Playing Robots Into Heaven

Playing Robots Into Heaven

For James Blake, making his sixth album felt like going home. Since emerging as a post-dubstep trailblazer in 2010, the electronic producer from the outskirts of London has explored a realm of different sounds including minimalist pop, trap beats, stark ballads, sparse chamber music, digitalized experimentation, and more, all while becoming a go-to collaborator for a wave of game-changing artists (Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, and Dave among them). On Playing Robots Into Heaven, though, he reconnects with the club sounds that fueled his early work—and a side of himself he felt compelled to tap back into. “It felt like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do the thing that I do really easily,’” Blake tells Apple Music. “Writing songs is definitely something I love doing, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s really rewarding and challenging, but not my most natural thing. I think probably my most natural thing is collaging shit together.” That’s the approach Blake employs on Playing Robots Into Heaven, a captivating record where twisted loops and warped samples intertwine with the melancholic warmth of Blake’s trademark piano chords, hypnotic hooks, and heavily treated vocals. Following a loose narrative arc of a night out raving—taking in the euphoric thrills, spills, ups, downs, and return to reality—it’s a heady trip. Creating it, Blake realized that putting yourself through the wringer to make a record doesn’t have to be the mark of a serious artist. “What I learned was that the feeling of ‘Is this too easy?’ is actually a good feeling,” he says. “It means you’re onto something, it means you are doing something right.” Blake is in his element on Playing Robots Into Heaven—and here, he guides us through it, track by track. “Asking to Break” “I made this with [Mount Kimbie’s] Dom Maker. He started it off with a loop of me playing piano and singing, which is the first thing you hear. The refrain and the song came from that. It happened pretty naturally, pretty quickly. I’m not sure what word it is that the chord sequence evokes, but it evokes something. It doesn’t really happen on the rest of the songs. It’s unique to the album. I like this song as an opener just because it’s not exactly rave-y, but it’s sort of giving you a little nudge in that direction.” “Loading” “The whole album is the arc of a rave, basically, or the arc of maybe some kind of drug experience that includes a high and a comedown. ‘Asking to Break’ sets that up and then ‘Loading’ starts to bring you up into more of that place, [with] a little bit more euphoria. That’s why I liked it as a second tune. It’s not crazy hyped, but it’s suggesting it and you get that big release at the end. Again, I collaborated with Dom on this one. He made the loop that you hear at the beginning and then we bounce off each other really well.” “Tell Me” “‘Tell Me’ started on the tour bus. Me and Rob [McAndrews, co-producer and Blake’s live guitarist] were messing about with modular stuff and we ended up with a thing we really liked. There’s actually a video of us playing an early version of it, just bobbing our heads on the tour bus. We’ve got nothing else to do, we’re just eating peanut butter and drinking shit coffee and making stuff on this thing. I knew this had that transcendent wave vibe about it and it felt like a perfect one for the record.” “Fall Back” “I had a little modular jam I was working on. Yaw Evans is a producer from South London and I discovered him because he was remixing old grime a cappellas but using old hardware, and it was kind of unusual. I messaged him like, ‘Hey, I love what you do and it’s inspiring to me because I’m doing something a bit similar. Do you want to send me any ideas because I’d love to incorporate what you do into a song?’ Two of them ended up being on the record. One was the drums on ‘Fall Back,’ which I then manipulated a bit to bring it into that world. It’s got echoes of Burial but also maybe more traditional garage stuff. The way he programmed was different and maybe better than something I could do so I was just like, ‘Well, let’s use that.’ It could have been a case of like, ‘Oh, these drums are cool, I’ll do something like them,’ but I don’t really do that. I like to get it from the source.” “He’s Been Wonderful” “I actually remember playing an early version of this on Radio 1 about seven years ago. I ended up playing it out a lot at my 1-800 Dinosaur [club nights] back in the day but also the CMYK nights that I’ve been putting on—I’d be playing it every set. This song doesn’t feature my voice. I think the thing that some people might find odd about this record is that there are a couple of tracks where I’m not singing and it’s a sample of someone else. But there was a bonus on Overgrown that had Big Boi samples on it, ‘Every Day I Ran,’ so I’ve done it before.” “Big Hammer” “When I put this out as the first single, I was like, ‘This is the only way to make it clear that this record’s going to be different.’ Some of the other songs might have just been seen as slightly different James Blake tracks but this one was like, ‘OK, people aren’t really going to know what’s going to happen next,’ and that’s what I wanted. I sampled [Hackney’s proto-jungle adventurers] The Ragga Twins, who were a huge voice for me growing up. They’d either be at the things I was going to, or they’d be in the tracks of the DJs I was listening to. They were a big influence and when I sampled them, the tune just felt like, ‘Now I’ve got it, now it’s done.’ They brought the energy that the tune had without actually even being there.” “I Want You to Know” “This again is something that started with Yaw Evans’ drums. I was in a studio in Los Angeles and I was playing chords over it, just seeing what I could find. I ended up writing a little bit over it and then there was a moment where the only melody I could hear over this song was the Pharrell line from the end of Snoop Dogg’s ‘Beautiful.’ I was listening to it in the control room and once I’d sung it out loud, I was like, ‘Oh no, there is no better melody than that, that’s the only thing.’ It was like, ‘All right, let’s hope they clear it.’” “Night Sky” “This is now the arc downwards. We’re starting to really wind down. It’s a pretty odd piece of music. I really love the strange Gregorian-sounding shit at the end where you don’t really know what it is, whether it’s a voice or whatever, but it sounds haunting. I made it with Rob again. We started it together at my house with modular stuff. Those weird voices at the beginning, that’s all me put through some technology. I thought it created the perfect ladder down back to Earth.” “Fire the Editor” “The editor in this case is yourself and your self-censorship, and when you’re not truly saying what it is you want to say, or you are saying a version of it but not the whole thing. It’s a tough place to be. It’s a rallying cry to a freedom of thought and personal freedom. There’s a lyric in this song I really love: ‘If I see him again, we’ll be having words.’ There’s something a little bit confrontational about it, but the idea is that it’s setting you free at this moment in the album.” “If You Can Hear Me” “This is a letting go sort of song, too—a letting go of the constant pursuit of something, the pursuit of success or the pursuit of music, or the pursuit of whatever it is in your own life. It was actually written at the time of the movie Ad Astra, because I was writing something for it which ended up not being used. It was written to the scene where he finally communicates with his father who’s out in space and who might never come back. I think that in some way it’s a nice metaphor for how we go on our own path compared to our parents or maybe our father, in this case. We are trying to go as far as we can in a certain direction without getting lost and hopefully not repeating the same mistakes they did, but also learning from what they got right.” “Playing Robots Into Heaven” “The title Playing Robots Into Heaven came from an Instagram post where I’d made this jam on a modular synth. For some reason the phrase ‘The organist that plays robots into heaven’ is what came to mind because that’s just what it sounded like for me. This is the track that I posted on my Instagram during the pandemic and it’s on the album in full without any modification, exactly the piece that started the album off. Again, it’s bringing you all the way down back to Earth.”

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