James Zabiela: From the school disco to the world stage
Watching James Zabiela work his magic behind the decks is always a treat. Unlike certain DJs who stand there sullen-faced, pre-occupied with twiddling knobs, James bounds around like a excited puppy. His blond locks bounce up and down as he works his way through a high-energy selection of music, a smile on his face throughout. It’s a joy to behold.
James launched his new record label Born Electric this week and, just ahead of his appearance at the Boiler Room recently, I had a little chat with him about the new venture, his past and his future.
You’ve been around for a little while, why start a label now?
The real reason is because I want to be able to work with my peers and heroes. In a stalker-ish way, it’s a means of getting to people. For the next single we’ve got Benjamin Damage and Doc Daneeka doing a remix. I’m a big fan of Modeselektor and 50 Weapons stuff. That’s the thing that excites me the most. My label partner Mooj, he’s just interested in putting out new music he loves and from people who aren’t necessarily well-known. We want to cultivate a family and put on events with these kinds of people and maybe even release albums at some point. Also, I’ve always had projects to do in the past – compilations and stuff – and I didn’t really feel like doing those any more. It’s still nice to do a mix comp, but I enjoy the free ones I give away online more. It’s nice not to have those projects and have something bigger to get my teeth into.
You strike me as a man who’s always involved in one project or another.
Yeah, it’s nice to have something to build and work towards. I did get a bit sick of compilations though because you have to do the whole travelling salesman thing and tour the records and try to flog them. For the last couple of years I just DJ’d for the fun of it and there was no objective other than to just do great gigs. It was very liberating. Now I’ve done that and I’m ready for something else.
When did you make the decision to get Born Electric up and running?
Ages ago. Probably about a year ago now, maybe longer. It took me about six months to even come up with a name. It was going to be called Positronic because of the little parties we’d done in the past.
Where did the name come from in the end?
Positronic was a bit too sci-fi/geeky and everyone knows me for that. With the first track being mine, it’s not a gimmicky thing so I wanted to do something that was less geeky – for want of a better term.
You’ve moved beyond the standard DJ set up of a couple of decks and a mixer. When did you first start experimenting with other DJ tools?
I think it was when Pioneer gave me some money off an EFX-500 – it stems from a love of computer games. I ditched my Xbox for FX units, but weirdly it feels like the same thing. It’s all pushing buttons in time. Being able to do what you can do now is amazing. When I first started out with belt drive turntables, it was unfathomable what you can do now and it’s rapidly evolving.
As it’s moving so fast, how do you keep up with everything?
Pioneer have been a big support, I’ve been to their HQ in Japan and I test their products now and help them out with product development. So every now and then they turn up at my house with something new for me to break and I mess around with it, complain if it doesn’t work properly, write various reports and send them off to Japan, hoping they can understand what I’m talking about. I’m not sponsored by them, it’s something I do for fun – I get the equipment before anyone else and give my opinion on it, which is amazing.
What kind of games were you into as a kid? Were you a SEGA or Nintendo man?
Nintendo all the way. One of my best friends was a SEGA-head and we were viciously opposed. Sonic versus Mario. I was massively into Streetfighter 2 and I got into doing all the combos and had all the names for them – it’s a similar thing to doing feedback loops on the effects unit.
Who were your favourite characters?
Ryu, Ken and Guile. Those three were the most fun ones, you could get quite deep into the combos with them. The triple-hit Dragon Punch, the spacing between each character working out where you could launch your attacks and so on.
How long have you been DJing now?
I actually did the school disco, I guess that counts. I had one turntable and a CD player. I couldn’t mix and I used my friend’s speakers – not quite a professional club set up! At that time, I would’ve said that was my first proper gig, but I didn’t learn to mix until a while after that. I was more into scratching. One of my friends was a scratch DJ, we used to watch MTV Raps with Dr Dre, but we just used to watch the guy in the background doing the scratching – he fascinated me. That was what I really got into at first and it wasn’t until I did work experience at a record shop called Movement in Southampton when I learned to mix. It wasn’t exactly busy during the summer so the manager there taught me how to mix one slow Monday afternoon and I really got into it after that.
What was your entry point into dance music?
I was massively into progressive house – Sasha, Digweed, I love it and thought everything else was crap. I got into those guys through the way they mixed. They were just playing turntables, but they were doing these almost seamless three-minute harmonic mixes and I started to emulate them, which really got me into the music.
A lot of people mention Sasha and Digweed as being their idols in terms of putting together an incredibly cohesive, harmonious set.
Yeah and obviously things have moved on a lot since then. The turntables we have at the Boiler Room tonight have sync buttons on them, but that’s just progression I suppose. But there is something to be said for playing warped acetates! It takes quite a lot of concentration to work with those kind of things. With a sync button, you can just push it if you want to. I’m hoping I won’t need it tonight. To be honest, it’s not much fun. If it allows you to do something else over the top with effects or scratching then cool, but I still enjoy beatmatching. I do it for myself as much as anyone else.
One of the most important things as a DJ is to keep yourself interesting in what you’re doing, otherwise the crowd can see that you’re bored. You’re a good example of someone who always looks like they’re having a great time, bouncing around behind the decks!
I’m glad you said that actually because I did have a period where I was using Traktor for about eight months – again, it’s a great program and you can do loads with it – but so many people abuse it with the sync button. Even the levels get normalized. I used it for eight months because I like to experiment with stuff and I did play around with the sync, but I found myself standing around getting bored or getting itchy fingers and playing with effects too much.
The beauty of just having a set of 1210s is that you’re restricted, all you have is the decks and the mixer.
You hear a lot of producers use that word – restriction. When they work off old analogue equipment – I read an interview with Blawan and he was saying that he just works off this one synth and it really helped him because he was only able to do a limited amount. When you get so attached to a piece of equipment, you know it inside out and then you start making some really cool stuff.
What does your family think about what you do?
My dad’s an ex-raver, he was more into techno though. He’s super proud and probably a little bit smug because when I was growing up I detested dance music – because that’s what he was playing.
Has he been to any of your gigs?
Yeah he’s been out to a few. I took my sister to Ibiza for the first time last year as well. She’s seven years younger than me and she’s more into trance – she’s into Armin Van Burren. She started off with hard house and I reckon it won’t be long before she mellows down a bit more.
I just played after Armin Van Burren in Peru. It was absolutely terrifying, thousands of people going nuts and I had to come on and somehow play after him. I just played my biggest, fastest set and I survived. It’s good to challenge yourself with gigs like that, but as I came on I had to get his autograph for my sister! I was there like “Can you sign my CD? It’s not for me, honest!”.
I wanted to ask you about the mix of Goldie’s Inner City Life that you played at EXIT last year… who made it?
I’ve got a good story about that track. The first time I played EXIT in 2006 and I was closing – it’s a bootleg by Glen from Future Funk Squad – Goldie was there! I wasn’t going to play it, I didn’t even have the CD. I had it on my iPod and I had just about enough battery to plug it in and Goldie got on the mic. I’ll remember that moment forever, it was one of my first really big gigs and an important set. The sun was coming up and it’s one of those magical moments that will stay with me forever. I have to stop thinking about it because every time I do an interview and get asked about my best gigs I always mention that one even though I’ve had so many other amazing times since.
The track came out on a white label I think, but I remember Goldie MCing over it and being really happy I’d played it but once I’d finished he was like “Who made that? Have you got his number?” [Laughs].
The Healing by James Zabiela is out now on Born Electric, for more information on James visit his Facebook page HERE.
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