Meet James Zabiela: Not Your Average Superstar DJ

Meet James Zabiela: Not Your Average Superstar DJ by Caleb Bacon
James Zabiela @ Coachella | Photo by Drew "Rukes" Ressler (website | email) / used with permission

James Zabiela (Twitter) plays Electric Daisy Carnival's main stage Saturday (day two) at The Coliseum. Later that night he'll hop on the raveshuttle, and headline Vanguard in Hollywood where Simian Mobile Disco will also play.

James Zabiela’s first visit to Los Angeles in 2002 was intense. Trotting the globe with one of its most in-demand DJs, his job was to make 2,000 Sasha fans loose their minds. Thanks to the 21 year-old Zabiela, that’s exactly what happened at the sold-out Mayan Theater.

That was Zabiela’s (pronounced: Zuh-bee-luh) first trip to America. A few months earlier he had traveled outside of England for the first time. Now a bona fide headlining disc jockey, Zabiela gigs at festivals and nightclubs on six continents annually. Last year he was voted 17th on the DJ Mag Top 100 DJ poll, situating him well above some of his favorite DJs.

Los Angeles is one of his favorite places to play too. He’s had legendary gigs at Avalon, Vanguard, and the Monday Night Social. When he’s here he likes to shop for sneakers (”trainers,”) skateboard Venice beach, and once ran into the world's most famous vehicular hot dog. “The Wienermobile was very LA," he told LAist.

Nearing his third decade of life, he’s still very much a guy who loves dance music, junk food and sci-fi. If anything, his success has allowed him to buy bigger and better toys (yes, he has a real storm trooper outfit.) LAist had a chance to talk with Zabiela about cheese dogs, gigs in LA, and how he was once confused for a terrorist in Minnesota.

LAist: You always seem to be popping up in Los Angeles. Why is that?

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James Zabiela: They always ask me to come and play, so I’m lucky enough to get those offers, so I come and do it. It’s down to what I would call luck.

How do you like LA?

LA’s a nice place. I’ve got some friends and stuff. It’s a great place to hang out. The sun is normally shining, and I’m from Southampton, so the sun is a unique thing to experience. I probably have a Vitamin D deficiency. I have a nice moon tan at the moment.

How do you like the people?

There’s a sort of laid back beach lifestyle. Just walking around, people start talking to you -- I don’t know if that’s restricted to LA -- but I find that other places in the States too.

I suppose in New York, to generally stereotype, people are a lot ruder. I had an amazing experience when I got to New York last week. It was one of those [slips into heavy NY accent] “hey, I’m walking here!”-type scenarios which happened within about twenty minutes of me being in New York. I was in the cab going to my hotel and the cab driver nearly ran someone over, almost on purpose, and we had the guy slamming his fists on the bonnet [car hood] and shouting. I don’t know why I’m making this comparison to New York, I suppose it’s the polar opposite. I see it as that anyway.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in LA?

No, I don’t suppose I do. I don’t think I’ve ever been to the same restaurant twice in LA. I always end up somewhere different. I do like Matsuhisa. I had a pretty awesome experience because King Nobu himself was there and sat at our table. I don’t want to sound like a food snob, I’m the king of fast food and stuff that’s generally bad for you, when it comes to eating.

What’s your favorite American junk food?

There’s so much to choose from! I really like these cheese dogs. I’ve never seen those outside of America. I had one the other day and it’s like the cheesiest sausage you’ve ever seen. They’re very unique to the States.

Do you have a favorite LA DJ/producer?

John Tejada. I play a ton of his records -- great music, really melodic, sort of techy, deep house stuff. I played Vanguard once and they very kindly asked if I’d like to book someone local to DJ with me on that night. I asked them to book John and he was awesome.

How do you rate the dance music culture in America?

I’d say it’s pretty healthy. There are always places to play throughout the whole of the States, whether they’re great big clubs of small raves. LA, in particular is probably the best place to DJ in America because of the volume of people that go out, and enjoy decent electronic music. Electric Daisy Carnival will be 80,000 people or something ridiculous. In terms of the sheer volume of people that are into electronic music, I think LA is probably the mecca for it. KCRW, the quality radio station, is definitely a helping hand.

Do you recall your first gig in LA, playing with Sasha at the Mayan in 2002?

I absolutely remember that. I like to do this jumping-up-and-down thing when I’m in a really good mood, and when the crowd is happy. It’s nice to bounce about when you’re DJing. I got told-off like ten times by the laser guy because apparently I was wobbling the laser. I was 21 at the time, I had no idea how much those things cost. I suppose if it had fallen off, it would’ve hit me in the head, concussed me, and cost a few thousand dollars. It was a pretty kick ass laser.

It was an amazing gig. Everyone was going crazy, and I was really enjoying it, but it was kind of slightly marred by constantly getting told off by the lighting guy all the way through my set for wobbling the laser. I won’t ever forget that, that’s for sure.

When was your first time on a plane?

It wouldn’t have been too long before then. The first flight I ever took was to Istantbul, it was a Turkish Airlines flight. I imagine their fleet is pretty old. I was quite nervous and I was with another DJ called Steve Gerrard, and he helped me through the whole flying process. I had no idea what to do. I had no idea you had to check-in your bags or go through x-ray machines. Until that point, I’d never even traveled three hours from my house by car.

How do you like flying these days?

I was really nervous about flying, then I chilled out. And then for a while I was getting on the plane and falling asleep. I was seeing the plane as an extension of my bed or sofa -- “sofa,” that’s another Americanism, anyone at home reading this is going to tell me off for all the Americanisms.

Now, it’s funny though. I’ve realized I’m a walking statistic for an airplane accident. I’m probably back to being as nervous as when I first started flying. I kind of notice all the crashes that seem to happen on a regular basis. The whole experience of flying is the main bad thing about DJing. Other than that it’s a dream job.

What’s something crazy that’s happened to you on the road?

I tested positive for TNT. When I was flying from Minneapolis once, they did a scan on my bag to check for explosives, and the alarm went off. Everyone was surrounding me, these security guys with guns and everything. It was quite serious for a second and that alarm was quite loud. I had no sleep either, so it was a shock to the system. That was really frightening.

I was playing Mexico the night before and they had all these crazy fireworks going off and the bile must’ve got on my bag somehow. Needless to say, I totally swapped out the bags when I got to the next destination.

Do you have a big tune of the summer?

Secret Cinema “Kurzweil” on Cocoon. It’s got this orchestral strings section and it’s really nice. That’s a great summer record and it hasn’t got the usual key changes. It’s quite classy as well as being sunny.

Photo by Dan Reid / used with permission

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