Despite many testing times, James is back proving his longevity in the scene. What a man!
Even the best DJs can hate recording mixes but for James Zabiela, the process of making his latest mix album took its toll on his health but resulted in one of the year's most important mixes so far.
Nearly two decades on from its heyday, progressive house has proven to be a genre that has sidelined many of its biggest stars to irrelevance. Not so James Zabiela. The once boy-wonder of the sound, returned in February to receive widespread critical acclaim for his Balance 029 mix compilation, an album of molecularly mixed music that demonstrates his ear for cutting edge music hasn’t waned one bit. The process proved to be a testing one. Anyone whose ever tried to record the perfect mix can sympathise with the temporary madness that the process can invite. For Zabiela however along the way, he had to endure the tragedy of multiple family bereavements amidst the rigeurs of touring, and the intense pressure and obsessiveness that recording an ambitious DJ mix can invite.
Ibiza Voice: Working on DJ mixes can be a big test of sanity at the best of times for even the greatest of DJs. It sounds like the level of perfectionism applied to this mix pushed you to the edge creatively, can you talk us through what happened throughout the process?
James Zabiela: It didn’t come together naturally, I just seemed to struggle with most aspects of putting it together and sometimes it’s just like that when you embark on a creative project. The expectations I had set for it were through the roof, and so I was repeatedly thinking nothing was good enough throughout the entire process, until I eventually submitted it and thought I might have made something passable.
What was going on in your life around the time of recording the mix? Did that play a part in the creative process?
Right as I was about to start on the mix we had some family bereavements, so that set the tone of the first mix especially. They affected my approach and some days my ability to just sit down and do the work. ‘Vines’ which was sewn into the mix session itself was a little creative outburst that I had to stop and excrete in order to move forward whilst compiling.
There was a lot of starting and stopping, I had never made a project with so many intervals and interruptions, but it was useful in a ways to at least gain a modicum of perspective and this definitely stopped me from making some questionable choices I think. It’s worth noting I spent a lot of the year alone making this mix, self-imposed but it was nevertheless a solitary process and as I type this I’m kind of vibing because I’ve just come off the back of playing quite a special gig in London at the Camden Assembly to celebrate its release.
To go from being a weird hermit to being completely surrounded by lovely smiling people on the stage at the end of night was actually pretty moving for me. It felt like a door had been closed.
What other stumbling points or challenges did you encounter?
Honestly, the biggest challenge was in the decision making, getting stuck in mental mind loops about whether the mix should take this direction or that direction. I would circle around a problem until exhaustion would finally send me to bed stressed out at 10am. It wasn’t a healthy process some of the time. When I was finally able to start putting the mix together, I was in the middle of a month long tour away from home in the USA so I stole a couple of days in Mexico and went to a hotel in Puerto Vallarta to work on the mix with my obnoxiously large headphones.
They gave me a room with a giant fountain outside the door and I had to put towels along the bottom of the door to reduce the noise so I could hear what I was doing properly. I was stealing moments here and there, in the back of taxis. [Thankfully] the USA has some of the [world’s] worst traffic!
Can you recall any moments you can describe for us where you felt like giving up?
I felt pretty hopeless a few times, I would freak out about the mix not achieving the unrealistic goals I had set for it. This would usually happen when I’d been awake for far too long and perhaps not eaten the right food, but I don’t think I would have given up on it as I’m just too stubborn, especially when I become stuck with something. I get competitive with the problem and have to beat it.
A sample diagram from Zabiela's handwritten mix notes.
How did you overcome them?
With regards to the programming, I would write things down on paper. I got pretty stuck with the second half of the second disc and ended up scrawling out the different possibilities to help me settle on the right path. I remember at one point I was surrounded by a ton of notes scrawled on the back of gas bills, envelopes or whatever was in reach at the time.
I felt like Carrie Mathison in Homeland. I ashamedly binned most of them thinking someone might find them and realise that I was in fact a total lunatic. Some of the technical problems I had to solve included, precisely re-creating the drum loop from Truncate’s ‘WRKTRX 3’ with my TR-8, splicing Anthony Linell’s ‘Fractal Vision’ into loads (and loads) of bits and cross-fading them together so I didn’t end up time stretching the life out of the track in order for it to sound ‘right’ over A Sagittarian’s swingy ‘Vanishing Point’.
I recall I worked for way too long on the two tracks ‘Augen Der Nacht’ (Ryan James Ford Version) and Fabrizio Lapiana’s ‘Far Away’. It was sonically challenging in terms of headroom as these are fully finished productions and not stems, and so I ended up frequency separating the tracks into individual channels taking different sections of the tracks that contained the bits I needed to make the mix work. I made a ghost (muted) midi channel that played out the kick and bass hits of ‘Augen’ at different velocities accordingly so that ‘Far Away’ ducked in volume in the right places to make space. It’s just one of those annoying mixes where I had to keep giving my ears a rest and coming back to it until I could get it to gel ‘right’.
Some of the instruments Zabiela used to add additional production to the mix.
What toll does a mix like this take on your sanity and health?
Apparently quite a lot because I had a mysterious stomach issue during its creation that then vanished just as mysteriously upon the mix’s completion! There other factors of course, and a lot of the pressure I was feeling I had put upon myself. With that said, the project was something I could get lost in at an opportune time and so perhaps it helped saved my sanity.
How and where did you source the music for the mix?
A good question and the answer is really, everywhere and anywhere. Apart from the records shops, I would get lost endless link surfs on some days, going from some music sites’s editorial, to a label or artists’ band camp page.
How did work on the mix progress from that point?
Actually, I was collecting music all the way through the process of putting it together. I made the deliberate choice to keep checking for tracks every day all the way through its production. Really, I was just paranoid I might miss something. As it happened, I was licensing tracks even during the last few days of finishing the mix. My daily routine would consist of spending some of the day just colliding tracks into each other trying things out, another part of the day record shopping, another part just listening to stuff, then further along down the line I would begin to programme and mix things together, but I would still be working at the other tasks throughout right up until I handed it in for the last time.
Zabiela spent many hours perfecting his mix
Most people who love DJing, often ironically hate doing mixes. would you count yourself in that category?
I think when DJing, some of the ‘mistakes’ you might make live are not really heard on a club system or in fact it could be those mistakes that give a set its ‘life’ and be part of what makes a live performance special, especially in today’s sync society. With recorded mixes, knowing they might be heard under the close scrutiny, repeatedly on a home listening session, I do find it hard to put something out there that isn’t as perfect as it can be, at least to my ears. Which is ironic really, because a lot of the music I like is far from perfect.
Can you describe the the tactical challenges a mix like this presents for your career?
This is an interesting question and of course, a part of you can’t help but think tactically, about your career or where this project may or may not lead, if anywhere. As a working DJ I’d taken my foot off the pedal a bit and so there was a mounting pressure for this mix to equate into DJ bookings, but if I’d have thought in any of those terms it would’ve creatively crippled the project. I had to listen to my heart and just make something as authentic as possible, regardless of what was going to get me booked in Ibiza. To answer the last part of your question, yes of course you’re always in competition with yourself and when I first took on the project having thoughts of this needing to be my best work made it a bit of a struggle from the outset.
What effect is the age of streaming having on the mix compilation? Particularly given that the era of downloads took the wind out of the sails for mix comp CD sales. Are mix comps regaining their importance and a surer footing on streaming sites like Spotify?
Right now I think so, maybe because in recent years, we’ve become so accustomed to streaming easily digestible singles in our fast paced lives, sitting and listening to a whole album may have felt like an investment but because of this perhaps there has been kind of a dry period for really engaging mix albums that tell a story, that are carefully curated.
I’m not saying that there haven’t been any, of course there are some I’m sure and I’m not saying that mine is all of those things either although I’d hope it to be for someone. I do feel I was lucky that it arrived at a time when some listeners may have been hungering for something more. I knew investing so much time into the project might never pay off, but I treated it as a labour of love and as a means of escape. I was fully prepared that it might go unnoticed, so I’m just relieved some people listened to it.
How does working on this mix compare to the days of sending Bedroom Bedlam mixes to Ralph Moore at Muzik Magazine in 2000?
I love Ralph! It’s funny, in some ways this was quite similar because he was the first person outside of my management and the label that I sent the mixes to. He shares my nerdy fascination with Northern Exposure, so I was excited to send him the mix guide graphic that myself and the designer made for the artwork. The next person to get the mix was Sasha, so really I’m still just that kid sending out demos to my heroes. Which reminds me, I should probably send it to Diggers seeing as I stole their idea!
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