Art by Thomas Hawk
James Blake is one of few modern electronic artists who has managed to stay relevant both commercially and within the underground community that birthed him. Since exploding onto the scene with two groundbreaking experimental EPs and a widely applauded commercial full-length, Blake has stayed true to his underground roots by releasing several dancefloor-driven singles and DJing at legendary clubs like Low End Theory and Plastic People.
Granted, the new fans he gathered with his self-titled album, structured more along the lines of traditional pop, might sometimes look on in confusion as Blake spins abrasive electronic tunes from Blawan or Salem at his after-parties. But in reality, through his DJ sets and his new label 1-800-Dinosaur, he’s actually doing a huge service to the underground community by exposing these artists to a new and receptive audience.
After revealing that he’d been dating Theresa Wayman from Warpaint and trashing his label for a number of unauthorized leaks, Blake released his second full-length last month amid a perfect storm of gossip and controversy. Before stopping in NYC for two sold out shows at Terminal 5, I spoke to him on the phone about collaborating with the RZA, the timelessness of Outkast and the Wu-Tang Clan and how Christopher Hitchens influenced his writing. Aaron Frank
Where influences are concerned, electronic music seems to take a backseat to hip-hop and R&B on the new album. Can you talk about some of the artists you were listening to while making the record?
I listened to a bit of the Jeremih mixtape. I listened to a lot of gospel, quite a lot of Stevie Wonder as well. What else? A lot of Wu-Tang. I could go on.
What appeals to you specifically about Outkast and Wu-Tang?
I think the difference between Outkast and Wu-Tang is that Wu-Tang never really got absolutely massive. I mean, they were big, but I just saw them at SXSW doing a reunion show basically, and there’s something about the fact that they were never absolutely huge to the point where you would hear their records overplayed on radio and stuff like that. So when you see them live now, it felt completely fresh, even though you’ve known those tunes all your life.
Whereas with Outkast, their tunes did get massively overplayed on radio, but they were that good to where you don’t care. I could hear “Ms. Jackson.” I could hear “Hey Ya.” I could hear any of their hits over and over again and never get bored because they’re such interesting pieces of music. They made pop music interesting for a lot of people.
It’s interesting to see how The Love Below has influenced most everything ten years on. Modern indie and pop music just wouldn’t sound the same if that album had never been released.
I mean Andre 3000 is one of the most influential producers in music. Not only that, but he’s one of the best rappers ever and one of the best producers ever. You can talk about how they influenced pop, but just the way they came out in the first place was revolutionary.
What was it like working with the RZA? I know you two just performed together for the first time at Coachella.
We met him for rehearsal before the show and it was cool. It was pretty brief, briefer than I like, but it was amazing to meet him. When he really got going, it was like, “Oh shit. The RZA’s here.” You could really feel the skill and the prowess. It was just great. After the rehearsal, me, Rob and Ben were like what the fuck just happened?
You hadn’t met him while recording?
Not to record. That was done on the Internet, and we didn’t get to meet until we rehearsed. But just a really stand up guy, just a nice guy to work with and we got on. He’s got good energy.
The lyrics seem much more direct and cutting on this album. Are they mostly inspired by personal experiences?
Well, it’s all inspired by personal experiences. I’m actually not the sort of writer that can write about things that haven’t happened or fictional situations. I’ve not been able to do that much. But all of these tunes are very personal. It’s very much like a diary this album, as the first one was, but this time it’s almost brutally honest.
But with the last album, the lyrics seem a bit more metaphorical and I think the clarity is what makes this album brutally honest. I’m just curious what inspired that change. Were there any authors or writers that had an impact on you?
Yeah, I would say songwriters more than anything. Someone like Joni Mitchell, and then the writing of prose was actually a big influence too. I read a lot of Christopher Hitchens this year. I read a lot of books in general, but reading prose takes your mind off the musical side of things.
Especially with someone like Hitchens, who really demands your attention.
He’s just incredibly precise. Every single word is utterly relevant and there’s so much packed into a small space. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to read because you have to really focus. You can’t just let the pages go by. Sometimes you have to really study it, but it’s really rewarding and you end up feeling like you’ve really learned something.
Since we’re basically from the same generation and we’ve kind of witnessed the demise of the album as an artform, I’m curious if you think leaks have hastened that demise.
Well, I don’t think leaks have done that. I think format has done that. I think it’s an entire generation growing up with the separation of songs on iTunes playlists. It’s just a different format and a completely different world now, and you just have to roll with the punches.
It’s not going to change unless you develop a better alternative. I think the only way to defeat piracy is to offer a better alternative. The whole album thing, I’ll sit and listen to an album sometimes, but the world is so fast-paced and some people just don’t have time to really sit there.
I guess my question is more about individual tracks. For me, I know hearing four leaked tracks from an album just ruins that sense of novelty and surprise for when you actually get to hear it in its entirety. Wouldn’t you agree?
It does ruin that. I agree. That’s why I was so against part of the campaign with my album, where tracks were being leaked here and there and some of the things had happened accidentally. Just the handling of it I wasn’t particularly happy about. And unfortunately when you say that in the UK, they just kind of shrug it off and maybe blame somebody else.
You’ve just got to make your best effort to make sure there’s as much control around the situation as possible. And I think this time around, I didn’t really have time for that in between just writing a fucking album, you know?
Do you have plans for anymore singles or EPs this year?
It’s quite interesting you raised the thing about albums, because nowadays I don’t think people are expecting that break between albums as much, where you put out an album and wait two years and then you do another album and then you wait three years.
I think people expect more than that now because things move so quick. You might be on the front page of Pitchfork one day and it might be a huge feature, but then the next day you can’t even find the article. That’s the kind of world we live in, so just releasing another single might be a great idea if I find the right song. It won’t be on the album, but this is all just A&R speak.
Your singles always seem to be either more dancefloor-driven or just completely experimental. Does that function as a different outlet for you?
Definitely. The whole release schedule from the beginning came from how people do things in the electronic music world, just releasing 12”s and EPs, so that every month people would have something new to play out. That’s kind of how we started and I hope to continue like that.
We’ve started this label 1-800-Dinosaur, which is kind of a collective of friends, and we’re just going to put out dance music. Not just sort of mildly head nodding boredom, but actual bonafide dance music. Considering what I’ve just said, the first release is one of my tunes ironically, but what we’re going to be releasing in the future is going to be really special.
I suppose it makes sense that the first release would be “Voyeur,” since that’s definitely the most dancefloor-driven track on the new album.
It definitely takes cues from real house music. You know, Chicago house, Detroit house.
So is dubstep less of an influence for you nowadays? When I asked Mount Kimbie about post-dubstep a while back, they just seemed completely over it.
Well, you have to remember that neither me or Mount Kimbie invented that word or ever gave a shit about what it meant. They just make amazing music. They are one of the most exciting things to happen to electronic music in a long time in my opinion. They’re also two of my best friends and they’re doing a new album and it sounds so good.
But house music has kind of taken over in the UK and everywhere else. Is that more an influence for you than dubstep now?
No, I wouldn’t say that. When I DJ out, I love half-time music. I love slowed down R&B, and I love dubstep and dub, all these slightly half-time rhythms. Even if they have a bit of skip to them that makes you nod your head double-time or anything like that, I still love that kind of kick on the one, snare on the three kind of thing. And because of that, I still play a lot of dubstep. Early dubstep still has a huge influence on the way I make music today.