Published May 12, 2011
JAMES BLAKE. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL REPUBLIC RECORDS
James Blake does and he doesn’t. Some say dubstep, others say pub music. His heady blend of electronic echoes, gospel vocals and classical composition has many confused about where to place this young Brit along the stylistic scale. But the musician/producer/DJ seems unconcerned with others’ need to figure him out; and since his arrival on the music scene, he has churned out tracks that are equally as kinetic as they are emotive.
When Blake released his first full-length LP James Blake back in February, the album garnered quite a bit of accolades and attention for all the right reasons: it was technically stunning and culturally nonconformist. From his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” or his own “Wilhelm Scream” on his eponymous album, Blake’s innovation arrives in unexpected form. And while his emotionally gripping songs that stride along to a thumping bass or a static-y reverb may not ever land up on Dance Music USA, when he plays live, the kids come out in droves to bounce along.
After his first time stateside just a few months ago, Blake is back with his keyboard and 12-inches in tow, to play to US audiences both onstage and in a few club appearances. We caught up with him to discuss bros, the Bronx, and when to use certain BPMs.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: Welcome to New York! Have you been able to go out and hit the scene?
JAMES BLAKE: Actually, I went to the Bronx! We did a radio show up there. I couldn’t believe how different it was from the rest of New York. I thought it was really beautiful. We also went to some underground club party with house music, which was amazing. I’ve really been getting into house recently, since it’s got such a universal sound and it doesn’t have to be serious. Actually, I like my music to have a club feel, because I find the club atmosphere is really easy. I mean, they are weird places, because on a personal level, people are relating not unnaturally, but as if they’re in a parallel universe. Weirdly, I feel very comfortable in places like that.BAUMGARDNER: Do you want your shows to have more of a club feel?
BLAKE: Yes, definitely. We do play a lot tunes that have a definite groove, and I love to add the club feel to our set. We do play a lot beats in a live set that are designed to make people move. Although I have yet to see fist-pumping or bros getting into it.
BAUMGARDNER: Speaking of bros, do you feel like that’s something specific to US audiences? Are they different from UK audiences?
BLAKE: It’s actually been very civilized. American crowds are really up for it. Just being welcomed to a new place has helped me develop. Coming to America has developed us as a band, because it’s great to test new stuff on crowds here. I don’t know why, but they just seem to react to the things they know really well, and then they seem to give the time of day to material they don’t particularly know. I think US crowds just give you the benefit of the doubt—it’s really bit more positive.
BAUMGARDNER: I know you introduced a new track in Washington, “Heartbreak” or something like that?
BLAKE: Oh no, it doesn’t have a name. People have given it a name. Well, it actually does have a name, but I’m not going to tell anybody. I’ll just let people flounder around with, “Heartbreak” or whatever. I don’t think I’d ever call a tune “Heartbreak.”
BAUMGARDNER: It’s a bit something…
BLAKE: It’s a bit direct.
BAUMGARDNER: Does having that relationship with the audience then free you up to create new material?
BLAKE: Yes, I’ve written that new song, the one we were just talking about now.
BAUMGARDNER: Which shall remain nameless…
BLAKE: Ha, yes that one, some rubbish about heartbreak. But that tune is only one of quite a few new songs I’ve written while in the road. I have yet to introduce them into a live context yet, but I’ll do that very soon. Touring and performing for different audiences changed my approach making music. It has made me want to come out of my shell. I’ve also gone through a metamorphosis in terms of live playing. I really love it. There’s been a transformation. While I’ve always been a piano player and a singer, I’ve learned a lot about performance and what constitutes a solid performance. By playing loads of gigs, I’ve learned that there’s a crowd who is expecting you to deliver a song in a way they’ve heard it before. When we first started, it was easier to perform on my own. But nowadays, I find that we’ve drilled the songs into our own heads and can breathe. I feel like once you’ve played your own songs a lot, you arrive at an understanding where it allows you to really play them. There’s no worry, you can go to a different emotional state in your own head. You’re still playing the songs live but you get into an emotional state that was the emotional state in which you wrote them.
BAUMGARDNER: Has that changed the style you are creating in? I’m thinking about the question of genre in your music, which again has been imposed on you in a lot of ways. You being dubstep, you not being dubstep, how do you sort of fit in to all of that?
BLAKE: I just think that when you’re producing yourself, you’re kind of the puppet master and the puppet. You basically have the power to go, “Right, I’m going to make this vocal really stand out or sink into the background or be part a wider piece of music that doesn’t regard that element as important or music that completely supports the vocal.” Sometimes you’re not thinking in the same BPMs. Sometimes you’re influenced by a house tune that you heard a few days ago, or sometimes you just want to experiment with putting voice over a 4/4 beat to see what happens. I can’t stay in one place too long because it’s the production style I get bored of, not the genre. I’ll stop using certain sounds I’ve done it already. If I use an 808 Tom once, I’ll move on to something else like trying to make a melodic percussion out of it like a lamp. It needs to sound fresh to me; and you have to play around. A measure or a sample might be better as a 4/4 house beat or at 140bpm or at a 90bpm hip-hop. To me, it’s all just music. I think genre is nice for record shops.
BAUMGARDNER: Do you have an overall mastermind vision of what you want to do with your projects?
BLAKE: I feel like my music is very much moving with the development of character. When the first time I came to America, it was when I played the Williamsburg Music Hall a few months ago, and that has definitely sparked my growing up. I really feel like I’ve changed quite a lot being on tour, because when you spend a lot of time on the road and you’re not really at home, you’re forced to mature quite quickly. In turn, that has inspired my performances to be better.
JAMES BLAKE WILL PLAY AT LE POISSON ROUGE IN NEW YORK TONIGHT. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT HIS MYSPACE.