James Holden: "I’ve seen a lot of posers with the big modular, then you go around the back and there’s like three wires in it!”

We're in Islington, London, to hook up with the singular talent that is James Holden. He, along with his recently expanded band, is shortly to seriously blow some minds and, proverbially, raise the roof off the rarefied Assembly Hall. 

Holden’s latest album, The Animal Spirits, is a joyous, transcendent whirl, blending his signature modular synth lines with the drumming talents of Tom Page (RocketNumberNine’s rhythmic engine) and instrumental gifts of Etienne Jaumet, Marcus Hamblett, Liza Bec and Lascelle Gordon. The Animal Spirits sees Holden move still further from the restraints of the DJ booth and dancefloor into a freer, more collaborative musical space, with all the tracks on the album recorded live in one take in his West London studio. 

Standout tracks, such as Pass Through The Fire and Each Moment Like The First, could comfortably soundtrack the first manned mission to Mars, and they show just how far Holden has travelled from his early roots in trance music and DJing. With the soundcheck done, James retires to a backstage kitchen, where we grill him on the new album, his modular setup, his coding skills and the demands of running his own label, Border Community. 

A quote at the end of the press release says: “There can be no going back to the prison of the rigid world of computer beats”. Is it liberating to be making music ‘off-grid’?

“[laughs] Yeah, it really is. It changes everything… what’s possible, what works and what fits changes as well, so it’s fresh territory to explore.” 

We gather all the tracks on the new album were done in single takes in the studio. 

“I had a sort of dogma manifesto of rules… [laughs] and like everyone who has a dogma manifesto I broke some of the rules! It came from the physics ideas of Holger Hennig who did the work that led to the Humanizer patch I made for Max For Live. His research showed that you can’t fake the conversation… if you lay down a track and someone overdubs, then the first track can’t hear the overdub, can’t respond to it, so it’s not a conversation anymore. So, I knew the only way to get the human timing to work was that everyone had to play at the same time as you lose something if you don’t do it that way. That became the central rule of it: that everything that is a major part of the record had to be happening at the same moment.” 

You mentioned having to build your own, unique software to run everything live… 

“I knew I had to have it for the recording stage. It goes back to chats that me and Luke Abbot have been having for ages, and working on ideas like scale quantisers that come from working on the modular. Computers are good, as they can play way more notes than I can with my ten fingers; but if, because of that, they’re just bolted down to playing the patterns that you wrote at home, then that’s such a limitation. When I went to Morocco, I just felt like, ‘This box is stupid, it can’t respond to what’s happening in this moment!’. So, this software I built has layers… [laughs] it’s got a lot of layers. Initially it was all Max For Live devices that talked to each other, and we got through the album recording like that, but it would take two and a half minutes to load on a top-end PC and would crash every 30 minutes, which was too much for Live to handle. So, I’ve brought all my individual devices into one Max patch and it’s a lot more efficient.”

So, were there a lot of component parts carried over from the Humanizer, or did you set out to create something brand new this time around?

“I had to rewrite the Humanizer to work with Max as Max works with timing in a different way to Ableton, so that was a pain. The fun bit of it, though, is that, when you’re programming a song into it, you’re not really programming in a pinned-down grid of notes; it’s more like, ‘These are the chords of a song with a sequence of keys that it moves through, and this is the shape of the riff and the rhythm of the riff’. Each of those components can then be messed around with, so you can invert riffs and transpose or partially transpose. It can do little ornaments within the riffs…”

Was there anything it allowed you to do that you hadn’t expected? 

“[laughs] It does all sort of things you’re not expecting! This tour has been a bit of a bug-fixing trial… Nothing really show-stopping, but things like, for the first three shows, you’d press stop and the software wouldn’t really feel like stopping… I’m just gonna play a few more notes!”

Sentient machines?!

“Exactly! A little bit too much life in them! We’ve set up little feedback loops, so that if Tom (Page) on the drums gets excited then that can feed into other parameters, although it is hard to fine-tune them, so they don’t go off the top and break everything.”

Have you done much re-writing of the software as you’ve moved along the tour? 

“It’s nailed down now, although there were moments when I just thought, ‘You’re just being a fucking idiot, James. Why did you think you could re-write Ableton in Max?!’. The boring bits, like playing a clip back, were really hard to code, whereas all the fun shit, like ‘sentient computer’, is fairly easy.”

For the live shows, is this Max patch of yours talking to everyone onstage?

“It’s mostly Tom, as the triggers come from him and that affects the timing and various expression things. The problem with playing with a modular is that they’re great, amazing and a fun way to play in a studio, but if you need to re-patch and change 50 knobs between songs then that’s painful. So, I’ve split the work between the computer and the hardware, and I’ve got 20-odd audio lines in and out of the modular back to the grid-matrix in the computer, so you can patch anything to anything. In the computer, I’m running my clone of the Make Noise Maths, ten of them. There’s various of my favourite modules, some polysynths and a Mellotron copy.”

And is it all still running within your Max patch? 

“Yeah, but then you can route them out into the filters in the modular and saturate everything nicely, or cross-modulate; if you modulate the cutoff of a lot of these analogue filters, it sounds magic and it’s the one thing that plugins never seem to capture just right. I think it’s mathematically quite hard to pull off. The saturation gives everything a nice grit and a bit of life… it does things. Things I can’t quite achieve with my Softube modular setup, sadly, as good as it is!

“I love playing with that on my laptop on flights, but, yeah, it doesn’t quite have the grit. My favourite thing is these weird things that happen in circuits that you don’t quite get in software yet. Like the SEM filter, when you patch the band-pass back into the CV and bring the cutoff right down low on just a basic waveform… it’s great.”

My favourite thing is these weird things that happen in circuits that you don’t quite get in software yet. Like the SEM filter, when you patch the band-pass back into the CV and bring the cutoff right down low on just a basic waveform… it’s great.

That segues nicely to the question of whether you’re brave or foolhardy bringing a modular rig out on the road?

“[laughs] A bit of both! Every BA flight, they seem to give it a good shake… I’ve had internal Doepfer power connectors come off during a flight, and the drop to do that wasn’t just a little bump onto the conveyor-belt, was it?!”

What was the process involved in recording a track like the wonderful Each Moment Like The First?

“That was just Tom coming over for rehearsal before the actual recording sessions. I was recording all the rehearsals just so I had notes, although I was just throwing mics up at random rather than measuring distances to the snare or things like that. On the tape, you can hear me saying to him that I had this riff that I really liked and that I hadn’t really figured out where it goes yet. I was thinking maybe a half-time beat with double-time hats. Tom tried that but it didn’t really work, so we tried a breakbeat against the bassline and that sounded great, and that was the song. Literally, I was assigning the Mellotron to an output while trying to do the arpeggio bits, then the Mellotron comes in and I hit the wrong key! I knew I should leave that in, though, as that wrong note led to everything else in the song.” 

How did you know when you’d got the take you wanted? 

“Having the band made it easy, as they know when they’re happy with their take. There’s one edit on the whole album, where I had to edit out Etienne (Jaumet) going ‘naaaargh’ at the end of a song, as he’d played a wrong note after playing a perfect take.”

How did you decide which modules to bring  out live with you? 

“The things that are tricky to emulate with a computer, really. So, I really like those Verbos Harmonic Oscillators. They’ve got a nice, rounded tone that I tried a few Max fakeries to copy but couldn’t do it. I think mine are a bit broken or maladjusted, which means they’ve got a slight roughness to them, which is lovely, but I spent a week trying to fake them, but it was impossible. Next to them is the Cwejman RES-4, which I use in feedback loops going in and out of the computer. It does great, rounded bass notes on Pass Through The Fire and Go Gladly Into The Earth. It’s also great in a delay path, where you can turn the resonance up and make big, sweeping pings and shit! Then, I have a middle row of filters like the Dave Smith ones and the SEM, basically for saturation; then the Doepfer SEM filter, which is really badass for cross-modulating stuff. 

“On the top I have a paraphonic, two-voice synth with a Cwejman double oscillator and a Wasp filter on the end of it. That sounds fantastic. The whole thing has the Erica Tube mixer as the output stage. It’s pretty lo-fi, but if you get it in the right spot then it’s really good, so I have a VU meter just to make sure. The Expert Sleepers for audio in/out, which works well, so I’m very into that and the Endorphin.es MIDI interface doing 16 CV channels. I have the Eowave Ribbon controller, which is super useful and goes into a scale quantiser most of the time, but you can also do parameters like reverb length on it, which is fun. I’m using one of the CME keyboards with pressure sends on the notes and it’s really good, even though it’s super-slim. That’s about it for tech, really. On the sessions, Etienne had those OTO pedals, a reverb and a delay, so he could do things live with them. I wanted everything to be real, so if you wanted a delay on something you had to have it on for the take. Tom had a triggers box and a drum machine, but that was just for the click track.”

Is the modular hardware reliable in a gig?

“It’s more stable than Ableton, just because, I guess, it’s doing less and you’re working within the hardware rather than the Max for Live link, which, in turn, links around the back to other Max for Live patches.” 

Is it still Ableton you take everything into in the studio when you’re putting down a take?

“I use Reaper now for recording and mixing, because the workflow is a bit better. Knowing that we had to record everything live, I’ve been asking annoying questions of stagehands and engineers on tour a lot, trying to figure everything out. That part of it, the learning and doing experiments… now I feel a lot more confident about doing the next thing in the studio. I want to do everything myself, which is a bit mental in some ways. I could have just hired a really good engineer for a couple of days to set everything up, but now I know that stuff.”

Did the album come out as you’d envisaged? 

“More or less… I didn’t quite know what it would sound like, but listening back to all the takes at the end of the sessions was good, and I knew it was finished.” 

Given the increasing number of modular heads out there now, is there any sage advice you can give them about taking your modular out of the studio? 

“Well, I don’t really hold with the modular purist thing, so there’s no shame in having a computer there, so long as it isn’t tying you down. You also must recognise when the modular is tying you down. I’ve seen people playing live and they’ve basically just got a monosynth, a duo synth and a reverb, so you kinda may as well be on Ableton, really! I’ve seen a lot of posers with the big modular and their back to the audience, then you go around the back and there’s like three wires in it!”

I’ve seen a lot of posers with the big modular and their back to the audience, then you go around the back and there’s like three wires in it!

Have you made any additions to your studio setup recently?

“I haven’t bought any new modules in ages, as I’m so into this hybrid setup that if I want a new module or like the idea of someone else’s module, I’ll just code my own knock-off of it. I’ve kinda stopped putting together a modular rig to have in the living room for spliff and tea in the evening, but the rest of the time I can’t get into using it compared to the laptop mini-modular stuff, as it’s more direct. I do have a 500 rack now, so that’s my new ‘sell your car to buy a preamp’ thing!”

So, you do rate the software modular environments like Softube et al? 

“They’re fun. I’ve been using the free one, too, the VCV Rack.”

Does it drive you a little mad having to wear so many different hats with Border Community? 

“I’m lucky, as my partner, Gemma, has been there through the whole thing… it’s her label really. It is hard and you’re working with your partner six days a week, and you do sometimes think that there’s no physical way we can keep on top of it all, and wish HMRC would just give us two weeks! The looming spectre of Brexit is a worry, too, as it may well make this band impossible… this is my chance to take British musicians around Europe. In a way, the new album is made in the opposite spirit to Brexit. The Moroccan influence makes me realise that Moroccan Gnawa music is trance… it’s got so much of a Jeff Mills set in it! It’s got the tension and release of proper old-school trance. I want to take this band around the world… we’ve been touring for a month now, and already the music is changing shape and structure.” 

Will the modular bubble burst at some point, like it did in the 80s?

“It might, and there’s already a bit of a backlash with people joking that they don’t want to hear your pointless meanderings! I guess you must take that criticism and counter it with what you do, and show people that it can be musical. There are a lot of musical modules around now, and if I was still buying modules, I’d be all over the likes of the Intellijel arpeggiating boxes and the like.” 

With such a vast number of modules out there now, how do you ever decide which to go for?

“That’s the question, really, as no one earns enough to buy them all! I find that once you have more than a case, you’re just looking for another VCA somewhere or the cables don’t reach and your whole vibe goes out the window. I saw Scanner seems to keep his stuff as a Verbos box and a Make Noise box, and maybe that’s the way to do it.”

Were any of your other hardware synths used on the album to complement the modular stuff?

“Just the modular, although I spent quite a while copying the tone of my Prophet 600 into a soft synth I programmed. My Prophet 600 is broken, so one of the oscillators on one of the voices is dead, but that makes it better: if you play a little run, on the fifth or sixth note, it’s different. So, I’ve built that into the software version, too, and I have four or five different controls to decide how it’s going to go wonky. I have a Korg Mono/Poly in the studio and I barely use it on any tracks, but it’s responsible for inspiring so much because of the per-voice controls.” 

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