- Tue, 2011-11-01 12:10
Meandering between darkly unsettling bass and rich, atmospheric beauty, the experimental electronic output of Stateless caused further ripples of praise with this year's February release of their second album Matilda via Ninja Tune records.
Produced by Damian Taylor, famed for his work with Björk, Chris James and Kidkanevil of Stateless built upon a body of work that has seen them personally invited to support DJ Shadow on his world tour, collaborate with the Balanescu Quartet and create one of the most compelling tracks of the year, recent single I'm On Fire ft Shara Warden.
I Like Music headed across to the East London home of Chris James for a lengthy chat covering plans for their next album, Chris' solo folk record, listening to Leonard Cohen and crate digging with DJ Shadow.
‘I like music because… of Bob Dylan.’ Chris James, Stateless
ILM: You recently played a show at London's beautiful Union Chapel with the Balanescu Quartet. How was that? What an amazing venue!
Chris: Yeah it was a brilliant venue, plus it was the first live show we did with the Balanescu Quartet, so that was really exciting. Collaborating with them kind of augments our sound, it changes a lot of our songs. They were on the album anyway but to do it live we wanted to engage them more, make more use of their skills. We re-wrote new arrangements which were more string heavy so they had more to do and that worked really well. Hopefully that’s the start of more shows with them, they’re all amazing! We're planning to release a recording with the new Balanescu Quartet arrangements next year.
ILM: What are you working on at the moment?
Chris: I’m writing the new Stateless record, that’s next on my agenda. I definitely want the Balanescu Quartet on the next record and I’m kind of pushing it to be more electronic and synthy. Having played it live I found there was such an energy from tracks like Assassination and Ariel, which have bigger bass lines and synths, so I want more tracks that do that.
ILM: How have you felt since the release of Matilda? Are you still listening to it?
Chris: No, no.
Chris: I never listen to albums once they’re finished! It’s such an intense experience making them, once it’s done it’s exciting to play live but in terms of actually listening to it and the production and everything, I think it’s a bit too close to home. I know every detail on there, I know it note for note, start to finish, beat to beat. Going back would mean either doing a post-mortem on it or sitting and revelling in it. Neither of those particularly appeal to me. I just move on to the next project.
ILM: Björk's producer Damian Taylor worked on Matilda. What was that experience like?
Chris: I really admired him for the work he’d done with Björk, he’s done some cool stuff with the Prodigy too. I’m a huge Björk fan so that was the clincher when we were looking at producers… if he’s good enough for Björk then he’s good enough for us! We really wanted him to help develop the electronic side of things. The first Stateless album is a lot more organic, more real drums, break beats and organic sounds and pianos. There’s a few moments of live drums on Matilda but most of it is programmed. Damian was taking Kidkanevil's patterns and injecting electronics into them which was a really interesting way of working. I guess we just wanted to push things a little further down that side.
ILM: As a fan did you find yourself wanting to say “What was it like when you were with Björk?’’
Chris: Yeah, we chatted about her a lot and he didn’t seem to mind! I’m proud to be into Björk and Damian was cool about it… he loves her! His studio in Vancouver is in the hills on the sunshine coast in the forest, it’s an amazing place to work. It’s completely isolated and every day I would walk through the forest doing my vocal warm-ups, singing and writing lyrics, just absorbing the atmosphere. He said Björk had done the same thing, which was really cool! Haha! She's just one of those people where you can’t wait to see what she does next, every album is a progression and a new set of ideas. Technically and creatively she’s at a very high standard and we want to set high standards for ourselves as well, so it makes sense to work with people who have those ambitions. Damian definitely does… he’s an ambitious producer.
ILM: How would you describe the Stateless approach to making music?
Chris: Up until now the typical route was writing on a guitar, piano, synthesiser or keyboard, or working in the laptop with samples, then bouncing ideas back and forth with G, (who’s Kidkanevil), then the other guys come in and get on board. I’m writing mostly on synth at the moment because I like to keep things feeling fresh. I hadn’t done much synth stuff, there are bits on Matilda but as a writing tool I’d not really explored it. If it’s experimental then it’s exciting and new, and that informs the vibe of the piece. I’ve got to be excited about what I’m working on or I’ll just sack it off.
ILM: In places Stateless tend to evoke an atmospheric sense of unease, a darkness. Where does that darkness come from?
Chris: I don’t know. There is a dark element in what I write as a songwriter, I don’t know why; it’s just part of me and part of my nature. Some people just have a dark side don’t they? I’m one of them. With the sound of the music there is definitely a darker edge, I guess we just find that exciting, that on-a-knife-edge kind of vibe.
ILM: I’m on Fire is a good example of that. It's very delicate and beautiful and yet there’s something quite unsettling about it, in a very exciting way. I understand you wrote that for vocalist Shara Worden after you first heard her sing?
Chris: It’s definitely one of my favourite things I’ve written. It was written quite quickly too. The best stuff I’ve ever written is the stuff that was dead easy to write. You can’t ever remember writing it because you didn’t have to put any effort in, it just...happened. I met Shara and fell totally in love with her voice, then I went away and wrote I’m On Fire probably in one night. It was totally written for her and I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to sing it at that time. I got on a plane to New York, set up in her front room with my laptop and two mics and just recorded live. That was also something I really wanted to do! Just like the old soul singers who turned up and laid it down without tinkering too much, and Shara is good enough to do that, she can just nail it.
ILM: Since Stateless began in 2002/2003 there have only been two albums released. It's not that long, but still, considering you wrote I'm On Fire in one evening, what is it that takes the time?
Chris: The reason things have taken so long is nothing to do with the band to be honest. It’s totally to do with industry reasons, changing labels, changing managers, all that stress slowed things down. We can turn an album round faster than people might think! We're with Ninja Tune now and thankfully, they have been great, the best we’ve had so far...
ILM: They are, of course, independent. You signed a five-album deal with Sony Music in 2004, which obviously didn't suit you too well?
Chris: I didn’t enjoy being signed to a major at all! There’s a complete conflict of interest. Their perception of what they wanted to sell and what they wanted us to be was so different to our own, it was completely like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It was basically in the aftermath of Coldplay and Keane and these big ballad song writer bands. They were expecting us to come up with a Coldplay-esque Yellow and we were in the studio making this weird dark electronic music, we played it to them, they would say ‘what the fuck is this!?' We were saying ‘it's cool isn’t it?’, and they were like, ‘no, scrap it and start again.’ It was awful! Basically if you’re not going to play ball and give them what they want then it’s not going to happen, and I don’t want to make cheesy pop music. I’ve never wanted to do that and never will do that.
ILM: You said you've been writing guitar parts for a solo album?
Chris: Yeah, well they might end up being for Stateless, I haven’t decided. But yeah, the solo album is very different from Stateless. I love folk music and I wanted to make an album which was completely organic. I’ve been working with some really good players: Aristazabal [Hawkes] from the Guillemots has done some vocals and bass, a guy called Danny Keane who does the strings for Bat For Lashes and Gorillaz - has been doing cello, and then an amazing drummer called Guy Wood. We went up to a farmhouse in York and set up and just played live which was really cool. Stateless is very much about laptop and production and this is the opposite, we don’t need to worry about the production or anything, we can just hit record and have an album, although I definitely would be interested in working with a producer on it, just depends if we can find the right person.
ILM: When do you think we might hear it?
Chris: Next year or the year after. I haven’t recorded it yet but I’ve written enough songs for it. Also Alexander Balenescu from The Balenescu Quartet offered to play violin and perhaps do some arrangements. So yeah I’m really excited about that! I’ve never done an album which is all live, this is going to be very idiomatic and very folk.
ILM: What music have you been listening to recently?
Chris: I only listen to Leonard Cohen. That’s it. Nothing else.
ILM: Over and over again...!
Chris: Just over and over and over again! I think I came to it a bit late. I think I only got in to Leonard Cohen heavily the past couple of years, but I listen to him pretty much every day.
ILM: Do you have any particular favourites?
Chris: Well I love loads of them… Famous Blue Raincoat, Chelsea Hotel No. 2, Suzanne, Hallelujah, although I probably don’t listen to that much anymore because it’s been ruined by that awful pop version.
ILM: Yes. Eugh. It’s been absolutely butchered hasn’t it.
Chris: It’s awful when people do that. There should be some sort of law against it.
ILM: Do you like the Jeff Buckley version?
Chris: I think it's great, really great. I’m a big Jeff Buckley fan, although I don’t really listen to him much any more simply because I know all of his stuff so well, I don’t need to listen to it....
ILM: It’s a shame there’s not much of it.
Chris: Yeah it is a shame, it’s such a tragedy he didn’t make the next record. I mean that was going to be some next level shit. When you listen to some of the ideas on Sketches you just
think that was going to be so far out that next record. It’s a tragic story. What else do I listen to? I really like the new Africa Hitech album - Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek, that’s really good. I’ve been listening to the new DJ Shadow album which is really good.
ILM: Right. DJ Shadow became a Stateless fan in 2005, leading to your featured vocals on his 2006 album The Outsider, followed by a support slot on his tour! What was it like working with him?
Chris: Amazing. Really great. I’d grown up listening to Endtroducing all the time, it's just such a beautiful album and a real classic. I was quite rightly a bit nervous about the whole thing but he was a really nice guy and very humble, very quiet and very into his music, very studious, dedicated and hard working. He’s a record collector as well so he’s just really knowledgeable about music, he doesn’t just make it, he knows it.
ILM: Did you see his record collection?
Chris: No I didn’t get to see it. I went record shopping with him though.
ILM: Oh. Wow. You went record shopping with DJ Shadow? That’s very cool.
Chris: Yeah. I went to some weird little record collector dens in these secret places which you’d only find if you were a record collector. I think he’s a dealer as well; he works with these people… I don’t know much about it but it was really interesting to be around him and watch him crate dig.
ILM: What did he buy? Do you remember?
Chris: Oh just tonnes of stuff. When I was hanging around with him I think he was really into punk, but it was a really specific strand of punk and he was proper nerdy about it. He was saying, 'oh I’m listening to 1974 to 1976 New York underground punk garage, but only the stuff that no-ones ever heard!' Hahaha.
ILM: Hahahaha. Amazing!
Chris: Yeah it was amazing. Working with him was really inspiring and very exciting. Doing the tour with him was great as well, that was amazing. It was all around the world. It literally took me from obscurity into these massive shows all over the world, it was crazy, a complete head fuck- in a good way!
ILM: Would you like to do shows that size again?
Chris: I’d love to yeah, with Stateless hopefully. I think that’s about the right size, any bigger than that and you’re kind of doing stadium gigs which aren’t that cool really, but those kind of theatres with 2000 people are perfect, they’re brilliant.
ILM: Everyone can feel one in spaces like that; whereas the bigger it gets the harder it is…
Chris: Yeah, I’ve been to a few stadium gigs and I’ve just felt frustrated because you can’t get into it. You try and dance in your chair and the guy next to you is like ‘ahhh stay still, I’m trying to eat my popcorn!’
ILM: What are some of the best gigs you’ve been to?
Chris: Whenever I get asked this I have to bring up Radiohead in 1997. I was 16 and Radiohead were the coolest thing on earth.
ILM: They still are!
Chris: Yeah, but especially when your 16.
ILM: Which album were they touring when you were 16?
Chris: The Bends. But they’d just written Ok Computer and they played a few songs from it, it was just brilliant. It was just one of those landmark gigs in my life and I was like ‘that’s what I
want to do.’ I think I was in tears like ‘this is the best thing ever!’ Then I read an article that said apparently Thom didn't enjoy it, which was a bit of a shame!
ILM: How annoying!
Chris: I enjoyed it! I don’t know, I think there was something wrong technically.
ILM: Have you followed them ever since?
Chris: Yeah I love all their stuff.
ILM: Finally (we're two cups of tea into a very long chat), I wondered if you'd ever considered writing music for film?
Chris: Oh yeah. I’d definitely love to write for film. I think for me that will be something I’ll do later in life when I’ve got enough money to set up a proper recording studio and have a bit more space to work. I can start doing more film stuff then. I wouldn’t really want to do it out of my bedroom. Also I think that’s something for later on in life, for the moment I’m really happy making albums and that’s my priority, I just want to keep making records.