There are interviews and there are interviews. My friend DJ Enock and I managed to catch James Zabiela after a cross Manhattan adventure involving two Gansevoort, Twitter and a dead iPhone. When we sat down for our fireside chat, we found out a few unexpected things. For one, James Zabiela's debut release on his long-awaited label has finally arrived. "The Healing" was released on December 10th 2012 and comes with some stellar remixes a la Hot Chip, Gang Colours, Midland and Club Root as well as James' own "85" re-edit. Have a listen to the original here and the remixes are below.
My mum and dad were into rave music, and they smoked and partied and everything and theyd be out until all hours and come back on a Sunday loads of times. So I rebelled by being really good, really well behaved.
You grew up around your dad's record store and you weren't particularly a huge fan of the music…
No, not at all.
So what did you listen to? What were you a fan of back then?
I listened to anything but rave music because it was around like '92, '93 when I was twelve or thirteen that stuff was really exploding in the UK. My dad would play it pretty loud, it was just this awful noise that I couldn't stand. I was into Nirvana and that sort of thing and then I got into the Prodigy, music for the joke generation. That was my sort of first dance album I liked. My friend lent me this cassette tape of it at the time. I used to do my paper rounds on my bicycle listening to that. That was my first thing that I liked in electronic music. It was really the same sort of thing in a way even though musically really different. It was music for the joke generation, that whole Nirvana grunge thing—it was just more of a way of life sort of social scene for the teenagers. A bit like the EDM stuff today. Even though musically, all those three things are very different, it was the attitude that went with it that I relate to.
You were saying how the electronic music scene was exploding in a different sphere, what was the trend at the time, what were you rebelling against?
It's funny you say that now the parents being the rebels, for me it was the other way around. My mum and dad were into rave music, and they smoked and partied and everything and they'd be out until all hours and come back on a Sunday loads of times. So I rebelled by being really good, really well behaved. I never smoked in my life and I think that's their bad habits brushed off me in a good way.
So how did you feel as you were growing up that your parents were…
I was ashamed…on the news, that these illegal field raves and warehouse parties it was so massive in the UK which you didn't get so much here [in the US]—they were demonized in the press and everyone who would go to these things was a devil worshipper. So I was a little bit ashamed you know, I had friends at school that couldn't believe that my parents went out to these things. It would be on the local news, there would be an anti-repetitive beats law or something like that at one point, which is absolutely ludacris. Listening to techno was bad for your health. I remember it happened here in the US in 2000. It was when I first started coming to America. Techno hasn't killed me yet, still here.
I'm scared that I'm going to be like your parents, I'm still going to be going out and my kids are going to be like…
The worst a parent you are, in that respect, the better your kid. You'll have little angels. But actually, I got great parents who really loved me. They encouraged me when I was spending all their money on vinyl and not behaving.
Did your dad lend you his vinyl?
No! Never let me touch his vinyl—well he does now but not back then because not with my grubby fingerprints all over his records he would hate that. My parents were quite poor, so they could only afford one technics turntable. So for a while, I had just one Technics and belt driven turntable and I learned to mix like that. They really encouraged me and spent all their money getting me that turntable. I mean a Technics turntable back then was about 500 pounds and even if you had the money they were hard to get. They saved, and saved, and saved and with my grandparents as well they bought me one for my birthday instead of giving money towards a car. Which was the sensible option. “Are you sure you don't want a car? You sure?” Really pushing me in that direction and to get a proper job and be independent. I still don't have a car…
Suppose you never became a DJ, what were your aspirations? Or you wanted to do something else?
Well when I was at school, I was always into drawing and arts. And then I did Graphic Design. I just designed for the record label my first album cover. That's the first bit of graphic design I've done in a long time. I haven't used Photoshop for like ten years so I had to go to the Apple store and get it, and I was like oh my god, it's changed so much! But it's wicked…
Yea but after PS7 the layout hasn't changed that much…
Nothing like a CYMK tiff! Ha.
I'm a designer now so that's really cool you design stuff for your own label.
When I was actually doing a design job…
I just did my first set the week before last where I used vinyl in about five years…It was so weird because as much as I am a technology lunatic, there is a very strong sense of luddite on the other hand as well.
How long did you do that for?
Two or three years. I didn't enjoy that so much because I was designing a lot of things I didn't like for a lot of people who I thought were annoying. “Make the text bigger! No change it!” Change your mind; you have to do this now. You'd be there late at night. When you're designing stuff yourself and you're free or you get a client that gives you free reign over the look of something then it's really pleasurable to do that. It's not so pleasurable to design some like kid's party or menu for BK. Not quite so much fun.
You've so worked and machinery and Pioneer, so what is your most cherished piece of gear?
I've got an AKAI MPC3000 drum machine, which Sasha gave me when I first started DJing, that's probably my most prized possession though I've barely used it. It's more of a museum piece, it is a bit broken as well—all the buttons get stuck. But I just have it at home; even if it didn't work at all it's something I would still keep.
How's it working with Sasha, being his protégé?
He gave me my career so I'm always going to be thankful to him for giving me the chance and the leg-up. It really was a leg-up. I went from zero to like 100 in five minutes with his help.
Do you think to him often now?
Not so much, I mean occasionally we send each other emails and tracks and things. I try and arrange gigs with him where I can and vice versa. He's got family and a proper life—I'm still flying around being a little menace. It's a bit of a mutual appreciation inside of us. I really admire him as a person and as a DJ and an artist. I went from fanboy to now he's like my uncle sort of. He's in my phone as Uncle Sasha.
Aww. Are you Uncle Zabiela to his kids? Haha.
No, no. I've met his wife and his son, but I haven't met his daughter yet. I'm waiting for the invitation for Sunday dinner. But that would never come because neither of us are awake on a Sunday or we're still up. He's gonna be just like my dad ha.
That means the kids are going to turn out really well.
Exactly, they're going to be little angels.
(Enock) Do you still scratch vinyl?
This is really weird because I just did my first set the week before last where I used vinyl in about five years. It was a soft launch for the label we just gave away all our tickets for free, it was a small party in London, venue for about 600 something like that. And I played for five hours and for the first time I brought a bag of records with me. It was really nice. It was so weird because as much as I am a technology lunatic, there is a very strong sense of luddite on the other hand as well.
Which is surprising coming from you…
Yea, people don't really expect that. I was playing and the record would jump or skip and I remember how back in the day that would drive me crazy! I'd be so pissed off that the record would jump or someone had bumped into the turntable, you know, or if it skips or sounded fuzzy. When I played the other week and the record was jumping I was like “Ha!” because you don't really get that anymore.
You're starting your own label now, Born Electric—you're more than a decade into your career, what made it feel right to start your label now?
It's not something I could do on my own with all my DJing gigs trying to get back into the studio and that sort of thing. I'm not a businessman at all—anything too scary or life like freaks me out. So it was finding the right person to do it with. One of my really good friends [Mooge?] as he's known, he's running the label with me and he's really passionate about music and he's not just there in the sense he's going to be running the label we actually have a shared love for the tracks we will be A&Ring. He's helped me on many levels. I feel I've found the right person to work with. I did do a sort of record label many years ago before the digital stuff happened and we did four releases on vinyl and that was with someone else but musically we had very different ideas about the direction of the label was gonna go in.
I think its nice to give away a bit of your personality—even if its just a DJ set or whatever. Its nice to actually share something of yourself with someone that is listening.
There are a plethora of labels nowadays. What makes yours different what makes yours stand apart from everyone else's?
I think the reason I still am lucky to play out as much as I do and do gigs that are good, I never really got pigeonholed as anything and that's mostly because I like too many things. I could never just play one genre for three hours. For lot of DJs that works for them, they've got a groove and it's about one sound, and that sound defines them in their career. But being confused as I am, that's kinda worked for me in another way. It's not too much that I've been pigeonholed for this or the other so I feel that when I play I feel free to move about and not upset too many people.
You're coming up with a release, and you don't produce very often…
And this isn't even a dance record! Which is the funniest thing. The original track is does not even have a kick drum in it. The closest thing to a kick drum is me tapping on the box with my finger. There's not a drum machine in it. It's more of an album type track or song than anything.
Is it more inspired by Caribou and Four Tet?
Yea exactly like Bon Iver and Apparat and all these great albums that came out last year. John Talbot and many electronic albums I've been listening to at home more than in clubs. It kind of came from that, it's more of a song. I made my own remix of it so I could play it in the club. It's got a 1980's 12” mixes with cowbells and things. Probably play that one later. I got Hot Chip to remix it and Midland and all these people that I've been DJing with over the last year and in Ibiza and Australia and stuff.
(Enock) I know you've sampled Richie Dawkins, and Moon is one of my favorite movies, a lot of things you've sampled, I'm interested in too.
I think it's nice to give away a bit of your personality—even if it's just a DJ set or whatever. It's nice to actually share something of yourself with someone that is listening.
(Enock) Is there anything that you're reading or watching now?
I watched that Lupa film. It was no Moon but it was fun. In the Essential Mix I pillaged that film. The thing that was great about that film was there were a lot of parts where there was just a lot of dialogue. The film was very dry in many senses and it was not sweeping soundtrack all the way through it. Technically it was nice to take bits of monologue. That type of thing comes from listening very old Paul Oakenfold mixes where he sampled Blade Runner. It's really about just giving away a part of myself—this is what I'm into and this is what I believe in that sort of thing. I listen to a lot of podcasts and interviews of all sorts of people and sometimes they'll say something that I'll think “Yea I totally agree with that!” or that really resonates with me. Not only sonically does it sound nicer from someone else often with an American accent but also they can articulate in a better way than I could.
When someone emails you “Oh, that's from this,” you know they listen to that as well and you find out a bit about your audience.