Beats, samples and melodies.
James Zabiela came up in an era in which a mixtape in the right hands could kick-start a DJ career. This is famously how he got his break when in 2000 he won the Bedroom Bedlam competition in UK magazine Muzik. The excessive care and attention poured into the mix is an approach that's never left him. Zabiela has mixed four compilations for UK specialists Renaissance down the years, each displaying surgeon-like precision in their application of samples, track selections and flair. Yes, we said flair: Zabiela's dizzying technical skills have been his most famous asset, applying a technologically enhanced hip-hop style to house and breakbeats. Zabiela has also been on the books at DJ gear manufacturer Pioneer for years, road testing their flagships models and aiding their design. (As he explains below, his suggestions have resulted in features on the market product.)
So when Zabiela told us that it took him three months to complete RA.319, we were both pleased and a little unsurprised. The mix sees him run a melodic thread through 90 minutes of delicate house and more bass-orientated selections, peppered throughout with samples and field recordings.
What have you been up to recently?
I just got back from touring India and popped over to Bosnia, as you do. I just finished a remix for Hot Chip's next single too, which should be out in the summer. I had over a year not producing anything but recently re-discovered my inspiration.
How and where was the mix recorded?
I don't mind admitting that I was nervous about making this mix. Sometimes you can make promo mixes or mix tapes for fun fairly quickly, and even in one take without too much thought, but this mix was kind of a big deal for me. In all fairness this, with all the travelling I've been doing, which equally inspired and hindered the mix in terms of how long it took to complete. I probably spent about three months on it! This might sound a bit like overkill for a "DJ mix" but I wanted to create something more than that, something personal.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the mix?
It's really a soundscape into my noodle box (brain). There are sound bites from all over the place to convey what I'm about, bits of films, interviews and other things that resonated with me at the time I was putting it together. The idea behind making mix tapes hasn't changed since I was actually recording them onto tapes for my friends at school. It's the ultimate means of expression channelled through other peoples' music and in this case a bit of my own as well. The mix is a snapshot of what you might hear on my forthcoming label, Born Electric. There are a couple of forthcoming tracks exclusive to the mix, including one of my own, which is more of an album type thing than a club record.
Have you ever hit up against specific limitations with DJ technology? Are there things you'd like to do but currently are unable to?
It's funny, I never used to think so, even when playing vinyl, because the more limitations you have the more creative you had to be (which is no bad thing, but sometimes you could be trying to do the impossible and then something like complex time-stretching and OSC come along and allow for pretty much any transition or live edit to be done with relative ease). Then you look back in retrospect and realise how limited you really were with a belt-driven turntable and a skipping CDJ. I still use my trusty old turntable skills in my ever expanding DJ setups, for fun more than anything. Just "pressing play" is not fun, to me at least.
I suppose there will always be something I feel I could do better if I were designing DJ hardware/software solely on my own, but perhaps no one else would want to use them because it would be customised just to how I would want to play. For example, in the past I've made a few sketches/suggestions of my own dream ideas for DJing/live performance equipment and occasionally showed them to Pioneer's engineers in Japan. They'd always politely entertain my various mad scribblings on hotel note paper and sometimes include the ideas in their products, but there are other times where I could tell they just thought I was nuts. Ha.
What are you up to next?
Working with my label partner on getting the first few Born Electric releases up and running. It's been a long time coming but it's finally becoming a reality now, we even have a logo! Also we're doing some themed nights at Space for We Love Sundays, in which they've booked acts like Scuba, Modeselektor, Midland and George Fitzgerald.