This article originally appeared in The Skinny
In Moroccan Gnawa music, songs aren’t a finished, structured product, they’re a springboard to discovering new ideas, for the musicians involved to spread their wings and improvise, and for the listener to be taken to a different, trance-like realm. It’s this entrancing effect that ensnared James Holden, igniting a passion for the genre. “Throughout my whole life I’ve liked repetitive, hypnotic things,” he muses.
Gnawa music certainly provided that. In 2014, about a year on from the release of his second album The Inheritors, Holden joined fellow producers Floating Points, Vessel and Biosphere for a residency in Morocco. There, he learned about the tradition and made an EP with the late Mahmoud Guinia, a master Maalem – or band leader – of the genre. He also discovered that there was more in common between the traditional style and dance music than there first appeared. “I really like getting in a trance and Gnawa music is for that,” he says. “When they play it in private at religious ceremonies, people properly go into trances and feel healed by the music or the ritual of it.”
The trance-like nature of Gnawa can be traced on his new album, The Animal Spirits, not least because it’s a hypnotising journey into a heady fusion of electronica and organic instrumentation that’s filled with arpeggiated melodies, percussive beats, brass and swirling tones. As Holden says, he set out to “write trance music and then do it in the style of spiritual jazz.” It’s yet another step in his continuing musical evolution, but aside from the shift to a more organic sound, it’s an album where he’s gone through another significant transformation. He’s not just a solo producer anymore. He’s formed a band.
The Animal Spirits after whom the album is named were born from touring The Inheritors, where Holden began revelling in the thrill of human connections on stage. “It seemed like the only way to play it was with people, and to have that messiness that you can get when you have a bunch of people together,” he explains. “Having had that amazing experience on tour, and it being the best time of my life in a lot of ways, I felt like on this next record I’d have to try and catch that.”
In search of that live spirit, he began to assemble a team who shared his collaborative vision. “I couldn’t have had a celebrity guest,” Holden chuckles, “you have to imagine being on the road with them for a while, but also just having this common purpose.” There’s no guest spots on The Animal Spirits then, but instead it’s a consistent team effort between him and five others. Long-time collaborators Tom Page and Etienne Jaumet were invited to play, joined by Marcus Hamblett, Liza Bec and Lascelle Gordon.
Holden, though, had worked almost entirely alone on The Inheritors, so there was another step he needed to take. He needed to take the reins of the band. He had to become a Maalem. It wasn’t something that came completely naturally to him though. “It’s funny because I’m quite a soft spoken person most of the time,” Holden says. “That’s something where I had to step up, where I had to tell them ‘No, don’t play that bit’ or quieten them down on stage.”
He looked to other acclaimed band leaders for inspiration, including the confidence-boosting experience of seeing saxophonist Marshall Allen lead the Sun Ra Arkestra at London’s Cafe Oto. “He was such a masterclass, but at the start of the set he was in such a bad mood, just shutting people up halfway through a note, shouting!” he explains. “I thought, if he can do that, I’m sure I can do it!”
Don Cherry and tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders were also significant when formulating the vibe that characterises The Animal Spirits. In them, Holden found the rich, full-bodied band sound that he desired, but still with that pulsating hook that excites him so much. “They’re in the jazz section but a lot of their songs have got the same structure as what I was already doing,” he explains. “They have this looping, and it’s simple and hooky. It’s not elitist, avant-garde music. Although it’s very intense and very wild, it’s got this structure under it.”
Much of The Animal Spirits therefore seems structured, formed of consistent loops, but it’s driven by “subconscious activity, rather than human written, penned down dry thought.” To capture that sense of the subconscious, Holden attempted to instil a sense of “psychic communication” between The Animal Spirits, showing them the rough structures of songs but then letting them play off each other. Across the course of a week, they recorded two or three tracks a day in live takes with a strict manifesto: no overdubs, no editing (although Holden chuckles that he did record some vocals separately because “rules were made to be broken”). All of this instils a sense of immediacy on the record, and gives it its undeniable texture. “It’s into the fractal micro-detail where the human connection comes out, the richness. It’s in the little interactions, the timing,” he explains.
There was just one member that wasn’t quite playing ball, however. “The computer is the weak link,” Holden states, “they don’t listen to the other players, they just want to do playback.” Yes, the technology that had given him so much freedom in the past was forming something of a barrier to the organic, free-flowing sound he now desired. Holden wasn’t willing to just accept the nature of computers though. So, he went about humanising the machine. “It’s a bit Pinocchio, the whole thing!” he laughs.
Holden’s quest to soften the mechanical was partially inspired by the deceptive simplicity of Mahmoud Guinia’s Gnawa songs. “It’s two or three riffs, with one or two chord changes, but a very simple pattern. They’ll play them for 20, 30, 40 minutes and they never get boring because they never play the same thing twice,” Holden explains. “It’s totally the opposite of dance music, it’s always varying!”
He thus set about making his own software, which helped him to harness human characteristics but with electronic sounds. “All the choosing of notes is done in the moment as opposed to me having done a little sequence of dots on a grid that the computer’s playing,” he explains. “You teach the computer the song in the same way that I teach it to my brass players.” Through it all though, there’s still one, distinctive, human touch: his own. “I’m still in it, I’m still there, with my hands on the keyboard. So it’s actually trying to augment me so I can play more notes with my own two hands!”
Naturally for an album inspired by live energy, The Animal Spirits are set to take to the road with their album. Holden is particularly excited about how it will transform itself in different settings. “I found last time that depending on context – so the size of the place or the feel of it and what kind of crowd there is – all affects how we played,” he reflects. He believes those factors will only be more intense for The Animal Spirits. “With this one, having written it with live in mind, it’s got more room to expand and more room to explore. The songs are quite young, so it’ll grow,” he says. “Every live show is going to be a different thing.”
As part of their touring plans, The Animal Spirits are set to take their shape-shifting show to Le Guess Who? which takes places in Utrecht between 9-12 November. Holden isn’t just playing at the event though; he’s also a curator. Holden reflects on how he came to be involved with this year’s edition of the Dutch event: “I waited until I could have a chat with Bob [van Heur, Le Guess Who?’s co-founder], and he just turned out to be so on my wavelength that we really connected. He suggested that after we played, we could have a small room that was full of contemplative trance stuff.” Of course, Holden didn’t need to be asked twice. “That sold me, the little trance room!”
The line-up that Holden has curated is very diverse, taking the festival’s ethos of bringing together boundary-pushing and border-crossing music. There’s a distinct theme running between each performer though. “They’re all linked by being folk-jazz, trance, or jazz-folk-trance – a combination of those!” As such, he’s brought together Bosnian accordionist Mario Batkovic, who combines arpeggiated rhythms with the “breathing and creaking” that comes with the traditional instrument, with Ex-Easter Island Head, whom Holden describes as “making their own folk culture” by hitting guitars with drumsticks in a looping, hypnotic manner.
He’s also invited Sex Swing, Hieroglyphic Being, Jerusalem In My Heart, XAM Duo and Shabaka & The Ancestors. He couldn’t quite get everyone he wanted though. “I put Pharoah [Sanders] on my list, but he was already on the bill,” Holden laughs. Indeed, hip-hop experimentalists Shabazz Palaces had pipped him to the post.
Nevertheless, he’s still managed to book another inspiration behind The Animal Spirits. Maalem Houssam Guinia – the son and successor to Mahmoud Guinia – will be bringing the Gnawa tradition to Utrecht. “It was high up the list because that whole experience was quite important for me,” Holden explains. He’s particularly interested to see how Gnawa will be received outside of Morocco: “I like taking them places and seeing how people react to that. They played in London and had a great reception.”
Le Guess Who? is just one of a number of dates that The Animal Spirits are playing in the coming months, and Holden can’t wait to head out on the road. He’s partially intrigued to see how the new tracks will transform, but is also energised by the thought of working with his band live. “It’s fun working with people like that, after more than a decade of staring at a computer!” he enthuses. The Animal Spirits are forging a new path, one that explosively fuses spiritual jazz and trance music, further cementing Holden’s place as a trailblazer in electronic music.