James Hinton steps outside to answer the phone, and finds himself bracing against an unexpectedly sharp gust of cold wind. It’s Friday evening in what has until now been an unseasonably warm October, and Hinton, the DJ and producer better known as The Range, is putting finishing touches on his set list for later that night at Boston’s House of Blues, just a short walk from Fenway Park. Despite temperatures plummeting, Hinton is warm and chipper as he greets me with a beaming “Hello!” – and with good reason: Hinton has been spent the better part of the last two months playing packed venues, as the opening act on a national tour with electro rock duo Phantogram.
“You know, I would never be able to get this many shows in a string in a row,” Hinton says, with self-deprecation. A Brown University alum, Hinton’s speaking voice is fast and kinetic, yet never rambling, quickly revealing a mind that races to make connections and identify patterns – fitting for someone with a bachelor’s degree in theoretical physics.
“It’s kind of fun to see all of these cities that I wouldn’t otherwise see for a long time, and going around the country in a tour bus,” he adds, laughing. “Traveling with these guys is pretty great.”
As a producer, Hinton’s calling card is his ability to create albums that play like astral soundtracks, but are nonetheless steeped in humanity – full of little details and imperfections that narrow the distance between auteur and audience. His latest album, Potential, is in the same vein: each track sounds like a lived-in universe, pulsing with energy and optimism. If the record is anything to go by, his live shows promised to be truly extraordinary.
The Range plays Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club with Phantogram on October 25 and October 26. Both shows are sold out. Potential is out now on Domino Records.
Brightest Young Things: I have to confess – I loved Potential and listened to it non-stop when it came out in the spring, but sort of stepped away from it for a while. I’ve been playing the album all this week, and I have a newfound appreciation for it – the record really has so many layers and depth to it.
James Hinton: [Enthusiastically] Thanks! I do think it’s that kind of record, even for me. I put the album away right after I finished it, but now that I’m playing it every night, I find myself going back through the playlist. I feel like I captured something, maybe just in my own life and for the people I sampled as well, but I’m really happy with it. It feels like it’s going to stick with people for many years, which is always my goal.
BYT: You’ve talked about scouring YouTube looking for samples that were rich with “humanity” in people’s renditions of songs – and steering clear of anything that seems overproduced or too polished. What specific qualities does this humanity break down into? What are you drawn to?
Hinton: I was definitely drawn to what I was feeling at the time. I had just moved to New York when I began working on the album, and I was staying at my friend’s really, really small room. For me, especially coming from Providence – where I had this good life, and a lot of space, and I was very comfortable – it felt pretty raw, though it was normal stuff people go through: relationships, and day to day struggles, and things not going quite according to plan, and a lot of volatility in life. That’s what those videos captured, as opposed to all the top tropes like, “I went to the club last night, I did all this really fun stuff that normal people can’t access.” I think that’s what I was really drawn to; what’s really interesting about life, and YouTube, and getting people in front of a camera is normal day to day things. Nothing to hide behind. And that’s what’s really interesting about YouTube – the access to heartbreak in day to day life.
BYT: I know you reached out directly to the people you sampled on Potential to get both their blessings and some more context as to their stories. Did anyone in particular resonate with you?
Hinton: [Pause] I mean, everyone certainly did, but in particular Damian, who was on the last track “1804”. I’m not sure if you saw the documentary, but he lives in Kingston, Jamaica and works as a correctional officer – which of course, is nothing at all like anything I have any experience with. [Laughs] Something about the fact he goes into work 5-6 days a week doing 14 hours worth of really extremely high-stress stuff, and then comes out and is able to be a really joyous musician on the other side of his life; there’s a line in the documentary where he says he feels like Spiderman or Superman and leading a double life. I don’t know there’s that many people who could do that. A lot of people would have a hard time dropping that at the door and finding joy in music.
That resonated with me. I’ve had a couple of things go on in my life, and music has been something I’ve returned to, almost as a life force, whereas for him it’s something that is driving, and everything else is stuff he’s able to forget about, and that’s really hard to do. And that was incredibly fascinating to me; you would never have known, all of his music videos are on totally different subjects – it would never have crossed my mind that he’s doing this incredibly high-stress work on the side.
BYT: Yeah, I’m with you on that. It’s super difficult to be able to cast aside all of the weights we carry with us in life, and create art that is free from it, or somehow subverts it.
Hinton: Right! It would be the easiest thing in the world to come back from those difficult experiences and write about them, and certainly that inspires a lot of great music. But for him, especially when he’s making dancehall and uplifting things – and in particular the poem he wrote that I sampled – it’s just wild that the brain is able to do that. [Laughs] It’s amazing to meet someone who is able to push this negativity away, when so much of his life is witnessing the worst things that humans can do, but he chooses to keep lifting up the lighter side of life.
BYT: How involved were you in the making of the documentary, Superimpose? What was that process like for you?
Hinton: It was great, but I didn’t get that involved working with Daniel [Kaufman, director and writer] early on – practically because I was still finishing up the record, and midway realizing that it made sense for me to not to be part of the filming. But these guys went to Kingston and worked with Damian, and went to London and met up with Zak and Chris, and then flew to New York to meet Kai. I actually didn’t meet her until after Daniel finished filming her, because it sort of kept “the Internet as a medium” thing intact until after the piece of work was done, which I liked.
After Daniel was done with the footage, I was well involved with the audio work and the pacing, as well section that has me in it pretty heavily. I wanted to make sure that I was as open with my life as the other people featured in it were – a lot of people were incredibly generous with their time, and revealed facets of their lives they really didn’t have to do. Now I think that these two pieces of arts work together as two binary stars – they are this great combination that work even better as a pair, more than just a “rock doc” type of thing.
Playing this tour, I like to think that the music stands on its own, and it’s great, but when I speak to people after shows they don’t really know the stories behind the tracks. I think this documentary will help be very obvious about what the album is, and that it’s more than just the music. Documentaries tend to go on and have their own life entirely, and I’m excited to see how that will propagate in coming years.
BYT: You’ve got a background in theoretical physics. Do you see any correlation between your studies and the music you create? The common thread, to me, is that all of your tracks have this lived-in, “soundscape to a different planet” like quality.
Hinton: Yeah, I mean there are tools that use the Pythagorean theorem and other mathematical principles I could implement, like the Golden Ratio, or Fibonacci sequences – to make the correlation between music and high-end math really explicit, but I’ve really tried to steer clear of that. The one thing that I keep in mind is that there’s theoretical angle to the fact that sound is a physical thing, and this applies moreso to the creative side. Having the analytical side of my brain helps me understand how it should all interact.
I’m definitely in awe of physics, and of the universe and how complex it is. There’s so much we don’t understand. I hope my music touches on that – which you sort of alluded to – and I like the idea that it’s reverential. Even classical music has had this kind of otherworldliness, and especially now that science is becoming that new religion in a way, to me. I feel like I’m participating in that history, in my head. I don’t really understand it, and I’m in awe of it, and hopefully the physics side is playing into it to some degree.
Production is not an easy thing, and I’m finally starting to get some control over things. Physics definitely plays a large part, now I’ve been able to think through problems that I’ve had.
BYT: It seems like you spend a lot of your time interacting with computers and screens and going down the rabbit holes of the Internet. Do you ever worry about what this might do to your sanity? Do you need to disconnect to decompress?
Hinton: [Laughs] I definitely worried about that when I was really deep in the process. It got really…not dark, but I wasn’t really leaving the house when I found an apartment in New York and moved out of that room, and was able to be alone for the first time in a little while. I wasn’t really seeing friends, I wasn’t really doing much beyond the album, and the Internet sort of became this thing. The fact that I’m on record saying that I felt really connected to people I hadn’t met – that was very real to me during this process! I was listening to words I had sampled more than I was talking or talking to friends.
But now I don’t know – I do think in a lot of ways it’s a much more pure sort of interaction. Because the Internet is entirely on demand you’re never really challenged to go outside of your comfort zone, because you’re the one directing search. I also like that there’s no waste of time; the Internet can respond to you as fast as your brain and hands can move, and help you learn about anything you want. I think it’s a catch-22, and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know if I’m worried about it, and I think the Internet is going to play a big role in my next album/project. I’m starting to go and get think about that quite heavily.
BYT: Do you watch Black Mirror? Season 3 just dropped today. That show gives you a lot of food for thought.
Hinton: Yeah! Did it really? I’m so excited to watch. And I mean, like a lot of things, there’s some sort of fundamental compromise. It’s not a Faustian bargain or anything, but you lose something to gain something. For me, and for you probably as well, I think the gains outweigh the losses but it’s never going to be this pure utopian thing. I enjoy that the Internet exists.