Born and raised in the UK, it’s during the seven years he spent in New Zealand that James Barrett found the creative energy to let his musical persona flourish, giving birth to HAVEN, the label named after the eponymous local parties he was then throwing in Auckland with partners in crime Jaded Nineties Raver and Friendly Potential co-chief Tom McGuinness.
Concurrently with the label, James developed his own musical vision, establishing his own moniker Keepsakes in the realm of hard-hitters with remarkable poise and steadfastness. Not quite ready to comply with the fan-service animating a scene outrageously lacking guts for its most part, his take-no-prisoner approach shakes off the scene’s old clichés to whelm the listeners back into a high-octane head trip that leaves no muscle unscathed.
Ahead of the release of his upcoming EP, ‘Puerile Politics‘, we caught up with James to discuss matters as diverse as the use of granular sampling, juggling with the label and his own career, the relationship between music and politics, his wide array of influences and more. Listen to a first extract, ‘Blue Boy Fucks It All‘, down below.
Interview by Baptiste Girou
"I found the technique of granular sampling to be quite analogous to the ways political information works in this so-called ‘post-truth’ era - small ‘grains’ of information are cherry-picked and rearranged to create a narrative that suits vested interests."
Hey James, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. Your new EP ‘Puerile Politics’ is about to drop via your own imprint, HAVEN. Can you please tell us more about the recording process and vision you had for this record?
Thanks for having me! This EP started to take shape around the middle of last year at a time when I was experimenting a lot with granular sampling – where small ‘grains’ of a piece of audio are cut up and then manipulated in to something new.
I was spending a lot of time going through YouTube and finding interesting sound sources to put through a very basic granular sampler VST – The Mangle – to create interesting new audio loops to use in my music. So I was using samples from things like industrial accidents or even riots to create nice percussion loops, or using spoken samples from film or the news to create interesting vocal textures for example. What began to take shape were these quite groovy, swung, but still creepy tracks – something I always appreciate in techno – which led me to really focus on the groove in this record.
Beyond this there is definitely an obvious political consciousness behind the record – something that is quite lacking amongst most artists in the higher echelons of this scene these days. I actually also have a Masters degree in politics so this is something I always keep a very keen eye on.
I also found the technique of granular sampling to be quite analogous to the ways political information works in this so-called ‘post-truth’ era – small ‘grains’ of information are cherry-picked and rearranged to create a narrative that suits vested interests. This of course has always been done throughout history, but right now we are living in a moment where this is done so extensively the notion of ’truth’ is becoming very fragmented and meaningless – even outside of politics.
Your sound is a mix of proto-brutalistico martial rhythms, high-intensity flows and rust-gnawed atmospherics that seem lifted straight out the fiercest DOOM bloodbath. Is music a way for you to let off steam? Or is it just your personal love for hosing off primal, gut-churning treats for a routine speaking?
When writing music is going well for me it’s definitely a very calming influence – I wouldn’t really say it’s letting off steam, but I can compare it to a kind of meditative state. It really puts me in to a kind of state of focused ‘flow’, which blocks out any stresses and anxieties and always puts me in a better mood.
At the same time I do love making a good banger too! Sometimes I’ll have an idea in my head that I absolutely have to get out in the studio, so it is also a kind of compulsion also!
2019 has been a very busy year on all fronts for you. What memories will you keep dear to your heart?
The best memory I will keep of last year is watching my label HAVEN growing bigger and better than I had imagined. Particularly with our releases from VTSS and Tommy Holohan, our first V/A record in September, and our party series at Griessmuehle, we had a very strong year which we plan on building on even further in 2020!
Beyond this I have very fond memories of many of my gigs last year, in particular both occasions at Tresor, my Moscow debut for Monasterio with the S.L.A.M. family in January, 999 in Warsaw in October, Tumult and Nachtschade in Belgium, FOLD’s crazy UNFOLD party in London before Christmas, and an amazing rave for NYE in Puglia in Italy. Sorry for anyone I didn’t mention – every show means a lot.
"At the time there was not really anyone in the city pushing the harder and weirder side of techno at all so we wanted to make a literal ‘HAVEN’ for this kind of music in a city that was really lacking any kind of meaningful connected club scene."
As mentioned above, you run HAVEN, a platform dedicated to the further dark and menacing side of techno music. What prompted you to set up your own label, and how do you manage heading it and running your own career in parallel?
HAVEN initially began in 2015 as a small party in Auckland, New Zealand founded by my partner Jaded Nineties Raver, Friendly Potential co-founder Tom McGuinness and I. At the time there was not really anyone in the city pushing the harder and weirder side of techno at all so we wanted to make a literal ‘Haven’ for this kind of music in a city that was really lacking any kind of meaningful connected club scene.
In 2018 I decided to expand this further in to a record label. I had initially intended to try and push interesting NZ artists alongside strong international producers – but the reality is harder and weirder techno sounds at the time were just not popular enough in the country for there to be a solid base of producers to turn to, so after a while of trying to work with local artists my focus became more international.
It has actually been surprisingly difficult to juggle managing HAVEN and my own career at the same time – most of my time these days actually goes towards making sure the label is run properly. I just have to be strict and manage my time properly and effectively – I usually start the day dealing with the label, but always aim to be in the studio or practising mixing for upcoming gigs by lunch time.
What’s coming out on HAVEN this year? Any new release(s) you can tell us about yet?
I can’t say too much because I like things to be a surprise… but after my EP there is going to be another V/A record, this time with 4 total bangers from newcomers to the label. Then after that we are doing a full EP with an artist who released on our last V/A in September. This should also hopefully be followed by an EP from a very special collaboration just before summer.
After summer we are already organising releases with some incredible artists who I did not think I would be so lucky to work with – but this is where I have to stop and leave the surprise for later!
We also have our next party happening at Griessmuehle on 12th February 2020 – this time we’ve invited along the residents from FOLD to play alongside Rinse France host and 99cts Records boss Miley Serious for another sweaty one on the Silo floor!
In the light of the recent political events in the Middle-East and many waves of popular upsurge the world over, it’s safe to say the record’s title is a lucid hit at the poorly handled socio-political situation going on at a global scale. Do you think techno still has the political power it had 25 years ago?
It really depends what we’re talking about in regards to ‘political power’. I think techno certainly still has the ability to facilitate social mobility, community, and acceptance for marginalised groups – and I think this social consciousness is enduring and stronger than ever when you look around at some of the new prominent artists and collectives in the scene today.
However, when we begin to examine techno’s ability to challenge enduring political-economic structures and inequality I think it can be part of the problem. I think the general impulse of the scene has descended so far in to mindless hedonistic escapism and social politics that the bigger picture around the excesses of neoliberal capitalism and the huge wealth inequalities it creates has been somewhat ignored.
Sometimes I just think the general political and economic situation in the world is so anxiety-inducing that many people, understandably, just don’t want to pay attention to it anymore. On the other hand I also think this situation is will-fully ignored by those who benefit from it – in a sense the modern techno scene has been totally absorbed in to the logic of neoliberal capitalism and all its excesses and has begun to reflect some of its inequalities.
Concentration of work and wealth in an increasingly small number of hands, the benefits existing wealth can give your career, the crises of modern music journalism, and the shrinking appreciation for dance music as a valuable art-form irrespective of financial benefit are all things that should be given more attention in our current environment.
That being said, there is a history of community-focused, anti-capitalist ideology and activism in techno (Underground Resistance being the most prominent example) – so the potential for techno to have more political power is there. It may just take the genre to fall out of public favour again for that to happen.
"I think the general impulse of the scene has descended so far in to mindless hedonistic escapism and social politics that the bigger picture around the excesses of neoliberal capitalism and the huge wealth inequalities it creates has been somewhat ignored."
You’re originally from New Zealand but have been based in Berlin for a while. What do you like most about the city, and how easy/difficult was it for you to adapt to the German capital’s distinctive pulse?
I’m actually originally from the UK – but I spent 7 years living in New Zealand and that is also where Keepsakes as a project was born.
There is definitely a particular sense of freedom in this city that is very alluring – I mean nowhere else on the planet has clubs like in Berlin and that is very much down to lenient authorities and historical circumstances.
However I do think that kind of freedom, or at least who this freedom benefits, is very much under attack now with multiple essential clubs under threat of closure, rents skyrocketing, and the profile of migrants to the city starting to shift away from creatives. Gentrification is really beginning to change this city for the worse right now.
It’s taken me a while to adapt to living here too – the bureaucracy is complete nightmare in particular. Also pushing techno in Berlin is quite a different game compared to New Zealand – here you are essentially preaching to the choir, but in NZ every person through the door felt like a real achievement. But it is nice to have an audience that appreciate what you do here rather than staring back at a crowd of confused faces half the time!
Who are your biggest influences out there and why?
If we’re talking about techno my influences are very UK-centric – the whole ‘Birmingham sound’ has always been a big influence for example – Surgeon, Regis, Female, Mick Harris. The Scottish side of the ‘Brighton sound’ has always been influential too as it really injected a sense of crazy fun in to techno and had quite a bouncy Chicago house vibe to a lot of it too – producers like Neil Landstrumm, Cristian Vogel, Subhead.
If we’re talking about Chicago I also have to say the second wave of house that emerged there has also been quite influential for me – guys like Paul Johnson, Cajmere/Green Velvet, Robert Armani all made these fun bouncy tracks that were often extremely weird and experimental, plus they knew how to make a kick bang!
Otherwise I grew up on a diet of punk, metal, and hardcore – so that probably explains why I continue to use a fair amount of distortion and overdrive in my tracks.
I also think it’s important to look for inspiration outside of your particular creative field – particularly in regards to creative process. William Burrough’s cut-up technique for instance has been very relevant to music for a long time, and still remains relevant to this day – in my own work if you can see this in my use of granular sampling for instance. Often I find the most inspired I get is going to art galleries when the work is good, and reading in to how about the art was made to see if there’s any tips for my creative process I can pick up.
Studio-wise, what is your setup comprised of at the moment?
I am largely arranging everything within Ableton on my laptop right now – so this is where the bulk of the work is done – but I have picked up some bits and pieces of studio equipment over the past few years.
I also sketch out a lot of ideas using my MPC Live, Prophet 12, and Novation Peak – which I have going in to an Allen & Heath ZED-R16 mixing desk. The drums from the MPC generally don’t make it in to the track, but the synth sounds I made with the Prophet and Novation are increasingly finding their way in to my tracks these days alongside the VSTs I’ve always used.
What piece of equipment best defines your sound and why?
Probably a laptop! Most of my music over the years has been made exclusively ‘in the box’ and that’s very much defined how I make music. Nasty digital distortion, super precise cuts and edits and grainy YouTube samples are all things that have been very important to my sound and they very much rely on making music on a computer.
What was the last record store you visited and what did you bag there?
Outside of Berlin the last record store I visited was the legendary Rubadub in Glasgow – they don’t have as big of a techno section as the stores in Berlin, but everything they do have is very carefully curated and you’ll definitely find yourself picking up something weird and wonderful there. I picked up one of Varg’s EPs from late last year, the new Ossia record on Berceuse Heroique, and the latest Datasmok record on Panzerkreuz.
What makes you happy?
Taking a risk in a DJ set and having the crowd love it. Seeing Ayarcana drop Mala’s ‘Changes’ or Tommy Holohan drop Benga & Coki’s ‘Night’ in the middle of a blistering techno set. True musical innovation being rewarded.
What pisses you off?
Trustafarian DJs building false narratives around their backgrounds and morality to make themselves appear more down-to-earth, in-touch, and authentic than they actually are, while pouring far more effort in to PR and marketing than their actual music. I guess that’s what ghost producers are for!
What can we wish you for 2020?
That I don’t completely lose my mind and will still be here pushing Keepsakes and Haven as hard as I can by the end of the year!
Puerile Politics is released via HAVEN on 7th February, pre-order a copy from Bandcamp.
FOLD joins forces with HAVEN on 12 February for a special showcase featuring Miley Serious, Keepsakes and FOLD residents Voicedrone b2b James Newmarch – Info.
A1. And So The Feckless Fall
A2. Blue Boy Fucks It All
B1. Ignorant Irony
B2. Ignorant Irony (UVB Remix)