“Every album has one or two tracks that seem cursed for some reason,” says Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, referring with unusual candor (and no small amount of humor) to the dilemma he sometimes faces when crafting an all-important hook for a song. His latest project — recorded almost entirely in Venice Beach, Calif., where he relocated from his native Amsterdam just two years ago — marks a further evolution in his uniquely rock-influenced breakbeat style. Aptly titled Today (Ultra, Feb. 2006) as an homage to living in the moment, the album is a breakthrough from all angles for Junkie XL. But as Holkenborg admits, it also came with some challenges.
“I was about to trash this track called ‘Mushroom,’” he begins, “because I added more and more guitar layers and vocals to it, but I still didn't feel like I had the riff of the song yet. Finally, I stripped it all down to the original beat and live bass line that I started off with, and, suddenly, I had what I needed and built it back up from there. It's funny, because sometimes you can slap together a track in half an hour — that's how it can go in electronic music. Where I got stuck was on the musical information. Not every track necessarily needs to take four or five weeks to finish, but sometimes it ends up being that, too.”
Holkenborg also made the bold move of adding Symbolic Sound's Kyma sound-design system to his primarily Digidesign Pro Tools — based studio. A favorite of sound designers in the film and video-gaming industries — which Holkenborg recently cracked with his work on Microsoft's Xbox racing game Forza Motorsport — the Kyma X software is an open-ended “resynthesizer” program powered by its own DSP-expandable Capybara hardware unit, all with a high price and patience threshold (code-crunching experience is recommended).
“It takes a lot of noodling about and reading manuals, which is typically not me,” Holkenborg says. “But a friend of mine who is an expert showed me some stuff, and it's just totally insane. It's basically a complete empty box, and it can be whatever you want it to be — you can program a patch that turns a guitar into a vocal, or you can morph in between four, five or six different sounds, in real time, to make new sounds. I definitely took the processing of my guitars and vocals to a whole new level that I've never been to before.”
Whereas the most recent Junkie XL album, Radio JXL: A Broadcast From the Computer Hell Cabin (Koch, 2003), featured a slew of guest vocalists — among them Chuck D, Gary Numan, The Cure's Robert Smith and Depeche Mode's David Gahan — Holkenborg switched gears this time around and invited a relatively unknown singer named Nathan Mader to handle most of the vocal takes on Today. “Sometimes, Nathan sounds like Peter Gabriel from '74 or '75,” he says. “He has a really natural voice, which is perfect for what the music needs at this moment.”
As for the overall sound of the new record, Holkenborg says he is leaning more heavily than ever on radically treated guitars, live bass and low end, using various Electro-Harmonix effects pedals, Manley boxes (the Variable Mu compressor, the Electro-Optical limiter and the Massive Passive EQ) and TC Electronic plug-ins and hardware units (including the M2000, M5000 and FireworX effects processors) in conjunction with Kyma to get the right atmosphere. Listening through a new Dynaudio AIR 25 surround monitoring system, in tandem with a set of inexpensive M-Audio LX4 studio monitors, helps him tweak the bass frequencies for maximum bumpology.
“There are some slamming club tracks on there,” he hints. “But soundwise, it's like my version of the whole guitar scene that's going on, which for me is like a flashback to old Joy Division or earlier Cure, whether it's Bloc Party or whoever. These are basically guitar bands, and they've started using electronic instruments in their live set or on their albums. I come from the electronic-music side, adding more guitars to it, but we end up in the same space. My music is definitely more dance-oriented, but this has that same melancholic guitar vibe — sometimes with a lot of energy, sometimes more held back. It's really not like anything I've done so far.”