For dance music fans, James Zabiela needs little introduction. The incredibly talented DJ and producer got his start famously giving a tape to Lee Burridge, who passed it along to Sasha and from there he fitted right in with those talented DJs and producers, delivering entrancing progressive productions and marathon sets to clubs around the world.
Zabiela’s latest project was to take on the Balance mix series, specifically Balance 029; something that would be an all-consuming, “cathartic” project that lasted for the better part of a year. In a year where he fought through deaths in the family, illness and more, this was his escape. Narrowing down 3,000 songs into 58 over 2 hours, Zabiela created an escape for himself and the listener. He mined for "magic moments" where songs together fit like a glove (not OJ’s glove), either allowing them to do the work or essentially producing a new song out of the existing parts.
The first mix is more melodic and subtle, growing as the mix goes on, while the second CD feels more like one of his sets with bigger house cuts, expertly cut and woven together.
We had the pleasure of talking to Zabiela for some time to discuss the compilation and get some much needed wisdom on streaming, working hard in music, DJing, being the first UK DJ in Romania and much more. Pre-order the compilation here and read on for the full interview.
RM: Did you go into the process knowing how you wanted it to sound or rather a clean slate?
James Zabiela: Probably at very first, no, because I thought I was going to collect loads of music and find the best music. That is always the plan when you start one of these things. But then I started to think about it a bit more and then I wanted to make these, it sounds kind of corny, magical mix moments. Occasionally when you are Djing you get these two tracks that mix and harmonize in such an amazing way that makes your hair standup. I wanted to make some of those moments in the mix. The only way of doing that was collecting a real shit ton of music and then trying stuff out.
So I would sit there for hours colliding tracks together mining for those moments and I did actually find quite a few of them. I may have found more than I needed. I had to get rid of some of them to fit them all on the mix in a way that made sense. It became this project to find these moments and it was pretty time consuming compared to the way I would normally make a mix, but I wanted to challenge myself. At times I thought, “Why can’t I just pick 12 tracks and mix them together.” You don’t really feel like you have achieved something unless you have struggled with it.
RM: How many songs did you pick and how did you pick them?
JZ: In order to find these moments, I had to find so much music and anything I would consider putting on this, I would really have to be in love with it. It is a mix compilation with my name on it. I couldn’t just choose the ones that were ok. I ended up with a playlist with about 3,000 tracks.
RM: Oh wow.
JZ: Yeah haha. I think they licensed over 100 tracks and then it got narrowed down to 50 something in the end.
RM: Did you have any songs that you wanted, but you couldn’t license?
JZ: There were a few, but it is always with these vinyl only tracks. They are the tough ones because the labels just want their releases out strictly on vinyl, which I can appreciate. There were a couple I wanted to license, but couldn’t because of that reason. They don’t want their tracks on Spotify. It is quite nice because now I have those tracks to use in another way such as a radio mix or something like that. Also as time goes by, with those vinyl only tracks, once they are out of press, the labels are more relaxed and you can license it for something else.
It is quite restricting when you make these commercially available mix compilations because you can have a perfect idea of how you want the mix to go – for example one of the things that happened, it turned out for the better in the end, but I had it the first mix all worked out. Then I couldn’t license the opening track haha because the label were worried it had a sample in it I don’t think they cleared and they didn’t want to draw attention to. I am not going to name what it is, but they didn’t want to license it. It made me change the mix in quite a big way and it was probably for the better for that.
RM: You talk about deconstructing these songs. Was that instrumental in seeing or finding those moments?
JZ: Yeah for sure. But in other places like the Debussy remix with the Island People track, I literally just placed them together; I didn’t even have to EQ them. There were loops made out of loops. I looped the piano from the Debussy thing and the Island People song was edited slightly to be a bit shorter and make sense when the bassline comes in. It is quite weird when you get those points where you don’t have to do anything.
There were a few bits like that and then there were a few that were super complicated where I had to do frequency separations to get tracks together. On the second mix there is a two-track mashup for the whole time of SHDW & Obscure Shape over the top of Fabrizio Lapiana and that I had to separate into different channels then side chain like a muted kick drum where the bass hits. It got really nerdy.
RM: How do you compare that to what you do with your live sets?
JZ: That for example became like a production. There were a lot of intricacies. Every time I found one of those moments, where I kind of got a cold sweat, my hair was standing up. I was looking for those moments, which are obviously inspired by the DJ sets, so there is a link there. But when you are playing out live, you can slam stuff together and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
I think especially in this day and age where you can play with laptops synced together perfectly, I can try and keep that original spirit of DJing on vinyl and mixing and not using the sync. When you sit down to make something like this, it hard to not be a perfectionist. It is quite strange actually because a lot of the mix albums I like listening to are quite wonky and rough and I like things that have mistakes in them. When you actually come to make something yourself, it is hard to get yourself into that frame of mind.
With my own track on the first disk, I wanted this sort of broken tape feel to it, so I used an OP1 and chopped up bits of vocal and stuttered them and recorded stuff through a crappy headphone jack cable and didn’t bother to put it through a nice sound card or anything. I added loads of fuzz and changed the sample rates, so they were lower, because I wanted it to sound kind of crappy. The track that follows it kind of sounds like that as well. I cut short the first mix, so it sounded like a tape running out. I found it so hard to make things sound worse on purpose. It was something I was really struggling with. There is some sort of OCD tendency I couldn’t get over, but it was important to do.
RM: This mix took a long time to make, over a year….
JZ: Yeah, it took a long time. I would pick it up and then put it down a lot because I had so many things going on at home. There were so many interruptions. There were weeks where I didn’t look at it and weeks where I focused completely on it. Even though it took a year, it was in intervals. In a way it was good. It was pretty all consuming, because it was going on for so long, but in a way it was good that I had lots of little breaks from it because it gave me some perspective on the mix.
Actually I handed in two versions of the first mix and three versions of the second mix and changing things a lot, moving things around and trying different combinations. Because I worked on it for that length of time – I handed it in in late November-- it enabled me to get to somewhere I where I didn’t said “wait I wish I did that.”
RM: You wrote that it became an unhealthy obsession. How so and when did you know?
ZB: When I was trying to find those moments I would just be sitting there for hours running on empty fumes sometimes colliding tracks together and it got really silly. I would be up all night just trying stuff. 2017 was a pretty crappy year for me personally – some deaths in the family, illness and some bad things that happened. I sort of focused all of my attention on this mix. So it became quite cathartic. It became a sort of life raft in a way.
RM: How were you able to say this is done?
JZ: I actually said that a few times, but the final time I just had the feeling, I just knew. I thought I knew the week before but then a couple of days later I realized “oh no this is wrong!” It was silly really because I had missed so many deadlines. I was meant to hand it in September and didn’t get it in until November so I may have just given up with these moving goalposts. When I handed it in the last time, after a week went by I still felt good about it and that is when I knew.
I handed it in at such an awkward time, right before Christmas, when nobody wants to release any music. Tom the label manager at Balance, he wanted to get the mix out by November to make the end of year lists for magazines. Once it was clear that we weren’t going to get it in for that time because releasing it for Christmas is a really bad time period because nobody has any money to spend on things and everybody is preoccupied, not looking at what is coming out musically. I know that from buying a lot of records, not a lot happens in December. After a couple of weeks into January, the vinyl starts to appear again. So that is why it is coming out in February. I actually did drive the master guy crazy fiddling with it so many times.
RM: It could just be me, but it seems like mix compilations are making a come back?
JZ: I think because there are less of them, they are more valued. There were so many of them at one point and no one ever really makes any money out of these. I don’t know if Tom will ever recoup the money he spends in licensing, I feel pretty awful about it because we licensed so many tracks. When you do something like this, not just me, but Tom, who is the label owner, everyone is doing for the right reasons. They are doing it for the love of doing something like this. I think it is easy to find DJ mixes on SoundCloud, but when you release something like this commercially it is a lot more effort and so many more parts to it.
I think people still like to collect things, I know I do. I go on discogs and buy old ‘80s records and weird things. I bought the Bon Iver record on cassette tape. That is such a hipster thing to admit to haha. I think people are yearning for things to have and hold after the real boom of streaming. I am all for streaming, I have a Spotify account and probably use it everyday.
I am having fun with the other aspects of this mix, promotion etc. With that schematic they sent you right?
RM: Yeah I got it.
JZ: That took a couple of hours to draw in Adobe Illustrator. The graphic designer made it look nice and colored it blue. But I had to sit there and draw all of the boxes and go into my Ableton session and make sure everything was lined up properly. I actually messed that up and handed that in twice. But it is roughly right and pretty much there, so if you follow along it makes sense.
RM: You got your break giving a demo to Lee Burridge in a club who gave it to Sasha. Do you get any demos in a similar way?
JZ: People usually give me tracks. That is the way in these days. Back then when I was handing out tapes, producers weren’t around so much. Now if you have a laptop you can make a track. Back then if you were making music, you had to have loads of hardware and a studio. I was kind of lucky; I got in purely through DJing.
I have never really been in a position of power like Sasha was. At the time he had his own agency with Lee Burridge, Craig Richards to begin with, Nick Warren, Steve Lawler, Hybrid, who were massive at the time, that sort of progressive sound. It was huge around the early 2000s. So I was plucked from obscurity and put amongst those guys and I became their warm up DJ. I remember they sent me to Romania. There is an amazing music scene in Romania now, but I was the first UK DJ to go to Romania that this guy Jon out there is a big promoter for a company called Sunwaves and owns a club called Kristal. I was sent there as a sort of guinea pig.
RM: What year was this?
JZ: That was ’99, 2000. I try and help people when I can. I have got a small record label Born Electric and really it is just a vehicle for just that if someone sends me a demo that is sitting on my hard drive for too long, I will try and help them by putting it out. There is this guy Jody Barr we just put out his record and we always try and get someone to remix his or her track that the artist is a fan of. We let the artist choose the artwork. Kind of the way with this mix compilation – get them involved and do something creative.
RM: You give them control.
JZ: To a degree. We give them a template. I put out a track from one of my friends, Pedram and he is quite a political person. The artwork I objected to, but we put it out in the end. It was a pig’s heart in someone’s hand. It was very artistic picture, but very gross. In retrospect it would have been better to do in black white and not look like something out of a horror movie.
RM: What else do you have planned for 2018?
JZ: I don’t know really. This was good to get past the line because it has two of my tracks on it. I haven’t put any of my own music out in a long time, five years maybe. I got really scared about it. That was another reason why I got really stressed about this mix. It is in the contract that I had to put two of my bits in the release, so I had to finish off some of my own stuff, which had just been hiding away from people on my computer. Being able to sneak them into a mix compilation eased the pressure.
I am actually getting a remix made for “Vines” at the moment, but that isn’t really a dance record, even the remix isn’t really a dance record. That is more of a Spotify record, something to just listen to. That is going to be next after this. Because I have broken though the barrier of putting out music, I can go and make something for fun and put it out without worrying about it too much. So a couple of singles or an EP.