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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.