Dont Party interviews :: James Zabiela
James Zabiela is one of the world's most notorious DJ's and producers. Known for his skills not only behind the DJ booth, in the studio and for testing and developing some of the best models of mixers, CDJ's and effects units for companies like Pioneer, Zabiela has cemented himself firmly into the DJ's most wanted list... and as a nominee for the best BBC Radio 1 Essentials Mix 2010 he ain't slowing down either!
Dont Party caught up with this muso to discuss wind, X-box and much, much more.
- Hi James, How’re you doing today?
Not too bad, I’ve been lounging around really, it’s quite a long flight from London so trying to adjust.
- Did you arrive today?
Yeh, this morning.
- So you haven’t really done any sight-seeing yet?
No, not yet, I’ll probably do some tomorrow.
- Has South Africa been a destination that you’ve always wanted to play?
I did play here once, it must have been about 5 years ago. It was really good actually, I enjoyed it. But it’s kind of the same as last time in that I’m just here for a couple of days. I think last time I played the day arrived and left the next day. At least I have an extra day this time to take a look around a bit. But, yeh, it’s amazing to be able to come here definitely.
- The rough and grueling schedule of a world famous DJ! So what came first in your life: where you a DJ or did you get into production off of the bat?
Yeh, DJing came first. Production was kind of secondary; although next year I’m going to be doing a fair bit more of the producing. It just came from collecting records, like most DJ’s, it came from collecting music and wanting to inflict your taste further *laughs*.
- You are pretty well known for your effects and controllers in your DJ sets. What inspired this? Why do you use more than a CDJ and a mixer?
Um, I don’t know really. It’s not that I got bored just mixing one track into the next. I guess I try and make it a bit more interesting for myself and a bit more fun for myself. I think when you do that it carries across onto the dancefloor. If you are having a good time and being creative, messing about and just having fun people can see that and feel that. I guess that’s really it. That and a love of playing computer games *laughs*.
- What are you playing at the moment?
Well I don’t really have time at the moment. But I was a big Street Fighter II head back in the old days, and then they brought out the Super Street Fighter recently so I’ve been playing that and Halo. I have an X-box 360 back at home and a Wii but I don’t really play that much, but I do like the odd Mario game though.
- How often do you get to go home?
I actually get to go home 1 day this week! So not often!
- Because I was looking at your tour schedule and it looks like you are playing one day after the next!
Yeh, although in January and February I have some time off so I’m going to go snowboarding then, that is kind of my yearly holiday that I do every year really.
- So back to the music, I read that you also scratch in your sets?
Yeh, sometimes, yeh.
- How did that develop because the worlds of house and tech are completely different to the worlds of scratching?
Yeh, totally. But a lot of the music I play is really varied. So there is some stuff that I will play that is more breakbeat orientated stuff and dubstep stuff occasionally so that gives me the chance to get a bit more into the scratching and cutting stuff. But yeh you’re right, it’s not something I’d do over a techno track or a melodic house record, it has a time and place in the set and it’s not like I’m doing it a lot. It depends on what I’m playing on what set I’m playing… I’ll try do some tomorrow *laughs*.
- I was wondering how that fit in!
Yeh, well it also depends on where the DJ booth is. Cos I’ve played at some big raves where the DJ booth is elevated and quite high up and no one can see what you’re doing and it is kind of a bit pointless because I think scratching is kind of a visual thing. People need to be able to see you doing it and hear it at the same time in order to appreciate it otherwise it could just be on the track. I’ll just make a decision when I’m playing whether I’m going to do some or not.
- Do you play the tracks that you produce ‘live’ in the electronic sense of the word?
Well it depends actually. I use ableton in my sets aswell. If I want to something like a live edit or a mash-up or something like that I stick it into ableton and then I can improvise but I think generally for my own tracks I leave them and play them as a .wav because I made them in a way that I’d want them to be played whereas someone else’s tracks I might have arranged it differently. So I’m more likely to mess around with someone else’s track than my own, which is weird I guess.
- I want to go into your testing of your outboard gear. You’ve helped companies such as Pioneer develop products such as the DJM 800 and the CDJ1000MK3’s. How did you get involved in product testing?
Well, kind of by accident, they (pioneer) asked me to do a little display in their booth at a show called Plaza in Earl’s court London one year. It’s just like a big trade show, like a technology trade show but for music and nightclubs and they’d never seen me play before, they just knew that I was a big user of their equipment and they were interested in the way I used the effects unit, because I used it in a way that way that it wasn’t supposed to be used. Because there are some things that it can do that aren’t in the instruction manual, but in turn there are some things in the instruction manual that I don’t know how to do! Quite funny actually. But I have my own way of using it and that is kind of how it happened and now I help them with their products like the CDJ2000’s, I work on the firmware and develop that and work on new mixers and other things that they’ve got that I would use.
- So do they give you a beta version of a product, which you sort of mess around with and tell them what you think?
Yeah that’s right and I’ll write them a report, mess around with it and give them my opinions and then try and persuade them to change it.
- Do they listen to you?
Yeah it's great that a big company like that will listen to the sort of guy on the street. They’re pretty good like that; they’ve even sent their engineers from Japan to my house, which shows the dedication they’ve got.
- I would like to speak quickly about production. What’s the basic setup you have in your studio, if there is one?
I sort of have a half broken studio at home, most of the work I do is on the road on my laptop with a little midi keyboard, because I’m away so much. Next year I’m actually going to build a proper studio with more sort of outboard gear. At the moment everything is all soft synths and midi ins and stuff. I’ve got a pretty descent mic at home, I always try and give my productions more of a human feeling so I often record some of my own bits in, whether its my voice or shaking a packet of rice *Laughs*.
- This year you were ranked once again in the DJ Mag Top 100
Yeah I hate it, I think it’s horrible especially now, it’s just become a total joke. There seem to be so many of these DJ polls popping up, I saw another one just today. They’re all over the place at the moment. I don’t know there were a few years where I did really well, of course then I didn’t really mind it that much *Laughs*. Even then you have to take it with a pinch of salt. It's just so easy and susceptible to people cheating and stuff, I really don’t trust it at all, I mean you only have to look at the top 100 and anyone can see it’s a total farce.
I used to like it when I first started DJing and I used to cut the thing out of the magazine and post it off, that’s a much fairer way of doing it. The people who vote online for that DJ Mag poll mostly don’t even buy the magazine. Its all a bit sketchy, you have these strange Russian websites that appear, where you can pay someone and they’ll give you 3000 votes, yeah it’s pretty odd. It’s a fun thing to do but they need to police it a lot better, but they just don’t have the manpower to do it.
- Has it lost all reputation as being credible, do you think that’s become a common consensus among DJ’s?
I think it lost all it’s credibility a while ago. I mean it’s just my opinion, but I don’t like it at all, next year I’m not even going to bother asking people to vote for me.
- How does it work? Do you get nominated and then ask people to vote for you?
No literally anyone can do it. You can just say please vote for me in this poll and then you just spam everyone and piss everyone off for a couple of months in the style of an MP trying to canvas for votes. It's always a stressful time. Next year I’m not even gonna campaign for it, maybe I’ll just put one thing on my facebook page and if people want to vote they can vote.
I should say that its obviously lovely that people did vote for me I totally appreciate that. That makes it worth it, knowing that I didn’t really spam loads of people and I still made the list is a kind of warm feeling.
- You were involved in another BBC radio 1 Essential's mix this year, how do you approach a such a massive mix like that?
With a lot of stress! When I was making that mix I was having some problems with my laptop as I was about to put it all together. I was in Miami at a music conference and the delivery date was pretty much the day I got back home and then my Laptop decided to die. I had to make the entire mix with my laptop dying like every hour so I had to keep remaking backups. Yeah it was very, very stressful. I have no idea how I actually managed to do it. I was so patient putting that thing together, but it seemed to have worked out in the end.
- Since you’re touring so much and you’re always on such grueling schedules do you find you still love DJing as much as you used to and still have a passion for it?
The Djing part is an absolute joy I love DJing. I guess the work part is traveling and all this social networking and viral marketing that you have to take into consideration to sustain a good career that’s the work part I like the DJing that’s what I love doing that’s not the work part at all that’s fun. I’ll always love that and I’ve been doing it for quite a while now and I still have a good passion for it. It’s tjust he dream job isn’t it, but like anything there are downsides and that’s mostly never being home but it’s a small price to pay for coming to somewhere like here and playing.
- Good old windy Cape Town!
It is windy isn’t it, I’m looking at these trees almost falling over here.