‘In former lives spent with School of Seven Bells and Bear In Heaven, as well as under the solo-moniker Ateleia, James Elliott has explored the threshold of avant pop and minimalist, neo-psychedelia. With Conduit however, Elliott takes an unsavory and insoluble turn for the worst. Simply put, James Conduit is not in the mood for love. There’s no room on the vessel for sentimentality – merely a glass overfilled with primordial destitution and a mischievous grin.’ This is more or less what is known about James Elliott’s exciting new project, which deserves to get a closer and deeper look. For this reason, Sounds Of A Tired City talked to James about the path which leads from indie rock through ambient to techno music, the creative atmosphere of New York and the importance of taking the initiative to constantly try out new ideas and keep going until one finds their most beloved corner in the music jungle.
You’ve started your musical career with establishing your own label (Antiopic, together with David Daniell) and your own music project Ateleia, producing abstract, experimental ambient music. How did you get in touch with ambient music for the first time and what made you decide to curate a label without actually releasing your own music at the time?
I came to electronic and experimental music through the backdoor via art bands like Pere Ubu, Chrome, Wire, This Heat, and standards like the Velvet Underground. It was getting into that stuff as a teenager that opened the door to ‘proper’ avant-garde electronic music. Finding the academic music first – like the INA-GRM school, Alvin Lucier, Eliane Radigue – it was a revelation to get into post-techno ambient music a bit later. I dug into the Orb, Biosphere, and GAS from there. I prefer the club to the classroom, it feels more like the arty punk mess I grew up on.
Ateleia was always meant to have that feel to it, that sense of roughness. Obviously it owes a lot to noise as much as it does to ambient music. Antiopic released the first Ateleia record in 2004, and eventually I jumped over to Table of the Elements for the later releases. The project ended in 2008. David and I were pretty idealistic about Antiopic. We saw it as a confluence of our ideas about art, politics, music, copyright… it was a good time, we released some music that I’m really proud of, and I think the free download series we did is a great snapshot of experimental music at the turn of the century. It feels like it all happened a million years ago.
In the past you have been the member of such highly acclaimed bands as School of Seven Bells and Bear in Heaven, playing bass guitar. After producing ambient music, performing in rock bands sounds like quite a change. How did you get involved with them and how do you think working with them influenced your future views regarding music?
All of this was happening at the same time for me, making Ateleia records and playing in bands. I’m not sure I separate the two very much. It’s all working with sound, organizing sound. I played bass and did electronics in both bands. I loved it and everyone involved, but I feel more satisfied working by myself. I wish I was more of a team player, but I get frustrated easily.
Bear In Heaven started as a group of friends drinking and making noise. We all started playing together in 2003, and it went from there. I left mid-2007 to tour with SVIIB. It’s amazing how far BIH has gone. They’ve made some beautiful records recently. I hooked up with SVIIB in 2006. Benjamin Curtis had heard the first Ateleia record and was impressed enough to mention it to Alejandra Deheza. She and I knew each other already, so Benjamin was psyched to meet up. I started jamming with them soon after.
Producing stuff in a vacuum is often weird, you can get lost in your own clutter really quickly. Playing in a space with other humans forces you to learn how to make room for every sonic element, to be generous and respectful with space. I think that’s been hugely influential in how I produce and mix solo tracks – trying to create that space where everything has room to breathe.
You have worked together with Benjamin Curtis – who passed away last year – even besides School of Seven Bells. How did you cope with this loss, were the two of you close friends? If you would have to name just one good thing that you learnt from Benjamin, what would that be?
Most of this is pretty private for me. I will say that Ben was a consummate musician and a massively creative human being. It’s a fucking huge shame that he’s gone. Every time I worked with him I learned something – it’s hard to even gauge it really. Aside from anything technical, his attitude and sense of humor are the things that stick with me. He projected a casual fearlessness and dove head first into any situation. I try to keep that in mind as much as I can.
Right now you are actively involved in two projects and have released two albums this year. Test House is a synth-pop act together with Peter Schuette, while James Conduit is your personal space for murky electro, firmly leaning towards techno. What were your latest influences that encouraged you to try out yet another new genre?
Again, I’m not sure I’m keen to separate work into genres. Ateleia moved away from loosely structured ambience toward a pulse-driven music at the end of the project. I see the Conduit material as a logical extension of this, a next step. The new tracks might work with traditional dance music drum programming more overtly, but all of the textural elements feel very much in line with Ateleia.
Personally, which project of yours do you feel the closest to you so far and why?
The Conduit music is the best, most concise work I’ve made. It is very much what it is and most accurately reflects my headspace and interests. It’s the purest thing I’ve done.
‘Two Lines Thick’ was recently released on Geographic North on tape. Besides the fact that there is a tape renaissance going on nowadays, is there any special reason why you’ve chosen this format?
I like the way cassettes sound, for sure. The warmth there is great, even if it’s not the best representation of the music fidelity-wise. But to be totally honest it’s a money issue. Cassettes are easy and cheap to produce. As people pay for music less and less, tapes are a good way to have a physical object without killing yourself financially. If you’re making weird electronic music you’re already doing it for the love. Tapes are cheap. Would I like to do some vinyl? Hell yes, but this is a good start.
What are your future plans with James Conduit? Where do you plan to navigate this project?
I’ll continue in the direction set out on ‘Two Lines Thick’, hopefully releasing some vinyl EPs soon. I’m currently working on a live set and hope to start performing around the city later this year. There’s a split EP in the works with Certain Creatures that I have high hopes for – we need to find a home for it. But that’s the main ambition… I just want to put out records and do some shows.
Do you think that it is getting more and more difficult to produce something genuine within the limits of techno music? Who are your favourite techno artists nowadays and who are the ones that made the biggest impact on you?
I don’t think so, no. I mean, I can’t think that way. I like doing this. I know I’m essentially just vamping on a style that originators advanced well over twenty years ago. But it’s fun. You come up with really great stuff when you stop worrying about inventing the wheel each time you sit down to work. There will always be room for good, interesting versions of a techno track. I just strive to do that.
Hands down the two biggest influences for me are Basic Channel and Juan Atkins, mainly his Model 500 music. Taken together, those two discographies bring some of the deepest, most psychedelic minimal pulse music ever made. I should also add Porter Ricks to the biggest influence list. Biokinetics is a perfect record. And GAS is eternal. Currently I’m really into Terrence Dixon, Chevel, Kassem Mosse, Marcellus Pittman, Laurel Halo, Lee Gamble, Helena Hauff… Too many to name. I listen to a lot of records.
You’ve been living in New York for quite a while already, in the city which never sleeps. People usually consider New York being a bit ‘too much’, how do you like the city as a New Yorker? What do you like the most and the least about it?
I grew up in Kentucky, and went to college in Atlanta, GA. I moved to New York in 2000 and never looked back. This is home for me. Yeah, people like to complain about certain things, and a lot about living here IS demanding, but I can’t see myself anywhere else. Not for the foreseeable future anyway. The most obvious issue is money and so quality of life. It’s a trade-off, just like everything is. You have to want to be here to stay here, and I like that. The amount of driven, innovative, creative people here from all walks of life working in all mediums is humbling and totally energizing. I haven’t found that anywhere else.
If you could choose any other place where you could live, where would it be?
I have Miami dreams sometimes, and Barcelona dreams. Somewhere with less winter.
What is your favourite album cover?
This is hard. I love so many designers making album art. All time favorite might be Wire’s ‘154’.
Who you would like to read an interview with on Sounds Of A Tired City?
Terrence Dixon. But I hear he’s retired.
You prepared a special mix for us, can you say something about the selection?
I’m not a DJ, so I just trainwrecked some tracks I’ve been listening to lately. Hopefully it shows a bit where I’m coming from. There’s some raw techno, some dubby suff, and beatless ambience, old and new. If these songs have a unifying element it’s the unique way they address the spatial.