A consummate crowd-pleaser, though, he always keeps things dancefloor friendly. Though his early sound was breakbeat-heavy, these days he boasts an expansive style that's rooted in house, but is never stuck there. A Zabiela set has a definite aural structure, one that starts off moody and slow-burning, before finally exploding into chunky beats that still bring finesse to the bang.
It's an artful method of construction you can hear on his latest Renaissance mix album, The Masters Series: Life. Yes, he just came out with one last year, but the response was so good, Renaissance asked him to get another one together, stat. The new one, like the old one, is a two-disc affair, but it's even more of a collage of sounds and moods. The first disc wanders through downtempo, moody techno, and even drum 'n' bass, and the second one simmers slowly up to a big finale.
Layered all throughout are field recordings Zabiela has taken during his travels across the world. It's a global blend for true music lovers who can appreciate coloring outside the lines.
Zabiela is always a conference staple, but you'll have to be motivated to catch him this year. He's only doing day parties during the week, and his own yacht party, aboard the Biscayne Lady, on Saturday. Crossfade caught up with him by phone recently to discuss the album and his conference plans. Read the full Q&A, and get all his appearance details below.
Crossfade: You've had a busy couple years, with these two Renaissance mixes coming out almost back to back. But as far as original tracks, you had a few in 2008, and then in 2009 only a couple. Is that because you were working on this new mix?
James Zabiela: Well, towards the end of last year I started working on the quite early. What I found is with the previous one, I ended up rushing to finish it off, and I didn't want to do that this time. So I had it in the back of my mind to be looking out for music and recording samples and things like that throughout the whole of last year, so I was working on it little bits and little bits, up until the time it came to get in the studio in January to put it together.
I think because I knew I'd have something out at the start of this year, I sort of relaxed as far as doing any production work in 2009. I don't like to put out loads of material, really. I don't think you'll ever see me int he Beatport Top 10 every month consistently. I'd rather put out a couple tracks every year that I'm pleased with, that I haven't rushed. That's my philosophy.
Why did Renaissance want these mixes from you so close together?
They were really happy with how the last one performed, so almost after it went on sale, just a few weeks after, they said they wanted me to do another one the next year. I graciously accepted, because I felt that even though it did well for them, it was kind of rushed, and personally, I wasn't happy with all of it.
What weren't you happy with?
I was really happy with how the first disc went where it was an experimental concept mix, where I went around the world doing field recordings. And then the second disc I just put it together in a couple hours, and I look back and I'm sort of -- not ashamed, but wish I'd been a bit more organized. It kind of suffered as a result because of how much time I put into the first one, so this time I wanted to balance it out a bit more.
You're actually giving this one away for free at your gigs. Why did you choose to go that route?
Well actually, although we're giving it away for free in the eyes of most people, what's actually happening is that the clubs are buying the CD at cost, and then giving it away at the door. It's quite complicated. I'm reducing my DJ fee in most clubs in order to pay for the CD/DVDs, to subsidize it. So in the eyes of the label and everyone, we're actually selling the CD, because all the artists on there are still getting paid.
It's kind of a legal minefield, but pretty clever, from Renaissance's point of view. So we are, in fact, still selling it. What you'll find is that it'll cost an extra pound to get in or something, and that'll cover the manufacturing costs. It might end up costing me for every one I give out, but I don't really mind, because you never make money from the mix compilations, anyways. Even if you sell thousands and thousands, you still make peanuts. It's not really about that, it's more about just wanting to be able to get my music to as many hands as possible, I suppose. Also, it'll come out in shops in April, in the traditional format. I know there will be people who will want the proper CD with the more expensive packaging.
The release also includes a DVD with videos. Do you think this kind of multimedia content is the future of physical music releases?
I think it definitely adds something. I know there's a little movie, about a film with me going to my gig in Manchester, which gives you some extra insight. I always like it when I buy something from iTunes and it comes with a video, or a PDF of all the artwork.
What's the story behind the title, Life? It seems like a very broad theme to tackle.
(Laughs). Yeah, it is. It's meant to be a sort of snapshot of my life, through my ears. I'm always recording things; it's just a loose theme, with a soundtrack sort of feel. The theme was people living their day to day lives, and it's meant to be a soundtrack for my travels.
In the past mixes you've sort of done one disc for home, and one that's more club sounds. But you've said for this one, you tried to blend it all together more. How did that work out? How did you go about picking the tracks? It seems like a huge task to try to narrow everything down.
I mean, there are certain tracks that I liked, but I didn't get to use, because it didn't fit the mood without sounding too jarring or too aggressive. I didn't want to make something that was too gnarly. I think from a personal point of view, I don't really listen to that much dance music except when I'm there doing my DJ sets or if I'm in a particular mood, because the last thing DJs want to do is listen to really aggressive music!
Most of the tracks on there are just things on my iPod, like the Apparat thing, and then on the second disc, especially at the end, those are things I'm playing out. I just don't think most people can get up in the morning and just put on, like, full-on gnarly music. I think there's a time and a place for that, and that's in the club.
As I was looking through the track list, there were a few producers' names on there that jumped out at me as maybe somewhat different from what you usually play, people like Boys Noize and Ellen Allien.
Oh yeah, the Ellen Allien track I'm playing. That's an old track, like 2006, which she made with Apparat. That is actually something I play out. A lot of the stuff, especially on the first disc, with guys like Flying Lotus -- a lot of that stuff I couldnt play in a main room set, anyways.
What about the field recordings? Some of them are actually on the track list. When and where did you take them, and how did you decide to weave them into the record?
I didn't actually list all of them. A lot of it is quite subtle. You'll notice there are sounds that are sort of atmospheric sounds form airports and train stations, you know, just walking about in shopping centers, things like that in there. I mention sort of main ones in the track listings, so you can see that it's not all just tracks.
Are you taking the field recordings all the time, generally, or did you just start taking them when you knew it was time for the record?
This time, I did start doing it knowing I was going to use them. But last time I didn't have as much material as I'd like to. I knew early on I was going to be doing this, and I had a lot of time to record things all year round. Most of the recordings on there are from the last few months, when I had some time off in South America, in street markets in Peru and Buenos Aires and places like that.
Tell me why you decided to do your boat party this year for conference. How did you decide on Timo Maas and Tiefschwarz to join you?
It was a total accident. I was meant to go into Miami and just do a few pool parties and go home. In fact I did consider having a year off, because I've been coming the last five years, and I thought it wouldn't hurt to stay at home this time. But I had those pool parties, so right at the very last minute, literally three weeks ago or something, SOS was doing their boat party on Friday, and they had to hire the boat two days in order to secure it. So they came to us and aid, "Listen, we've got this boat and we've paid for it, would you be able to help take it off our hands?" It just sort of fell together like that by complete chance. I'm on the same booking agent as Timo and Tiefschwarz, and I had nothing to do on Saturday afternoon, and it was pure luck, really.
The other parties you're doing are all day parties. Was this on purpose? Are you going to be mostly relaxing at night?
I'm probably not going to be doing too much. Last year and the year before were kind of crazy, I ended up doing loads of things among the business conferences and stuff. You spend a lot of time doing interviews and things if you had a big compilation to promote, as I do at the moment.
What are your plans for the rest of the year after conference?
I've got this absolutely massive tour, to try and get these DVDs out there. I'm just sorting out Ibiza at the moment. It looks like I'll be at Space again; it'll be my eighth year as a resident there, which is pretty awesome. Last year was my favorite year there. Every year I sort of wonder, are they going to ask me back, and they have this year. I never think too far ahead, I never take things for granted.
James Zabiela, at the DJ Mag Recession Sessions pool party. Wednesday, March 24. The Shelborne, 1801 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Presale tickets are sold out; door tickets may be available. 305-341-1455; shelborne.com
At the James Zabiela and Friends yacht party, with Timo Maas and Tiefschwarz. Saturday, March 27. The Biscayne Lady, docked at 4525 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Event runs from 3 to 9 p.m. Online ticket sales are closed, but tickets may be available at the event box office. 786-201-0029
At the Beatport Beach Party. Saturday, March 27. The Gansevoort South, 2377 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Party goes from noon to 9 p.m., admission is free and open to the public. 305-604-0001; gansevoortsouth.com