“You Can’t be Half-Stepping if all These Musicians Are on the Album”: An Interview with Jameszoo

Evan Gabriel speaks with Jameszoo, who reveals he's a huge Young Thug fan. So yeah, he's cool in our book.
By    June 2, 2016

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On the surface, Jazz and Electronic music seem unlikely counterpoints for a symbiotic relationship. One is generally birthed from some form of training; the other is often the product of access to cheap equipment and a DIY knack for capturing sound. Yet Jazz and Electronic have a long history of hybrid undertakings. In the 1960’s, Brazil’s Tropicalia movement achieved powerful leaps in fusion, incorporating American music from north and south of the tropic of cancer. MF Doom and Madlib have credited inspiration from Arthur Verocai’s self-titled 1972 album, which blended samba with Jazz and soul. Nearly 50 years later, an international kinship of sorts came full circle in 2009, when Brazil’s DJ Nuts and Madlib DJ’ed opening sets before Verocai, in Los Angeles for the first time, led a 36-piece orchestra performance at Luckman Fine Arts Complex.

One year before that performance, which Cut Chemist later called “one of the best shows that L.A. had ever seen,” Alice Coltrane’s grand nephew, Flying Lotus, launched an independent label specializing in leftfield music. Since 2008, Brainfeeder has acted as an incubator for some of the premiere Jazz and Electronic artists of the last decade. The music of Kasami Washington, the late Austin Peralta, and Thundercat lands on the more traditional, Jazzy side on the field, while releases from Teebs, Lapalux and Daedelus do work in that gooey middle ground. This spring, Holland’s Mitchel van Dinther, better known as Jameszoo, built on this momentum with his debut album, Fool. Released May 13th on Brainfeeder, the 24-year-old’s debut album swirls Jazz and Electronic into an expanse of nostalgic signifiers and genre defying color.

Fool is van Dinther’s most intentional project yet, taking him nearly three years to write, record and mix. Prior offerings such as Guanyin Psittacines and Faaveelaa EP sound more at home under the ‘beat scene’ label, but this album trudges territory of experimentation, adhering to unpredictability and a childlike curiosity for exploring where Jazz meets the computer. The synths on “Lose” feel eerie; there’s this inquisitive prodding at the existential, also found on Shlohmo’s Dark Red and even Letta’s Testimony. But Fool exists within a concentrated sphere of sporadic expression and unpredictable time signatures. This was achieved through van Dinther’s meticulous arranging, and the extensive support from the musicians (over 25) that he collaborated with during the weeks of studio sessions. If Fool were merely a collection of beats, I could see the early keyboard riff on “Soup,” pairing with some thumping, skittish drum programming. Instead, Julian Sartorius teases the percussion, keeping the drums subdued until getting splashy as Dikeman’s sax enters second act. By “Teeth,” an uncertain melancholia hangs over the 11 tracks. Oene van Geel’s viola rouses the mood, but once a glass breaks, the entire track—and album—shrinks into a single signal of feedback before fading. Fool’s closer sounds bashfully self-aware, but not worn out.

For van Dinther, there’s always more to learn, more ground to cover, even if you’re a novice. He doesn’t come from a formal music background, or with any sense of pretentiousness. His musical interest span from Peter Brötzman and Brian Eno, to Lil Ugly Mane and Young Thug. He is self-aware of his neurotic tendencies around sound design and mixing, locking doors before shows and not being misquoted. Once during an interview with Jagermeister, he duped the corporate hunter masters into believing he kept a robust rooster as a pet in his Den Bosch apartment. While scenes around the sheik van Dinther dinner table offer a glimpse into the artist’s upbringing, knowing the bit about the rooster makes the otherwise non-English interview much more amusing. Up until now, he has been keeping an American Airlines sticker over the webcam of his laptop to avoid being hacked, apparently common in Holland. Luckily, POW was able to wrangle an interview. Thank you, Based God. —Evan Gabriel


So you’ve just wrapped up a rehearsal. What is the touring/live show aspect going to look like for Fool?


Jameszoo: We are going to try and do it with a quartet for this album. It’s a bit more of an extensive live show than what I was trying before. It’s a bit nerve wracking. There’s no computers on stage, it’s just a full acoustic thing, apart from synthesizers. I think it’s fitting the record a bit better. The foundation of the record is mainly acoustic I would say.


So who’s playing what?


Jameszoo: There’s this drummer called Richard Spaven, he used to drum for Jose James the American singer. And then we have the bass player Frans Petter Eldh, he used to play for Django Bates, and then there’s Niels Broos on keys, and he’s all over the record as well, and then I myself am on electronics and percussion stuff, and some weird littler instruments as well. I’m really happy with the fact that people are cool with booking a quartet situation for a first album. I’m happy with it.


You don’t have any formal music training, but Fool often uses Jazz as a foundation. Who were some of the first Jazz musicians that really caught your ear?


Jameszoo: The great thing about Jazz that some of the most well known guys are still some of the most interesting to me, which would be Coltrane and Miles for me. These guys have been changing so much. The last true Jazz innovator was probably Coltrane. They really brought something new to the table. I feel like now we’re trying to reference what was already down but as interesting as possible. So these guys were my first little Jazz interaction moments.


So you still live in Den Bosch, in southern Holland. What was growing up there like?


Jameszoo: It was great. It’s just a really easy country to live in. It has its ups and downs of course. But I’ve definitely developed some sort of relationship with Den Bosch. It’s more village-y than any city you can imagine and it’s just like the smallest tiniest thing, it’s pretty great. But if you’re born in a certain city, that’s just going to be the city you’re keeping your heart in.

But I had a really cool time growing up here. There was this little bar, Cafe Cordes, that was a bit more on the left side of things. There were some Dutch DJs, these guys were playing some Dillas, some Madlibs, and stuff like that. That was just kind of my first experience with hip hop when I was about 15 years old.


And you DJ’ed back then too, right. You started..?


Jameszoo: Yeah, right after. I was just so obsessed with that bar and playing there that was like my main life goal. And that happened pretty quickly and then I started doing residencies monthly. I had a show every second Saturday or whatever. That was just kind of how I started, through that bar. A lot of people were into that kind of music. Not even just from Den Bosch but from all over. That’s where I heard my first Flying Lotus record.

I can remember this really funny moment when DJ Cinnaman, he had this compilation series called the Beat Dimension. They had just released their first compilation with a FLYamSam song, which is Fly Lo and Samiyam, and a Hudson Mohawk song; this was like really early on. He [Cinnaman] was playing something from that record, I mean Dilla was already like, ‘this is really far out,’ but he was playing something from that record and I walked up to a guy like, do you know what this is? It’s just swiping me off my socks. He looked on the disc player and said, ‘it’s some guy named Hudson Mohawke.’ So I tried to Google it but it was unsearchable. It took me ages to think, maybe it’s Mohawke. I got connected through this site called Rushhour. I mean I was completely unaware of all this going on all over the world, it was one of those Eureka moments.

And I found that Beat Dimensions record. I didn’t know it was on there, I just kind of skipped through the clips and heard it and was like, man, all these guys from all over the world are doing this! And then I got on MySpace and all these dudes were on MySpace.


What year was that?


Jameszoo: The first Beat Dimensions tapes came out in 2007. I remember my friends started this MySpace blog, it was kind of one of the first music sharing blogs in a way and it was called the Beatt-apes, and then I started posting for them as well. People would send us beat tapes like Wajeed and Jonwayne, all these dudes that kind of have a career now. It’s kind of funny. How could Beat stuff feel nostalgic?


What music were you DJ’ing back at Cafe Cordes?


Jameszoo: Soul records, Funk records, Disco stuff, hip hop stuff, Tribe Called Quest, Native Tongues, Premo and Gangstarr stuff, some Madlib some Dilla. From there, once I found out about Beat Dimensions I was interested in that stuff as well. The first Mala stuff, Digital Mystiques stuff that I heard. It was a vibrant little moment in music evolution.


And from there you began producing?


Jameszoo: Yeah, that took a minute but I kind of went overboard with DJ’ing. I was checking out all these Mind Fusion mixes Madlib did. From there you get more and more into Jazz. It just needed some incubation time but I was playing that stuff out a lot of the time and after a while it became a bit too abstract for a lot of people.

And then I kind of rethought my whole plan because I was taking DJ’ing seriously and I was like, maybe I should try and make music myself and maybe that will help give people an idea of what they are coming for. I’d say that was 2010 or 2011. That first little thing I made was released on Kindred Spirits in June 2011. It was a 7-inch and one kind of breaky cut and the other thing was this collaboration with this singer called Coultrain, an American singer. And then that got released.


Is it true you also have a parrot?


Jameszoo: Yes, Roberto. He’s a funny little animal. He has his own little way of doing things. You just don’t want to stand between him and his food, or his goal.


Do you have a day job or do you do music full time?


Jameszoo: Music full-time.


How does an average week break down for you?


Jameszoo: It’s definitely depending on the period. Right now I’m living in this little moment where everything is in vein of the album. So I’m going from rehearsals to doing booking stuff and promo stuff, I enjoy it. You see how fruitful releasing an album can be. I don’t mind it at all. When it’s honest interests from people I really enjoy that. That’s what’s happening now, and then a bunch of gigs coming up, a bunch of rehearsals.


You’ve stressed the importance of improvisation. Also, you’ve said you don’t stick to one specific approach to recording music. It seems like this approach keeps your music innovative, shifting sonically. What direction do you see that style taking you for your next project?


Jameszoo: I was kind of thinking about that. I feel like sometimes, there’s not really a lot of room for nuances. Nuances don’t really get portrayed. People think you are nuanced if you don’t really know what you’re talking about. Or if you play nuanced saxophone, people would think you can’t play loud or something like that. This record was about being nuanced, and that’s kind of risky.

I really want to see how far it could go if I was less nuanced on the next project. For this project, there’s a lot of sound design that’s there to sound really like a distant memory. For the next record, maybe I want that stuff to be a bit more clear for people. Where this project, that was something I really had to do. I really wanted to do it. For the next one I really want to go way overboard.


The cover art for 2012’s Faaveelaa EP is so intricate and lends a great visual reference point for the intricate nature of your music. I read that once you saw the artwork for Fool (a portrait by Phillip Akkerman), you were able to hear the album in a new cohesion. Would you say this the first time you have felt so strongly about a project’s artwork?


Jameszoo: Definitely. It was just a really long shot to ask Phillip because he’s a really well known painter in Holland, he does really expensive paintings. But it worked out really great basically. It was some sort of silent dream for him to do a record cover, and it came out of nowhere for him, and he’s a big Jazz geek. So it’s like it was made for him.

And I was so happy because this record is called Fool and I really wanted to become more self aware throughout this project and that records sleeve is saying so many things from so many layers. It’s like a self-portrait through how someone else sees me. It’s a bizarre concept. He didn’t really try to make me any more beautiful than I am, which I love completely.

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Do you like the work of Hieronymus Bosch?


Jameszoo: Yeah, definitely. I’ve got to be honest; I’m so fucking jaded right now. It’s been 500 years since he was born, and in Den Bosch they made a fucking big ass deal about it of course they have one of the biggest Hieronymus Bosch exhibitions in a long time. Right now in Den Bosch they have like a theme park accompanying that exhibition, but it’s really cheesy with people in costumes and stuff, it’s unbearable. I mean I went to the exhibition and it was amazing to be honest, but just imagine this, when they opened the exhibition our king came, I was invited as well to go there with the king because I’m an artist from here and repping Den Bosch. But I didn’t go.

They had to walk through the streets, with people cheering for the people who were walking with the king. There was a really terrible Dutch rapper doing a song for Hieronymus Bosch. No flow at all. Pure cringe. I’m really not with trying to make Hieronymus Bosch for everyone. If a city is well known for it’s Free Jazz, you’re not going to confront everyone in that city with Free Jazz. I’m just not with the idea that everyone has to be for everyone in terms of culture.


So you would have met the king?


Jameszoo: Yeah I would have met him and then been in the parade and then gone inside to watch the exposition.


When was that?


Jameszoo: This January or February.


You’ve DJ’ed Boiler Room sets in both New York and Rotterdam. Is there a noticeable difference between American crowds and European crowds?


Jameszoo: I guess there is, yeah. There’s just a big difference in the way people react to my sets in Holland versus the rest of the world because in Holland, a lot of people are already hip to it. It’s just really easy to get stuff going. I have a really good time playing records in Holland. Outside of Holland sometimes it’s really great and sometimes it’s really working, which is not why I go into this. I did Low End theory three times, Austin two times, New York twice, San Francisco once, and maybe one or two others. I didn’t do a huge tour there, but it was always fun.


How did your performances at Low End Theory go?


Jameszoo: The first time I didn’t really know what to expect. So that was pretty special because I kind of see that whole beat—I’m not sure if I’m part of that anymore, I mean this record is, there’s definitely little references to any beat history I had—but I definitely felt a part of that back then, and then it was cool to see the beat scene going alright. Now it’s kind of an LA product, and I didn’t really know how to feel being a European guy in Low End. I was just a bit afraid that they would be protective about everything, because we have our own little interpretation of how they make sense.

But they were super friendly and so open to that stuff and so aware of how many different things you can do with it. It was so great, it really had a lot of impact on me. The second show was great as well. My friend Jonwayne came on stage and he did a few bars. A lot of people at Low End know Jon pretty well so that was a little moment. And then the third time was when they kind of announced that I was a part of Brainfeeder. So it’s always been good vibes at Low End.


You signed a multi-album deal with Brainfeeder earlier this year. How did that happen?


Jameszoo: What happened was, I had been making a lot of electronic music, and I got invited to the Red Bull Music Academy. I just met a few really bright spirits over there, it kind of made me re-think what I was doing and maybe take it a bit more serious. So when I got home it kind of triggered me to have bigger aspirations than I had before, more focused aspirations. That was also the time I was getting into Free Jazz and a lot of the European Free Jazz like Peter Brötzmann.

I had this thing in my head that I really wanted to make some sort of a combination. Aspirations went a bit high, but I was able to book a studio for three weeks and get a lot of musicians in that, it went from bad to worse from where I was just trying everything, to being like, let’s get Arthur Verocai and Steve Kuhn on board, but in a really good way. It was one of these projects that go their own way. After a while you’re working with some really well known musicians, then you’ve got to be on point on every aspect, it was like no way back after a while, which was terrible for my sanity, but it was really good for the end result I think.


Do you think the players that you brought in gave it that impact?


Jameszoo: Yeah, it really makes you think if you’re in the studio with John Coltrane’s old piano player. For a guy who’s trying to make his first little album, it was kind of like, hmm, there’s more to it now than just a guy trying to do some funny stuff, and doing a couple of DJ gigs afterwards. That definitely helped, seeing what kind of stuff well respected musicians wanted to work on with me on this project. On one hand it pressured the process and the end result. You can’t be half-stepping if all these musicians are on the album.


Did you ever feel limited in the studio sessions with the players?


Jameszoo: Yeah you kind of do, but definitely going into the studio with Stephen [Kuhn] and Arthur [Verocai] you just try and prepare as best you can. I didn’t want to improvise on those studio days. So I really tried to prepare and tried to have everything on lock and there’s always this one thing you didn’t think of and then you’re there like, ‘now I have to fix this.’ But I think everyone gets confronted by shortcomings, maybe even daily. Sometimes it’s in music and sometimes it’s guys speaking Italian across the street and you can’t understand them. Mainly, the whole record is about it. That’s why it’s called Fool.


Was there ever a point you felt like you overcame that naivety? Or is the album the representation of that?


Jameszoo: I think it’s the second. I mean it’s a bit of coming to terms with myself. I don’t want to sound spiritual or anything at all. It’s just, I’m just bothered about myself. I think everyone is sometimes. I think that has to do with just getting more confronted by your own image. This was definitely one of those projects where there was just a lot of self-confrontation. I’ve never done a project like this before, it was completely new to me. It was a silly thing to take on at this point, but I mean I had to get it on once I was in the middle of it.


During the recording sessions you used over 25 players. How do you go about selecting the right player for a given piece?


Jameszoo: I’m certainly no visionary, so, I recorded of course more musicians than these, it wasn’t like everyone was like, ‘this is exactly what I was looking for.’ It varies. On one track, there’s Stephen Bruner playing bass, and I met him at the academy, he was on a studio team back there when I was a participant.

On the same track there’s this guy called August Rosenbaum and he was a RBMA participant as well. Those were the first two recordings after the academy, and the vision of what I wanted to do became more clear. I’m happy I implemented these recordings because they were some sort of a starting point for this project.


How long is the Red Bull Music Academy?


Jameszoo: It’s two weeks. A lot of people hipped me to it like, it’s a great experience you have to do it. Dorian Concept, Mark Pritchard. There were just a lot of people who were like, man just do it don’t question us. And then I did and it was just, I mean life changing is such a big feeling so I try not to overuse that one but it was in a way. It’s just this weird little moment where you find out that you’re not the only guy that’s just doing whatever he’s into at that moment.

It’s like meeting all these kindred spirits that you didn’t know exist. It was pretty bizarre. Apart from that it’s just fun to have all these amazing lectures from amazing musicians from guys like Rakim to Brian Eno, Stephen O’Malley and Bernie Worrell. It was just a very great experience. I love how New York is always just a different experience. I’ve been there maybe five or six times. Sometimes I really like it, sometimes it just doesn’t work for me.


Do you think electronic music (or music made on a computer, specifically) needs some form of human musicianship or intervention from digitization to stand out in 2016?


Jameszoo: No, definitely not. Some of my favorite music still is completely electronic. There’s no reason for a computer to not be able to compose, they have much more range than a human. A lot of the early electronic stuff is still some of my favorite music and they wouldn’t have even thought of putting in a live instrument because that electronic stuff was already so special.


Who, if any, are some hip hop artists you’re listening to right now?


Jameszoo: Lil Ugly Mane. I’m definitely a Chief Keef fan. I’m also a Young Thug fan. He’s probably my favorite right now. The thing with him, he’s not only a step ahead, but he’s also a step to the side. So that makes it really hard for people because people always only look straight ahead. There’s a lot of people denying it because that’s kind of an envy. But because he’s so way on the side it’s kind of hard for people to see what he’s doing. And it’s just the most spontaneous, fun stuff I’ve heard in years.


Anything else coming up?


Jameszoo: I’m doing this thing called the Foolcast. It’s a podcast. I made a twenty-four-hour DJ mix. It was not fun after a while [laughs]. So it will be ready around the time the pre-orders for the Fool vinyl go up. I really wanted to present it in a way where you can’t just skip through it. I wanted it to feel like a continuous loop. If you want to hear a different part, you’ll have to wake up in the middle of the night or something.