Achieving the perfect balance with James Zabiela

James Zabiela is in his home town of Southampton eating falafel. When I tell the self-confessed night owl it’s 6.15am in Melbourne he calls me a lunatic. ‘It’s 7.15pm here,’ he says. ‘I didn’t get up til 1. Now I feel bad.’ ‘I’ve not been in the studio today,’ he says when I ask him what he’s been up to. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time in there lately and now I am enjoying taking the time to do things in advance of the tour. I’m working on these mini Instagram music videos to promote the Balance mix which are quite cool. Now the stressful part of the mix is done I can have a bit of fun with the creative parts of the outreach. I enjoy being a part of the whole end to end process of promoting. ‘I worked with Stefan the designer on the info graphic sending each other Adobe Illustrator files and geeking out on Typefaces and old design applications’ . I’m a bit of a nerd with typefaces, I used to be a graphic designer.’

Zabiela’s phenomenal long awaited first offering to the revered Balance series was a cathartic process for the humble genius. It took over a year to put together, following a trying twelve months of his life. ‘It was an emotional exercise. I like to take my time with things, but the impact of events in my life made it even more so. There were lots of times when it felt like I lived inside the mix. When I was feeling the pressure, I dove right in and escaped. It was my life raft through illness and family trauma. I’m grateful to have had it last year.’

As art mirrored life, Zabiela gained perspective and healing. ‘In the past, when I’ve made mix compilations I’ve felt rushed. I always work right up to the deadline, I think they call it Parkinson’s law, when work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. It’s how I operate with every aspect of my life. But this time I had the luxury of pushing the deadline out multiple times.’ Spread across two acts, equilibrium is achieved in between the downtempo, after hours first act and the nocturnal swell of the second, which mirrors the seamless rise and fall of one of his club sets. It was as hard for Zabiela to pinpoint standout tracks as it was for him to shortlist what actually went on the album, which was mastered by Australian prog house legend, Danny Bonnici.

‘I drove Danny absolutely crazy with this mix,’ says Zabiela. ‘I gave him different versions and changed compositions at the last minute. In all honesty, I don’t even know if he is talking to me anymore! I’ll certainly try and see him when I arrive, but I might have to take him some flowers or something!’ Countless sublime pieces of music didn’t make the final cut; there were of course hurdles and pitfalls with the lucky ones who were chosen. ‘I had a real soft spot for ‘Sad City – Steady Jam [Emotional Response]’ but had a nightmare getting it on the mix. The label said we couldn’t license it, and it almost didn’t make it on. I was over the moon when they changed minds at the last minute,’ Who would have thought that even James Zabiela has to hustle for his favourite tracks.

‘Another standout that was a lot less trouble was Pye Corner Audio – Dead Ends [I Love Acid] – I’m really into the old acid sound. This is 108bpm – a slow 4/4 that really embodies that particular sound. It’s like a slowed down version of an early acid techno record.’

Not many can say they grew up with an acid house raver Dad who part owned a pioneering record store with the happy hardcore DJ Hixxy. Zabiela remembers his Dad’s intense, unabashed and slightly embarrassing obsession with music of all genres. ‘Dad still blasts techno out of the car when we’re driving along. His car is a weird place to be. One minute it’s Billy Bragg, the next minute it’s Commander Tom.’ But there’s no doubting it set the foundations for the passion he inherited and talent he shaped, stoking the fires of curiosity as a young adult, when he worked in the store. ‘We had a massive pile of Higher State of Consciousness records on Strictly Rhythm before it was signed to a major label in the UK. We couldn’t sell them. It was too weird and different for people. Then all of a sudden Pete Tong played it on the radio and then we had people in queuing up to grab the last copies. It was crazy, I’ll never understand it.’

Keen Zabielaologists out there will know that the career of the golden locked wonder began as the kind of bedroom DJ you’d really like to have at your sleepover. It resulted in Lee Burridge sending a mix tape to a certain person called Sasha who kickstarted his career. There’s little wonder it all skyrocked from there. ‘Anyone who is a hero to you as an impressionable young lad will always be on another level for you. Sasha and I are friends now, but there’s still that part of me that is secretly nervous around him. When he emailed asking to hear this mix, it gave me a buzz. I was almost reluctant to share it, because Northern Exposure is for me the best mix compilation of all time. I kind of borrowed the idea for the mix schematic diagram from there. Hope he doesn’t mind,’ he says with a laugh.

Zabiela spends many an hour in the basement where the magic happens, complete with a stacked vinyl collection, relentless coffee and a large furry octopus. ‘Yes, rave cave is a very good name for it actually. I always make productions down there because that’s where my studio monitors is and I can turn it up as loud as I want. There’s a pub next door; adjoining my wall is the beer cellar so there are no issues with the neighbours.’

‘When I make my music I do get a bit shy. If things don’t sound great at first you have to listen to the same loop over and over again and tinker with it. I like to be alone for that part of the process. I can’t handle someone being in the next room when I am experimenting, even if they are out of earshot.’

‘I made the Balance mix at my lounge table. I have a Pioneer under my couch at the moment. I’d put that on the table, facing the front window for inspiration. There’s something about the human condition that dictates the need for sunlight every now and again.’

Zabiela has always been a self-confessed tech geek. His secret weapon is stuffed under the sofa, currently enjoying a break from overuse. ‘Off the top of my head I can’t remember if it’s a Pioneer DDJ-RX, but I do know that whatever it is I couldn’t do without it, because it’s a controller for Rekordbox. I spent a lot of time arranging the music into playlists and making combinations and “mix moments” that I was searching for.’ These mix moments really are the essence of his Balance mix and many of his sets.

‘In Rekordbox, you can leave notes for yourself all over the music where the cue points are. When it came to making and putting the mix together in Ableton I could just refer to what I had done like a notebook.’ That notebook was certainly redrafted a number of times. ‘It’s different to how I would usually work, but super useful, because I intentionally made the mix so overly complicated.’ But that was the precise objective for Zabiela. ‘I wanted to make those moments where tracks would mix together in such a way that it would make your hair stand on end. Sometimes, you find these moments by accident when you are DJing. It was my purpose to spawn as many of these as possible. The only way of doing that was persistence. Trial, error and an absolute shed ton of music. Sitting at my coffee table colliding one track into the next. It took a long time. It was a challenge. But then it’s no fun when you make things easy for yourself.’

Zabiela is excited to come back to Australia. ‘I love Melbourne and have so many nice friends there. Phil K is picking me up from the airport – he’s one of my mentors. He was the person who got me into using FX units and awakened my inner geek. He’s been a real mentor for a lot of people. Australian crowds are really amazing; I always find them so responsive. I don’t want to say better than the UK,’ he laughs wryly. ‘But I will say it’s one of my favourite places to play. People aren’t bored of me over there yet.’

As well as gigs in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, Zabiela is also going to New Zealand for the first time on this trip. ‘As a big fan of Flight of the Conchords, I am super excited,’ he laughs. It might come as a surprise that his New Year’s Eve was pretty low key. ‘I did end up DJing,’ he says. ‘But I wasn’t supposed to be. I was at a friend’s party in Southampton. Then I ended up going back to back with a friend in a bar. It’s the first time I have been home for New Year since I can remember. Last year I played a gig in Dubai. I was by myself, DJing at this amazing luxury rooftop hotel. I went up in a gold elevator. It was an unbelievable place, but on New Year’s Eve pretty alienating getting texts from everyone at home. I don’t particularly enjoy playing at midnight. You have to play your set in reverse. You start with the biggest, most important record. It means so much to everyone. But you’re never going to nail it for everyone. It’s the first piece of music everyone will hear for the whole year. And everyone is absolutely hammered. The pressure is immense!’

Looking to the future, 2018 plans for Zabiela’s label Born Electric are quietly and understatedly simmering in their aromatic juices. ‘I’m going to rest the label for a few months. Balance is taking priority for now. I’m hoping to return to more new material and the label next year. This is the first time I’ve had my own new material out in a while. I feel a lot of pressure on my own productions as standalone entities. But in a mix compilation you can sneak your own tracks in there. I’ve broken that barrier so now I can put more music out without the pressure. I’m looking forward to making some new, fun tracks.’

Speaking of fun, it’s a little known fact that James loves to eat gingerbread men on tour. ‘I still eat them on tour sometimes,’ he says, sounding pretty hungry. ‘Pret a Manger do them at the airport and so I often grab one to take on the plane. But they have to be still a bit squishy and fresh. I don’t like them when they’re too crunchy. People probably see me and think I am crazy giving them all a squeeze before I buy them just to check they’re the right consistency. Don’t worry. I keep them in their wrappers.’

Succumbing to silliness, it was too tempting not to ask the burning question on everyone’s lips before our chat came to a close. And as it turns out, there really is somebody else is in charge of making Goldilocks’ porridge. ‘What would it take for me to cut my hair?’ he laughs, rolling the question around in his head. ‘Funny you should ask, as it’s the longest it’s been for years. And I’ll be honest, when I go to get it cut, my hairdresser – Jordan is her name – won’t cut it. She point blank refuses. You should probably direct the question to her.’

‘Honestly, I’m not sure if I really want to cut it. Now it’s really long I can tie it up. I can get the man bun out, listen to my cassette tapes, eat my falafel and go full hipster. I was at an afterparty once and someone did attempt braids. I have a photo of it somewhere, but fortunately I can’t find it.’

James Zabiela is a really great guy. Preorder his new Balance series mix which is out on 9 February here or go see him play at Brown Alley this Friday

James Zabiela’s next big things for 2018?

‘David Jackson is a 17 year old from Heidelberg, Germany who has been sending me some amazing demos. The production is so insanely good, I’m almost suspicious, but I’m pretty sure he’s real because he sends me some very enthusiastic emails. There tend to be a lot of exclamation marks – it’s kind of like the way I used to message Lee Burridge back in the day.’ h

‘Next up is Ceri. She has a new label ‘Find Your Own Music’ with a remix from Fred P as the debut release. Her original is my favourite though. ‘Then The Model – From Romania, he has his own sound and steps outside of conventional music fashion. Pun intended.’

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About the Author

Kate Stephenson's dangerous obsession with music and words has taken her to every corner of the globe in the quest for the filthiest bassline. Heralding from the mean streets of Harrogate in North Yorkshire, England, she earned her raving stripes in the early 2000s at celestial institutions like Back to Basics in Leeds and Bugged Out in Liverpool, standing in queues snaking for hours round the block in freezing February nights before she knew how to hustle a guestie.

Having decamped to (slightly) more clement temperatures, Kate now calls the outstanding city of Melbourne home, feeling oh-so-very-welcome in a place where you are actively encouraged to party from Thursday to Tuesday. Kate stays alive on a strict diet of techno,jungle drum and bass and cheeky garage remixes, smooshed in with a little bit of everything in between. You can either find her with hands in the air, by the front left speaker or typing up a storm in bed drinking Yorkshire Tea by the gallon.