James Zabiela might have taken a few years off from releasing anything, but the British DJ is one of dance music’s premiere technical wizards! He’s such an expert, in fact, that he advises Pioneer on their products, and takes prototypes out for test runs. Now the British artist is going through something of a new beginning. After a year spent tinkering with his technique, he re-emerges with his first-ever Balance mix, a legendary series that has featured influential contributions from the likes of James Holden, Joris Voorn and Will Saul over the years. INFUSION had a chat with the man himself….
Take us back to the beginning, when you got your big break handing a demo to Lee Burridge in a club! Where was this and why Lee Burridge, did you give out a lot of demos to various DJs at the time?
I gave demos out to anyone who would take them. Sometimes when they wouldn’t, I would hide the tape in their bag. I was at Heaven in London, it was a Bedrock party and we were stood next to each other. We were stood in the DJ booth because BT was doing a live gig. I stood next to Lee and intro’d myself and he made some joke about how it was all mimed. I don’t know if he was joking. I think when you’re young – I would never do anything like that now – I had the audacity to ask him for his number and then called him up two days later! I wouldn’t dream of doing anything like that now, but I was hungry and didn’t know any better. After 5 days he sent me a text that he really liked the tape and it blew my mind!
What was it like to be the first UK DJ to play in Romania all those years ago? The music scene is pretty hot there now, any plans to return?
Yeah, it’s massive there now. Back then it wasn’t. What I remember from it, when I was playing – every time I put a track on, I had no idea if people would like it or if they would dance to it. It was so impossible to predict. I played one of two gigs at Lamania on the Black Sea Coast where they had Sunwaves and it was just amazing. I remember afterwards I wrote an email to my agents at the time chronicling the whole experience as it had had such a big impact on me – from the wonky roads to the chickens crossing over them. People were really enthusiastic and I think now it’s one of the strongest scenes in the world. I was sent as a guinea pig in those early days as they wanted to book Sasha and Lee [Burridge]. After that trip everyone started going there.
Why the long break in producing and putting out your own music?
I was touring a lot and to be honest, making music is quite hard and uninspiring at times. A lot of the things I’d like to be working on in the studio are not things I would dream of playing in my club sets. There has been a disparity between those two things. Because I was ‘forced’ [laughs] to work on a dance track for the Balance compilation [‘X-Ray’], it put me in that zone again. When you write a house record, it needs to be in that framework with a 4/4 rhythm etc that is geared towards the dancefloor. Knowing you have to work within these confines doesn’t inspire me as much as writing something weird that you’d put on an album. That’s where my track ‘Vines’ came from [as featured on Act 2 of Balance 029]. That’s not to say that writing an amazing house record isn’t challenging. There is a real science to it where you have to write the bass and a really good groove. But it’s not what I wanted to do for a while.
Tell us about your latest project; Balance mix series…Balance 029 is coming out in February is that right? Would you say mix compilations are making a comeback?
The Balance mix is something I made over a 12 month period. I started with over 3000 tracks and by the end, I finished with 58 over the two mixes. I wanted to make something really rich and textured that would draw the listener in, and create moments whereby the tracks talk to one another.
I don’t know if the mix compilation is making a comeback, but I think perhaps people have missed it somewhat. There was a time when I did an interview and I said I would never do one again. That was short-sighted of me. That was the SoundCloud time when you could do a mix and click a button and everyone had it. I really loved that – there was no licensing or anything. That’s why I really crafted this mix – it wasn’t something I did quickly in my basement. I think there is a hunger for those mixes that are crafted and people are spending time on. I think when they do come along, they are treasured more as not many people are doing it.
You described in your own mission statement for this project that you wanted to make something that was rich and textured, do you feel you achieved that? What can we expect from Act 1 and Act 2?
I do feel like I achieved the rich and textured thing, there were so many layers to it… whether it achieved all of my goals I don’t know, but I do think it achieved that one. I think …that’s kind of what I wanted for it. It’s the same with any record – the last Radiohead album for example, I can probably listen to that 20 times and not be bored of it. Not that I would ever compare myself with Radiohead, but I like the idea of a work revealing itself with each listen.
Act 1, even though I separated it into two different acts – the last track on Act 1 was the first track on Act 2, I think it’s in C minor, but that’s the way I linked them together somehow. Even though I split it into two mixes, I wanted the way it was programmed to be threading all the way through. Obviously, the second mix is what you’ll hear if I’m at a club. The first mix is more for home listening. Or if I get the chance to play a gig like I did at Camden Assembly over Easter where I played all night and begun at 104bpm. Regardless of where I’m DJing I always try and place some material from the Balance. That’s what people have come out to see!
Can we look forward to some new singles or an EP of your own maybe to be released this year? Anything else cool lined up for 2018?
I’ll be releasing some key tracks from the Balance mix in vinyl format due out June 1. It will include ‘Vines’ which is off Act 1. We have two versions – one will be on the Balance compilation vinyl release with a HOLOVR – it’s one you can mix and have fun with it. We have also had another remix of ‘Vines’ commissioned, which will come out at some point. Now that I’m past my writer’s block and I’m spending time playing with my synth and just playing around for a while. I feel like the Balance mix has opened up a lot of that up for me.
Balance 029 mixed by James Zabiela is out now. Buy here: https://goo.gl/cK5Z4m