Perhaps no label in 2006 more distinctly reflected the fluidity of musical tags and genres than James Holden's Border Community. The nascent imprint is all things to all people. It's a techno label, an electro-house label, a psychedelic prog-house label, an indie label, and it even stands a chance of reclaiming the much-maligned T-word (ahem, "trance") back from the likes of Paul Van Dyk and Oakenfold. While the label remains devoted to the dancefloor, the atmospheric, textural quality of its releases frequently draws comparisons to acts like M83, Boards of Canada, and even My Bloody Valentine.
The label itself is "about dance music that doesn't fit into a category," says Holden, who happily extols the virtues of "epic stuff, sad songs, and weird noises." Tellingly, his At The Controls mix CD places Richie Hawtin's Plastikman project alongside Krautrock supergroup Harmonia, techno-industrial sounds from Black Strobe next to sound sculpture from Fennesz, and even includes music from two Arab Strap splinter projects (Lucky Pierre and Malcolm Middleton). Though released on the Resist label, At The Controls is best taken as a statement of intent for Border Community; its blurring of styles reflects Holden's own music-making history: he's recorded for house label Loaded and been fêted by trance "legend" Tiesto; he's remixed artists as disparate as Britney Spears, Andre Kraml, Depeche Mode, and Madonna, and his tracks have been featured in DJ sets from Ferry Corsten, Damian Lazarus, John Digweed, and Dominik Eulberg.
Holden, a former mathematics major, set a distinct blueprint for Border Community with his July 2003 debut "A Break in the Clouds." The single reached a delectable mid-point between main-room delirium and bedroom melancholia, with accompanying "Beats Tool" and "Ambient" versions accentuating each of these polar opposites, respectively.
Since then, Holden has nurtured wide-eyed, pastoral techno from a self-professed "country bumpkin" (Nathan Fake), released tech-house from two German psy-trance producers (Extrawelt), and licensed a release to Kompakt (The MFA's soaring "What a Difference It Makes"). He's released lovely Scottish atmospherica that carries traces of early-'90s shoegaze rock (Dextro), put out awesome Sasha-approved Swedish prog-house (Petter), and provided a welcome mat for the "sensitive" side of Canadian techno-meister Jake Fairley (Fairmont).
Holden says he founded Border Community to allow himself and his friends to circumvent "the bad parts of the music industry," giving all parties the opportunity to be "free and honest" in the music they make.
"For me, it's an annex away from the coke-addled self interest of much of the music industry," concurs collaborator Scott Edwards, who records as Avus. "The whole feeling about the label is [that it's] a comfort blanket. Having had my fair share of industry crap to put up with, it's a good place to be."
For the label's coterie of music-makers, the emphasis seems to be on the community part of the moniker, with Holden–a "nice bloke" (Avus' words) and "great guy" (says Jake Fairley)–at its nucleus. Extrawelt even compares their label boss to a particularly considerate pet owner. "We heard that they were looking for some German pets," deadpans the duo of Arne Schaffhausen and Wayan Raabe. "What does a new home mean to a pet? It was love from the beginning."
Hearts on Sleeves
Even the label's art reflects this collective ethos. For each release, starting with Lazy Fat People's April 2006 single "Big City," Border Community has started running a "coloring competition," inviting fans to dig out their Crayolas (or computer pen tools) and re-work the label's stock image of rolling hills and fluffy clouds. Winners are picked by BC artists, and their visions adorn future record sleeves.
"The label's identity isn't this constant, unchangeable thing," explains Holden. "It can be reflected in a million ways. I love the idea of it being open and inclusive. The way people enter the competition is a totally different spirit from the 'job' of making a cover. It isn't product and branding."
The sleeve for Holden's album debut, The Idiots Are Winning, is is a painting by contest-winner Gregory Dourde. "I felt such a big gap between the minimalist design identity of Border Community and the complex sounds I heard," Dourde writes on the Border Community website, explaining his maximalist, paint-splattered image. "I wanted to paint something de-structured, exuberant, and instinctive!"
"It's a genuine artistic response to the music," says Holden, "And we're lucky to have that."
Party Out of Bounds
Holden has implied that Border Community represents a "year zero" for himself and his music. "Border Community was the point where I started to make music freely," he clarifies. "I think I became uncomfortable with the box that I'd been put in and hated all the music that I was lumped in with. Looking back, I still like my old tunes. You can still trace the line through my musical evolution so I can't really feel uncomfortable with it. Lesson learnt, anyway."
The label seems born of a similarly curious mixture of optimism and pessimism–with Holden simultaneously enthralled by the potential of electronic music but utterly disillusioned with the conservatism of contemporary dance music.
"I think a while ago, I was full of hope," he admits. "Around the start of Border Community, I was discovering a lot of people who were similarly free-spirited and had a feeling that a new wave of 'music to dance to' had arrived; it was like we'd backed out of dance music's wrong turn and nothing was going to be the same anymore. Now it feels like back to business as usual. All the inventiveness has been smothered by insincere bandwagon-humper plagiarism... But we carry on anyway. We still like music and we still like dancing."
Neatly, Border Community rounds off the year with Holden's Aphex-y The Idiots Are Winning LP; an attempt, he says, to make electronic music in a more human way. He refuses to talk about the title but such ambiguity is fitting, the meaning as unclear and indefinite as the boundaries of the music Border Community brings to the world.