James Zabiela Interview: Doctorin' The House

James Zabiela talks to Mark Dale about having a raver as a dad, the development of his career and his love of all things sci-fi.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 29th Feb 2016.
Originally published: 24th Feb 2016

James Zabiela comes from Southampton, a small city on England's south coast, where his father used to work in a record shop. James's introduction to dance music was inevitable given his father's tastes and position.

After learning to DJ, Zabiela got two big breaks. He won a bedroom DJ competition in a music magazine and had one of his mixes passed to Sasha, via fellow DJ Lee Burridge. Sasha invited Zabiela to tour with him as his warm up and Zabiela has not looked back since.

He has held residencies at Space in Ibiza and has a long association with the Renaissance brand, having recorded several mix CDs for them. He set up his own label Born Electric in 2012. Its first release was James's own The Healing and it has since released EPs by Drew Hill, Iron Galaxy, Mias Void, Pedestrian and Pedram.

Zabiela is a much in demand DJ. He criss-crosses the world constantly and is known for playing a wide selection of musics including house, breaks and techno. His audiences love him for his highly involved and restless style of DJing, utilising cutting edge DJ equipment to re-edit and manipulate music live, in unique, spontaneous presentations (watch him above).

As a keen exponent of these sonic experimentations James is also an advisor to the producers of DJ hardware, test driving and helping to improve prototype equipment. He is also, it turns out, rather a keen fan of Doctor Who.

Hi James! Where are you and what are you doing?

I'm sat in the window of the front room in my house, which is the only place I get a phone signal in my entire house.

Ah, you're there for the phone signal. So, where were you a couple of minutes ago when I tried to call but couldn't get through?

When you first called I was in the caf round the corner from my house, which also doesn't have any phone signal. Ha! The house is in the middle of town too. I can't believe I can't even make a phone call, it's crazy.

Do you still live in Southampton?

I do, although I've been away a lot since New Year. I was in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, then I came home for five days, which was a really insane thing to do, as I then flew out to Australia. A normal person would have stayed on that side of the planet, but I just needed to come home and sleep in my own bed for a few days.

How was China? How's the scene out there?

I did this gig in mainland China. It was... pretty interesting. Yeah. I've been before, not to that particular place. And I'm going back in May. The scene? It's new. That's the best way I can describe it. It's nice, people are excited by it, but they don't know what to expect, I don't think.

I get the impression it could go massive there, much in the way it has in India. Not that I go to India very much in the way other people go there a lot. I'm always scared to go there a lot because I don't want to get food poisoning. Ha! I do have to go there soon though. I'll pack a lot of chocolate bars. But they might melt. Maybe I'll get Tracker bars, without the chocolate.

So, your dad worked in a record store and he was a bit of a raver. Tell me about his raving experiences. Where did he used to rave and what did he tell you about it?

Yeah, it was my dad's friend's store but my dad took it on for a while, he was like the manager there. He ordered in the techno, he was a vinyl buyer.

Yeah, he was a massive raver. When I was 12 he would be coming home on a Sunday afternoon. He would go to these things in fields occasionally and he'd also go to Trade in London, when Tony De Vit used to play. He liked some really hard techno.

We had a fairly local club called The Manor and Madisons in Bournemouth and he would go there and listen to Carl Cox and Sven Vath, actually a lot of the techno guys who are still around now. 

You didn't like the dance music he played at first. What changed your mind?

I still don't like a lot of the stuff he's into! [laughs] You're always going to rebel against what your parents are listening to when you're 12/13. That was the time, when I was at school, that Nirvana was around. Then I went indie and got into Oasis, all that type of thing and, yeah, my dad hated all that. So, I liked it even more.

It wasn't until I did my work experience in the record shop... I just got pummelled by house grooves for the entire week. I think anyone who listens to deep house for the first time, you think it's just the same thing over and over. But it's an acquired taste, isn't it? It just hooks you and it suddenly makes sense when you hear it loud, on a soundsystem. You get it.

So, yeah, it was through the constant exposure from being in that shop for a couple of weeks that I caught the bug. 

How was it working with your dad for two weeks?

He wasn't there actually. At that time he was just working Saturdays, when the techno got delivered. I was in there in the week and he would be in there on the Saturday. I did do some shifts in there with him, but I didn't like it. It's not cool to be working with your dad when you're 15.

But I actually loved working in that shop. I loved the whole community thing about it. I got to know loads of the customers, I wanted to learn how to DJ, so it was a good place for me to hang out. I worked in there the following summer, for free, I didn't even get paid in records, I just loved it and I wanted the experience. It's one of the most invaluable things I've ever done. 

What memories do you have of the record store? What did it sell? Was it just dance music?

Yeah. We were a ticket outlet as well. We sold tickets for Tazmania and Helter Skelter, all those big raves and local events as well. I think we probably made as much money on tickets as we did on records.

When I started DJing locally I would go and play out on Friday night and I would be back in the shop on Saturday morning having had two hours sleep or something stupid. I would be super high on coffee and Saturday mornings would be when we'd get our US house delivery.

I remember being in there when we got the Armand Van Helden remix of Tori Amos delivered (above). It was only out on US import, on Atlantic. There was an import ban on it shortly afterwards, so we had the last batch of those before FFRR, who'd snapped it up, brought out a UK version.

The same thing happened with Josh Wink's 'Higher State Of Consciousness' on Strictly Rhythm. A big UK label would sign it, put an import ban on it and nobody could get the bloody thing until the UK version came out. We had a delivery of that and I remember people queueing outside for this record. It was so buzzing, a real vibrant place to be, everybody so happy that they'd got their hands on this prized 12”. It was a real magical time.

What was it called? Is it still there? 

No. It was called Movement Records, for the most part. Apparently it had earlier been called Powerhouse records. I was getting dragged in there by my dad from being ten years old, but I was never there when it was called that.

For most of its existence it was called Movement, but it changed its name to Adrenalin Records later, when the owners of Adrenalin, the raves that used to happen on the south coast, bought into the shop for a while. It was actually Hixxy, the hardcore DJ. He's still going, you see him on these TV adverts, Hixxy and Sharkey, they do this hard dance thing. He was a really nice guy, part owner of the shop for a while. I was there for a little bit of that time. 

But it's no longer there. What happened? There's no vinyl store in Southampton now?

It got turned into a tanning salon, then the entire street got demolished. Ha! No, we haven't. But we do have Oxfam Music. I got a copy of Usura 'Open Your Mind' in there the other day. I buy cheesey 80s records in there as well. 

Do you remember the time when Movement actually closed? Was the drop off in vinyl sales and the rise in downloading part of the reason it closed?

I remember walking past and seeing the cranes outside knocking the building down and that was quite emotional. That place was such a massive part of my childhood.

Yeah, that was a big part of it, definitely. I remember business being really slow and it got slower and slower. That's when the owner turned it into a tanning salon. He loved that shop too, I think he would have kept it open even if it was just making a little bit of money. But the internet killed it.

After championing vinyl for a long time at the start of your career, did you have any mixed emotions moving away from a strict vinyl-only format, knowing that it was this exact trend that put pay to a business that had been so important to you and your dad?

Yeah, definitely. I'm still able to look at myself in the mirror because I still buy a lot of records. I was torn at the time and definitely reluctant to change, but it's the nature of what we do, isn't it? Adapt or die. 

Is there any crossover between yours and your dad's musical tastes?

Yeah. Pretty much if it's got a 303 in it my dad would like it. He likes some good records. I've actually got some things I need to send him, Cardopusher and Andreas Gehm.

Clubland is full of temptations, as your dad would have known...

Oh, yeah [laughs] “What do you mean you haven't been to sleep yet?? Dad!”

Ha! Did he ever sit you down and have a talk with you about any of that when he saw that you were getting into that culture?

No, never. I don't think he was ever worried about me, I was too much of a goody two-shoes. The more bad behaviour he displayed, the more of a good boy I was.

He was much more worried about my sister. She was a right tearaway. She used to go out raving as well. She still does. She's seven years younger than me.

She's started to get into Drumcode and more techno-y things now, but she was massively into hard house and after that Armin Van Buuren and trance. As she's got older her musical palette has changed somewhat.

For the better, sounds like. 

Yeah, I'd agree with that. Some of the stuff I play she's not into at all. I remember once she accused me of being a funky house DJ! 

I read your breakthrough came when you passed a mix CD to Lee Burridge, who passed it to Sasha, but your Wikipedia page claims you got your breakthrough winning a music magazine bedroom DJ competition. Which came first? 

It was the same tape. In fact Ralph, who was running the Bedroom Bedlam DJ competition in Muzik magazine, put a word in to Lee Burridge about my mix. Lee had already listened to it, which was pretty cool. So, it was the same mix. It was two things that came off one mix that completely changed my life. It's pretty mad to think about.

With the benefit of hindsight which do you think was more important to your career?

The competition was a really good motivator for me and probably many other DJs, because every month there would be a winner, they'd put the tracklisting up and a little photo of you. I actually came second in it one month and I was hugely disappointed because I thought, if you come second, you're not ever going to come first. But I got a call from Muzik magazine and they told me to keep sending the mixes in.

I must have come really close to being picked. So, instead of giving up, I carried on. I really, really wanted to win it, I used to buy the magazine every month, I was a fan. At the time I was sending them in, Yousef, who was one of the previous winners, he ended up getting a residency at Cream. I could see that things could actually happen through that. 

But getting a helping hand from Lee and Sasha, getting to tour Sasha's album Airdrawndagger in the States and Europe, as his warm up DJ, that exposed me to massive audiences. I did that for six months and it helped me build a career. I ended up being asked to go back to many of those places on my own afterwards. 

Everyone's heard of Sasha, but at that time were you aware of Lee Burridge?

Yeah! I was playing a Tyrant CD and he did another one called Metropolis, so I was a big fan. It was Sasha, again, who brought Lee over and got him playing gigs with him. So, we both really owe a lot to the big man. 

Did you ever go to Tyrant?

Yeah, I used to go with Lee. After he first started to encourage and help me, I would get the train into London from Southampton, then travel up to The Bomb in Nottingham in a car with Lee and his crazy mate Darren, who would drive.

What memories do you have of hearing Lee Burridge and Craig Richards play together?

Oh, I saw them loads of times. I saw them at Fabric as well. I also used to go and see them at this little bar in London where they would do a breakbeat night once a month. They actually let me play a few times at that. I've still got some of the sets, recorded on mini disc, up in my attic, which I'll bust out one day. 

For me they were hugely inspiring. I didn't matter if the music was old or new, they never followed a trend. The stuff they played was so eclectic. Still is. 

I wrote some fan mail to Craig recently and it ended up scoring me a Craig Richards remix for Pedram on my label, although it's not out for ages. It's brilliant. It's like a personal triumph getting one of my old school heroes on my label.

Have you listened back to that mix that did so much for you and analysed what was within it that piqued the interest of Lee and Sasha? What tracks were on it? 

I haven't, but it gets shoved in my face sometimes and I can't really avoid it. It's weird. It's something that had such a positive impact on my life and then I didn't want to hear it ever again, for some reason.

I was working in the record shop so I got hold of things that I otherwise wouldn't have. Trainspotting from Lee and Craig, Circulation, Plastic City, Terry Francis, maybe a track off his album Architecture, which I used to love. It was very tech house, of its time. 

What kind of techniques were you employing on it? Presumably you didn't have all the fancy equipment you have these days.

No. I didn't even have two good decks. I had one Technics deck, a Soundlab belt driven turntable and a Numark mixer that had these metal kill switches that, every time you would touch them, it would make the mixer hum. It wasn't earthed properly, so when you were mixing you had to be careful not to touch them.

But I think the more restricted I was with the equipment, the more creative I got with it. I got a CDJ500 really early on, one of the ones with a springy lid, and it used to jump. It would do this stuttering thing if you used the cue, so I was doing makeshift, crap effects out of the cue position.

I had a CD burner and I would transfer some vinyl to CD and make these loops using the CDJ. Thinking about it, I could've added a nice earth hum in the background.

Skiddle interviewed Sasha recently. He seems like such a down to earth bloke. What are the most important things you learned from him?

Yeah, he's lovely. He tweeted me yesterday. It's mad, I've known him for years and years, but getting a tweet from him is still an exciting thing, it's built in to my youth. It's like getting Craig to do this remix. He's just a bloke, I've known him for years, I could probably just talk to him and it'd be cool, but there's still this thing in my mind that goes “it's Craig Richards!!” [laughs]. It's the same thing with Sasha, I don't think it will ever go away. 

I really came in on the Northern Exposure 2 album then I went back and got into Northern Exposure 1 and his Global Underground CDs. I'd buy those same records and I'd be trying to do those mixes, not knowing that he'd have special edits of them made. His mix would be going on for 3 minutes and mine would run out at a minute and a half.

But I learned so much from trying to copy him. Before I even went in a nightclub I had live recordings of him and I was just amazed at how good his mixing was. So I would try and emulate him. And I learned so much, technique-wise, from just trying to be him. Lee's got a totally different style, he'll really confidently chop stuff in and out. So, I learned from watching and listening to them. 

I'm from Manchester which has a really strong clubbing history. I don't know anything really about the scene in Southampton where you're from. Can you tell me a bit about the city's clubbing history and what it's like there now?

I guess the best thing we had going on round here when I was growing up was the boat parties. They're now called High Tide boat parties but back then they were called Menage A Trois, but it's still some of the same guys that run them. The first time I ever saw Sasha and Digweed was on one of those boats. I've got the recording of that as well, which they probably don't even know about. It's great. 

There wasn't really much going on in terms of underground music. I was lucky to get gigs in local clubs, playing garage and fairly inoffensive house tracks. I ended up getting sacked from one gig because I went too acid house. And Craig David used to MC at some of these gigs. There was a club called the Old Oriental that became Juice, they did a garage night there. I would hate it, I really didn't like this MCing thing. He's obviously fantastically talented at it. He used to come in the record shop as well.

So, it was a commercial scene, a small town. It was much smaller back then. Things are quite good at the moment, we've got this place called Junk, which is a really good club, I think. They had Bicep playing on New Year's Eve. And then we've got Switch, which is the bigger club and they had Eats Everything on New Years Eve. 

Usually people's taste in music tends to change or develop over time. In the years since you became a known DJ, has yours? 

Yeah, it changed lots and it still is changing. Actually it can be quite difficult if you suddenly decide you love a certain genre or you'll go through a phase where you're really into a certain sound. In my position, if you start playing it out, people will start judging you on it. If I was just a clubber it wouldn't matter, would it?

Luckily I feel I've got a wide taste in music, so a lot of different things will make it into my set. Being someone who plays lots of different styles has worked for me and it's worked against me as well. People don't really know what to identify me with.

If I'm going somewhere I haven't been for a long time or if I'm going somewhere I've never played, which still happens, people will be like 'who is this guy? Is he a techno DJ? A breaks DJ?' And then they check out some of my mixes and they're still none the wiser! [laughs] It's not like I have this one sound that I wear like a badge. 

I actually feel that my tastes have come full circle at the moment. I'd probably be able to put that mix on and be quite into some of the records again. That's the nature of dance music though, everything goes in cycles. 

Do you ever feel there is a pressure to maintain an interest in particular sub genre because you're known for playing it? 

No, I don't. 

Scenes come and go in terms of popularity and strength of material. How do you approach looking for elements to include in a set during fallow periods.

For instance, if there aren't a lot of great new breakbeat records being made at any given time? Say, if breaks had gone down really well last time you'd played somewhere and you wanted to include some again, but couldn't find anything new. Would you just play older material?

As long as I'm not repeating myself. It's great now, with Record Box and other programs you can go back and see what you played the last time you were somewhere. I've got histories in my computer now that go back years. I've got no issue with playing old records and new records together, I don't think that's a thing anymore. Even in mainstream music culture.

Suddenly a track can be on an advert or a movie score and it'll end up number one on the iTunes download chart, even though it's 20 years old. I think back in the day, when it was so important to have the new records, be the first on that record, it's kind of the same as now when you pull out a killer old track that people don't know, a hidden gem. 

You're averaging about two releases a year on Born Electric. Are you happy with that amount of output? What's next for the label?

Well, we've got two EPs from Pedram, whose a friend of  mine from Sheffield. He's made some absolutely amazing music. For the first release we've got XXXY and Cardiopusher on the remix. For the following release he's made a track called Cloned, it's 140 bpm, an epic bass thing and that's the release with the Craig Richards mix on it. 

I think we're going to try and step it up this year. We're about to release the tenth one. It's really a passion project, it's not a machine where we have to have a release every month. I'm actually going to start another label which is going to be more for me to put out rave tracks.

I can make a club record, that I can play in my sets, quite easily. But I feel that if I put that out on Born Electric there's too much pressure on me for it to be an absolute masterpiece when it's actually just a fun record for people to dance to. So, I think I'm going to start a label that is more for club bangers, innit? Keep Born Electric for the the well crafted things that we think are timeless.

Those records are honestly hard to find, they don't come along that often. I can't just make those kind of tracks appear and release more music. They usually find me and it's a natural process to release them.

Are you a science fiction fan? 

Yes, I am. I have a Dalek upstairs. I think it's quite a known fact. I did some press shots with it a while ago. Anything science fiction I'm into. 

It's a real Dalek from the series?

It's made from the moulds of Remembrance Of The Daleks which was a 1989 story, the last Dalek story before it got taken off air for seven years, and it's signed by Sylvester McCoy, the seventh Doctor.

Right, okay...

It has been on TV actually. The BBC phoned me up one day and wanted to borrow it for a news piece that Sylvester McCoy was on. And I went on TV with it, as a geek. It is on Youtube, but you will never find it, it's so hidden. I have a link to it but there's no way I would ever give it to anyone. But it does exist. 

What formats do you like science fiction on? Do you go as far as reading books or is it just TV and films?

I listen to a lot of audio books when I'm travelling around. There's this company called Big Finish who make lots of Doctor Who audio books, but they also make Survivors, 2000AD, Blakes 7, a lot of quintessentially British sci fi as audio plays, really well made with amazing audio soundscapes and proper actors.

They make some of their own things as well, which are great. They've got this series called Dark Shadows and Bernice Summerfield. I listen to a lot of stuff like that. A lot of stuff they do gets on the BBC, Radio 4. But I don't read.

So, you like vintage sci fi as well, not just the contemporary stuff?

Obviously I know all the Doctor Who stuff, going back to 1963. I got into Star Trek a bit later, although I did watch the original series when I was a kid. I really got into that from The Next Generation really, which I loved. I watched Deep Space Nine too, it was on constantly on Sky. Voyager I quite liked too. There was a long time where I wished Seven Of Nine was my cyborg girlfriend. 

Did you watch the new series of Battlestar Galactica? That's one of the best things I've seen, sci fi-wise. Brilliant. I've got a little BB8 sat here looking at me as well. 

But going back to Doctor Who, I think Peter Capaldi is brilliant as the Doctor. He's a fan of it himself. There's shades of Tom Baker in the way he plays the role. The new Doctor Who has got a very classic vibe to it because of him. It got a bit silly for a while, I wasn't so into some of the David Tennant and Matt Smith stories, it was a bit daft.

But I think the last series was probably the best one since they brought it back. Sad, though, because I think it had the lowest ratings. I guess it's been back for a few years now, the novelty of it has worn off.

It's having a year off next year, in case you wondered. They'll bring it back the following year and it'll have a new head writer as well. I have an app on my phone called Who News, so I get text alerts that tell me the most useless facts that you would never need.

Catch James at Festival of House in Scotland from Friday 10th - Saturday 11th June.

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