyone who is cleaner than myself!” jokes James).
Musically he is also a million miles from the faceless repetitive beats mentality of so many of his peers, much more likely to be listening to leftfield albums from the likes of Mogwai, Four Tet or Boards of Canada than the latest essential mix CD. James Holden is a young man plotting a course through the music world all of his very own, putting some personality back into dance music and refusing to stay in the pigeonholes where other people seem so keen to shove him.
If an artist like James hadn’t been into music from an early age you’d be seriously worried, so we shan’t bore you with the details, suffice to say it involved his dad teaching him piano, a man called Mr Draycott teaching him violin, an (un)healthy appetite for the music of Queen, early dabblings on his first proto-computer and the unlikely musical guidance of his A-level physics teacher towards all things electronic.
The stuff everyone is really interested in begins aged 19, with a track called “Horizons”. Written during his summer holidays from his maths degree at Oxford University on a £500 PC and a piece of revolutionary music software called Buzz (a freeware internet download), this crossover anthem of the summer of 1999 propelled young James and his bedroom set-up into the top flight of dance music production. The rest, as they say, is history.
To this day, James’ DIY studio set-up remains largely unchanged since those early efforts, bar a few computer upgrades here and there. Despite initial whispers throughout the establishment about “analogue warmth”, the days of the twenty grand studio entry level into the world of production were numbered. James had already opened the door for a new generation of talented young bedroom producer-punks who bolted after him, whilst those very same doubters are left scrambling to catch up to the digital revolution which threatened to pass them by. Meanwhile, James has taken his computer production to a whole other level, exploiting the full potential which the new software opens up and unleashing a life of its own where others merely try to recreate what you could do on conventional studio equipment.
“There’s always going to be these people who are going to say, ‘You just don’t get that sound unless it’s analogue’,” explains James. “And it’s just complete rubbish. You just get a different sound. And I personally prefer the sound out of a computer to the sound out of a load of rotting analogue equipment. You just need to know where to inject the life into it, and how to, and then the computer can become an instrument just like any other. Where I’m at now is trying to make my music feel less like a cheesy sequencer Lego building and more like I’m playing the computer like it is a guitar or something… more human and raw.”
What James has created with this trusty PC is an edit-heavy hybrid sound all of his own, which crosses traditional genre boundaries and has found him fans in almost every scene. Holden tracks slot seamlessly into the sets of techno, trance, progressive and electro DJs alike. From pixie-trance to leftfield dance music, new wave house to melodic techno, the genre-classifiers have yet to find a label which accurately captures the unique yet universally appealing nature of Holden’s music. And although he has spawned many an imitator, Holden’s constantly evolving sound and rigorous attention to detail has been equalled by none.
To a music world overly obsessed by scenes, the James Holden success story reads like a catalogue of contradictions. 2003’s collaboration with vocalist Julie Thompson, “Nothing”, was picked up by legendary UK house label Loaded, yet proclaimed by trance legend Tiesto to be his tune of the year. James has remixed everything from Crosstown Rebels electro-house to Positiva dance-pop; New Order to Britney Spears; Timo Maas dirty breaks to System 7 psy-trance; fast-rising young upstart Nathan Fake to Kirsty Hawkshaw’s timeless classic “Fine Day”. Meanwhile “A Break in the Clouds”, the debut release on his own Border Community label, has become an underground European techno classic, still selling by the thousand a whole year after release, making its way onto compilations from Luke Slater and Monika Kruse, and winning Holden a firm following amongst the ever forward-thinking German dance fraternity.
More recent developments on the studio front include new Holden & Thompson track “Come To Me”, scheduled for release next year, and, after a couple of years respite from remixing, a fistful of new Holden remixes: the nintendo acid and tripped out vocal mixes of Britney Spears’ “Breathe on Me”; a psychedelic electro-trance version of Nathan Fake’s “The Sky Was Pink”; the dancefloor dub of System 7’s “Planet 7”; and the frantic animals of Andre Kraml’s “Safari” for Crosstown Rebels. Also poised on the horizon is an EP worth of new Holden tracks and, following on from 2002’s “Bloodlock” co-write on none other than Sasha’s “Airdrawndagger” album, a couple of collaborations with scene stalwarts Ashley Casselle and Slacker.
James’ own DJ sets embrace the same spirit of eclecticism as his productions, uniting his own tracks and remixes with acid house, techno, electro and downtempo melodies, as demonstrated on last year’s groundbreaking Balance 005 mix CD. “Aphex Twin doing Ferry Corsten up the bum” is James’ current (rather unsavoury) description of choice. On the borders of everything yet at the same time accessible enough to be slap bang in the middle of it all, Holden’s own steadfast musical vision and his often unorthodox fusion of tracks which the purists have traditionally grouped into distinct genres have won him dedicated followiers the world over. One of a handful of young DJs who have been allowed to rise up the ranks in recent years whose age bears more relation to that of the majority of club punters, the coming year promises business as usual, taking in every corner of Europe, a tour of Australia and Asia and regular trips to the USA.
James’ sets are always topped off with a huge helping of previously unheard fresh young production talent, many of whom have found a home on his Border Community label. In just one year the label has gained a reputation as a breeding ground for similarly free-spirited genre-benders, with every release fusing solid dancefloor rockers with leftfield ambient interpretations and handy dj tools. “Border Community is my favourite thing that I do at the moment,” says James. “It is really rewarding seeing the young artists we release go on to do great things.” Names like Nathan Fake, Petter and The MFA are now following James’ lead and already beginning to leave their own unique indellible imprints on the production world. James is also keen to take his troop of multi-talented live acts and DJs on the road with him, bringing the Border Community roadshow to a town near you.
Still only 25 years old, James Holden now finds himself exactly where he wants to be. As the digital producer par excellence he is blazing a trail through as yet unchartered territory, showing those who follow in his wake how it can, and should, be done. As a DJ he gets to travel the world, surprising and delighting in equal measures, and enlarging his band of followers at every port of call. And at the helm of his own buzz label Border Community he is proving himself to be quite the A&R man, discovering like-minded souls to help turn his musical vision into reality and peddling something a little different to the record-buying public. Underlying the three components of the James Holden recipe for success is an unerring belief in his own vision and a refusal to do things the way others tell him they always have been done. He is well into the process of carving out a niche all of his very own, and is not about to let anyone stop him now.