James Blake on Dubstep, Outkast, & Growing Up an Only Child
They say in the music world that every generation witnesses a “British Invasion.” Consider yourself warned: James Blake, the talented “post dubstep” artist from London, might be the new coming. But perhaps his thoughtful, haunting music will ultimately stand alone rather than be lumped in with that of his countrymen and fellow dubstep producers, many of whom are currently also gaining traction in the States.
To listen to Blake’s self-titled debut album is akin to burrowing inside the head of an introspective young musician; the quiet yearning expressed in his songs seems a far cry from the deafening, all-encompassing bass that often comes to mind when you think of the genre. Yet if his remixes of “A Milli” and the Destiny’s Child anthem “Bills, Bills, Bills” (along with his recent set at Pitchfork, which transformed into a dance party during “CMYK”) is any indication, Blake doesn’t take himself too seriously. Furthermore, he wants to make sure his music will bring the ladies out on the dance floor. Here he talks to us about what “post dubstep” actually means, why he considers OutKast to be a major influence, and how the “arbitrariness of University” helped inspire his debut album.
You consider yourself a dubstep artist, but your songs are a lot slower and more lyrical than a lot of the big, loud dubstep tracks that your hear in clubs. Especially in America.
That’s led some music critics to create a new term for you, called “post dubstep.” For those of us non-music critics, what does this mean exactly, and what kind of music do you consider yourself making? I mean, I’m a non-music critic, so I’d probably just say it’s just musical, electronic music. Some of it’s dance music, some of it’s electronic music. I would draw a distinction between the two and I’d say I didn’t just borrow from dubstep, I tried to make it. And I suppose in doing so, I made things that weren’t necessarily dubstep. Or at least what it originally meant, which was kinda the Digital Mystikz,Loefah, Skream, you know, a Pinch sound. I couldn’t really ever make music like that. I feel like my latest Hemlock 12″ is as close to that as I’ve ever been, but not really backward-looking. For me, that was forward-looking. Thing is, I haven’t really thought about what dubstep means to anyone, actually. I’ve only really thought about what it means for me.
What does it mean for you? It’s headspace. And it’s darkness and it’s intense. At the same time, it’s fun. It is kind of a weird paradox of people and producers, taking the art very seriously but actually making music that can be very fun. It went through a massive series of mutations before it even arrived in the U.S. So now I suppose the average kind of thing you would get over here—and actually now in the UK as well—is really noisy, aggressive stuff. Which is cool as well.
Dubstep is reaching such a fever pitch in the States whereas it’s been around in the UK for quite a bit longer. What do you think it is about the London scene, or Croydon where it originated, that made it such an incubator for this, as you put it, dark sound? Well a lot of garage, especially, wasn’t dark, wasn’t intense. But some of it is very emotional. I think also the distinction is that some of it was music that girls could dance to.
Could you explain more about that? I mean, girls can dance to anything they want. You know, I remember going to some drum n’ bass raves where girls wouldn’t even go on the dance floor because it was just too aggressive. It was too masculine, there was too much testosterone floating around. And I felt like what was nice about dubstep when it came along was that it wasn’t like that really. It was girls and [guys]—it was a mixture, a 50-50 split. It was also really diverse culturally, as well. That’s why London was a good place for that to start, because London is that.
So in other words, it was the club scene that was able to make this music evolve into something that could be consumed by more people perhaps, or by people looking to dance? Yeah, it was just people looking to dance. And a lot of people are like “Oh, it’s too slow.” Or “It’s too, like, too whatever…”Like what are you talking about? All the dances that I used to go to were such vibrant things. But when it gets to be that level of testosterone, that’s when it’s just to me, not fun anymore. It’s not rewarding at all. It’s not a statement of intent, but it’s kind of nice when girls are all dancing ’cause you think, “Well, if the girls are all dancing then the guys will.” But if the guys are all dancing and there’s no girls, then that’s it. The night ends in about two hours and everyone goes home.
I read somewhere that you consider OutKast to be an influence, which might surprise some people. Can you talk more about that and how American hip-hop and R&B have influenced you? Obviously I kind of understand it [hip hop] in a different way. I’m not from the States but I connected to some hip-hop—mainly instrumental stuff—in quite a big way. And I found that Andre 3000 has this kind of self-awareness and introspection in almost all of his stuff that I felt like I identified with. It wasn’t necessarily the subject matter. It was the delivery, his rhythm, and his poise, and just the respect that he commands when he’s rapping. And the fact that they produced it—my mind was completely blown. Speakerboxxx was the first that I actually heard of them, and I just got so into their album that everything I did after that must be colored by, in some way, their approach to music.
A lot of your music in your debut album seems to evoke this wistfulness or yearning, almost. I’ve heard others describe the songs as having a sadness to them. Are there any experiences in particular you could share with us that have influenced or motivated your songs? Yeah, growing up, really. That’s kind of what did it. There’s no point in going into specifics because everyone has their own experiences in school and university and all that sort of stuff. But I didn’t really like it. It felt a bit arbitrary to me.
University? School and university. I just felt, you know, “Why are we stuck here?” But I think my attitude to it was—I mean, I did okay in school. I did quite well, but I think I had a similar experience to what a lot of other people have, but I reacted to it in a [different] way. I was an only child as well, so I was always thinking about things and not necessarily having anyone to bounce those ideas off. When you’re an only child, those things just swirl around your head for years, you know? All those ideas you have just don’t come out the other end, they just kind of remain in there. So when you write an album, they say that an artist’s first album is everything that they’ve experienced until that album, and the second album is just everything they’ve experienced on tour, which is virtually nothing really, especially creatively and musically.
Since you brought up touring, have you noticed differences between shows you’ve played here in the States, and the crowds that come out for your shows back home in the UK? There are a lot of differences. I must say, I do absolutely love being in the U.S. It’s difficult to relay what it’s like to be English and come here but it’s exciting, fun, and it’s an adventure. And it is for the band as well. We’re all mates together, traveling the world, but when we come to America we feel like [it’s an adventure] because we have the language in common but virtually nothing else, let’s be honest. The Atlantic sea separates us more than physically. It’s like everything’s a discovery in an amazing way. I just feel like it really is a discovery every time I come here. We’ve had such a good time. We’ve met so many amazing people, and I’ve made some great friends, and that all adds to when you come play here. The shows are fun because of that.
Top Photo by Steve Scap