It is an exciting time for James Blackshaw. Having signed to the eternally credible Young God record label (founded by musical anti-hero Michael Gira from Swans and Angels Of Light) and released an album that can only be described as absolutely unique (and which has received rave reviews from many different quarters of the musical press), he is now embarking upon a UK tour, giving music fans a chance to experience his remarkable dexterity first-hand.
SonicAbuse were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to pose some questions to him about his new work, his literary interests and his past and James proved to be both tolerant of our enquiries and eloquent in his replies. What follows is the complete interview which, we hope, will offer greater insight into the man behind the phenomenal ‘The glass bead game’ and, if you haven’t listened yet, perhaps this will offer greater incentive to do so.
Your new album, ‘the glass bead game’ is strikingly unusual – how would you describe your music?
I don’t know I always have difficulty describing it to people; I tend to skirt around it and just say I play guitar or something equally vague. It’s really an amalgamation of different types of music that I happen to love – minimalist composition, the French impressionist composers like Satie and Debussy, experimental music, American finger style guitar, 60’s pop and psychedelia. It’s a big melting pot of influences and I’d say it falls neither into the realms of “serious” music or popular music. It’s kind of approachable but needs some patience. But really, I don’t think there’s any need for a convenient tag, or at least, I’m happy to leave that to the critics.
Your music, to me, sits more comfortably with a kind of neo-classical composition than, say, rock or alternative music. Do you see yourself as more of a composer or a songwriter?
Yeah, it definitely has more in common with classical music than rock, aesthetically and in terms of structure, but rock and popular music have played a big part in my music and the way I write too. I was born in 1981, I don’t come from a classical background and I really think the lines between different genres of music and their audiences has been blurrier than ever these last 30+ years, so in some ways I’m very much part of a generation who embraces that. I don’t really make the distinction between songwriter and composer. I’d happily listen to The Kinks as much as Morton Feldman.
The title of your album is also the title of a novel by Hermann Hesse, is there a relationship between the book and your music or was the title just something that seemed to sum up your music?
There’s no real relationship between them, except in spirit. I’ve not read the book in a long time, but it certainly left a big impression on me. Something kind of jumped out at me about the title when making the album and I decided that was as good a sign as I needed, no need to analyse these things too deeply.
This isn’t the first time you’ve used a literary reference in your album titles (The garden of forking paths) do you find that the literature you read influences the style of music you play and in what way?
Absolutely! Writers like Borges, Hesse, Fernando Pessoa, Kobo Abe – their work means so much to me. I don’t know if it is anyway a direct reflection of anything specific about their work, but when I’m working on music, I think I kind of devour a lot of non-musical influences such as literature, films and art, and subconsciously and abstractly something about its essence creeps into it, or my interpretation of it at least. I like to watch Werner Herzog’s films when writing a lot. I also like a lot of trashy horror films too, maybe even that is in my music somewhere.
How did you come to be signed to Michael Gira’s record label? Were you aware of his musical history with Swans and Angels of light? How has he helped you?
Laurent of Mi and Lau sent him some of my music and he liked it a lot, was incredibly enthusiastic and helpful. Yes, I was very aware of Michael and his musical history, I love Swans and Angels of Light. Of course, I was initially a bit daunted about the thought of working with him, but he’s a totally straight up, no bullshit, amazing guy. He’s been especially encouraging in helping me develop ideas that are not guitar based and has given me a lot of confidence in that area.
You started out, I believe, playing punk – obviously you’ve moved far beyond that style of music now, but do you still listen or dabble in it for your own amusement?
Neither, really, although I still like some stuff, especially NYC No-Wave and some pretty obscure bands from San Diego that were around in the 90’s. Oh, and The Misfits, ha! No, but really, maybe it’s more a nostalgia thing, although there’s part of me that is being drawn to that kind of energy and volume again. I’m not going “punk rock”, but I can tell you there are some changes afoot for the next piece I’m writing. I’ll leave it at that!
Some of the songs on your new record are very long – can you tell us about the recording process for a piece like ‘Arc’ – did it involve multiple takes or were you able to play the whole piece through and then add to it?
It was performed in one take – that was quite important to me, to capture the energy and spontaneity, and I didn’t want to iron out all the rough edges. For a piece like that, I wanted it more to sound like the documentation of a performance. And really, it’s exhausting to play and the idea of endurance appeals to me in music, but as a listener and musician. The piece probably could have been Pro-Tooled to hell, but that would have felt like cheating!
You’ll be touring here very soon – what can people expect at one of your shows?
Solo guitar. A lot of it. And drinking. Probably a bit of that too.
What can we expect from you next?
There’s going to be a lot more touring, hopefully some more with my ensemble. I did my first one in London a couple of weeks back and it was so much fun and seemed to go down really well. I’m also working on my next album, which I won’t say much about, accept some of it will be LOUD; hopefully it’ll be finished by the end of the year. There’s also going to be a couple of new interesting projects, including something with Nurse With Wound – and a long drone piece made up of other pieces. Things are really busier than ever, but I’m really excited about it all.