“Dance music is folk music”: Why James Holden is still inspired by rave culture
James Holden's new album imagines a parallel rave reality. He speaks to Charlie Bird about joyous music, counterculture and the natural world
“Some people come up to me and say I’ve changed. I haven’t changed, I’ve always just been a guy who likes to get into a trance.” It’s been a decade since James Holden released a solo album. Over the phone, he explains that his search for transcendence remains the same: whether that be playing the piano as a child, being part of a jazz band, or mixing at a free party.
Due to be released on the producer’s DIY label Border Community at the end of this month, ‘Imagine This Is A High-Dimensional Space of All Possibilities’ is the record a teenage Holden longed to make, punctuated by psychedelic rave motifs, serene soundscapes and collaged field recordings.
Remnants of Holden’s 2017 jazz album ‘The Animal Spirits’, made with Etienne Jaumet, Marcus Hamblett and Tom Page, are audible throughout. The LP is tied together by an emancipatory mood, referencing the early days of dance music and charting his own musical journey from adolescence to the present day.
Produced over the last couple of years, the album is subtly political. In conversation, Holden draws similarities between his teenage mindset and the lockdown period, where isolation from the outside world conjured up a desire to escape to the future. “All my money was gone and I was just thinking, well one day this is all going to be over and what did I want to put into the world at that point? Just the most joyous, hopeful, possible thing that I can do,” he tells me.
Growing up in a sleepy town west of Leicester, Holden felt isolated from the epicentres of the UK’s dance music scenes. Just about close enough to pick up pirate radio signals, he would try and recreate what he heard over the airwaves. This distance also allowed Holden to break strict rules - an attitude he resurrects on the new album to defy genre politics.
As we talk about his introduction to electronic music, Orbital’s ‘Insides’ and The KLF’s pastoral ‘Chill Out’ frequently come up in conversation. “I just listened to those records so much when I was 16 to 18 that I can never get away from them. They’re permanently imprinted on my brain, you can play me the first 10 seconds of an Orbital track and I’ll tell you what the next 10 seconds are like exactly,” the producer says.
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Inspired by these seminal records and the juxtaposing photomontage of John Stezaker, where landscape postcards are spliced together with stills of Hollywood film stars, Holden gathered field recordings in the countryside and stitched them together with his friends jamming over the top to create a disjointed harmony. The result is a record that warrants listening in one sitting, allowing you to engage with all the patchworked sonic elements in a continuous sound collage.
“I really try not to go into the studio thinking ‘I’m gonna make something using ‘90s sounds. I try to stop myself thinking like that and focus on feeling.” Coming of age after the 1994 Criminal Justice Act meant Holden was too young to experience the height of the free party scene. Contrasted with the melancholic perspectives on this loss, this LP forms a hopeful alternate reality, a parallel rave world imagined amongst a new landscape’s Elysian fields.
Holden goes on to talk about being inspired by the philosophy and aesthetics of French graphic novel artist Jean 'Moebius' Giraud. “Writing music is like building a world, which Moebius was very good at. My approach to producing music is to try and make a world, a set of logic that hangs together.” The cartoon shamanic ritual depicted on the album’s cover was drawn in bande dessinée style by artist and musician, Jorge Velez, who has also created an accompanying 12-page booklet interpreting each track with an illustration.
As you open the zine, the trippy modular synthesis of the album’s opening ‘You Are In A Clearing’ is visualised through an invitation to a vibrant otherworld, reflecting the title’s instruction to break free from convention. Once immersed in this utopian world, you’re guided on a visual and sonic journey through it. As you flick to page two, our dehumanised universe is seen only as a fragment in the top left of the frame and the viewer is plunged into the bacchanalian hallucinations and hypnotic rhythms of the lead single, ‘Contains Multitudes’.
Cutting his teeth at squat parties in Oxford, Holden gained mainstream success when he released ‘Horizons’ in 2000, going on to remix Nathan Fake’s ‘The Sky is Pink’ and produce a slew of remixes for big ticket artists. After spending too much time amongst decadent DJs boasting about riding in flash cars and staying in luxury hotels, he became disillusioned with this loveless side of the scene. Finally returning to the defiant music of his youth, Holden is excited to be making feet move again. “I’m playing clubs and ravey festivals with the benefits of all these adventures I’ve had over the last 10 years. I feel really lucky.”
Despite his disparaging view of the industry, Holden still sees pockets of an anti-establishment ethos in rave culture, citing Wigflex’s parties in Nottingham as an example. “Dance music is folk music. The way we share it; how it brings people together; the way ideas evolve in it, with people doing versions of other’s songs, that’s a really folk music thing; and mainly, the way in which a community can develop that doesn’t have to be a capitalist-entertainment-complex,” he comments.
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‘Imagine This Is A High-Dimensional Space of All Possibilities’ is intimately tied to nature. The most recent right-to-roam single ‘Common Land’ uses 808 State-style bird calls and euphoric synth lines to critique the enclosure of space, a salient topic given the recent protests against the ruling against camping on the Dartmoor National Park. “It’s through music that I discovered alternative viewpoints about the world,” Holden continues, “it’s obvious isn’t it? That common land out there should be for everybody and if you can rave on it without hurting anyone, then that should be possible.”
“When I started there was such a broad DIY music industry and gradually over my lifetime, everything’s gone to big tech firms. Now it’s really hard for any musicians to just survive because everything’s gone to [Spotify CEO] Daniel Ek. And that’s part of the same system — it’s why we can’t walk freely across this country,” Holden says.
Holden’s strident belief in the commons also extends to his own practice. He plans to make the AI software he used to produce the album available online for free. “I wouldn’t be talking to you now if it hadn’t been for people who put their music software out there for free a long time ago. The Digital Commons is important, it’s one of humanity's best achievements to make all of its knowledge and culture available online and we shouldn’t take it for granted because it is currently being enclosed and sold back to us.”
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As we begin to wrap up, Holden is telling me how the title came about. He found it scrawled across a piece of paper after a night coding. “It’s a bit abstract but if you imagine all the different knobs you can turn in the process of making a track, they’re like axes on a graph. So, if you only had two controllers, the song would be a little trip around that space that you could define with two axes: But imagine it was 50 controllers, that’s a high dimensional space. Some of those places within the space are shit, and some are really surprising and vibey.” Holden adds dryly, “I was also high, obviously.”
On the penultimate track, the spaced-out soundscape combined with distorted, trip hop drums is accompanied by an illustration of a sunset. In the foreground, three spectral silhouettes wave from the dunes down to the beach party below. Ending on ‘You Can Never Go Back’, Velez depicts an extra-terrestrial smiley inviting you to remain in this world. The subdued breaks wash over the track and melancholic sounds of the night’s end begin to creep in, the bass still just about pulsating.
James Holden’s ‘Imagine This Is A High-Dimensional Space of All Possibilities’ is out on March 31 via Border Community, get it here
Charlie Bird is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter