"We are a musical family"
There's very few people who could run a record label based on releasing whatever the hell they like, with barely a moments consideration given to whether any one release sounded anything like the record that had precreded it. Magic Waves though, they've been doing it for years. Every track is simply a reflection of James taste, the distillation of a life spent producing a thousand styles, and over the years, he's been proven right time and again. We caught up with James to try and work out what holds together a label that defies catagorisation.
What was your first foray into the world of electronic music?
I was always fascinated with synthesisers since I was a child growing up in London (I was born in 1977). In the early 80s the sounds of records like ‘Fade To Grey’ by Visage, ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ by The Human League, 'Don’t Go’ by Yazoo, 'The Model’ by Kraftwerk, 'Are Friends Electric’ by Gary Numan were everywhere and inescapable. As a young child I remember the theme music to TV shows for children like 'Zig Zag’ and 'Chock A Block’ were filled with new electronic sounds. Vocoders too played a big part featuring heavily in Transformers, Battlestar Galactica, and Dr Who with the Daleks and Cybermen. I remember also the theme music for ‘Tomorrow’s World’ (a TV show about gadgets and technology of the future) and Hot Butter’s version of ‘Popcorn’ getting played a lot on TV programmes in the background, some Vangelis too. But I think a very important record for a lot of kids in my generation was Harold Faltermeyer’s ‘Axel F’. That was the one that we all tried to play on any piano or keyboard when we got the chance. My Mum made me take piano lessons from around 1983 so I worked out and used to play that riff a lot, and when I went to play with friends at their houses a few of them had cheap Casio keyboards that their older brothers or fathers had around the house, so of course we tried to play that riff, along with any laser noises or sound effects the keyboard had in its presets.
A little later Acid House was all over the charts and I got really into that, the obvious hits but particularly Bomb The Bass ‘Beat Dis’ absolutely blew my mind. I saw a TV performance of Tim Simenon doing it all live and I was fascinated by how he created it. At the same time I was also getting heavily into rock music fuelled by friends and some older neighbours of mine, but my Mum’s record collection that I was starting to explore on my own was full of strange and experimental music from the 70s, including things like King Crimson, Amon Duul II, Steve Reich, Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield... so it was a big melting pot of stuff in my young mind. in 1990 I started learning guitar and drums and around 1991 I was recording on a tape recorder me playing guitar accompanied by a really simple drum machine (Yamaha DD-10). As I became a teenager I got more into industrial music, also acid, trance, techno, electro, dub. I was in a lot of very casual bands and jam sessions with friends, often experimenting with electronic sounds and effects. Around 1995 or 1996 me and a friend made a couple of tracks on a computer, and by 1997 I had bought record decks with my student loan and a couple of second-hand synths along with some other electronic music gear. Slowly but surely I fiddled and practised around teaching myself how to make electronic music on my own and DJing at parties around London at the same time. By the year 2000 I had moved to Brighton, was putting on Electro parties with friends (Molecular Breakdown) and making electronic music tracks properly.
When did the idea of starting a label begin to take shape? Has it always been something you’ve wanted to do?
I always wanted to be a musician first and foremost but the idea of the label came mainly from necessity, so that we could release our own music. I had worked off and on for a few other labels and shops since 1996 so I was somewhat familiar with the way things worked behind the scenes in the old days of the music industry when physical sales were still enormous and before the internet had any hold on things. The way it came about for me doing it for myself was that some of the people I knew from doing the Electro parties in Brighton, a group called Multiplex, offered me some remixes that they had commisioned but no other labels wanted. Incredibly one of them was a Legowelt remix - impossible to imagine nobody wanting that these days! I had no label, or money, or any way to do anything with them at that point, so for me it was a lost opportunity... but a close friend of mine who I used to do graffiti with called Peter Mangalore (RIP) jumped at the chance.
He had been wanting to do a label for a while (and he had the money) so he did it and the Human Shield label was born. This all made me think and gave me a big nudge, I realised I had to do this too especially as my own music was improving fast and I was really getting the hang of it. So then it was just a case of finding the money to get it started... not easy at that point as I was living quite a derelict lifestyle. I was also around then getting to know Ali Renault much better and when I moved back to London where he had also moved our paths collided more and more. We were both completely obsessed with Electro and Italo Disco since the mid 90s, so we decided to join forces and do a label for that kind of music together. This was Cyber Dance Records. We creatively fuelled each other on and bounced ideas back and forth and it was a really special time for both of us where we discovered so much about music-making and ourselves. Finally after a lot of hard work and effort we put our first release out in late 2004 but it hit the shops with distribution in January 2005. We had no idea what we were doing but we were determined to learn one way or the other, sink or swim. It was at this point that I fully understood that I wanted to do music with my life and gave up any pretences of trying to do anything else.
Magic Waves started as an early internet radio station in May 2006. After we had put out that first Cyber Dance EP Ali started going places fast with his synth-pop band Heartbreak and so there was a little pause while he focused on that and I got the radio off the ground. We were both very busy and learning fast. Also we needed to save up more money because as usual we were both completely broke! Everything was done on a shoestring budget. By 2008 Cyber Dance was releasing again and this time the momentum was kept up. In 2009 along with moving over to become a part of Intergalactic FM I decided to put on the first Magic Waves Festival, and this was how the Magic Waves label started... we released a triple CD mix box-set from our dear collaborator and friend Flemming Dalum to raise money for the festival, catalogue number MW001.
The festival was an "all or nothing" gamble and thankfully it paid off. So from then on the concept for the Magic Waves label existed - however it lay silent for a while after that as Cyber Dance remained the main focus, and it was only after doing our hugely successful three festivals in Berlin that I decided to pick up the idea of the Magic Waves label again and continue. That was in 2015. In 2016 I also created another label with my wife called Per Musica Ad Astra dedicated to kosmiche, space, ambient and experimental music and in the past few years that has been the most active label that I do.
Can you pinpoint any early inspirations for Magic Waves in terms of labels, artists, aesthetics or otherwise? Similarly, can you highlight any formative experiences that led you on the path to its inception?
As with a lot of people from my generation in electronic music I would have to point to Underground Resistance as being a huge inspiration about what was possible with doing an anti-commercial, anti-industry, underground music approach putting the music first way above ego, money or personal fame. I was also heavily inspired by Warp Records, especially the early stuff. The diversity, quality and emphasis on depth and listening experience, not just churning out dance music was extremely impressive, and it really was a label where I would buy anything on it just for being on Warp and was never disappointed. It was all different but somehow all carried something indefinable in common, which was the sound of the label itself. That really made a big impression on me and I always wanted to do a label like that, where the name of the label was the guarantee of quality whether the artist was known or not.
Another big inspiration was Klaus Schulze’s Innovative Communication label and with our Per Musica Ad Astra label we wanted to create a modern-day version of that, to pick up where that label had left off and continue the good work. As a teenager in the late 90s another favourite label of mine was I-f’s Viewlexx imprint. I couldn’t believe some of the crazy sounds he was putting out so fearlessly back then, it sounded like nothing else and was incredibly bold. It’s a big honour for me personally that years later we ended up playing our part in his Intergalactic FM radio station (for 11 years now!).
What is your criteria for choosing artists, projects, releases…?
Over the years through all this music activity, radio stations, shows, festivals, parties, labels, etc I”ve been lucky to meet and get to know a lot of fellow musicians. So most of the time ideas and possibilities present themselves. Sometimes these days we come across good music online and make contact with the artist and things flow from there, but most of the time it”s from friends we know. Magic Waves as a label in particular is simply representing the people involved in Magic Waves, who do the radio shows and put the parties on. We are a musical family.
What is your current trend? What sounds are you interested in?
I’m not interested in any trends, we just do our own thing which is whatever takes our interests as musicians. I’m interested in putting sounds out that don’t normally get heard, but deserve to.
Since you started Magic Waves until now, how much has the concept of the label changed?
It’s still exactly the same as it ever was. If anything we are pushing the limits further as time goes on.
What’s the most satisfying and unsatisfying thing about running a label?
The most satisfying thing about doing the labels is seeing the music that I believe in get out there into the world and give people joy or something they can relate to, that helps them in their lives whether in a small or large way. The most unsatisfying - or perhaps shall we say frustrating - thing is the lack of money and always having to worry about it. But I’m determined to never let art be held up by money, and somehow we always find a way even if it takes a long time or a big effort, we get there in the end. I never ever want to do anything just for the money, we do this because we believe in the music. But money is an unfortunate detail that we have to deal with to keep things happening! That’s reality.
What have been your personal highlights and lowlights?
Hard to say, because there have been quite a few. I think doing the first Magic Waves festival was an incredible high to have pulled that off against the odds back then, and to have done an event that was so mythical and even felt magical while it was happening, none of us could believe it. There was a very special feeling in the air there and I feel very privileged to have facilitated it. Of course also the three festivals we did in Berlin in 2014-15, I think there have never been events quite like them anywhere else on that scale and it was wonderful to expose so many people to our kind of music. On the other end of the spectrum, death is always a low-point. We’ve lost a few people along the way. My friend and mentor Salvatore Cusato (Casco) and old friend and partner-in-crime Peter Mangalore (Human Shield) deserve a special mention as things would never have happened the way they did without them. Magic Waves always holds a special place for them and will never forget them. Part of our mission is to preserve their musical legacies. Rest In Peace to them both.
Name a couple of albums that you like and come to mind with the Magic Waves label in mind.
Speedy J “G Spot” and Elecktroids “Elektroworld” (both on Warp). They were game-changers when they came out and exactly the kind of thing that the Magic Waves label is all about.
What is missing from the dance music scene nowadays?
Diversity, musicality and progression.
Do you think that after the Covid-19 event, the music industry will change?
I think it already has. The bigger music industry relies so much now on revenue from artists touring that it has lost billions already. Many smaller artists who rely on gigs and touring to earn any money at all have been dealt an incredibly hard blow they might never recover from and everyone who works around events is suddenly unemployed. The fragility of this industry has been completely exposed. What will emerge from the other side, who knows?
What lesson should we learn from this paralysis?
That life without music would be unbearable. It keeps us going, it’s a vital part of life. Art and culture are an integral part of who and what we are and when times are tough, it’s what gets us through. Doctors and nurses can preserve you physically, but it’s art and culture that preserve us mentally (I’m not talking about superstar DJs or overpaid rock-stars here by the way...). And the post that brings you mail, the supermarket checkout people that keep your food and toilet paper coming, they are more valuable than most people ever realised. Society would collapse without them. I hope society can remember this when it’s all over and value the people that take care of us more, in whatever capacity that is.
What tracks would you recommend us to liven up the confinement?
Of course I’m biased, but I’d say the back-catalogues of Cyber Dance, Magic Waves and Per Musica Ad Astra should keep anybody engaged and busy for quite a while! I say that I’m biased, but of course I wouldn’t release this music if I didn’t believe in it and love it dearly. Other than that listen to Intergalactic FM, there’s enough on there to keep anybody entertained for however long it lasts and far beyond.
What’s your favourite “save the dancefloor” song?
Ferrara “Love Attack”. I have never seen a club not go completely crazy to this track. It was always in my DJ bag.
What are your future plans?
More music one way or the other. I have some plans in mind of course, but nothing I can announce yet. Stay tuned!
Tell me one record that you wish you had signed.
Three contemporary artists that I love very much but have never had the opportunity to release would be John Maus, Steve Moore and Carbon Based Lifeforms. Who knows, maybe one day?
Describe the label in 5 Words.
Impossible, it can only be described in sound...