James Zabiela

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James Zabiela


Zabiela’s in high demand, and spends a hefty portion of his time touring the world as a DJ. In fact, he’ll soon return to Australia for a series of Melbourne and Sydney dates. His schedule is busier than ever these days, and when I ask how he balances all the touring with his production work, he tells me that making tracks on the road is often the only way. “I haven’t released anything for a year and a half now,” he says. “I have been working on stuff, but I’ve been saving it up because I’m starting a label soon. I’m aiming to have the first track out at some point around the middle of the year. I find it’s difficult to work on music when you’re on the road, but I travel so much, I really don’t have a choice. The fact is, I have to do it in hotel rooms or I won’t do it.”

“I’m always happiest when I find a window of time to sit in the studio and I’m there for that purpose only,” he continues. “That’s when the best tracks seem to come out. When I’m at home, and I haven’t been raving all week and come back in the Alps, I can make some good tracks.” Zabiela’s just relocated to an area he can make a racket in for the first time, which may well lead to some new productions. “I’m still living in Southampton, which is where I grew up and I’ve always lived,” he explains. “I’ve never wanted to move from here. It’s not a place to make it, you know, but it’s a nice place to come home to. I travel a lot, so that’s nice. But yeah, I have a new place now with a big, medieval basement – it’s hundreds of years old, very atmospheric and it’s also very insulated, so it’s a great place to make music.”

Zabiela is a big fan of Modeselektor, and plans to model his own label after their Monkeytown imprint. “Their Modeselektion Volume 01 compilation came out on an SD card,” he says. “That was mental. Like, it came in a normal CD jewel case, but when you opened it up, there was an SD card sitting inside. If you look at their Twitter, a lot of the time, there’ll be pictures of them just sitting in their front room wrapping up white labels.” Modeselektor’s home-made, personal approach to their releases appeals to Zabiela – all of their output is collectible, endearing in an age of throwaway culture. “I’m a collector of various things, and I’ve become a collector of their music,” he says. “They did a limited edition of 100 or 150 skateboard decks with their Monkeytown logo, and I bought one of those. I’d love to do something similar with my label.”

Notorious gear-head Zabiela actually worked with Pioneer on developing the CDJ-2000 and CDJ-900 digital turntables. I ask what kinds of toys and gadgets he’s currently using, and the list, predictably, is a long one. “I’ve got my iPad, I’ve got my three MIDI controllers,” he says. “I’ve got the Korg Kaossilator, and I’ve got this new Pioneer RMX-1000, which is just out or is about to come out – they just put the final firmware on the internet yesterday, so I assume it’s going to be out any day now, and it’s great. I actually use a lot more Ableton and things like that. It all gets a bit complicated.” Zabiela seems like the kind of man who’d have difficulty parting with gear, and I posit that he must have a pretty huge collection gathering dust at home. “Yeah, I do,” he admits, “and as I say, I moved house recently so I was faced with just how much I have. It’s kind of a land of broken dreams, all these pieces of equipment from my past left there to die.”

Rediscovering a bit of old gear can be thrilling, though. “When I was moving, I found a Redsound Cycloops sampler,” Zabiela tells me. “It was in its box – brand new, never opened – just sitting there under the couch. They’re so old-school and analogue, and they don’t make them anymore. They were always very temperamental – the BMPs were really wonky, they didn’t keep time very well, and they were always going wrong in some way. Still, I was really excited to find this one, never opened and never touched. I thought ‘Oh, this is where it went!’ I’m excited to have a play with it. Even if I don’t take it out to use in clubs, I’ll use it at home.”

Producers often say that some of their more interesting ideas come from this sort of glitchy gear, stuffing up then forming the basis for a whole new concept. And he agrees. “Yeah, totally,” he says. “I mean, it comes back to that thing of wanting to make a sound in a unique way. If you’re using your own gear, especially an analogue bit of equipment like that, you can end up with sounds that nobody else has.” When you work in this way, the sounds are yours – they’re not just files you’ve downloaded from the internet, and your tracks can’t be reproduced by just anybody. “It’s about finding sounds from unique sources, rather than just from the presets,” he says. “If you hear a great dance record and it has really wonky sounds on it, usually it’s the case that whoever made it made those sounds themselves by mucking around with wonky bits of gear, rather than downloading them from the internet.”

I’m always interested in the music DJs listen to outside their work life, so I ask Zabiela what kinds of tunes he’s spinning at home at the moment. “I listen to a lot of new stuff, a lot of folky stuff,” he tells me. “Basically, on a Sunday, when I’m home from travelling, I’ll find something on Spotify or my iPod, and it will be anything that doesn’t contain synthesisers or samplers or kick drums – or not electronic kick drums, at least!” he laughs.  “Right now, I really like that Swedish group First Aid Kit. They have a very spooky sound that I like.” Of course, Zabiela says, he’s not averse to listening to a bit of electronic stuff at home. “John Talabot put out an album recently that I really like a lot, and I think a couple of tracks from that will probably make their way into my sets at some point,” he says. “Generally speaking, when I get back home after touring, though, I like to listen to non-electronic stuff.”

At this point in time though, being a DJ is second-nature to Zabiela, and he’s always listening out for sounds that he can slot into his sets. “I mean, whenever I’m listening to music at home, even if it’s folky stuff, I always have in the back of my mind that this or that cool and bizarre sound might work in my DJ sets,” he says. This impulse, in fact, has become a bit of a problem. “I literally can’t listen to music or watch films without part of me listening out for potential samples,” he laughs. “It’s actually turned into a really bad habit. I went and saw The Hunger Games a couple of weeks ago, and there were a couple of moments on the soundtrack where I thought, ‘I could sample that’, then I took a step back and thought ‘hang on, no, it’s a bloody film – you need to get out more!’” 

Given Zabiela’s imminent return to Australia, I ask what we can expect from his sets. “I don’t even know myself at the moment,” he admits. “There’s still a lot of room for improvisation in my sets. You know, if you want to play leftfield stuff, not the standard 4/4 electronic stuff, you need to either make the re-edit first, or do it live and risk stuffing it up. You need to do a lot of preparation in order to be spontaneous, which is kind of a contradiction when you think about it, it sounds kind of ridiculous, but that’s the way I work.”