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James Zabiela Interview: A Tale of Funked-up Sci-Fi Inspired Robotphobia

Author: Clare Dickins
Sunday, August 21, 2005
"I haven't really grown up at all," laughs 25 year old prog breaks star James Zabiela. "I'm sitting here in a room full of Star Wars figures right as we speak. I'm a big kid I guess. As soon as Pioneer phone me up and say 'oh we've got a new product for you to look at', it's like 'awesome!' - I get so excited about it! It's similar to the feeling I got growing up whenever I got a new Star Wars figure or a new Transformer."

There's something undeniably gratifying about a self-confessed nerd growing up to become the hottest property in dance music and beating all the 'cool kids' at their own game. James Zabiela is one of those endearing success stories that gives hope to all the geeky souls that dream of playing with their favourite techno gadgets for a living.

Along with the likes of Phil K and Sasha, Zabiela is at the forefront of the technologically savvy DJ movement. Once considered a novelty to use three turntables, these days the Southampton-born whiz routinely incorporates samplers, FX units, Midi controllers, CDJs and Ableton Live into his DJ performances.

Still, the talented turntablist admits he initially had issues with Ableton - a midi control program that allows the user to digitally recompose different musical arrangements. "When Ableton came out I felt kind of cheated. I thought to myself, 'Why am I bothering to do all this stuff with the FX unit and the CDJs when anyone can pick up Ableton and play five tracks at once without even thinking about it-'

"I think the important thing is to try and not cheat yourself and use it when you need to use it. That's how I got my head around it. It's all about finding appropriate moments to use it; in a DJ set that goes for five hours, I will use Ableton for a half hour section and then go back to using the CDJs and do my usual thing. Believe it or not, I only used Ableton out at a club for the first time three weeks ago. Since then, I've done twelve gigs and used all these different things and now I'm finally starting to feel as though I can relax. Now I naturally know what I'm going to do next."

Indeed, these days Zabiela enjoys a more amicable relationship with Ableton Live. There's no better example of this than the Brit's latest mix compilation 'Utilities', where Zabiela dishes up both Computerised (done on Ableton) and Recorded (completed using CDJs, sampler and FX) mixes.

Utilities is Zabiela at his bleepsy best, as he mixes up snap, crackle and pop breaks, with phat house, driving prog and juicy groove-ridden electro, dropping in productions from everyone from Lee Coombs, to Infusion and Ellen Allien. In particular, Perth-born Kreice delivers a stunning remix of Aphex Twin's Windowlicker. "It was cool to get that one because it's on Warp Records and they can be kind of strict about what they let people use, so when Aphex Twin gave us the go ahead to use it, it was unbelievable."

In general, Zabiela's a fan of the leftfield experimentalist. "He's doing these 12"s at the moment called Analords - I think he's done eleven or twelve of them so far and they come in these plastic sleeves and they're pretty limited, so I've been collecting them. I am a bit of an Aphex Twin fan."

'Utilities' also sees Zabiela make his solo production debut with the funked-up Sci-Fi inspired Robotphobia and Eyeamcomputer. The story goes that James wrote Robotphobia during his last tour of Australia after he had hurt his back lifting a suitcase packed full of Sci-Fi toys that were purchased in Tokyo. "I was laying in bed feeling sorry for myself, so I figured it would be a good time to use Ableton to make a track, which is what the program is really designed for. I never planned for it to be my first record, it was more just about me mucking about," he says.

"There's a bit of Plump DJs in there, as well as Paul Walford - who's a good house producer and some Lee Coombs and Phil K as well. I suppose it's kind of like my Djing - it's a mash-u