In the loop

Producer Jamie Lidell insists that sampling has as much validity as any other musical form.

James Lidell 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
James Lidell 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It's a heartwarming story of a boy and his sampler. Until one day, upon growing into a man, the boy discovered he had voice - and not just a good voice, but an amazing one. For Jamie Lidell, it's no fairy tale. The British electronic producer who, a few years ago, built a solid reputation in indie circles as an experimental techno wizard with the fastest loop in the West, has successfully morphed into one of the most excitingly unhinged soul singers around. "I'm more the kind of studio buff, the scientist with a bit of mystery. But when I open my voice this sound comes out," laughs Lidell during a phone conversation from his new temporary dwelling in New York City, where he recently moved following eight years in Berlin. Lidell's vocal gifts, combined with the aural magic he creates with a sampler and a tape loop machine, produces a sound that's both retro and futuristic. According to reviews of his one-man live show, Lidell, who will be making his Israel debut on May 15 at Zappa in Tel Aviv, presents an awe-inspiring display of virtuosity, with the sampling, loops and live vocals sometimes more dense than an eight-piece band. Lidell's 2008 album Jim, while full of nods to inspirations like Stevie Wonder, Prince, Michael Jackson and Sly Stone, sounds utterly refreshing, with his manic delivery leaving the listener a little breathless. His speech habits are not so different than his musical ones, and within a few minutes of conversation, it's as if Lidell was a long-lost friend pouring out his soul. "I'm actually spending more time in New York. I've got a little apartment and decided I was going to relocate here for a year. I was ready for a change, even though it absolutely helped me creatively being in Berlin," said the 36-year-old Lidell, explaining his relocation, and describing some of the differences he's noticed. "Here in New York, people expect you to pay for everything - the more you pay, the better the service. In Berlin, people really don't care about money in the same way. The service you get is the result of them liking you or not," he free-form riffed. "In Berlin, there was lots of space and time to get your shit together. But it's also its downfall - you can have perpetual fun all day. Like 'we'll meet at 2 p.m. and have a little breakfast, then go to the flea market.' And the days kind of end up drifting by in a haze. A lot of great art, though, comes out of that hanging out together with other artists. Now I feel a little isolated, but I'm hoping it will lead to good things." LIDELL HASN'T done too poorly until now, since releasing his first electronica solo album for Warp in 2000 - Muddlin Gear. Five years later, he pursued a neo-soul direction for Multiply, with Jim pushing him even further in that direction, which he admits emerged via his mother's record collection. "I grew up in a little village in Cambridgeshire, and I couldn't afford to buy my own music, so I ended up raiding my parents' record collection, which is the case with a lot of people. I wouldn't say my mom had great taste in music - but she did have an interesting mix of offbeat pop, like Kate Bush and Jamiroquai. Then there was Chic, the only record in my mom's collection that had a beat," he laughed. The first music that really grabbed a hold of Lidell, though, was the solo work of Michael Jackson. "This was around the time of Off the Wall and Thriller - it was like getting caught up in a wave," he recalled. In the 1980s, kids who were interested in music didn't necessarily run out and buy a guitar like their older brothers had done, and Lidell took the first money he earned when he was 16 and bought a sampler. "I had already decided I wanted to be a musician. I remember having that talk in school - 'all right kids, what are you going to do with the rest of your lives?' on career day. I looked at my teacher and said I was going to make music and be a producer. He said, 'that's lovely Jamie, but put something more realistic down as well,'" recalled Lidell. "That was all the motivation I needed - sometimes the negative feedback is the best kind." Lidell spent every free moment creating music on his computer and experimenting with electronic looping, the process of overlaying and repeating sounds in different tones and modalities. Even though - perhaps paying heed to his guidance counselor - he attended university and received a degree in philosophy, Lidell never gave up music. "I kept my skills up and made a few tracks, and then one day, a friend I had gone to school with got me involved with a label that was looking for a producer. 'Oh you know how to use this? Cool.' So, all those years of learning about computers was all worth it," said Lidell with a laugh. "It was my tool to make music, just as a guitar is somebody else's." While Lidell had always been using his voice for sampling, it wasn't until 2005's Multiply that the songs he was writing and recording began to be focused on real live vocals. He even went out on the road with a full band, something that he enjoyed. "I did some touring with a band, but now, it's just me and my sampler. It was kind of strange going back; I had gotten used to having a band. I felt a little vulnerable," said Lidell, recalling a series of shows he played in England earlier this year. "I didn't know if I could rock the house again, but I think that after about three shows, I got my groove back again. There's something about playing by myself that I couldn't get with the band - it's like sailing in a one-man vessel. If you get the urge to make a quick turn, you don't need to tell all the crew members, you just go with your impulse. I think that's the secret of my life. Once I tapped into that, the shows started to work again, it was like seat-of-the-pants flying." WHILE LIDELL'S show in Tel Aviv will be a "conventional" concert - if that word can be used in conjunction with him - Lidell will be engaging in something entirely unconventional on the way here - a master class in Antalya, Turkey. There, he'll take aspiring musicians and fans through the process of creating music using his electronic tools, with the only limits being their own imaginations. "It's going into my whole way of making music. The loop machine encourages the imagination - it's very easy to loop and add willy nilly layers to things. But you have to be able to think ahead and be up for new things - it's exploring the improvisational mind and the loop machine is an interesting tool to demonstrate that," said Lidell. "I think it's really fun for people - the whole spectacle of me doing a mini-show and then demystifying the whole process for them. Everyone wants to do something different, but guys generally want to make big beats, and ladies like to stack up harmonies and use interesting textures and tones," he laughed. While some musically organic purists might pooh-pooh computerized creations, Lidell insists that there's as much validity to sampling and looping as there is to any other musical form. "Once I thought that anyone can do this - then I realized that it's not the tool that's important, it's what's in your mind," he said. "Just like giving a person a blank canvas and some paint isn't going to ensure a successful piece of art."