Robert James: From mortar attacks to dancefloor destruction
Almost a year ago to the day I met Robert James at WMC in Miami. I was already aware of who he was and what he did – as a member of the Hot Creations crew, he’d had numerous releases via Jamie Jones’ popular label and its subsidiaries and he’d also been travelling the world as one of the crew’s main DJs. Hot Creations are undoubtedly one of the most popular exponents of the contemporary house music scene, and Rob is one of the nicest guys in the scene with an interesting history that involves serving Queen and country in the army, so a chat was in order… it took us almost a year, but we got there in the end. Here’s the resulting interview…
You’re always super busy, I mean how long has it taken us to sort this out?
I know, it’s been nearly a year, since Miami..
So how did it all go last summer?
It was a really good summer, I went over to Ibiza in 2007, 08 and 09 and I’d kind of had enough of it all – because, during those years, I went in May and didn’t get back ’til October, didn’t leave the island, just full-on… but last year, I’d had a couple of years break so I did July, part of August and September. Because I had gigs at weekends, it was nice breaking it up a bit – not like I was taking a break, but it was nice to go to hotels and have room service for a bit then go back to the island. The only thing is, I didn’t get much work done, I mean studio stuff…
Yeah I noticed 2012 was pretty quiet for you, production-wise.
That’s it, but I’m back now. I’ve got my studio sorted and I’ve been in every day for the last month. I’ve got some tracks ready to be finished off, so I’m gonna get more stuff out this year.
When did you start producing?
I started DJing at the end of 2004 in Blackpool, and started producing when I got back from Ibiza in 2008 and then really got into it in 2009. I had my first release in 2010, it was just over a year after I’d started when I had my first release on Hot Creations – going to Ibiza last year meant I got nothing done; I’d go to Circo Loco on Monday, that would last until Wednesday, then we had Paradise on Thursday, then straight into the weekend and off to a few gigs elsewhere and back to Ibiza for Monday. Paradise went really well, I played there about four times – it couldn’t have gone better, I can’t wait for this year.
It seems like you’re flying at the moment…
Yeah it’s good, but this year I want to step it up steadily. Last year I had so many gigs and it was good, but I’m 27 years old and I don’t want to rush into things. I want to get a few more releases out this year but I don’t want to go “BOOM!” and flood it too much. I’m quite happy with a steady ascent… I always mention Jamie, he’s five years older than me, so when I look at it in five years time, you know… If you step off too much, people could take your place – it’s about the balance and I’m going to keep building it up and maybe in a few years do an album.
Have you found it easy to get back into production?
At first everything was going tits up, I bought some speakers off someone and they broke, then I bought a synth and, as soon as I plugged it, I blew the fuse – everything was just… pffff. But I’ve got my studio all set up now, I’ve got the new Maschine set up and a few little bits and bobs to get me on the way. It’s good because I haven’t been in London much it’s nice to get my room sorted – the only thing is, my studio’s at the end of my bed so it’s a bit like… ! It would be nice to have the studio out of my house, on Mondays I move my iMac to the end of the desk and end up watching TV shows in bed! I’ve just finished Broadwalk Empire season three actually!
So how did Robert James from Blackpool end up travelling the world as a DJ?
Not a lot of things come out of Blackpool! Well, there are a few things – Death On The Balcony come from Blackpool, the Pet Shop Boys.. Les Dawson! I came out of the army in 2005, I bought some decks while I was serving, but I was more into Hip Hop, DJ Shadow, Mr Scruff, DJ Yoda, more instrumental stuff and a lot of old school stuff. I was back in Blackpool in 2005 and I was in and out of jobs for two years – I had some decks in my room, and played a few house parties. The first house party I played was a mate’s 21st and I couldn’t even mix! There’s a club near where I’m from called The Peppermint Lounge and this guy did these nights there every week with different genres each night, we had our own night there once a month called Kicking & Screaming and we got DJs down for each one; Tristan De Cunha, Justin Long, Japanese Popstars – but I was on the dole, in and out of work – I think between leaving the army in 2005 and going to Ibiza in 2007 I had about 40 different jobs, from fixing windows to my old gardening business, call centres and carveries… everything.
I went to Iraq in 2004 and I was still enjoying it, but all my mates were at uni, so when I got back we’d go to Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds clubbing and I just lost interest in the army. In 2005 I went to watch Andrew Weatherall at Sankeys and it blew my head off. I was like, “I’m sweeping hangars and prepping weapons, whereas I could be doing what he’s doing!”. I had a few mates who were DJs and I just decided to leave the army and do what they were doing. I moved to Leeds in 2008 because I wanted to be a DJ, my mum was like, “Why don’t you get a proper job?! Come on sort it out, you treat this place like a hotel!” I wanted to move out and, one of my best mates Foz was doing a night called Dirty Disco, I’d already been working for them in 2006 and 2007 picking up DJs from the airport. I used to go once a month in between going to Sankeys and so on… I met a lot of people and really like the place. I went to Ibiza in 2007, came home for six months, went back in 2008 and went straight to Leeds at the end of that season. It was such a good decision, I started playing a few bars and after-parties, I ended up being there for five years altogether.
So going to Ibiza really set you on the right path.
Yeah definitely, I got a residency at Zoo Project out there and they really sorted me out, I played Space with Carl Cox during my first season out there – it’s where you meet people, most of the people I know I met out there. Jamie, Richy, all the Newcastle crew. I met Jamie at DC10 in 2007, then I started meeting people at villa parties, DJing and stuff. My thing was, at every villa party I went to, I’d just DJ for 14 hours every week after Dc10 I’d come back to Leeds and reconnect with people out there. In 2007 I went out there with £150, CD wallet and a small bag with all my stuff in it and started from there…
Can you remember how you met Jamie?
Yeah I met him on the terrace dancefloor at DC10, I went up to him and told him, “You’re my favourite producer this year”. Amazon and all those tracks were out, I remember every mix I did at the time had at least a couple of his tracks on. He’s one of my favourite producers and now he’s my mate as well. I spoke to Lee a few times, swapping tunes online first, but didn’t meet him until he played Leeds in 2010.
How did you get into house, was it though spending time in Ibiza?
I’ve been into dance music for a while, I was into Daft Punk when I was younger, Groove Armada – bigger stuff. One of my cousins, who passed away, he had decks and I remember sneaking into his room when I was younger and seeing all the rave posters on his walls. He had this Manumission peg, I actually went home and made one myself with marker pen! I remember getting the Pete Tong and Boy George Ministry CD as a present, then I was into Hip Hop for a bit. My dad’s a massive music fan, he’s got a massive collection. He used to play me tracks like Coolio ‘Gangster’s Paradise’, Daft Punk – he had the Homework album and Pink Floyd, and so on. There was good music in the house all the time, apart from my mum’s [laughs]. In Iraq I’d buy CDs.. funny story, when we were in Al Amara (just north of Basra) getting mortar attacks every day, we had a cinema area and one day this lad put a Tiesto DVD on and everyone was buzzing off it. I couldn’t get over how many people I saw raving in the film, then somebody told me how much he was getting for sets. I looked at myself in my body armour wondering when the next attack would be and I went and ordered another Tiesto DVD and a few other shitty things like that – as soon as I started going out in Manchester I got into techno; Jeff Mills, Ben Sims, Dave Clarke… and got rid of that DVD! I started going to Chibuku in Liverpool and basically got into techno first. We used to go to clubs and watch the DJ, I remember watching Ben Sims with three 1210s and two CDJs, he’d have two tunes going, scratch in another one and I was blown away. I started listening to the Essential Mix every week, getting all the DJ Mag and mixmag CDs. The one that really got me into it was the Tiefschwarz fabric CD and there was a DJ.T Body Language Volume 2. A few of my mates were into Sasha and Digweed and we’d get a minibus out to go and see them. Eventually I got into house, Back To Basics, a bit of disco… now people are like, “What are you into?” and I just say, “I’m into music”. That’s it, full stop.
How has London affected your career?
It’s been a good thing, I mean I love Leeds, it’s a great city there’s so much going on but there’s only so much you can do, after five years I needed a change – a few people moved to London, so I came down. It’s good because it’s such a big city and expensive, people have to work. In Leeds, I lived above a curry house and I wasn’t doing much, in London I live with Kenny (Glasgow of Art Department) and Russ Yallop – they’ll be in their studios at home and it makes me want to work as well. If you go to party in London one week there’s a different crowd the next week, so it’s good. I wake up and most people I know are at work or in the studio, so I’m like, “Better get some work done as well!”.
What’s your role within Hot Creations?
The DJ. If someone sends me music I’ll send it on. I play music, contribute music and help out at parties and stuff. But, especially with Paradise, it’s my job to turn up and do what I do. My main job is to destroy the dancefloor!
And what’s your approach to DJing at the moment?
I started on vinyl then switched to CDs for a bit, going out to Ibiza and travelling meant taking vinyl with me was a bit difficult. But now I can afford it a bit more, I’m back playing vinyl – I’ve got Traktor but I haven’t really got into it much. I like the idea of having folders I can dip into, but I’m enjoying getting back into vinyl and record shopping. I went to Waxwerks/Garage in Leeds the other week and told Tristan to bring out some tunes for me, he was like “Bang bang bang bang bang bang!” and I thought, “Goodbye DJ wages!”. I spent a lot of money, it’s good though because, when I lived in Leeds there wasn’t many record shops selling decent music but now you have Waxwerks and things have changed.
You’re on the road constantly, how do you cope with the touring lifestyle?
I’m quite alright with being on my own, I can keep myself occupied. When you’re on the road, you’re on your own a lot – I love going to gigs, but coming back is a nightmare, hungover with my hood up! I love going to new cities and meeting new people who are into the music, the only thing is sometimes you don’t even get to see the city itself.
What do your parents make of what you’re doing now?
In the beginning they were like, “Get a proper job” but now they can see i’ve got a regular income, travelling the world. In 2010 I was named Pete Tong’s one to watch for 2011, I played live on Radio 1 in Sheffield and that was a big thing for them, hearing me on there. They’re coming down soon actually…
What have you got planned for them?
I’m not sure yet, actually last year I took them to DC10, to Paradise. Burnski and Richy were supposed to play first but they had some problems with their flights and couldn’t make it, so I stepped in – my mum, dad, brother and his girlfriend were over at the time, we were out for a meal together so I took them down for the first hour and they were in the booth with me taking pictures and all that. They really enjoyed that, seeing what I do. It was good to have them there dancing next to the booth, no one else was there as it was so early, but it was great!
Going back to your time in the army, why did you decide to apply in the first place?
I was a little shit. When I was younger I was pretty naughty, I was the first person to get an after-school detention at primary school before I was 11 and hanging out with the wrong crowd. There were two schools near me, one was where all the people I hung out with went and the other was where my parents sent me but I was still hanging out with the other lads. I was like the class clown, fighting a lot and causing mischief…. I always wanted to join the army, I had it in my head that I could just coast through school and join the army. It’s funny though, looking back I loved school – at the time I thought I hated it. If I’d never joined the army I wouldn’t be where I am now, it made me grow up and made me disciplined. I went to Iraq, not many 18 year olds get to go to Iraq. It really opened my eyes up to the world. I wanted to be in the SAS!
What were doing exactly?
I started off training for the paras, but halfway through I changed because I wanted to be in the SAS – I wanted to take the hardest route in, which I thought was the paras. But then I found out there was something harder and went for that instead, I did phase 2 training, numerous courses; my job eventually was to locate the enemy. It was a good job, one of the better jobs.
You must have been in some hairy situations then?
Yeah, we came under fire a few times. Most of it was mortar attacks, RPG attacks, missile attacks and our camps got mortared a lot. We were in Basra, right in the centre and we got pummeled every day, there was a lot of that. But because we were a locating crew, we’d move around a lot – in the far north it was really bad, but at Basra airport there was a pizza delivery place, cafes, a swimming pool, sunbathing area… still with mortar attacks though. I look back on it with no regrets.
What effect has it had on your life?
It’s made me more disciplined, punctual. I’m a neat and tidy person – except my room sometimes. I’m glad I don’t have to shine boots and iron shirts anymore though!army, DJ, Hot Creations, Robert James
Recent Posts on Arts
- Friday Book Design Blog: Collier Books - great paperback design... and some of the worst Narnia covers I've seen
- Pulled Apart By Horses' European tour diary
- Friday Book Design Blog: Fitzcarraldo Editions
- Children’s books for October: Meg and Mog, The Demon Dentist and The Whispering Skull
- Friday Book Design Blog: Slightly Foxed and Notting Hill Editions
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter