Audio Texture's James Barrie Interview
From his Barcelona headquarters, intrepid musical adventurist James Barrie operates Audio Texture, a radio program and music consultantancy with its finger on the pulse of emerging artists and trends in global dance and electronic music. James serves much as a musical ambassador, presenting new artists and tracks from points across the globe. A recent Audio Textures program featured the emerging producers of Russia, for example. There are no borders with James and Audio Texture is known for its unbridled variety of styles, from heavy bass to jazz to soul. The common theme is quality and Audio Texture has gained an international reputation for exposing new sounds and talent such as Floating Points, Tropics and Prommer & Barck.
Audio Texture is James’s latest venture in a lengthy history in the music business which began in the late 90s with the establishment of Camden CDs, a long running Camden Market institution for dance music.
James also DJ’d all around London, with long running residencies at The Bug Bar, Brixton, The New Cross Inn and The Trafalgar. Other notable gigs included Plastic People and the long running promotion Here Comes The Sun at the legendary Brixton after hours venue The Comedy House. He was also involved with live music promotion organising jazz, funk and Brasilian music at the popular HEAVY Thursday sessions in South East London.
In 2004 James created Street Level Distribution, promoting US urban artists, labels and Djs in the UK. Clients included Def Jam, G-Unit, Federation Sound and DJ Ayres as well as many other artists and djs both commercial and underground. He was also a founding member of staff at IF Music, one of London’s top record emporiums and regular haunt of Gilles Peterson, Norman Jay, Jazzanova, Pete Heller, Mr. Scruff and many others and worked in various capacitites for the world famous BBE record label label.
Getting restless, James traveled to Colombia and Brasil in 2006 before resettling from England to Spain, a move that has allowed him to take in the daily sunshine as well as expanding on his vision of music. In Barcelona, with inspiration from the Future World Funk parties, he created The Cosmic Jam party which brought leading DJs and producers to the city. James introduced the likes of DJ Food, Bonobo, Drumagick, Nouvelle Vague, Seiji as well as local talent to Barcelona’s music scene.
At the same time he began broadcasting the Global Souljah radio program in association with BBE Records, programming adventurous dance and soul music. Broadcast on Scanner FM in Barcelona, BLN FM in Berlin and other stations as well as online, Global Souljah evolved into Audio Texture. Audio Texture gives James a solid platform from which he can promote the music he loves and to continue his role as a musical tour guide, so to speak.
MundoVibe caught up with James Barrie to discuss his life in music and his ambitious plans for Audio Texture.
MundoVibe: James, you have been involved in music for what seems to be most of your life. How did music become such an essential part of what you do?
James Barrie: Actually I came to music a bit late, when I was around 26. I was always a keen, eclectic music fan, veering towards the esoteric, from the age of 13. I was equally at home at a Pixies or Pop Will It Eat Itself gig as listening to rare groove at Club Sandino with Blue Boy DJing in Northampton, my home town. I then got my mind blown by the whole UK rave scene which I jumped into feet first in 1990. The atmosphere was so incredible I basically lived for the weekend for about 18 months before the drugs started to take their toll, prompting me to move to Amsterdam, which on reflection perhaps wasn’t the best idea at the time.
I then embarked on a period of travelling for the next 6 years, working in ski resorts, hitch hiking around Europe and travelling around the world before I decided to settle down, sort my life out and earn some money by working for my father’s finance business. I soon realised it wasn’t for me and money wasn’t everything, so instead of saving for a mortgage deposit I spent all my money on some record decks, a decent stereo and loads of music and then thought right, I’ve got to do something I enjoy for the next 40 years, music it is and I moved down to London to make my fortune in the music business.
You site BBC Radio’s John Peel as an influence and inspiration to begin acquiring records. What was it about him that so inspired you?
John Peel is a Don, firstly for his unrepentant eclecticism, support for new artists and also for his radio style, which made you feel connected to him, like a friend or a cool uncle. He had such a laid back style, he wasn’t polished or pretentious, the show wasn’t full of jingles and over production, he sometimes played records at the wrong speed or played the wrong side which just made him seem even more human and likable.
Then there was the music! I’ve still got Ted Chippington and Napalm Death records and it’s entirely his fault. Whilst everyone at school was listening to Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, Peter Williamson, my partner in crime at the time and myself were tuning in religiously to John Peel’s shows and as a consequence were buying The Dead Kennedys, Peter and The Test Tube Babies, Steel Pulse, The Fall and Ivor Cutler. To this day I still know all the lyrics to ‘California Uber Alles’ and ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ – my poor middle class parents must have been expecting the worse when I was blasting those early 7″ punk singles out and shouting along.
I have to say Charlie Gillett also made me feel the same way with his radio show he also had great knowledge, great tunes and a friendly, disarming radio manner. It’s tragic they both died quite early when they still had so much to offer. Gilles Peterson is my other radio hero, solely for his musical tastes rather than his presenting style though.
The roles you’ve played in the music industry are many: DJ, record shop owner, promoter, publicist and consultant. How have you adapted to these various roles — is this a natural evolution?
A lot of these jobs are intertwined. As a DJ you’ve got your finger on your particular music pulse and it’s a short step from playing those tunes in clubs to promoting artists who make that music, writing about them or selling them. Evolution is probably the key word. Once you have a bit of experience in one role, see what’s going on and talk to other industry bods you discover what opportunities are available and with experience comes educated decision making about what works for you, what you are good at and what you enjoy.
Of these roles, which do you prefer?
My present roll as a music consultant and radio show host suits me just fine. Coupled with this I DJ occasionally and promote the odd party. I enjoy everything I do and even through the financial ups and downs and the fact I work long hours, it never seems like work, that is priceless.
Since you’ve been involved in the music culture and business how has it changed with the advent of the internet and digital formats?
In the last 15 years I’ve witnessed the biggest shake up of the music industry in it’s history, which is still happening with no real end in sight to the upheaval and uncertainty, it’s an exciting and scary time in equal measures. I’m sitting here in my office surrounded by 5000 dusty old records a couple of thousand CDs but now I rarely reach much past iTunes and a web browser to listen to music, which I have to say for someone who relies on organising large amounts of music and finding particular tunes quickly is a life saver.
The fact I don’t have to pay €10 for a 12″ b-side dub remix and can now pick it up whilst sitting on my lazy arse for 99c is a result as well, although being of a certain age I still head to the last remaining independent stores that suit my tastes when I can and I’m still interested in collecting old classic vinyl.
I also benefit from having my radio show podcast downloaded 10,000+ times a month, whereas before those people that like what I do in Australia, America, Brazil or wherever would never have heard of me. Rather worryingly though industry success is increasingly being measured by hits and views rather than money in the bank which is a bit worrying for new artists and record labels trying to make a living and that’s the modern music alchemist’s dream – to turn those hits into gold.
I could go on at real length here: from the way artists can now market themselves and bypass the industry – even though most of them would prefer and benefit from a record label and manager doing that so they can get on with producing music, to the mobile revolution, streaming, Mp3 increasing portability but ironically decreasing sound quality to me being able to mobilise people for a party with my Facebook friends and mailing lists. For anyone wanting to make sense of what is going on in this brave new musical world then I would recommend checking out http://www.hypebot.com/.
Vinyl records have made a considerable comeback in recent years. Do you see this as a permanent trend that will continue to grow? Does this have any impact on the music you are involved with?
Percentage wise vinyl purchases have increased for the lasts couple of years but you have to take into account vinyl use fell by about 90% (I’m guessing) before it started to rise again! Now most record labels are doing runs of 300 copies, 1,000 if they are really popular whereas just 7 or 8 years ago those figures would have been 5 times that. There will always be a market for physical sales, if only to satisfy the geeks and collectors in the world and those with decent hi-fi set ups that can notice the difference between a well mastered digital file and a vinyl record (which isn’t as much as they would like you to think) but I don’t see a major resurgence happening, simply because vinyl is so expensive these days and most people don’t have a record player any more!
Personally I’m really into music, not formats, but I have to admit to still preferring a physical product although I do buy a lot of MP3’s as well. For new albums I prefer a CD (well packaged please) for convenience sake – I don’t have to turn it over and it’s easy to rip and it’s there when my hard drive crashes. I like vinyl for original vintage recordings. It’s so evocative being able to hold that slice of musical history in your hands including the artwork and the format used at the time, despite the odd crackle and pop.
You more of less serve as a global ambassador for emerging producers, artists and genres. What would you define as your “mission”?
My “mission” is pretty ill defined. I basically wander open-minded and fairly randomly around the world of music that interests me, it just so happens I’m pretty inquisitive and restless so I enjoy searching out new artists and sounds. I then present the music that I find to anyone that will listen, whether it’s a radio show listener, punter in a club or a brand or establishment that would like to sound a bit different to their competitors. Sharing is a big part of what I do and also wanting to present an alternative to the dire pop (and increasing mono) culture that is increasingly pervasive. Internet radio in all it’s forms is a really important tool in that particular fight.
One thing that’s emerged with the internet has been the globalization of music and the rapid spread of artists from cities like London. What are your feelings on this?
Great!! It really has helped expose loads of interesting new music to people that would never have heard it. The less artists are at the mercy of lazy journalism, commercial media concerns and narrow media channels the better. If you relied on most of the music press and radio for example in Barcelona you wouldn’t know much about bassline culture but if Kode 9 or Pearson Sound comes to town then the club will be rammed and you can thank the internet for that. The internet for all the woe it’s brought to the music industry, record sales in particular, definitely has it’s positive sides and instant communication and easy personalised search and discovery are amongst them. There has been a real interest in Russian beat producers like DZA, Long Arm and Pavel Dovgal in the last year helped by the internet and it has also helped spread the word about obscure regional music genres like Kuduro or Brega for instance in recent times.
You’ve hosted the long running radio program, Audio Texture (formerly Global Souljah) for several years. What was the inspiration for this program and how has it evolved?
The show is basically a vehicle for me to share some of the music I am passionate about to a wider audience. The idea behind the show hasn’t altered although I’d like to think my presenting style has grown more confident. It’s simply a trawl through my current musical interests, the latest acts worthy of the hype, music which I am fortunate to get sent and stumble across with a few classics thrown in.
Since Audio Textures is known for its eclecticism, how do you go about programming it?
I choose 60 minutes of the best tunes of that week, lightly research them to make me sound all knowledgable and clever. I then try and make the most coherent ‘mixtape’ from all the styles and tempos I can, before recording the show in one take. I try to make my presenting as unobtrusive as possible whilst at the same time imparting a bit of knowledge before unleashing it on the world for anyone who cares to listen.
Since you undoubtedly receive loads of music, do you see the quality going down with the ease of production? What makes a track or artist stand out and make it to Audio Texture?
There is undoubtedly an increasing amount of crap music out there aided by the advent of affordable technology and the ability to download expensive production software for free. Fortunately you can apply lots of filters to it all to help the task of tracking down the cream. Before I used to trawl expensive Soho record stores in London, now I mostly trawl loads of record lists from the likes of Boomkat, Vinyl Underground, Bleep, All City and Sounds Of The Universe and subscribe to lots of record label mail outs from labels that I like and trust. Bandcamp notifications are increasingly playing a part as artists start to take control and swap a free track for an email address. I wish I had spare time to listen to more radio shows and podcasts as a trusted selector is also an aid to sorting the wheat from the chaff.
As to what makes a track stand out and make it to the show well it just has to move me in some way. I try and stay immune from all the hype surrounding certain releases and just have a listen, if it makes me smile, dance, sing or nod my head then it’s in with a good chance.
You’ve recently made the move from London to Barcelona. What was the motivation for this move and how do you find living there? Are you tapped into the city’s music culture or inspired by it?
I’ve been in Barcelona for five years now. I first fell in love with the city when I came here to visit friends and for Sonar years ago and I’d been mulling a new life in a smaller city with some decent weather. After 9 years of living in London I was running out of energy to make the most of the city, which requires you to work hard, play hard and cover long distances in crowded public transport or slow moving traffic.
I have to say the reality has largely lived up to the dream. I’ve had to adjust certain expectations like not being able to earn a living from DJing which was my initial intention but it’s all good and I can safely say that I will be here for a while although I don’t rule out a further move sometime in the future. The more laid back culture here suits me nicely as well with more emphasis put on friends and family, less on money (maybe because it’s harder to earn here?) and you can’t put a price on decent weather on a regular basis.
The only downside here is the music culture but after living in London that is only to be expected. There is a real lack of variety here not helped by a lack of venues. The decent spaces have entrenched promoters and owners who are largely unimaginative and unreceptive to change,. The Ajuntamento (powers that be) also decided to crack down a few years ago, in an attempt to make the city more business like, on the largely unlicensed music scene here which was quite vibrant spawning acts like Ojos De Brujo and Macaco, without allowing any alternatives to develop. They now seem to have realised their mistake but I don’t see any movement at present to rectify things. Consequently the scene here is pretty dire and uninspiring despite all the Barcelona Mestizo hype from a few years ago.
Not being one just to complain though I launched the Contraflow parties here 3 years ago, bringing over people like Seiji, DJ Food, Bonobo, DJ Moneyshot, King Cannibal and it was one of the best parties in the city for about 18 months. The lack of venues was a problem though. After battling multiple gangster venue owners that were intent on relieving me of my money (there is a good reason those venues are empty on a weekend!) I finally found a home in an old heavy metal club with a crucifix on the back wall and a pentagram light shade. It had nice warehouse vibes, laid back security but the cost of installing decent sound and visuals coupled with international DJ fees meant it was hard to make a living despite organising Sonar parties for Ninja Tune and the Red Bull Music Academy when they were based here.
Once Audio Texture is up and running and making decently lolly and I don’t have to rely on the parties to pay the rent I will get back on the scene though. Barcelona is my home and I want to contribute to its musicality and vibrancy. The idea is eventually to develop the parties into a festival and even a new forward-thinking venue equipped with killer sound that this city so badly needs. I know it’s going to be an almighty battle with bureaucracy but I have some cunning plans to make it happen, all I need now is the money.
One of the services you now offer as part of Audio Textures is as a music consultant. What sort of consulting services could a client come to you for?
The main services I offer through Audio Texture at the moment are in-store music and music branding. People, businesses and organisations come to me if they want musical advice. It could be help in selecting the correct music to represent their brand values, creating some great playlists to enhance the atmosphere in an establishment, program some music for an event or recently for example to compile, license and manufacture a CD for sale in a chain of stores. I am also looking to push into the world of TV, film and advertising synch next year. Audio Texture is presently just me and I just focus on the music which I am passionate about, which luckily is quite a wide spectrum and which largely suits more sophisticated and progressive brands and spaces, so it’s quite a personal and hence unique selection that I offer. Don’t come to me if you want a country & western or greatest hits selection for your Irish bar, which has already happened and which got refused — my life is too short to work with music I’m not passionate about.
Do you still get that thrill with music that you had when you first started? What keeps it exciting for you?
The music buzz is still there. Music can get me singing out loud, dancing round the office or badly serenading my girlfriend much to her distress. I love music whether its digging into musical history or searching for and dropping the latest beats. It helps that I’m not growing old gracefully and will be the last one to be dragged off a dancefloor if the music is good. I try not to let my knowledge get in the way of a good new tune that wears it’s influences and samples on it’s sleeve, I try and see music through the eyes of a 19 year old without all the baggage of multiple references, though if you put a heavily auto-tuned vocal in your track I will switch it off immediately and delete it from all playlists.
What genres of music and what artists do you have your eye on at the moment? What trends do you see for the summer of 2011?
Personally I’m on a bit of a folk rock mission at the moment. I’ve ignored the rock side of music for a while now but I’m learning to love it again helped by great compilations like Americana from BBE, the Joel Martin & Mo Morris mix CDs, the Popo Vuh remix project and the likes of Paul White using obscure Swedish prog rock artists as sample source material, I’ve even dug out my old Bad Brains albums although I might have to train a bit more before I dust off the Extreme Noise Terror Peel Sessions again.
If you want the latest trends then head over to Hype Machine although personally I can sense that more electronic producers will be inspired by the likes of Flying Lotus and Fourtet and start working with live musicians and vocalists more. As studio projects and producers can’t now rely on recorded sales to survive and the synch market is becoming ultra competitive they need to take the show on the road and there is nothing more boring than some geeky studio bod stuck behind a lap top, nervously looking up occasionally- I want to see a bass player, percussionist, horns, singer and at least two dancing girls, though how the artists and labels will afford it with no money is another matter.
What can we expect from Audio Texture in the future?
Audio Texture will be many things in the future, expect to see the radio show continue and hopefully get picked up by some more cool independent stations and an increase in the podcast listener base. I’m looking for a lot more clients for Audio Texture which will then give me the means to develop club nights, a festival and a permanent club space and to be a general force for musical good in the Iberian peninsular and beyond. Check the blog and radio show to keep updated – http://www.audiotexture.blogspot.com
James Barrie’s recommended artists with new projects to see you through the summer and beyond:
- Prommer and Barck
- Amon Tobin
- Grey Reverend
- Gang Colours
- Banda Black Rio
- Dakota Suite
- Saturn Never Sleeps
- Jono McCleery
- Owiny Sigoma Band
- Seward (hot Barcelona tip)
- Paval Dovgal