James Zabiela interview: Life in balance

James Zabiela spoke with Marko Kutlesa about the trials and tribulations of putting together his Balance compilation CD, magic mix moments, gig variety and much more.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 10th May 2018.
Originally published: 9th May 2018

James Zabiela's 2017 was a bit of an ordeal. The genre spanning, technology embracing DJ accepted an invitation to compile and mix a CD in the revered Balance series, following the likes of James Holden, Joris Voorn and Desyn Masiello. But, being something of a perfectionist, and not having released a commercial mix in the half decade prior, James got rather embroiled in the process.

Within that time he was sidetracked by family tragedy and struck by a mystery illness. Thankfully, he's come out of the other side and, slightly later than scheduled, his Balance mix has just been released, over two CDs and to universal acclaim.

Currently on tour, in part to promote the mix, James will be stopping at a selection of UK clubs and festivals, including Highest Point Festival in Lancaster. Ahead of that date he caught up with Marko Kutlesa to talk about the Balance mix, his Born Electric label, his recent productions, Southampton and sci-fi.

Why did such a long time elapse between your last mix release and the issuing of the Balance one?

Just after I did that last Renaissance mix I think the whole compilation market kind of fell apart. Soundcloud and other online platforms took over. At the time, I could really see the value of being about to do a mix, stick it up online straight away and everyone getting it instantly.

There was something exciting about that, about how immediate it was. I may even have said at the time that I would never do another mix CD because I couldn't see the point in it, which was a bit shortsighted.

I think it's only recently that some have started craving something that's a bit more crafted. I spent a lot of time on the Balance mix because I wanted to make something that was worthy of being mass produced, something you could hold in your hand. 

When you finally submitted your completed mix for Balance, you sent them two versions of the first CD and three versions of the second CD. In doing so, were you giving them the option of which to release?

No. On the first disc there was a mistake I needed to correct, some technical issue with a filter, although nobody had actually noticed. I was tearing my hair out and actually held the release up to fix it.

With the second disc, I really got stuck, to be honest. I got halfway through and then just couldn't work out the last part. I sent the first version across to Tom, the label owner, thinking that I'd got it. I guess I was looking for some feedback. By the time that feedback came I'd already made my mind up that it was not right. It was fine, but it didn't make as much sense as it does now, in terms of the way it flows, and originally there were a couple of different tracks on there which may have dated it.

Everyone wants to make a timeless mix. It's probably the first thing any DJ will say if you talk to them about one. Sure, we all want to make something that's timeless. But it's not that easy to do. So, I chopped and changed the second CD several times, removed the couple of things that I thought might date it.

That second CD on the Balance mix more closely resembles one of your club sets. Are there ever special circumstances or events where you are given the opportunity to play live like you do on the first CD?

Yeah, but they don't come around very often. I did a gig at the Camden Assembly in London a couple of weeks ago where I played pretty much all night and I started with some of the stuff from the first disc. I think I started around 104bpm and I absolutely loved doing it.

We're planning to do some more things like that, but it's just about finding the right time and space to do it. Everything has to be pretty much perfect to do that kind of thing. And that gig was, it was only around 200 people, ticket only, so everyone who was there really wanted to be there.

I'm doing Sub Club next week and I'm trying to engineer that so I can play the whole night. That's something that gets done a lot there and I've never played there before. I'm quite excited.

You'll love it. The DJ booth is literally in the middle of the dancefloor, you're surrounded by the crowd and sometimes they can be very vocal and tactile with the DJ.

Ha! Well, I'm up for that. It was the same when I played in Camden. People jumped on the stage as soon as I hit around 120bpm. I think because I'd started quite slow, as soon as I picked up the pace, people just lost their shit.

You've said that, for this mix, you actively went in search of those 'magic mix moments' that a DJ sometimes stumbles across when playing live. But you ended up with more than you could use and ended up saying goodbye to some of them. Have any of the ones you didn't include since made their way into any of your live performances?

I think so. I couldn't tell you exactly which ones, but a couple of them have. That was one of the reasons why I struggled with that second disc. I was trying to cram in too much. I spent so much time smashing tracks together, trying to find those happy accidents, I ended up with way more than I needed and became paralysed with the amount of choice I had.

When you DJ live you can be very spontaneous, very confident sounding in the way that sometimes you can chop in and out of mixes. And that creates excitement and energy. Is there ever a risk of losing those elements when approaching a studio mix from a more obsessively studied and perfectionist angle?

Yeah, definitely. Actually, I think until this Balance mix, I think all of my previously released commercial mixes have suffered a little from that. It's a completely different thing to do, isn't it?

I think even if I recorded a mix live in the studio, in the same way that I'd play at a club, there would still be something missing. When you play out it's fun to show off, do tricks, but that doesn't always sound so great when studied up close on a nice hifi; levels are all over the place things are slightly loose. But those are the things that can make a club set come alive.

You're currently touring in part to promote the new mix, but having spent so long on it, have you not felt like completely escaping it and playing music that is in contrast to what is on the mix?

Yeah. Actually sometimes I have to do that anyway because the settings aren't right. For example, I just played a set in Cluj, in Romania, which was a fun gig, but they wanted it pretty hard, peak time techno all night. That was the only stuff that seemed to be working that night. Although someone did pass me a note asking for Backstreet Boys. Hard techno and Backstreet Boys!

So, yeah, I am getting lots of opportunity to escape the mix. Every gig is different. I did Snowbombing a couple of weeks ago. I did two gigs there, one was up a mountain with this amazing view behind me so, again, that was very different.

You've been around for quite a while now and you're really popular in lots of different territories. With the UK still having such a pivotal position in dance music, particularly in regards to its media, do you ever feel like you have to prove yourself differently in your home territory, particularly when you re-emerge with a project like Balance after such an absence?

Yeah, I do. I feel like I have to prove myself all the time. But, the one thing about playing in the UK is that it's the crowd I really know. I'm aware of the fashions and trends of the music here, what people are into. I know what I can get away with. Compared to something like that gig in Romania it is really different.

It's almost like becoming a different DJ at each gig, Which is fine and it's fun. I like to be versatile, I like a lot of different kinds of music. Some DJs are more rigid, they do what they do, which is great, but if they're booked into the wrong gig it can be disastrous.

So, one thing I do love about playing here, whether or not I feel like I need to prove myself, is that at least I know this territory, I know the people here.

I think crowds are great here, people are really open-minded. Like you said, it's kind of pivotal and I feel a lot of things start first here. 

You're much more known as a DJ than a producer but the Balance mix features two of your own tracks 'X-Ray', which is amazing, and 'Vines'. Can you tell me a little about those tracks and another newish one, 'Hyper Fighting', what you originally had planned for them and can you also explain why it's a reworking of 'Vines' that appears on the vinyl sampler to Balance and not the version in the mix itself?

With 'Vines' I just wanted an exclusive for the vinyl release. The remix we've had made is by Holovr who did a track on the first cd. His is a 4/4 version whereas my original is like noodley electronica.'Hyper Fighting' I actually have no plans to release, we just promo-ed it. 

'X-Ray' is kind of the point at which I finally made a track that I like, after years of trying to make an acid house record. 

'Hyper Fighting' is actually the stage just before that. I have this Korg Volca Bass and it looks like a Roland TR-303, so I tried to make an acid record with it. Of course it doesn't sound like an acid record, because it's not a 303.

When I finally did get a TR-303 and I sat there noodling with it, I wrote an acid line that went on to be 'X-Ray'.

After beginning the process of putting the mix together you became ill and you've said you believe this illness to have been stress related. How did you balance recovery from such with the stress of completing the task and has this illness caused you to alter your approach to life and work?

It's definitely made me healthier, I look after myself a lot more now. I don't think it was just the mix that made me ill! It was a combination of stress, not sleeping, not eating the right food, being run down. It was kind of a mystery illness. But, as soon as the Balance mix was finished, it vanished as mysteriously as it had arrived. Ironic that the mix is called Balance and that's exactly what was missing from my life. 

Your local football team Southampton have had some really great years recently in the Premier League, but are currently in a precarious looking position. They may well get relegated. Have you yourself noticed any change in the town that could be attributed to the successful run of recent years?

Yeah, definitely. It brings money to the city. We have a new shopping arcade! Although, I'm not sure those two things are connected, ha! More so than new buildings popping up though, I definitely think it's a moral boost. You can feel it in the air.

I remember when they got relegated and it was Portsmouth that beat us, you could feel the sorrow when you were walking through the town. I'd come back from a gig somewhere and there were people kicking bus stops and crying in the street. Pretty bad. I'm not really into football but you couldn't help but feel those negative vibes. 

When your home team's doing great, everyone's in a better mood. I remember when I used to do the Rhino club here in Southampton, when I was a resident, and if there'd been a terrible performance that day, first, the club wouldn't be as busy and second, there's a higher chance of someone having a fight. If Southampton had played well, people would come in celebrating and that feeling would spread round the club to everyone else.

Living pretty much in the centre of Southampton, and with a cafe just round the corner from your house which you told me about last time I interviewed you...

They're threatening to close it down! The guy who owns it has asked me if I'd be interested in being an investor. For selfish reasons I might do it, just because I don't want it to shut. Sorry, I interrupted there.

Ha! I wanted to ask whether are you frequently tempted to eat out rather than cook at home? Where are your favourite places to go out to eat and what do you order?

I used to eat out all the time, but since I became healthier I'm now at home cooking boring meals a lot more. I'm not an amazing cook. I kind of cook from necessity rather than out of pleasure. When I do treat myself, there's a Thai tapas place called Mango and I cycle over there in my little cycle hat and get a takeaway. I feel a little like a Deliveroo driver. You should check the place out if you ever come down.

It's destination number one, immediately I've been to see your sci fi collection. When we last spoke, I discovered we share a love of the Battlestar Galctica series. Have you been watching any more recent series such as Star Trek Discovery or Altered Carbon?

Yeah, I've seen both of those, of course. But they don't hold a candle to Battlestar Galactica. I like both of them. The Star Trek thing was a real deviation from any Star Trek that's come before it, so that was cool. I also like the cast. I thought Altered Carbon started great and then meandered at the end, a bit like my first attempt at the Balance mix, haha!

But, I still enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to another season. Again, the lead guy Joel Kinnaman is great. He was brilliant in House Of Cards as well. I also watched Lost In Space. I finished that yesterday. It's a little bit frustrating, a lot of long, drawn out tension, in the same way as in 24. So much suspense. But it was alright, a promising start. In a lot of ways it's very faithful to the original series. No robots with wobbly arms though.

What have you got coming on Born Electric this year?

We're going to be putting out the 'Vines' track. We've got another remix commissioned for that as well as the Holovr one. After that, I don't know. Born Electric is something we do occasionally, when the right record comes along. I've got it in my mind to give it a relaunch after this but at the moment we're still trying to decide on the direction, how much we're going to put behind it. The Balance thing has really taken over for the time being.

James Zabiela plays Highest Point on Friday 18th May. Find Highest Point tickets below. 

Balance 029 mixed by James Zabiela is out now. 

Tickets are no longer available for this event

Festivals 2018