The journey of the young James Blake has been nothing if not interesting. He appeared at first with a slow stream of singles and EPs on very cool labels like Hessle, Hemlock and R&S, with each new slice showing a unique voice developing in what would come to be known as “post-dubstep”. Then, the hype machine kicked in as anticipation for his début album shot through the roof. The arrival of that long-player in February of last year was divisive for many reasons, the most prominent being the heavy presence of more traditional songs, something which turned off many of his early advocates.
Whatever your opinion of that record, the meantime has only seen things get weirder with a bonkers Bon Iver collaboration and ever stranger tracks slipping out irregularly over the last year. One of the constant threads in his work has been a human presence, clashing or complimenting a digital one. This mixture of analogue and digital, the integration of emotion and technology, formed the basis for our conversation.
Do you think much about the integration of the newer production aspects and the more traditional song-writing elements of what you do?
I almost don’t really think about it, it’s become so embedded in the way I write. I never really considered making electronic music as a merging of any styles or anything. I considered producing music as a vehicle for my own musical ideas. It’s less of a fusion of things than a vehicle.
It’s probably a natural thing for people of a certain age, for whom computers and technology have always been a part of their daily lives.
Absolutely. Computers have been a part of my life since I was young. Making music on a computer and that being the medium never felt weird to me. Then again, technology has been a part of music for a very long time. I mean, before computers it was other forms, tape and all these things that were new at the time. Computers are just another interface between the ideas and what comes out, what’s on tape, as it were.
People like Delia Derbyshire or Pierre Schaeffer immediately spring to mind. They were really pushing boundaries with their equipment. Do you think that’s still happening now?
I think it’s happening all the time. I mean, with my favourite music, the technology really comes second for me in terms of listening to music. I’m not attracted to something based on what effects it uses, like what brand of delay is uses or what kind of boundaries are being pushed. It’s normally just musical, rhythmical or harmonic ideas that I’m interested in first. But once you’re used to these things, those elements come into play and they start being reasons why it’s your favourite piece of music. You start appreciating the technology and the process. I suppose there are process-based musics where that is literally the forefront, like William Basinski or some kinds of more loop-based things, where so much attention is drawn to the process because of the nature of the music and that is first. But in most pop music, it is really just ideas first for me.
Perhaps one of the by-products of prioritizing the process in electronic music is the fetishistic way some people approach certain bits of hardware or vintage gear, looking down on people who use emulations or samples or whatever. That doesn’t seem to be something that affects you too much though.
There’s definitely people who will make that the priority. I mean, I’ve done my fair share of hardware buying and you can be obsessed with hardware and technology but there really comes a point where you have to ask yourself if this is the music that you want to make. If it is, then by all means keep focusing on the technology side of things because that’s obviously what makes you tick. For some people, the process and the way you arrive at your musical conclusion, the technology is at the forefront of that.
There’s a great article by Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher) where he talks about the illusion of control people have when they compose with machines. For instance, the relationship between a drum machine and the person programming it goes both ways. Each element limits the other in some ways.
I feel completely at the mercy of drum machines for that reason. I feel like they limit me quite a lot. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, it’s quite a cliché but limitation breeds creativity. A lot of the time with drum machines, for that reason, I feel like I’m limited.
Getting an emotion across is really the key factor and people can do that with loads of different instruments and machines. The piano is, in some ways, traditionally tied to particular feelings and emotional resonances.
It inspires certain feelings, it reminds you of a certain time or a certain period in history. For a lot of people who are interested in certain types of dance music, I’m sure the piano seems like an obsolete medium. There’s not many piano-based records coming out now in contemporary music, I don’t know, maybe I’m just not seeing a lot of them. In terms of the craft of writing a piece of music at the piano, it seems like there’s less happening. A lot of the time though, you just come back to that. I spend so many hours making stuff that seems electronic, I’ve enjoyed coming back to the piano and re-imagining what it can sound like using a computer. For me, that actually is kind of a uniting of both worlds, it’s the thing I grew up playing imbued with this slightly otherworldly sound. I really enjoy that, that’s how the Klavierwerke EP happened.
One of those new things was the vocoder, another example of two worlds meeting. What was your first reaction to using a vocoder?
My first reaction to using a vocoder was that I saw this immense beauty. I’m sure a lot of people have found a robotic beauty in things. I think hearing Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ was a good step in figuring out how it could translate in a really raw, emotional way. I find that piece amazing. I mean, I didn’t actually hear that before I did Lindisfarne but I certainly enjoyed it when I did. I realised I had made the right decision in using something like that.
Turning vocals into a sound or texture as strange as a vocoder often makes you think a little deeper about them and why they’re there in the first place.
Yeah, totally. It also depends on what your singing doesn’t it? There’s a tradition in contemporary music of masking everything you’re saying. I suppose that’s mostly people like me who are slightly dubious about their own lyric writing and subconsciously hiding it as soon as it went to record, which I’m trying to hide at the moment because I’m finding the bare lyric and the bare vocal sound interesting, the way it can sound.
For me, the study of harmony and the idea of harmonic content, melody and rhythm will always come above what I’m using. The best songs start with the best song, you know? They don’t start – usually – with the best piece of technology, it’s just about how it sounds and what the melodic ideas are.
James Blake plays the Academy on the 3rd of August as part of a stellar R&S records line-up. Tickets are priced at €17.50.