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Interview with James Blake

Photo: James Blake.

Currently touring the US and Canada, James Blake offers audiences a taste of the evolution of his sound with his sophomore release Overgrown (out now on Universal/Republic). Blake performs at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor on November 11, 2013 as part of the 2013-2014 UMS season.

He took a few minutes to chat with us about the music, the rich musical history of the Detroit area, and balancing DJ and band life.

Drew Waller: Detroit. Since you’re stopping in the area on your tour, how much do you think about the musical history of this town?

James Blake: Hmm, yeah! In terms of techno, I’m only recently a kind of “convert” in some ways. Really, some of the best, still the best music originals comes from Detroit and Chicago. We’ve really been looking forward to coming to Detroit, for that reason really. We are all into that that kind of music, and if there are any nights like that while we’re here, we’ll be there.

DW: You better believe we have a lot to offer you. You know, there is a yearly festival in downtown Detroit that’s called Movement, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but a lot of the DJ “heads of state” that have a long-standing history in the area are often there alongside with newer folks like yourself, AZARI & III, Tensnake, who are building themselves in the scene and having a respect for this place, at a time when it gets put down in so many other ways.

JB: YES, I agree. I agree!

DW: For you, you have certain experiences on the road when you are overseas. You debuted top ten overseas, and people have embraced [your new album] Overgrown. Tell us about your experiences as you’ve been on the road in the US. Are there similarities or differences with how you’re received in the UK?

JB: Yeah, I mean there’s a kind of exoticism, you know, both ways. There is a kind of magic to being in a new place. Where, you know, there’s unfamiliarity, but there’s also a  kind of familiarity from growing up with American references and American music. I love it here.

The audiences are seeing something that they might not see every day, too. It’s not just a band from their hometown, you know? We can FEEL the excitement. The crowds so far [on this tour] have just been utterly amazing.

DW: London, of course, is your hometown, but if you lived in the US, what city so far [in your travels] do you think you might call home?

JB: That’s a hard one. I’m a suburban kind of gent. I came from the suburbs of London, and there’s part of me that would love to live somewhere completely remote. Like on an island off of Seattle. Or maybe New York? Honestly, there are so many places I’d just have to maybe wait, until I’m — which is never going to happen — I’m incredibly rich, and can then travel and see.

DW: It will be really interesting to see what you do take away as you go from place to place. You’ve also been across the border to Montreal and Toronto during your touring travels, which actually brings us to your EPs. You did a gorgeous rendition of Case of You [by Joni Mitchell, from Blake’s Enough Thunder EP]. I put that track on heavy rotation on any given Sunday.

JB: Awwww!

DW: I do find it interesting that you do have skills and tenacity as a DJ while also being a composer, and all of your EPs have amazing B-sides [“At Birth” from Love What Happened Here EP, for example], but you don’t see many “James Blake” remixes out there. Looking on Beatport, iTunes and nothing.

JB: You’re right. I haven’t done any remixes, and no one’s made remixes [of my work].

DW: Yeah! You have so much music out there, and I find it surprising that remixes haven’t been commissioned [officially] by you or your label. I do see some that are, you know, bootleg, but nothing official. What’s your take on that?

JB: DJs, they do a kind of, bootlegs, yeah. I love that. I love the culture of bootlegging because it’s further off [from my work]. I feel sometimes, with commissioned remixes, people just “check in.” You know? People just deliver, and it might not be what you want, or maybe [the DJ commissioned] might just be doing a remix for the money. If you get the right person, that’s not going to happen but, for me, I don’t do remixes because I already have enough music there. If you wanted to hear a spin on a certain style that I’m doing, you can go and just listen to another tune. There are so many styles on [Overgrown] that you don’t really NEED a house remix of one track because you’ve got Voyeur [Track 8]. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, I’m already releases quite a lot of music, so it didn’t seem suitable to get a lot of remixes done as well.

DW: I love that answer. [A casual listener] would be thoroughly impressed to see how many EPs you’ve put out on your own. Putting them all out there is a great way to see your growth and where you’re starting to take things.

JB: I wanted it to be my story. Without being egotistical, I just wanted it to be a follow-able story with a pattern. An interesting narrative for the listener. I didn’t feel like that needed outside comment.

DW: With [the album] Overgrown, when I listen to those tracks, the production levels, the layers, all these things, I can tell you’ve gotten a lot from the things that have happened to you, musically. The people you’ve interacted with, the way that you work with your band.

With samples on Overgrown, what part do they play on tour (versus as they sound on the final album)?

JB: Yeah, we use them on stage. Like, Ben [Assister] the drummer is playing with all sorts of samples. He’s playing samples of drum hits, he’s playing samples of vocals, he playing things that we can’t play in any other way because he has two feet and two hands. He’s also an incredible drummer so there are additional things he can do that the samples can’t. We use the samples that are on the record and try to replicate the best we can while bringing something new to it, i.e., dream and feel, and no click tracks or any automation or Ableton, or any things that might tether Ben as a human drummer. An electronic pulse, a thing that is static is, well to me, disengaging.

DW: Interesting, you mention Ben. Ben Assister on drums and Rob McAndrews on guitar, both of them, and as I understand it, your manager, are DJs themselves. Do you all end up telling each other to listen to this new track, listen to something you just put together, how does that work?

JB: It’s amazing: it synergizes. We are all into different music. Rob came up on ambient hip-hop and ambient music in general: some Sigur Ros and the like. I don’t need to go into it, I wear my influences on my sleeve so you can probably tell who they are. Dan [the manager] is more house, a house DJ through and through. He’s been doing it since he was young, so he’s technically, out of all of us, THE actual DJ. Ben is really into his dub music, dub and reggae. We all have different flavors. When we play our [DJ collective party] 1-800-Dinosaur that comes across. We can kind of offer a varied night, which to me is a good night.

DW: As a DJ yourself, when you play that role, how do you mentally split your time between what you are doing for composition and what you are doing on your decks?

JB: I will profess that I don’t think I’m the world’s best DJ. I think I’m just trying my best to get the music right. I think it starts with the tune selection for me, and what kind of music I am into at the time. I have the most fun [as a DJ] and offer the most fun when I am playing music I love so it could be quite anything. To something that maybe isn’t dance-able really. Maybe a Prince tune one minute to something else I’m really feeling at the time. The best thing to play to make the night feel good.

DW: Going back a beat to when you mentioned dub. “Dubstep” and electronic music in general, it seems here in the US we are a bit slow on the upload with electronic music, and dubstep just permeated everywhere the way it did in the UK five, ten years ago. You see it in ads, for example, when you hear Nero on a Microsoft commercial. Skrillex in a :30 soundbite in between programs.

JB: What do they call it here, EDM? I don’t listen to it per se. It’s definitely a different type of music, a different genre. Enough time has gone by that we all can call it a “different genre” now without needing to tack on description.

DW: Looking at your music on different aggregate sites, different music etailers, they all have different ways of delineating who you are. On iTunes you are classified as “Dance”. On Beatport, “Electronica”. If you had to classify yourself, would you want a label at all?

JB: Eh, in a way it would be useful to get to me in a record shop, isn’t it.

DW: Ah yes, for efficiency sake, it works. James, you are on the road right now. Are certain songs speaking to you in different ways when you perform them here in the U.S. than, say, when you recorded them on the album?

JB: Um, YEAH! Retrograde has had a really huge impact at shows in a way that I wasn’t really expecting. People are singing along and clapping. Kind of a slightly church feeling to it in ways I didn’t really expect, though I could hear that there is gospel entrance to the tune itself. I love that reaction. There is this track by the Rev. James Cleveland called Peace Be Still. In almost all of his recordings, you can hear people clapping and singing to all his stuff. I get a tiny little taste of that every time people are so rapturous in the moment. I fell like I’m him in some way only that when people are really into something. It’s nice. I’m really looking forward to it and more.

For another preview of the music, take a listen to UMS Senior Programming Manager Mark Jacobson’s “Staff Picks” playlist, or Associate Manager of Community Engagement Mary Roeder’s “Electronic Music” playlist.

UMS Playlist: Electronic Music

This post is a part of a series of playlists curated by UMS staff, artists, and community. Check out more music here.
Photo: James Blake (performing in Ann Arbor on November 11, 2013).

The world of electronic music is vast…the component genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres too numerous to even begin to catalog (for me, anyway). So…I’m not going to even try to pretend to be qualified enough to provide any sort of formal thesis about the traditions from which James Blake draws. It’s much easier for me to tap into the emotional pulse of an artist’s work or to talk about the “vibes” I get when I listen to a song and then make recommendations for what else might feel similar.

So with that completely non-committal introduction, I offer up this playlist which I call: “Voices of Angels.” Though…the only voice you’ll hear in the Mux Mool track might be a duck??

James Blake – Retrograde
James Blake – I Never Learnt To Share
Sampha – Without
Sampha and Jessie Ware – Valentine
Baths – Miasma Sky
Mux Mool – Baba
Chad Valley – Up & Down
London Grammar – Hey Now
Purity Ring – Obedear
AlunaGeorge – Diver
Toro Y Moi – Say That
Mount Kimbie – Made to Stray
Disclosure – Latch
James Blake – Life Round Here w/ Chance the Rapper

Listen to select tracks on Spotify:

What did you think about this playlist? Share your thoughts or song suggestions in the comments below.

A Fresh Perspective: John Bracey on James Blake

Photo: John Bracey.

John Bracey, Executive Director of the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs, took some time to speak with me about the artist he’s most looking forward to seeing this UMS season: James Blake (who performs at the Michigan Theater on November 11, 2013).

How did you become interested in James Blake?

I find him interesting! He’s young and doing innovative, different things in his music that I find very interesting. I first heard him when he came on my Brian Eno Pandora station. And I liked what I heard. Then, later, I was listening to my Joni Mitchell station and all of a sudden, he popped up there. On that station, too, I heard his cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You,” which I liked. And anyone who does a cover of a Joni Mitchell song must have courage at the very least, I thought, so I continued to listen to his stuff and really enjoyed the different, creative modes he was using in his music.

What about James Blake’s technique do you like the most?

That’s a complicated question. Like I said, I’m a big Brian Eno fan, big Robert Fripp fan from way back…I like traditional sounds as well though, but what I really enjoy is that melancholy folk kind of thing that artists are doing nowadays, like Joni Mitchell. There’s also some poetry in their music as well, which I really appreciate. Like, Leonard Cohen, I’m a big Leonard Cohen fan, huge Laurie Anderson fan…and James Blake seems to play around in all those borderlines of artists and their techniques that I truly enjoy and appreciate.


Some people believe James Blake only appeals to the young, hipster crowd. Do you agree?

Well, not only! I’m definitely not young or hipster. My granddaughter listens to him, so you’re probably right. But not only. And I don’t think he should limit himself by thinking he only appeals to the young, hipster crowd. He is already showing some evolution and growth, in tracks like “Overgrown,” and I hope he continues to invent and grow.

What do you think of established organizations like UMS supporting “emerging” or “popular” artists like James Blake?

I think it’s a great thing for an organization like UMS, which is a jewel in the state of Michigan in terms of the kinds of performance opportunities they allow the citizens of the state to have access to. Over the years, I have seen at UMS everything from Laurie Anderson and Keith Jarrett to the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus. Where else am I going to see that if I’m not living in LA or New York? It’s a huge service. I think it also shows strength in organizations when they’re willing to stick to their mission of bringing the highest quality of art that one can offer while also attending to trends in popular culture.

Some people view popular culture as threatening the classical music traditions. What do you think?

Honestly, I don’t pay a lot of attention to folks when I start hearing that classical music is dying. I don’t believe that. Classical musicians will continue to engage with audiences just as before, but in different ways as well. People will learn to love what’s there. It’ll expand their tastes. Arts organizations that continue to present both sides are thriving while staying true to their mission. It’s about access. They’re more and more not just performance venues, but even visual arts venues, and arts venues generally. You have to compete in that market, but providing access in different ways is really what their missions say they should be doing all along anyway. And I think you’re seeing it.

Are there any other UMS events that you’re looking forward to this season?

I look forward to UMS’s season period. And I don’t get to go to nearly enough of their offerings.

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, John!

Join John in attending the upcoming UMS presentation of James Blake on Monday, November 11th at 7:30 pm at the Michigan Theater. Tickets on sale now.

James Blake: What the heck are they playing on stage?!?

Editor’s note: This piece is a collaboration between UMS programming intern Margaret Albrecht and senior programming manager Mark Jacobson.

Photo: James Blake (performing in Ann Arbor on November 11, 2013).

When the house lights dim, and strobe lights and color washes paint the stage, James Blake and his colleagues will play non-conventional instruments, sometimes in non-conventional ways.

Seeing the instruments in the dark will be tricky, so what instruments are they playing?

James Blake, a conservatory-trained pianist turned singer/songwriter and producer, provides the vocals for this project while performing on various keyboards and electronics. Blake can be heard building complex vocal harmonies in tandem with vocals he records live during the concert (via foot pedals to record and loop his voice), using nothing more than a Synth Prophet ’08, a few microphones, and his ears. During his set, Blake produces the same live effects that many of today’s popular artists spend hours sweating over in recording studios.

Rob McAndrews is credited in the program as providing guitar, synthesizer, and electronics. But what is remarkable is not the multitasking, but the seamless integration of these various instruments. One instrument rarely seen on stage, the Moog Taurus 3 analog synthesizer, is actually a fairly standard piece of equipment popularized by big name rock bands like Pink Floyd and Rush. The instrument is comprised of a series of pedals originally designed to be played by foot, which are similar to the pedals found on an organ. McAndrews however, plays the Taurus with his hands to create massive, low-end bass sounds. He also treats his guitar like a synthesizer, producing sounds atypical of a familiar electric rock guitar sound.

Ben Assister has an almost infinite array of sounds at his disposal through a combination of digital and traditional percussion. While most bands stick to a traditional, acoustic drum kit (typically comprised of variously sized cymbals, drums, and toms), Assister incorporates a digital drum pad into his minimalist kit so that he can rhythmically trigger pre-created electronic samples live, often while accompanying these samples on traditional drums and cymbals.

So now, when those lights dim, you’ll know what to expect: dramatic timbre changes, live vocal manipulations, looping, and harmonization, and, we hope, a concert experience you won’t soon forget.

For a preview of the music, take a listen to UMS Senior Programming Manager Mark Jacobson’s “Staff Picks” playlist, or Associate Manager of Community Engagement Mary Roeder’s “Electronic Music” playlist.

Or, take a look:

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