Katie Thomas speaks to James Holden ahead of his performance at the inaugural Beat Hotel festival in Marrakech…

James Holden spent much of 2018 touring with his band The Animal Spirits. Kicking off the year in Mexico and finishing in Panorama Bar, the months between saw a slew of summer festival shows that included Nuits Sonores, Dekmantel and Field Day. Taking great pleasure in spending the time between shows with his band – a band who help bring his transformative and psychedelic live show to life – Holden has also taken the time to appreciate each performance in its own right. “Each show has been different somehow”, he tells me.

One of Glastonbury’s most beloved venues, the Beat Hotel tent is also one of the festival’s most raucous. The brand have been busy during the Glastonbury hiatus with the announcement of their new project – the three day Beat Hotel festival which will take place on the outskirts of Marrakech from 28th to 31st March. For the festival’s maiden voyage, James Holden will be returning to Morocco to play with Maalem Houssam Guinia. Joining the likes of Andrew Weatherall, Nabihah Iqbal, Peach and Young Fathers on the bill, the duo will present their unique fusion of synthesizers and traditional Moroccan Gnawa music.

The Beat Hotel performance follows Border Community’s September 2018 release of Three Live Takes – three live collaborations recorded in Holden’s studio in 2016.

Ahead of his performance with Maalem Houssam Guinia at Beat Hotel Marrakech, we spoke to James Holden about Morocco, a state of trance, and collaborating beyond language barriers.

Having spent time at Fellah Hotel before, how are you feeling about performing your show with Maalem Houssam Guinia there during Beat Hotel? 

Pretty excited tbh! it’s a lovely place, and I’m happy to be going back to Morocco. I’m looking forward to seeing the Guinias.

I read that when you started work with the late Guinia, it was a case of communicating almost solely through music due to language barriers. Can you talk a bit about this creative process, its benefits and its challenges? 

This question has made me realise how useless language really is even when you collaborate with someone from the same country! It was hard, and the first attempt at playing together really didn’t work – my machines felt really unmusical, unable to respond fast enough to fit into their songs. It was like my presence was making the music worse and I couldn’t even communicate an apology or excuse! After a night of rewiring, I’d turned the modular synth into something more like an instrument, and when we sat down to play it felt different almost immediately. That was one of my best ever musical experiences – going from failure to this close feeling of being connected, playing the same song. That recording became ‘Bania’, which is one of the records I’m most proud of.

Can you tell me a bit about Gnawa, the traditions and style, and expand on why you think it works to bring Gnawa together with your knowledge of electronic instrumentation?  

I’m really interested in the state of trance, and musics that help people attain it – for me it’s been a big part of why I like to play music. For Gnawa people the trance carries even more importance – the music is played in really intense all-night ceremonies called Lilas, where the intense cross-rhythms of the metal percussion (Krakebs) and repeating vocal refrains put dancers into altered states of consciousness. People flip out, pass out, and attribute physical and mental health benefits/healing to the process (and there is research that supports this idea). None of this sounds very different from the utopian post ’88 version of dance music that I grew up with – they are looking for the same thing I’ve always been looking for in music. I guess that’s the main thing that stays with me about this collaboration – although our cultures look different on the surface, the human need at their root is the same.

How would you describe the spirit of Morocco?  

I don’t want to be glib here, or overstate what I know… But Marrakech is a great place to be. It’s buzzy, very alive, full of colour and smell and sound. Utterly beautiful in places, and very sad in others, like any comparatively poor country.

Are there other styles or musical traditions from other countries or cultures that you would like to explore in a similar fashion in the future? 

I love collaborating with musicians now – I feel the years I worked alone I wasted! So yes, I’m not even sure which though – I do particularly love other North African musics – Malian hunters songs (which are in some way related to Gnawa) for example. But the rest of the world has trance music too, so I’ll just try and be receptive and see what comes to me.

Tell me about a record that heals you. 

This changes, every ailment eventually finds the record it needs. I find playing makes me feel better, whether it’s shows with the band or alone at home. I like to try to play Charlemagne Palestine’s Strumming Music, below you’ll see why it feels like medicine or meditation.

What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

Get a therapist and try to understand why you need to make music. Try to find your real path. Ignore the industry as much as you can. Aim higher and never give up on that.

What have you been listening to lately? 

Obsessing a bit over a weird record I got called ‘Circular Hocket‘ by Andreas Stahel, who sings in between notes of the flute he’s playing, and over two Barbieris – Caterina Barbieri who makes amazing synth / trance music, and Gato Barbieri, who is older and a nice person to discover after you’ve bought all the Pharoah Sanders records

What have you got coming up?

I’m putting out the soundtrack to a documentary I did (A Cambodian Spring), LP dropping early ’19, and doing some shows next year with Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel (check out his LP Lines or the Zimpel/Ziolek LP from a year or so back. Amazing minimal folk trance jazz music) and some more shows with The Animal Spirits. But mostly I’m locked in my studio trying to find the next thing.

Anything else? 

Goodwill to all mankind. Happy Solstice. Fuck the Tories.

Beat Hotel Marrakech, 28th to 31st March 2019.