From the moment he delivered his first 12”, “Air & Lack Thereof” (Hemlock, 2009), James Blake has been an outsider in this thing called dubstep. Though he considers himself to have grown up musically in the club, he has rarely been perceived as a producer for the dancefloor, but rather as an experimentalist playing with laidback tempos and samples of his own vocals, inspired by the most cutting edge techniques in UK garage. He is, therefore, a pioneer of post-dubstep (i.e., the vaporisation of the solid rhythm and the thick basslines of pre-2008 dubstep, exemplified on labels such as Tempa), and he’s never ceased to look for different ways of working. It has taken him towards working more and more with organic instruments (the grand piano on “Klavierwerke EP”, his second 12” on R&S; after the first, “CMYK EP”, where the synthesiser ruled) and with his own voice, which went from being just another element in the rhythmic design of his pieces to being the centre of his sound. On his debut album, “James Blake” (A&M-Universal, 2011), the architecture of abstract beats has been replaced with a more singer-songwriter-like structure, although he doesn’t always use the “song” format. Blake plays with the depth of space, the aesthetic of the echo, and trusts in what silence can say as much as what notes can.
Nobody understands sound like he does (at least, in the insular scene of the London underground, where he has chose exile, an island with few communications with the outside world, a kind of personal utopia), and it’s taken him to a strange place: acclaimed for the way he deformed dubstep, attacked for ignoring certain purist rules. Up close, Blake seems reserved, though not arrogant; self-assured, but always ready to learn something new. He clearly knows what he wants, and speaks clearly and coherently, which helps explain why he’s one of the key artists to understanding which ways one could go on the electronic underground, in order to reach a different audience, a broader and more open-minded one.
The presence of the voice in your music is interesting: at first it sounded dehumanised and fragmented, but little by little, it became more important, until finally, in stead of manipulating it in the studio, you showed you can sing, too. Now the voice is the centrepiece. Does instrumental music no longer interest you?
No, it’s not that. My background is dance music in its entirety. If you get the opportunity to see me DJ, you’ll see. I still write beats and produce dance music. Of everything I do, that’s what takes up most of my time.
What music do you play out?
I’ve got lots of new stuff in my bag, mine and by friends; tracks that are only beats, without vocals, some remixes people made for me and a lot of music I don’t usually get associated with but which I do like: house; some Arthur Russell material. Not everything I play is dubstep.
Live, your voice is even more powerful than on your album, where, with all the studio trickery, one could think you’re trying to camouflage some technical limitation. And although not everybody can be an opera singer or a great soul voice, you can notice the improvement in you more recently. Where have you been hiding those vocal chords?
They were always there, only I didn’t know. When I started to record my voice, it was still developing. I liked to sing, but I didn’t know how far I could go. Let’s say my way of singing wasn’t consistent yet. I knew I had something and I just trusted on it coming out sooner or later, which is why I’ve been practising over the past months. In the four months I’ve been on the road I have noticed some changes, I feel it’s stronger now, I can sing better live. I always thought there was more.
Did you take classes for this tour?
No, no, not at all. It’s been a natural process, a training. Practise and habit have brought me here.
What’s your first memory as a singer? Did you sing as a kid, in front of the mirror, like many people?
When I was 4 or 5 years old. My dad played the Ukelele and I used to sing along. But never in front of a mirror. Generally, music comes to me in an abstract way, without any image attached to it. Sometimes the lyrics come first, it turns into a poetic exercise, and from there it naturally becomes a song. But that happens rarely. The first thing I do, most of the time, is the beat.
A while ago, your friends Mount Kimbie congratulated you on your growth as an artist. They compared the memory of you walking around with a super cheap keyboard that to the grand pianos you play on now, if you ask for one. What do you remember of those days?
We used to do shows with Mount Kimbie, and we used to carry the equipment around ourselves, and I would have my keyboard with me. The best shows I did were with them, the tour we did together was one of the greatest experiences in my life. I learned a lot from it: how to produce, how to behave on stage, it was a full year of DJing, making beats …
How did you get in touch with the dubstep scene?
By listening to it the music. I always try to learn from the best producers. At first I was hugely inspired by Mala, I used to go and see him play every time I could and I bought all of Digital Mystikz’s stuff. Little by little, I discovered the people with whom I started to work, Untold from the Hemlock label, and from there one I got to know the FWD nights, I used to go to Plastic People every week. Then I got in touch with Ben UFO, Pangaea and Ramadanman, from Hessle Audio, and we clicked. We talked a lot and I used to send them things, they liked what I was doing. They’re really good people.
On the first singles you released on Hemlock and Hessle Audio, you used your voice as a percussive element, cut-up and reconfigured, following the pattern of Todd Edwards. Are you a fan of American garage, or did you get to that sound in another way?
I never really listened to American garage when I started out, I wasn’t familiar with Todd Edwards in those days. But I had heard a lot of UK garage, there was a lot of stuff I liked on the radio and in the clubs. But at the time I didn’t know much about dance music. When I used to go to jungle places I couldn’t identify the tunes the DJs were playing. I never minded, I just went with the music. When dubstep came, I was already deeply into the scene.
You said before you were carrying stuff by Arthur Russell in your DJ bag. Has he been of any influence on you?
No, I had never heard his stuff before I recorded the album, I just used the voice without caring much about the rest. I read a couple of reviews of my album where he was mentioned and I thought that was interesting, so I bought a couple of his records. After listening to them, what can I say? If they compare me to him, it’s an honour. He hasn’t been an influence, obviously, but I do admire him and how prolific he was, and how perfect he left his music before he died.
That thing you said in Spin magazine, people talked about that, it was pretty controversial …
Yes, I said that “remixing is like musical prostitution”. I have something to say about that.
That’s where I wanted to go. It seems a strange thing to say for someone so connected to the underground and DJ culture. It doesn’t make sense.
I was referring to the remixes on demand, which is something completely different from what I was doing. In the past ten years, what we understand as remixing has changed completely. Now, it’s an industry, not always driven by the love or respect for music, but by pure financial reasons: remixes that are used to sell, artists who accept remixes in order to make some extra money. I’m not saying there aren’t any good results any more, there are and some truly great music has come from them, but that doesn’t change the fact that behind all of it there’s big bucks and nothing more. When I said that accepting a remix is like selling oneself, I meant to say it with a sense of pride, of believing in the music. The fact that they offer me 2,000 dollars for a remix doesn’t make me proud. It’s good money, but that’s it.
But you’ve done remixes for people close to your music.
And I’ve done remixes to have a tool as a DJ. Sometimes people tell me, “What are you on about, you’ve remixed Beyoncé!” Err, no I didn’t. Nobody from Sony has come up to me and said “We’ll give you so many thousands of dollars to do a remix.” I’ve released bootlegs I made and I didn’t earn a penny off them. All the remixes I’ve done have always been for friends, for people I consider my family, whose work I admire, or what they release on their labels. Spin twisted my words into something I didn’t want to say.
However, there are no remixes of your recent music. It’s as if you were opposing to someone handling your tracks.
I asked Mount Kimbie to do a remix of “Limit To Your Love”, but they wouldn’t.
It’s true. They didn’t want to, they said that it was perfect the way it was, they wouldn’t touch it. I gave them some time to think about it, but no. “We can’t make it better, really,” they said. What could I do? But there are remixes of my music though, I just haven’t released them yet. I keep them for my DJ sets. Because, I often ask myself, who would want to listen to this on a record?
Well, your fans, for starters...
Well, yes, I’m sure many people would want to have it on vinyl, but me not releasing them is not because they’re not good enough or because I want them all to myself. What I want is to offer the people who come to my DJ sets something different, something exclusive, something to make it worth their while. As I think that is the function music should have, I don’t see any reason to release them.
On the other hand, instead of remixes, on your singles you include new and unreleased tracks. Are you trying to vindicate the old and noble custom of the B-side of the pop singles?
No, not really. They’re not B-sides. They’re tracks I decided to not put on the record, because I don’t like to fill a CD just because; it’s better when it’s succinct. But once I had discarded the tracks, I listened to them again and, well, maybe they wouldn’t fit on the album, but on their own they’re fine. So we decided to use them for the vinyl singles, for the fans. But they’re never “Side A” and “Side B”: they’re “Side A” and “Side AA”, like the R&S singles.
A question that may sound strange: why don’t you follow anyone on Twitter? Don’t you want to be in touch with your fans?
I don’t manage my Twitter account, my manager does. It’s mainly a channel to announce ticket sales, dates, releases and so on. I’m not on the Internet that much, I’m not on any social network. I’m rather analogue in that sense. I do talk to people, but in person, like I’m doing with you, or at concerts.
Speaking of release dates, are you preparing something new?
In a month or so I’ll release a new single. I can’t say anything about it, no title or label. I can only say it’s going to be a beats-only release, and on an independent label.
Are you getting ready for a return to your origins, maybe Hemlock or Hessle Audio?
Really, I can’t say anything more!
“The Wilhelm Scream”
PlayGround is a media partner of San Miguel Primavera Sound
When he played at Primavera Sound recently, we spoke to James Blake about his sound, his future and his voice, but mostly about how he sees his role in music right now. And by the way, he has nothing against remixes.