The Death of Amibition: An Interview With James Ginzburg

James Ginzburg has been doing this for a long time. At a certain point, successes and failures blur together, becoming this formless morass that can hollow out the deepest of motivations and best of intentions. Cycling through those dark periods and finding a path to the other side is difficult in the best of times, fruitless in the worst. Yet, learning to find peace with the failure and lean into what it means to be a ghost, reveals a new way forward that leaves all of those ideas behind.

Since emptyset released Blossoms in 2019, the world went wild and Ginzburg, like many of us, wasn’t sure what to do. Throughout 2020, he leaned on his skills as a producer, working with Ziúr on her opus, Antifate, and felt a dormant energy around his own creations lit anew. Ultimately we were gifted with crystallise, a frozen eye, his first new solo recordings in years. 

I spoke with James in May of this year and while our conversation strayed from music and his work, for the most part, this portion of our conversation around what it means to be successful and how, in losing ambition, we can find peace, was quite meaningful to me and resonated deeply. There are hard, universal truths to be found in the strangest places at the strangest times, but those are often the ones we should listen to the most.

So how is everything? It’s been an interesting year, to say the least. It’s really changed how I think about so many things.

I can relate to that. I definitely rediscovered music in the last year. I never completely lost a sense of it, but I think a visceral and tactile sense of music and an interest to make my own work started coming back after many years. I generally find it much easier working with other people and drawing from their enthusiasm, and supporting other people’s projects has become a way of keeping myself inspired by music — but in terms of thinking of myself as a musician, I rediscovered that this year.

With the emptyset stuff, Paul and I had such a bad time making the first record for Thrill Jockey (Borders 2017). It left us with a kind of bad feeling for each other for a while and that created a sense that perhaps the project was over. It definitely made me ask a lot of questions about myself and what I was doing. Then in 2019, we did another record (Blossoms 2019) and we had fun again and reconciled a lot of things. Going into the pandemic last year, initially I was very frozen creatively and my response to that was to become obsessively interested in music equipment. I was just like, “I’m going to buy a bunch of EQs and that will make everything ok.” 

Eventually, that turned into “Well, you’ve bought all the stuff now and should use it.” I also had all these instruments I’d accumulated slowly over the last years that I hadn’t ever quite managed to make anything interesting out of, and they slowly came to life amongst isolation. 

So that was one thing that was happening, and then I also started working with Ziúr via my publishing company, and then we ended up mixing her record for PAN. Then she went into a post-project-delivery trough, so to try and keep her motivated I was going through my hard drives and just sending her bits and pieces of ideas from the last decade that I had never done anything with. She’d get out of bed, make something cool and send it back, and I would try to develop it. Somehow that process turned into making a record and project together called Myxomy, which will come out in November. 

Eventually, I started thinking, “Oh, this is really interesting music. I like making music.” Then I started recording my own stuff and it felt like it kind of came out of nowhere. It was the first time where every day I felt like a musician, rather than like somebody who successfully pretended to be a musician for a long time. 

Yeah, I feel that really deeply. For me in this past year, the way creating made me feel… it hadn’t felt that way in a long, long time. It was such a positive silver lining that helped me get through a lot of rough spots, and especially not having this concern about it being successful or whatever that even means, but simply creating because I wanted to. Because I needed to.

Exactly. I think of it in the terms that that part of me – the part of me that I imagined would be a successful person or something like that – it had died already a few times in different ways. So going into making music again without any kind of pragmatic or professional concerns, it was a spiritually satisfying place to write from. I remember at some point when I was working on this record, I was working on a piece, and I was in the middle of making it and it was such a beautiful, ecstatic moment. And amongst the experience that I got an email finding out we’d lost this big job that would have made things really secure for the next few years. So I’m looking at this email, but in this moment in which I was enjoying the feedback loop of writing music and listening to it for the first time in a long time — the emergence of music as this weird, ecstatic process — I felt like I was ok with how everything was despite that. Something like that would have crushed me five years ago, ten years ago, but now it was a shrug and maybe a day of being grumpy because this job went away amongst remembering what the point of all of this was. 

I think there’s a lot of similarities to where I’ve gone and been the past year, too, at least in the sense of really remembering what the point of making music and creating things was for me and having it divorced from all this extraneous crap that can often come with it. After Digitalis ended – or really during the last part of it – I had this crippling depression that became too much to ignore, and a lot of it stemmed from expectations I had or that I perceived people had of me, and it did me in. But coming back in this past year, it’s been different and it’s something I hope to hang on to.

I suppose for me, towards the end of my first dance music career, I had a lot of bad emotions associated with the genre whether it was disappointments from things not working out projectwise or relationships that I formed within that context falling apart. Even thinking about it was painful.

Oh yeah, totally. Totally.

I think that was around the period of time where Paul and I started working more seriously on emptyset, and I thought, “Okay, well I’m not a musician anymore. I’m done with that. I’m doing this work with Paul for fun. I’m probably going to become an accountant.” I wanted to do something that wasn’t threatening and didn’t have an ambition and didn’t have anything because I couldn’t deal with the idea of ambition anymore. I couldn’t deal with the pain of failure.

Yes! That’s absolutely it. For years whenever I thought about doing any of this again, those were the thoughts that really kept me from it and were pervasive. I had to completely change my mindset and redefine what any of those words – success, ambition, and so on – what any of that meant.

I feel like there is a sort of sanity that comes out of the death, or at least partial-death, of ambition.

It’s such a weird thing when you’ve already had this kind of experience. A couple years ago, when I’d broken up with somebody, I went to Scotland to stay alone in my great uncle’s house in the middle of nowhere to nurse my wounds. It’s a quite strange and spooky old house from the 16th century. It had always terrified me as a kid and I’d had some weird experiences there over the years. So I had gone there and I was just crying and muttering and falling apart or whatever. At some point, I realized I’d had the exact same experience in which I’d done this exact same thing. I’d come to this place. I was retreating from something in my life. I pounded the floor. I cried. The emotion, the gesture, it was exactly the same. It was completely identical. And in this haze, I remember thinking, “Is this even anything to do with what’s happening right now?” It sobered me up for a second. 

I decided I was going to go sit in the spookiest room in the house with all the lights off – and it’s a pretty spooky place – and just talk to whatever I imagined being there. I had this moment – and this is kind of analogous to music – where, I thought that for all intents and purposes, I’m kind of already dead. I’ve gone to the edge of my experience and everything is so bleak, and all I would need is a little flick and I’d be off the edge completely. At that point, when it was as if I had already become a ghost, the idea of ghosts wasn’t really that scary anymore. It’s the same thing with failure. The sense I’ve already lost. I’ve already failed so many times. It doesn’t matter. There’s a kind of freedom in this sort of after-death state because you get to go through all the motions without being seduced by the weird thing that makes you think you need to prosper in some kind of exaggerated way in this world. 

I feel like there is a sort of sanity that comes out of the death, or at least partial-death, of ambition. As I get older, it’s not really the ache of nostalgia that gets me, it’s the pain of loss or the sense of the inevitability of loss — past, present, and future. Everything I ever knew and loved disappeared is disappearing and will disappear, and there is a hope that freedom from ambition and hopelessness could be stronger than the pain of this sense of loss — or even that it could be beautiful to watch everything appear and evaporate in real-time. 

That really touches a nerve, seriously. It’s like you’re looking at the readout from my brain right now. It’s about not having those expectations that may or may not even exist, but whenever you still have that ambition, these expectations are very real to you, right? But I like the analogy of it being like you’ve died, so it’s not scary anymore. The afterlife is pretty decent.

I think it’s interesting, too, what younger people both deal with because the current social media culture didn’t exist when I was at this stage a lot of younger artists are at. I can’t imagine having to navigate such a difficult, unpredictable kind of landscape. I feel lucky that the moment that we had was at a slightly less psychologically complicated point, and it’s very clear that there’s no version of me that could occupy this current space in any deeply engaged way.

Watching the psychological pressure that younger artists I work with have to engage with in order to stay in that space is really bizarre and, I think, a lot of them experience it as unhealthy. It’s been nice, though, to be able to provide people with some kind of stability whether it’s just a touchstone that comes from experience or something more practical. That’s been a positive aspect of the last year, being able to provide useful mentorship to people and through that to also reinforce my sense of like, “Let’s look at your record. Maybe I can help you make it sound good.” These are things I can do. 

There’ve been a lot of positives on a personal level that came out of this last year in terms of my okayness with myself and other people, despite all the strange emotional brain weather and getting sick, etc… And there have been positives in terms of the community building that came out of the last year. But it’s harder to think in terms of moving forward or looking into the future.

Yeah, what do you do, right?

Making plans or having ambitions feels strange. I mean, it’s wonderful to have a moment where you find yourself enjoying the sound of a single piano note, but it’s another thing to think about what’s going to happen when you’re 50.

That’s been a big thing for me. I used to freak out, thinking about possibilities in the future that may or may not ever happen, right? After the last year, who the hell knows? The world’s going to have its own ideas, so do what you can to help your community and be kind and all of that.

Right. Try to make as few empty gestures as possible. Obviously, everybody’s circumstances are different to the extent of the sort of risks they can take, but having a reckoning with the idea that everything is passing extremely quickly, everything will disappear very quickly, and everything is always teetering on the brink of falling apart is a good thing. Hopefully it’s a reminder that can inform attitudes and decision-making going forward. 

But it’s also about trying to make my life not entirely about myself. It feels like there’s space within this situation to find ways of just not thinking about myself. One of the nice things about running a label or working with other artists is there are a lot of opportunities to be mutually supportive. 

Definitely. In a lot of ways, for me anyway, it’s about changing the definition of what being successful means and what it looks like. 

It was nice with this record, because, again, I felt really happy with it. I hadn’t felt like I’d made good music for some time, but with this album, I was really happy with it. With that, though, the actual emotional or psychological need for anyone to listen to it was almost zero. And to the extent it wasn’t zero, the unhealthy bit, it was something relatively benign like playing pinball and just wanting to watch the points go up. I thought it’d be fun if the points went up, but my psychological need for somebody to listen to it and tell me something and then that means I get to go backstage at the club… that was basically zero.

When I started making stuff again last year, I went back and forth for months trying to decide if I was even going to release it. I was having fun and it felt good to be doing it and finding that expression. That’s what mattered. But yeah, the points. It doesn’t mean anything, but it can be fun, right? 

Exactly. It feels really uncomplicated in that regard. Because when the points don’t go up these days, I don’t go to bed feeling like a piece of shit. Another thing that’s also been super nice is rediscovering a sense that more things are possible than apparent. For example when Paul and I were working on emptyset records back when, every so often we’d be sitting in the studio and suddenly something accidental would happen and I’d hear something I’d never heard before. Or Roly [Porter] would come with a record and play it and I’d think, “Oh wow, I’ve never heard this sound or musical causality before.” It created this sense of possibility that it was always possible I could hear something or experience something that I had never before experienced, that there was always something beyond the horizon of my mundane experience. That sense had definitely gotten lost in some way for me in the last few years. In a strange way with the pandemic, there was this feeling of, “Oh I’ve never felt this emotion before. I don’t know what this emotion is, and I have no idea what the consequences of this are going to be and how the entire world is going to change.” It was a strange mix of anxiety, fear, and disorientation. 

While that feeling was deeply unpleasant, its particular flavour was new. It was kind of like peering into this unseen realm of experience or possibility, which if nothing else wakes one up to the instability and unpredictability of everything — it shakes up any of the apparent certainties of life, and reinforces the sense that nothing is actually fixed. 

Simultaneously, making music where suddenly something happens that I didn’t expect or I hadn’t heard before gave these little hints that maybe existence could be more meaningful than it feels at times and that at any moment, there could be endless undiscovered possibilities. 

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