INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Filter APRIL 8, 2013 - by Dom Sinacola
PLAYING THEM SOMETHING THEY DON'T REALLY LIKE: A CONVERSATION WITH JAMES BLAKE
Still young at a strapping twenty-four years old, James Blake has followed an impressive trajectory, from purveyor of minimalist house music to crooner with a technophile's heart. Through five EPs, a goodie bag of singles and a critically adored debut, Blake has eagerly molted, losing one shell after another, deconstructing dusty piece by dusty piece to reveal a songwriter more interested in pulling apart the genres that birthed him than dredging the already-shallow wells of dubstep for signs of R&B or the sediment of soul.
Since signing to a major label, the London native and classically trained musician has toured exhaustively, hooked up with folks like Bon Iver and Kanye West ("He's a nice guy with big ideas," Blake demures of West), and has singlehandedly dampened the proliferation of dubstep's uglier incarnations (cough - Skrillex - cough).
Republic Records will release Overgrown, the follow-up to Blake's debut, this April. Two singles leaked early - the lush Retrograde and Brian Eno collaboration Digital Lion - which beg for wide audiences and sumptuous venues; that his American tour begins at the massive Coachella festival just feels right.
Along with half the human race, Blake was recently in Austin at SXSW, so the Guide phoned him to interrupt his continental breakfast. With an arch sarcasm to his every word, Blake talked about the art of collaboration and the rigors of touring, as well as implying that he may have flagrantly lied in past interviews. We can't verify the truth of anything here with one hundred percent certainty, but he sure seemed sincere.
Did narrowing down your songs into performable versions for all that touring inform your songwriting for the new album?
James Blake: Yeah, it really did. The thing about touring: it becomes harder and harder to get in front of two thousand people and play them something they don't really like. [Laughs] It becomes harder to rationalize something so personal that doesn't translate [live]. So you start to filter out the things that don't work, or things that would work better if you had the opportunity to do them again. With [Overgrown], I really feel I've written songs I can deliver live more concisely.
Oh, I was apparently lying before, whatever I said, because this didn't happen that way at all. If anything, it's the opposite of what I said I did. So I'm a huge hypocrite. But anyway, I did just email him. Quite audaciously, because it's RZA, and I'm not really anybody in hip-hop, you know, and I just thought that maybe he'll do it and maybe he'll like it. Thankfully he did it. It restored my faith in that way of writing music. Slightly mercenary aspect to it, but he wouldn't have done it if he didn't feel inspired, I think. And he did it so sensitively, it made the whole process justified... My only collaborations from now on will happen over MSN Messenger. No more studio work for me.
Above all, there seems to be a purposeful exploration of your voice on the new album. Was that an intention?
I got bored of pitch-shifting stuff, and mutating my voice. I went on tour, and I was singing all the time, and I saw the inherent beauty in not fucking with [my voice] all the time.
You can sing in your room, or in the shower, and you may have been singing since you've been very young, which I have, but when someone puts a mic in front of you, or when you put one in front of yourself, and you have to extrude this meaning from the song... and you have to deliver... it's a different science. I have to record. I'm a recording artist. I'm still learning.
What does the title "Overgrown" mean to you?
It probably doesn't have anything to do with "growing up." The lyric is "That is how it is / I don't want to be a star, but a stone on a shore / A lone door frame in the war / When everything's overgrown." So [it's] kind of post-apocalyptic, where the doorframe is the last thing left standing and there's no one left around to tend to the weeds and the grass and whatever. That's literally what it means. But I don't know what that metaphor stands for.
A sense of trying to hold on to some sort of permanence?
Well, that would fit very well with the press release, wouldn't it? [Laughs] But, um, I didn't write [the press release].
Press releases are hard to write! Especially when the new album is under lock and key.
My first album leaked four months beforehand, so Universal is getting pretty stringent. Although ironically the person to leak it was working for me. His sole job this time [was] to not leak it.
Will you still be performing live as a three-piece for the upcoming tour?
I'm really comfortable playing with Ben [Assister; percussion] and Rob [McAndrews; guitar]. I don't think we need any more people. It just feels right, all this time spent boiling these tracks down to three members.
You mentioned that "way" of recording music. This time around were you finding your recording was more hardware based?
I did use a bit more hardware for this record. The whole of the first record only used the computer and the MIDI keyboard, and the microphone... oh, and a dictaphone. This record used not a lot of hardware instruments, but hardware to make it sound as close as I could to what I was going for. So my production techniques developed a bit. I just went out and bought some shit to make it sounds good. [Laughs] That's it. Oh, I did use my Prophet, which I use on stage. The Prophet didn't get used anywhere on the first album because I didn't actually have it at the time, but with this album I almost exclusively used it.
Is there a particular area of the US you've spent a good amount of time in that you'd like to return to?
Yeah, well, actually, all for different reasons. You know, it's so nice having everything in one place, where if you want to go skiing you can travel just about two hours north. It's so crazy what's actually here, the geology and the beauty of the environment... even if it's kinda built like a hot dog shop. It seems like there's a remedy to any feeling that you need to get out. Always a remedy town. Always somewhere else that offers you something you didn't have before.
I'm curious about the visual side of your music. Your portrait is so often the focus of your videos or album art, for example. It doesn't feel solipsistic, but more like a representation of the starkness of much of your music.
I just like to hand over the videos to directors. I didn't really go out thinking music videos were very important. I didn't really like the "rise" of the music video... sometimes it just makes the music seem completely pointless. In order to do the music videos to my own songs I have to detach myself from it and give the whole thing to somebody else. "OK, so, here, this is going to be yours." I always thought that if you love videos [as a musician] you have to not let it be [your] video and give it to somebody else.
That's a bit surprising because there's a popular impression you're something of a Renaissance Man...
[Pauses.] I mean, I write. I like the idea of writing something else. Maybe a handbook or something.