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Interview

James Zabiela on "The Healing" and being Born Electric

By Brittany Gaston
zabiela

“Creation is always happening. Every time an individual has a thought, or a prolonged, chronic way of thinking—they’re in the creation process—something is going to manifest out of those thoughts.” 

James Zabiela embodies these words, spoken on an acapella from his highly revered Paradigm Shift series of mixes. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching Zabiela DJ, you’ve noticed the myriad gadgets adorning his workspace. Sometimes, he seems so busy on stage that he looks like a court stenographer on a high-profile homicide case. For him, creation is in fact always happening, so every set is a poignant and eclectic journey through his mind and tastes.

Zabiela is not only a world-renowned producing DJ, but also an audial architect pioneering today’s electronic  music industry—whether he’s aware of it or not. As the world celebrates the launch of his anticipated new label, Born Electric, and his new track, “The Healing,” I find myself celebrating something completely different—his grace.

Did you do your guest mix on Above & Beyond’s Group Therapy radio show already?

Actually, I did it earlier in the week, but yeah, they’re putting it out tonight.

Well, you’ve had a very good week! Born Electric launched, “The Healing” remixes were released…

Yeah, the vinyl, actually, came this morning and [I’ve] seen it for the first time, with the artwork and such, and it’s really quite nice.

How does it feel to go from inception to actually holding it in your hands?

It’s so weird! I mean, it took me ages to make the thing, and then obviously, to start the record label and do all the legal stuff that you have to do—promote it, and this kind of thing—it’s pretty surreal to finally get a physical item. And I’m glad I did do digital and vinyl, because even though I don’t play vinyl when I play out, or hardly ever, it’s just nice to have at home… It’s kinda like having your certain dream or your project as a physical item—it was quite an emotional experience when I opened the box.

Aww… Did you get all teary-eyed?

Yeah, but that’s just the flu talking [laughs].

Well, maybe you can channel your new-found emotions into a soap opera or telenovela or something. 

It seems quite ironic that the day I get a nasty cold, a record comes in the post that’s called “The Healing.”

Well, then it was definitely meant to be! Let’s talk about Born Electric for a minute. Why did it take you so long to have your own label? I feel like you, out of the majority of artists out right now, have a mind that is so calculated and you think really intently about whatever you put out. So what took you so long to have your own imprint?

Well, actually, many, many years ago, when I was very young and naïve, I had a label called Hearing Aid and it was vinyl only—actually, I think it was before Beatport was around—and I was far too young to be doing that. And the person I was running the label with, we had different ideas about what should be done musically, and I wasn’t really ready for it at all. And I guess that kinda put me off a little bit as well. I think I’m a bit of a control freak, so I wanted to have a label where I had total control over A&R. But as I’ve realized, of the past couple of moths of research, a lot of these guys…no one really does it on their own, you know? And with my DJing and touring schedule, there was no way I could do it on my own. So I think I finally found the right person to work with on the label and we’ve got the same ideas musically and he’s like a really good old friend of mine, and it just feels right. The timing is right as well.

And also, with the track I made, I didn’t really wanna give it to another label [laughs]. Like I said, I wanted to have complete control over it, and how it was perceived—you know, from the artwork, to vinyls pressed, and limited-edition versions with t-shirts and all that. I just wanted to make something special that I would want to buy. You know, I’m a big fan of 50 Weapons, Modeselektor’s label, and they do probably just as much merchandise as their music. Often, I’ll buy all their stuff digitally, but I’ll also end up buying the yellow vinyl 10” versions, and that’s really what I like. I’m a collector; I’ve always been a collector of these sort of things.

A man of collections.

[Laughs] Exactly!

It took you three months to finish your Resident Advisor mix… [both laugh]. How long does it take you to finish your planning for artwork and all that?

[Laughs] Oh, it’s a nightmare, honestly! The artwork is actually a photo I took on the train at about 6:00 in the morning in the summer, right when the sun was coming up, on my way to the airport—I just took it with my iPhone. It’s rather homemade, but I kinda like that sort of thing as well, you know? I think next week I have to pack all the vinyl into this limited-edition pizza box we’ve made, and I’m gonna be sitting in my room, you know, doing it from home and taking them to the post office. But I kinda like that. But yeah, it does take me an age to do anything, like that mix that’s going out on Above & Beyond’s show tonight, I thought, “Ah, it’s a half-hour mix—how long could it take? I’m just gonna do it live,” ’cause a lot of times when I do mixes, like the RA mix, for example, that sort of stepped into the realms of remixing and production. If you open the file, it was done in Ableton, so there’s a little bit of live stuff in there, like some scratching and that, so it was more of a sequence.

Kinda like your Paradigm mixes?

Yeah, yeah, kinda like that. Yeah, I do those in the same way, so I wanted to do this one live, and I just did the Boiler Room thing last week as well.

Yes! I saw that! It was awesome!

[Laughs] Thanks! So I did this in kinda a similar way; did it in one take, did it live, but it still took me all day! I actually think I did it Sunday night, slept on it, woke up the next day, and like…I’m just really anal about mixing…I’m like tearing my hair out and—

No! Don’t do that! Your hair is so beautiful! [Both laugh]

So I woke up the next day, and I did it all over again! And I changed it as well! I definitely over-thought it.

So what sort of things are you going to be releasing on Born Electric? Do you have a certain sound in mind? Or just things you like?

Yeah, I suppose it’s just things that I like, but my tastes are very varied, I think. There’s still like a certain thing I like about each track, and the first release is a good example. There’s the Hot Chip remix, and the Midland mix, and the Clubland mix, and they’re all quite drastically different. And there’s another track I played on the Boiler Room set that a lot of people have been asking about, and that’s probably going to be the next Born Electric release. That’s kinda like a nice housey, vocal, soulful thing. But yeah, at the moment, I’ve not set myself to any boundaries—just basically what I’m into.

Since it’s still in its blossoming phase, do you have a plan for the next year of what you want the label to put out?

I was reading this thing, I think it was FACT Magazine, like six months back, where they had this article like, ‘How to start your own label.’ And they asked all these different people, like the Pearson Sound guys. They were talking about how they only work three releases ahead. If you get too many on the boil, so to speak, then you wind up behind. So as long as we have like two in the oven ready to go [laughs], I’m quite happy with that. You know, I speak to some friends of mine who have their own labels, and they’ve got like the whole year planned out. But how can you know what’s gonna happen in a year, you know? I think if I sat on a track for a year, I’d be quite sick of it by the time it came out and it wouldn’t get the necessary love and attention that it needed from me. So, yeah, as long as there’s two or three ready to go… I thought that was a good bit of advice.

I like that you put so much of yourself into your work and mixes. I find that a lot of things currently get mass-produced or even diluted to, you know, just have that next release ready to go, so I appreciate you going through the work of that…especially if it takes you three months to finish a mix. I can only imagine planning things a year in advance is just not a good idea at all! [Both laugh] Looking at yourself as an artist—actually, I’m going to preface this question first. I play musical instruments, and both of my parents are musical, and growing up, I’ve found that creative minds think differently than those who are trained in science, and numbers, and things like that. I feel that some of it you’re born with—“born electric,” if you will. As an artist, how much do you feel you were born with? And how much of your talent do you believe you acquired along the way?

My friend Matt just said to me the other day, “genius is just repetition,” you know? You just practice and practice until you become the best at it. So I kinda think that as far as my DJing skills, and stuff like that, I do practice, maybe not on purpose, like I’ll go play around in my studio and have fun, but subconsciously, as I’m messing about with that stuff, I’m practicing, so I guess, it doesn’t come that naturally. You just do it again and again until you’re good at it. But back to what you said about there being two different types of people in the world, I’m a bit of a creative one I guess. I was always drawing and I wanted to be an artist—actually, I studied graphic design for a while—and I think I have that sort of mind. I’m not actually very good at maths and stuff [Mr. Mackey from Southpark voice] “numbers and things” [laughs].

Well, you’re good with numbers in the sense that you can count measures.

[Both laugh] Yeah, I can count to four.

Yeah, DJs can only count to four—that’s as high as they can go—actually, that’s pure fact, I’m not sure you knew that.

Really?

Yeah, Google told me! From here on out, where do you see yourself going from what you have already established as an artist?

Where do I see myself going? I don’t really know. I think this release is sort of a, ummm… it kinda feels like a benchmark in my career. But it also feels like a new start in some ways. I do feel a little like I’m starting again, with some things, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing, really. It’s nice to have a renewed refreshed mindset of stuff.

Is there anything you’d like to add for the Beatport audience before I let you go?

Going back to why I started Born Electric, as a bit of a fanboy of music, it gives me the opportunity to work with people that I see as my peers or people that I’m a huge fan of. it’s a little bit of the geeky, record shop, music-nerd thing [laughs].