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Red Bull, Earl Grey and Digital Lion: Brian Eno talks James Blake

By the 2010s it seemed as though dubstep and its derivatives had been completely hijacked by the wobbly, face-melting basslines of producers like Skrillex and Max Martin. The dark, intricate subtleties it replaced, however, were finding new life in the lazily labelled ‘post-dubstep’. As the new decade kicked off, James Blake served up three stylistically different EPs (The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke), each increasingly exploring a slower, quieter chasm of electronica, where it seemed like he made muted music the new normal. 

But it would take the release of Blake’s self-titled debut in 2012 and sophomore set, Overgrown, in 2013 to make a caustic change to the dance music landscape. Both entirely self-produced, to understand how he made such an impact, look no further than the latter album’s seventh track, the only one where the enigmatic Enfieldian brought in co-writers in the name of Rob McAndrews and the conceptual strategist himself Mr Brian Eno.

On the intriguingly named Digital Lion (a title that’s a dig at the impotent blogs that slagged him?), Blake demonstrates how he‘s not afraid to mix the genre-defying styles of music he’s been experimenting with since his student days. The track — it’s barely a song in the traditional sense — was inspired in parts by his and Eno’s joint favourite gospel record, 1963’s Peace Be Still.

The sound is meditative, yet propulsive, by way of a gentle, ghostly introduction that swirls slow – real slow – with Blake crooning “digital lion” ad nauseam. Then there’s a ponderous moment’s lull where all you hear is a crackle of ambient white noise, before a mechanical beat throbs, and accompanied by warm guitar strums effects patter in and out, looped over a wash of auto-tuned hymnal humming. Towards the end it really gets going as drumbeats scatter over growing menace and Blake sings the title again like he’s having the best time in a club. The pained soulful cooing and piled-on percussion leaves one with an elemental and humanistic feel, despite all of the digitalia that’s involved.

Incidentally, the Overgrown album was awarded the UK’s 2013 Mercury Prize, trouncing Laura Mvula, Disclosure and, ironically, Brian Eno’s erstwhile colleague David Bowie and his much trumpeted comeback The Next Day. That same year, Eno spoke to Red Bull Academy’s Emma Warren about the Blake project.

BRIAN ENO: Only English people do music like this.

EMMA WARREN: What is it called? Music like what? What is it?

BRIAN ENO: I don’t know what you would call this. Is it dubstep? What do you think?

EMMA WARREN: I know that giving things a name gives them power, but does…

BRIAN ENO: You know what’s interesting about him as an artist is that he works mostly by subtraction. He’s always taking stuff out, as much as he can. And he ends up with these very skeletal pieces. But I can’t remember what I did on that. I know I co-wrote that. It says on the cover that I did.

EMMA WARREN: He did mention something, actually, that I thought perhaps was very you, although obviously not the only part of you. Was that he said that you came around and you had cups of tea together. And I wondered how important cups of tea were, generally, as a person who once had a cup of Earl Grey with Salvador Dali.

BRIAN ENO: [laughs] I did. Two. Well, tea is just an excuse to sit there, and when you’ve got something you can put in your mouth occasionally, you don’t have to keep talking. [laughter]

EMMA WARREN: Ah, so it’s a cancelling tool. It’s a work-canceling, maybe conversation-canceling, maybe input-canceling device. I tell you what, next time I make myself a cup of tea, I’m gonna…

BRIAN ENO: Well, it’s better than saying “Uhhhhm, uhhhmmm,” which is what you do if you haven’t got something to put into your mouth.

EMMA WARREN: And I thought I was just procrastinating every time I went to the kettle. Clearly not. OK, so one Coldplay track from the last album. When I was listening to it, I was thinking… actually, let’s just have a listen to it first. I selected this one because it’s the one that kind of… the noise, there’s a sound that kind of segues from track to track.

BRIAN ENO: Yeah. That sounds like me in the background there.

EMMA WARREN: OK, let’s have a listen.

Steve Pafford

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