James Blake: "The nature of dubstep is one of progression"

2011's great white hype James Blake on keeping his family life private, and why his debut LP was definitely not dubstep

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 13 Apr 2011

“Thanks, I bought it especially.” James Blake deadpans as he receives (well-intentioned) compliments on his new jumper while posing for our photographer. It’s a deserved focal point of attention, engulfing his elongated, spindly frame and thoroughly dominated by the presence of a large cartoon bunny head. It's certainly eye-catching; and whilst this could be a cue for some sub-Freudian analysis – a suggestion that within the mind of this resolutely solo artist there is some deliberate reaching to be the sole centre of attention – the reality is, and we all agree on this, that it’s just a nice jumper, we just thought we’d say.

Of course, what really merits mention here is Blake’s rather spectacular rise to prominence in such a short space of time. He produced three EPs (The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke) last year, nominally grounded in dubstep, which managed, collectively, to end up in Pitchfork’s top ten ‘albums’ of 2010. Then, the BBC stepped in to help; playlisting his eerie, off-kilter take on Feist’s Limit To Your Love on Radio One before plonking him at number two in their Sound of 2011 list, kick-starting a veritable shitstorm of media attention with all the attendant hype that this entails. Not that the refreshingly sanguine and altogether unruffled Blake seems to have noticed: “I’ve not really felt like much has changed to be honest. We’ve just been getting down to the hard work of producing the live show so I’ve not really had a lot of time to look around. It affects my day to day only in the fact that I have to do more interviews.” Ah, and how is that working out for you (we ask rather apprehensively)? “It’s quite nice. I like meeting people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. People who like to think and talk about music which is always good.”

Having played piano since the age of six, and studied formally at the selective music grammar Latymer and then Goldsmith’s University, might it be fair to suggest that this Londoner has had this career in mind for quite a long time? “Well, you can’t call it your career when you’re like, ten, but I think at some point you have to take stock and make a conscious decision about it.” Does he think that perhaps his attitude to music might be different if he hadn’t approached it with such academic rigour? “I don’t know, to be honest, if I would have had three years to write in an organised environment, to get a sense of a tiny bit of structure, which gives you incentive to write on your own. I didn’t really write anything for the course that I thought of doing full time. Some of the exercises didn’t interest me at all. It was quite collaborative which I wasn’t used to and didn’t particularly like – not with people you’ve never met before. It’s a load of people who are musically, really different. That just leads to an awful lot of compromise, which I’m not a massive fan of. I mean, we did play around with the genres and all that kind of stuff, but it was basically about being given a role and told what to do.”

The eponymous debut full-length was released earlier this year to widespread critical approval on both sides of the Atlantic; a melodically ethereal, soulful effort which critics struggled to categorise, possibly in the light of his association with the dubstep genre. Has he been tempted at all to pitch in on the debate? “Not at all. Because the thing is, by the time magazines and blogs have come up with their genre descriptions for a type of dance music, that music’s already been done, so it’s quite a sad process for the bloggers really [he laughs]. Also, in that flurry of words that tend to be used as descriptors, most don’t stick.” So it’s definitely not a dubstep album? “No, it’s not, but I’ve released a lot of 140 [BPM] music that has got bass in it, which is pretty much the only genre specification for that category of music. Outside of that it can be anything. The album is definitely a step away from that, but in ethos it is as true to that as it could possibly be. The nature of dubstep is one of progression; you never hear the same stuff twice. When you go to a club the DJ is playing all new stuff, every single week. People get bored of the same sounds week in week out, so the sound has to move on. That mindset carries into the album. I wrote it over a year and a half, and it sounds a lot different now to how it did at first.”

Blake happily admits that he tinkers with every single aspect of a track in the production process, most obviously the vocal, where he is yet another worshipper at the Auto-Tune altar, a phase he suggests “will pass.” To replicate his studio trickery in a live setting, he prefers to use a synth and assorted hardware “because laptops can be so unreliable”. Another predominant feature of the album is his ‘minimalist’ lyrical style, with many of the tracks consisting of repeated ‘mantras’ rather than fully expressed ideas. This, he explains, is a matter of him “just not liking every lyric that I write down. Normally they are basically poems when they start. Then, there are things that don’t sing well, or I don’t like the sound of, even if I like the structure of the poem. I’ll only sing what sounds right, and represents me as a vocal artist.”

Recently, Blake was moved to admit on Twitter that Limit To Your Love wasn’t in fact the only cover on the album. The album’s second single, The Wilhelm Scream, uses the lyrics and melody of a track called Where To Turn, by British musician James Litherland who happens to be Blake’s father. So why was James Jr. so reticent to reveal this earlier on? “I don’t know what’s fun about finding out who people’s parents are. It’s completely irrelevant, unless one of the songs is your dad’s song. I’ve actually dropped hints about it all along. It was something that I was deeply moved to cover, so I’m really proud to have done that. The thing about family is... well, this isn’t politics. I’m not sure I need to give anything away if I don’t want to. On this occasion I just chose to. By giving away, I mean I was just saying; ‘Here’s my dad, he’s really good’.”

Throughout our discussion, Blake repeatedly emphasises his desire to constantly evolve. Moving away from his recent song-based recordings, he vows that his next release “should be a 12", and it’s going to be vocal-less and chord-less; so instrumental, beat kind of stuff, because I haven’t done that before.”

Blake certainly doesn’t feel any pressure to conform to a variation of his existing style simply because that style has garnered a large exposure. If anything, he views that as an opportunity to do the opposite. “It actually gives me more freedom to do the things I’ve always wanted to do, and possibly couldn’t have done straight away. Why? Because there are more people to listen to it, and whatever you do, it will get attention. It just needs to be good.” To underline the notion that he has his sights set very high indeed, he cites an example of where this might be the case. “For instance, Thom Yorke could make an album in any style he chooses, and it would probably be successful. Primarily because he happens to be very good.”

James Blake plays The Liquid Room, Edinburgh on 1 June and Òran Mór, Glasgow on 2 June.

An as yet unnamed 12" is also due for release in June

His debut album is out now