James Blake recently posted a series of throwback photos on Instagram from DMZ, what he calls a “fixture of dance music, dubstep specifically,” which took place annually at the Brixton, London club Mass. Nearly a decade ago, in 2011, Blake landed on its lineup alongside DJs such as Mala, Coki, Loefah and Pokes who informed not only his adolescence, but also his career.
“For me, it was a huge moment of just being trusted by these people to carry a set in the main room,” Blake tells Billboard. “I went back-to-back with Kode9, playing remixes I’d done at home that day — it was a trip. That was one memory I will never forget, it was a formative night for me.”
Now, Blake is tapping into those days on his new EP Before, out Wednesday (Oct. 14) on Republic. The four-track project is Blake’s first since his 2018 Grammy nominated Assume Form (which featured Travis Scott, Metro Boomin, Moses Sumney, Rosalia and André 3000). Earlier this year, he released the chilling one-offs “You’re Too Precious,” “Are You Even Real?” and “Godspeed.”
The new EP started coming together just as parts of the country were going into a pandemic-enforced lockdown. In early March, days before rushing back home to Los Angeles, Blake was in a New York studio with friends and collaborators Erick the Architect (Flatbush Zombies) and slowthai. “We were all just drinking and making things and as the songs were coming together there was a real vibe in the studio,” he recalls. “For the most part in my career, I’ve done things on my own, but it’s not quite as fun. I don’t want to spend too much time on my own anymore.”
Fun — and spontaneous dance parties — played a large role in the creation of Before, which Blake says is, in a sense, a response to ongoing pandemic restrictions. “I was frustrated that there’s nowhere to go dance, and ironically, I ended up making a dance EP. It’s not all dance music, but that spirit runs through it. ”
He also reveals that, for the first time, he figured out how to incorporate his style of songwriting and singing into an uptempo format: “I honestly never thought I’d be able to do that. It’s an expansion of identity in a way — and it feels really good.”
And that’s just it: James Blake is feeling good — and it’s seeping into his music. “I Keep Calling” — which samples Charlotte Day Wilson’s “Falling Apart” — is an eye-popping, multilayered opening track that eases listeners in before blasting off (it started as something that Erick the Architect had made and allowed Blake to reconstruct as his own).
But Blake’s subtle shift is perhaps most perceptible on the EP’s title track, on which he sings: “I must be in pain ‘cause I’ve never needed anyone before/ Well nothing’s in vain, ‘cause I’ve never had it this good before.” The song’s visual even features Blake “doing a little shuffle” in his studio along with spliced together clips of his favorite dancers from around the world performing at home.
Lately, Blake has found comfort in not only the music he’s making (“You could look at it with a sick sense of humor, that I would drop an uptempo EP at a time when no one can go clubbing,” he says) but also the music he’s consuming. He’s often tuning into DJ sets on Instagram Live, and believes that house music in particular has a “uniting tempo” and that the four-to-the-floor rhythm pattern especially brings people together — “whether it’s on or off the dance floor.”
Had it not been for this unexpected, extended stay at home, Before likely wouldn’t exist. “Dance music is a world that you sort of have to be absorbed in with your ear to the ground,” says Blake, adding that if he had been touring or traveling as much as usual, he likely wouldn’t have had that kind of time. He also credits experimental musician serpentwithfeet — who released one of Blake’s favorite projects this year, April’s Apparition — for giving him the confidence to release an EP of his own. “His really made me feel like an EP is worth doing,” says Blake, “because there’s not actually that many memorable [ones].”
Already, Blake is considering another. He says he’s got “a lot of things on the boil,” and teases that he’s working with a handful of “very exciting people I’ve not worked with before.” He’s also eager to release his next full-length, though prefers not to share too much just yet, other than that it will relate to what he’s done so far this year.
Until then, though, he’s enjoying time at home with his longtime partner Jameela Jamil (who’s credited on Before) and their new puppy (“We’ve become personal assistants to a dog,” he says with a laugh). And while live music remains on hold (he will livestream a DJ set on Boiler Room this Friday, Oct. 16), Blake is left to revisit a favorite night spent DJing at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Festival.
“Right at the end I played “Spanish Joint” by D’Angelo, and I was already drunk, so I was resenting the fact that I wasn’t in the crowd listening,” he shares. “So I ran out into the crowd, into the center, and just danced with everyone else. I love those end of night tunes, that’s my favorite moment in a DJ set … [playing a record] that unites everyone on the dance floor.”