James Blake on Prince, Justin Vernon, and fans shushing each other at his shows

When experimental electro-dub artist James Blake made his Minneapolis debut at the Entry this past May, he made sure to note how thrilled he was to be at the venue "where Prince played," joking that he was disappointed he wasn't playing in the iconic Mainroom. So when Blake returned just four short months later to play that bigger stage, it was a good opportunity to find out more about Blake's ties to the Twin Cities.

Blake kindly took some time out of his rigorous touring schedule yesterday afternoon for an interview in First Ave's neighboring Record Room. While the walls rattled from the sound check taking place next door, he opened up about his admiration for the venue, his budding friendship with regional indie star Justin Vernon, and how he wants fans to act at his shows.

When you played the Entry last May, and you mentioned that you were excited about being inside First Avenue. What stories had you heard about the venue, and what made you so excited to play here?

I'd heard it was a legendary venue, which it obviously is. I just looked outside on the wall at the amount of artists that played here that I Iove -- just you name them, really. And apart from that, just the people who I know that have come from this town, and said it's a great venue. I know some great musicians come from here, and I wondered what it was about this place that makes, that spawned these great people. I don't know.

Which Twin Cities musicians are you familiar with?

There must be some sort of slightly out of the box thinking going on, because if Bon Iver and Prince both come from here, then already there's like -- there's an alternative side to those two people. And I suppose you can't judge the whole scene based on two popular acts, but as far as I'm considered, they both have experimental, left-field qualities, and I think that's great in pop music. That's my goal, really. Not my only goal, but it's nice for things to sound interesting, and those are two that definitely do.

I see a lot of similarities between you and Justin Vernon, your approach to blending pop sensibilities with more abstract elements. When did the two of you meet for the first time?

South by Southwest in Texas.

Have you spent a lot of time together?

No, not really. We're both leading incredibly busy lives. But there's always a hint with people that you are -- you know when you get on with someone. You know when you've got good friends where you don't see them for a while, but it's kind of the same? It kind of reminds me of somebody like that. We've talked about music and stuff and played together, and it's been quite nice. I think it'd be nice to get on stage together at some point and do something, but I don't know. Again, we barely have any time. Our tours are almost always on opposite sides of the country, or the world. It's not really crossing paths all that easily, but we try to stay in contact.

Do you have plans to record more songs together? I know there's one song out now, are there more finished?

Yeah. There are a couple things, we'll see. I'm happy with the things we've done, but I do feel like Justin is the sort of person who -- I think anything I do with him, it deserves more time than just sitting on a bus and doing it, or making it in a hotel room. I want to spend a bit of time and really think about something.

You've managed to stay prolific while touring heavily. How do you keep up your concentration on the road?

I don't really concentrate to make music, I just do it because I feel like I have to. It's more like a release than a sort of dedicated exercise. There's not much discipline. The only real discipline comes when I have to finish things, because the way I do things, I am the producer as well as the engineer, I have to round everything off right at the end. So that's the only time when that sort of discipline comes into play. But other than that I'm just sort of sitting around making music when I get the chance. Me and Rob [McAndrews] -- he goes by the name Airhead -- he's a guitarist in my band, and he's a really good producer, and me and him sit sort of around just making beats. Like when we're tired of chatting with each other, we just sit on our laptops and make beats. For both of us that process is cathartic, and for both of us it's kind of necessary. We have to do it. It's like most people who make music or make art will probably tell you, if they don't do it then they get unhappy. That's why I have to keep it up. I have to keep writing. Otherwise it would drive me insane, no playing, no writing. Because I do play on stage, but I'm not -- it's a different creative energy being put out there.

It's a finished product already.

Kind of. Although we do change it -- there's always creative stuff going on. But creating a whole new song is a process that I can't replace with anything else.

James Blake on Prince, Justin Vernon, and fans shushing each other at his shows
Photo by Ben Clark

 As you've toured around, do you find that different countries have different responses to your music?

I find that people seem happiest when they live by the sea. So it's kind of nice to go from coast to coast. But the actual attitude of people in different towns is so interesting to see. I've found that here -- actually we were just discussing it -- it's a really friendly town. And we had a gig with Justin, with Bon Iver the other day -- well we weren't with them, but it was literally the next building, so we were in and out of their gig -- and we were just commenting on how people from here seem to be really friendly. And I don't know -- in a way that I can only equate to some towns in England that are rural places, that seem to have that atmosphere. It's nice. I like it.

People tend to fixate on figuring out what genre of music you play -- dubstep, electronica, soul, etc. But it seem like we're getting to a point where genre titles are almost meaningless. So many people are doing so many different things --

So many people are making so many different things! So many people have the ability to make music on a laptop. For every person that comes out and does something new, there will be 30 people like me who then pick up a laptop and try to make a beat that sounds like it. I just wanted to make dubstep right at the beginning, and I was trying to make things that sounded like dubstep to me, but they didn't really sound like that in the end, to other people. In the same way that I followed suit, a lot of people will do the same for every producer that comes out and does something like that. The genres are multiplying.

How do you choose which songs to cover?

[Feist's] 'A Limit to Your Love' was a cover, but that was something I just started humming really. It was nice. I liked the song, and just sat down and recorded it, didn't even really mean to use it in anything. [Joni Mitchell's] 'A Case of You,' I was asked by [BBC's] Radio 1 to do it for a show they were doing, and I'd been playing 'A Case of You' for a while at home, I love the song, and I'd been listening to 'Blue' for a long time. And then after that, there was a recording on Radio 1, and now we've got a recording and we're releasing that, and I play it live sometimes.

Have Feist and Joni Mitchell heard your covers?

Yes, they both definitely have.

Have you heard their opinions?

Yeah. It was positive. [laughs]

Obligatory question, since you're playing the First Ave Mainroom: Are you a Prince fan?

Yes, I'm definitely a Prince fan.

I can pick up a little of his R&B vocal influence in your music. Do you consider him an influence?

Yeah, there is, from quite a long way back. But when I started to produce, then I really realized even more how perfect some of that music is. I mean, unbelievable. Just incredible beats and feel and rhythm, and he makes it look so easy, like almost no one else has ever done. That whole feeling of knowing that someone is a great instrumentalist as well as someone who is writing amazing pop songs kind of lends credibility instantly to what they are doing. There are a lot of pop singers that you might go, oh, are they writing their own songs? And that's kind of in doubt. But with [people like] Prince and D'Angelo, you can see there's kind of a wealth of amazing creativity going on.

Is there a challenge in performing your songs -- some of which play on a lot of empty space and minimalism -- in larger rock clubs?

Not when the people who are coming to see you know some of your music. Because, you know, is it a challenge for Steve Reich to do performances in a concert hall where people are listening to a minimalist composition for 10 minutes? Probably not, because those people know what's coming, so they're not going to be acting out of line. I suppose I'm not to compare myself to Steve Reich. [laughs] But what I'm saying is, people are making things that require a level of listening. But you know what? I don't actually feel like my music does require a certain attitude toward listening or anything like that. If I did, if that's how anyone feels, then that's not what I intended. I wanted people to listen to it as if it's just music, it's just there. Do you like it, or not? And when people come, sometimes there's a tendency for people to either shush each other or be really quiet, and in a way, if I just really wanted to listen to something, then I suppose it would be nice if other people were quiet. But also, from my perspective, I like it when people are having fun and dancing and moving and just being free, and not feeling like they have to be quiet in case the person next to them is offended, not feeling like they're going to ruin the gig. Because it's not like that for me. It's fun, I'm having fun. I suppose it's kind of a focused environment sometimes, but increasingly I like things to sound a bit more ravey, like when we're doing the more beat-driven stuff I do want people to just relax, because you can't remain that focused for that long. I wouldn't want people to be.

There's something really powerful about having a quiet moment after several louder songs, too. It builds suspense.

Totally. I love that! I want those moments to be dispersed. I don't want the whole thing to be just like, 'We can't talk.' That's rubbish. There's some real moments of electricity, and that amazing, tangible feeling across the whole crowd -- when you can get that, that's real gold.

James Blake on Prince, Justin Vernon, and fans shushing each other at his shows
Photo by Ben Clark

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