An Interview with James Zabiela.|
By Macy McBeth
The name itself comprises exotic energy. Sensuous buoyancy. Distinctive artistic panache.
Zabiela - like zebra like Zsa Zsa, like BE. And it even carries a tune. La.
James. As in, a couple of historically powerful and influential Kings. Which allusion begets mention of The King James Version, of the Bible.
To many, James Zabiela definitely has his own version of that.
His congregation gathers globally, in hundreds and thousands filling dance clubs like parishioners at proverbial houses of worship. They dance while he lays down the hymns.
But James might as well still just play in his bedroom, by himself. Fame is completely lost on him. He's so unassuming, personable and natural, you almost want to pinch him to make sure he knows he's real.
Indeed, he absolutely rules.
James concluded the first night of this year's SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas by being the last artist standing at a public venue. The showcase he played at Element Nightclub also included the likes of Slow Motion Music mogul and Austin favorite Lance Cashion, and Australian imports Infusion, who performed a Live PA. The show ranged from tech-house to progressive house to trance to breaks and more, boasting an attendance of over 400 and an end-time of 4:00 AM. By that time, the festival's usual bevy of rock-flavored bands and fans were drooling on themselves amidst liquor-laden sleep.
Zabiela was weeding out the weak.
Weak and weary from my first and fervently feverish Zabiela dance floor experience, the next day I crawled to my phone and said some things in it. A couple hours later, JZ said some things back, and we met at his makeshift hideout in the Omni Hotel.
Packing his assets together for his trip back to London to get live at a little dive called Fabric, James apologized for "the mess" and took it upon himself to explain what some of the treasures were. Records, a laptop, speakers, CDs … Austin's finest had littered him with mix CDs in the hopes that he'd have a listen. I recognized Peter Martin's mix, "Oslo Nights," in the stack. Having just jammed the living daylights out of this mix while on after-party patrol, I voiced the appropriate props for Peter's set to a receptive Guv'nor. JZ lit up like an ex-raver at Burning Man when I disclosed the existence of a CD player in my ride (I was to take him to the airport), and "Oslo Nights" landed smack boom in the denouement of the agenda.
The integrity of his transport confirmed, my man James was ready to talk on tape.
MM: You just played at Element for SXSW 2005. What did you think of Austin and the crowd that received you?
JZ: It was ace. It was a lot of people from last time so that's a nice thing to see you know, the same familiar faces again. And also a lot of people from Houston and Dallas came along, so it was a lot of fun, definitely.
MM: I read on your website that you said Americans are the most fanatical.
JZ: By that, I mean they're always the ones on the message boards you know I guess the internet is kind of a bigger thing here than it is anywhere else because you've got wireless internet everywhere. I just switched my computer on, and I've got like ten networks available. If I do that at my house, I've got nothing except mine.
MM: That's interesting in light of the fact that in Europe, electronic music is more accepted.
JZ: It's just different. If you went to Eastern Europe, dance music and electronic music is still a relatively new thing and people are very excited about it at the moment there. I played in Lithuania a few weeks ago, and it was unbelievable. It was like people were hearing this music for the first time. It was quite mad.
MM: I think what it is about it - when people love it, they love it.
JZ: It's a bug. Once you've got it, that's it.
MM: I don't know much about the technical aspects of sound, but when you think about how sound is in wavelengths, an actual physical entity, you realize there's something about the way electronic music affects you and physically jives with your energy. How the wavelengths affect that.
JZ: Yeah, I'm sure people are putting subliminal messages in their records. It wouldn't be too hard to do, especially with dance music.
MM: When you are making tracks, what kind of software do you use?
JZ: I've got it just over there that's my studio, which I take with me. I just use the Nozu keyboard, Ableton, Midi instruments, Reason and Peak - just a mish-mash of different pieces of software. Somehow I manage to put something together.
MM: Do you take this equipment with you everywhere you go?
JZ: Everywhere. In my bag, I've got my FX unit, which you saw last night, and a sampler as well. I don't really have a studio at home. I've got a little computer at home, which is a faster machine. But I'm never there, so everything I do is either made on planes and in hotel rooms. I bought some nice Bose headphones. They're my studio monitors.
MM: Have you've ever explored how they press wax? How making tracks on your computer translates into records…
JZ: I don't know the full way that it works, but I went to a pressing plant and actually saw the cuts of acetate a couple of years ago. It was quite exciting. They use a metal lathe and this great big machine massive - and there are all these compressors and lights. It's quite impressive, like something out of sci-fi. It's pretty mad. You can see the cuts of metal lathe, and from the metal lathe they make the plastic vinyl.
MM: In 2009, they're supposed to stop making the chemical that makes vinyl. What's going to happen?
JZ: They'll just use a different material, I expect. But I don't actually play that many records. I only played that one piece of vinyl last night, and it actually sounded really bad. I think it was the positioning of the monitor the sound was feeding back into the turntable and can give you sort of low hum on the music. Other than that one record, I stuck with CDs, mainly because of that reason. I kind of prefer CDs because of what I can do with them I can muck about with them, and I feel I've got a bit more creative control about how I want the track to go. The reason I still play a lot of records is because I've been away for like three weeks. I go record shopping in Chicago or wherever I've been, and I don't have the facilities here to put those records on my computer to burn on CDs.
MM: You prefer CDs because they're easier to work with.
JZ: Yeah, I just find them more versatile. I think if you've got a good club sound system they're set up really well for turntables - then that's actually a better sound because you get nicer frequencies from a record.
MM: You can feel the record more?
JZ: The actual sound from the record is nicer. But with CDs as a tool, I think they're more versatile. That's kind of why I prefer them.
MM: What kind of possibilities do you see with CDs do you see that most DJs are going to turn to primarily CDs?
JZ: Well, they're certainly going to have to if they stop making records.
MM: There will probably be a black market for records or something.
JZ: Illegal record shops.
MM: Things will go way back underground.
JZ: Columbian record pressing plants.
MM: You prefer Technics 1210s the black ones.
JZ: Oh, I don't mind. Obviously, ideally, I like the ones without the clicky bit in the middle, which locks the pitch, because you miss a couple of pitch degrees.
MM: Are you 24?
JZ: I'm 25.
MM: I'm 25 too. When's your birthday?
JZ: It's not until August.
MM: Are you a Leo?
MM: I'm a Leo too. I didn't know, and I didn't see it on your website. I thought you were a Leo. That's really weird.
JZ: It must be the hair.
MM: Are you true to your sign?
JZ: I actually don't know. I've never really looked into it that much, but people say that I am. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
MM: I think it's probably a good thing. You have blond hair. Do blonds have more fun?
JZ: I don't know. Ask me when I've died my hair blue.
MM: How do you feel about DJ groupies? Do think they are part of the scene and necessary to sustain it?
JZ: I think the best club night is a mixture of all different types of people. If you've got a club full of trainspotters, then you've got a dance floor that doesn't move - they're just watching. If you've got a club full of people who just want to go out and get hammered, then people go away not remembering anything, and it may as well have been DJ XYZ playing. So I think the right mixture of people is what makes a good night. Everyone is important and DJ groupies are certainly important for my ego (laughs). It's nice to be appreciated, but you can look too much into anything like that. It's all quite superficial. If I was working at burger king, then they wouldn't look at me twice.
MM: Is it just part of the deal, you just accept it?
JZ: Yeah, you just have to.
MM: I know some of my friends in the underground house scene, kind of on the deep/funky/tech- side, struggle with the little bit of snobbery that can be present in the scene, and how it can dictate things should be. But the mixture is important. Plus, you've got to get everyone in there to be able to sustain the scene financially.
JZ: Well, there is that aspect as well. The music's not commercial so the deep house stuff, a lot of it, or the tech-house stuff, mainly, is an acquired taste, and it's something that grows on you after a while. If you play that stuff for someone listening to DJ Tiesto, they're going to think it's just chill-out music or elevator music, so it has to be heard in the right environment on the right sound system. I started out liking the worst music the cheesiest cheesy Italian piano anthems -when I was 15. I would hate for someone to look through my old record collection. I would be very embarrassed. But stuff like that, it does take a while to get into, but once you're into it, there's no going back. It's also important to be open-minded as well. You have to have respect for all forms of music. Even me - I have to appreciate Tiesto and Van Buuren and what they do. I don't listen to that music personally, but I would never dis it in any way, because music's music, you know, it's neither good nor bad. It's all down to personal taste at the end of the day.
MM: What differentiates you from someone who has your level of talent but who's unknown and hasn't attained the success that you have PR backing, management…
JZ: I don't know. I've just been really lucky that Sasha managed to listen to my demo tape. If that hadn't have happened, I'd still be DJing in my bedroom and at the local clubs. I'd still have the same passion that I have for it now, even if I had to have another job as a postman or something like that. I'd still be about trying to DJ on the weekends as well.
MM: What do you think is the tipping point for someone to cross over to be able to do this as a full time job?
JZ: For me, it was getting the recognition of my peers. Sasha and Lee Burridge and Digweed had pushed me a lot - supported me and gave me the warm-up slots when I really needed them - and that's what helped me along the way.
MM: So the "who you know" is actually important like with Sasha?
JZ: I didn't really know him, I just kept giving him tapes, and in the end, he listened to them - but obviously, that has a lot to do with it. And also, a lot of people these days - a lot of DJs - get into good careers by making hit records, which doesn't necessarily make them a good DJ, but it's another way of getting in the door.
MM: I think there's openness, I've noticed, with electronic music, because it isn't mainstream, and people have to fight a lot harder to keep it alive.
JZ: I was given so many CDs last night. It's going to take me forever to get to listen to them all on the road. I couldn't believe it.
MM: I've interviewed good number of people, and all the artists I've interviewed are so cool everyone's just really down to earth everyone has that major passion. It's not like being a rock star.
JZ: I'm not trying to make that number one record or anything. I do what I do.
MM: What's your favorite word?
JZ: Favorite word? I don't know. I'm sure my friends would be able to tell you. Probably "awesome" I guess it isn't very original, but I say it a lot. I say it when it's totally unnecessary, like if I get an extra ten minutes in bed, "Awesome. Awesome!"
MM: If you could describe yourself in a color, what would it be?
JZ: It would be blue, I guess. Most of my clothes are blue, and it's been my favorite color since I was a kid. It's not a happy color though, but it's still my favorite.
MM: What has been your best dream, and what has been your worst nightmare?
JZ: I'll answer the last part of that question first because I had a nightmare the other night. I'm DJing at Fabric tomorrow night. I'm flying back just for that one gig, and then I'm coming back to LA. I know, it sounds crazy. I've wanted to play there for ages, and I couldn't turn the gig down when they offered it. About two nights ago, I had a really bad nightmare that I was playing there and it was going really horribly wrong, and the main reason for the fact it was going wrong was that I was completely naked while I was DJing. And it turned up on the message boards the next day - pictures of me naked, DJing at Fabric, playing the worst ever. I'm really nervous about playing there, so I guess that was my worrying dream that accompanies that feeling. That was just a couple of days ago, and I've had similar dreams before. I think there's something about a naked dream it means something but I'm not sure I want to know what it is. I don't know about my best dream. I only remember the bad ones for some reason. I'm sure there have been snow boarding dreams or whatever, or the one everyone gets where you can fly. That's the great one.
MM: I saw Sasha play at Fabric in 2000. The club has just opened.
JZ: I think I was there, actually.
JZ: Yep, and that's probably the same night I gave my CD to Lee Burridge. Actually, I gave him a tape at Bedrock, and I gave him a further CD at Fabric.
MM: I saw on that you include BT on your April 2004 track list. I don't know if you've seen the film Monster?
JZ: Yeah. The soundtrack's amazing.
MM: He scored that film.
JZ: He scored the track on my CD. That was from the film.
MM: Is that something you're interested in scoring the soundtracks of films and video games and stuff?
JZ: Not at the moment, just because I'm DJing and I'm just touring all the time. Something like that requires such a huge amount of time, just to sit down. I couldn't even think about that at the moment, but definitely, one day, I will be interested in doing that for film or video games or whatever.
MM: Now I'm going to ask you some questions that are ambiguous. You can take them however you want, and answer them however you want.
JZ: Why? For the passion I guess. It's something you just can't explain, but you do it anyway. Whether I was getting paid 50 pence or 50 grand, I'd still be doing what I'm doing - living on the street or living in a nice house. You can't take the music out of someone.
JZ: You just get by. I used to work in a record shop a graphic design job - and I'd be DJing part-time in the local cheesy clubs, and I'd get about four hours of sleep every night. It was the drive for playing music and buying music that kept me going. I guess that's how I used to go without even having enough money to buy a sandwich at lunch time. I'd spend my money in the record shop. So I guess that's how. The passion.
MM: Last question. What?
JZ: The music. That's all I can really think of. That speaks for itself.