Phaeleh is best known as one of the key innovators in the early dubstep movement. A stalwart on the UK scene, he has since championed earthy electronica and oddball house, and released some intricate ambient LPs. Sam Karam caught up with the Bristol-native and chatted about approaches to live sets, production, and working within the industry.
You played a live show at XOYO in January. Can you tell us about what was on offer at this gig?
In terms of music, it wasn't new material per se, but I was taking tracks from my catalogue and re-contextualising them for the live environment. I see little point in essentially just playing back tracks as they are on the record, so I was keen to work with lesser known songs of mine, and strip them back to their basic elements and introduce new sounds and processes which could be performed live, whilst also having the ability and opportunity to improvise based upon what was happening at a given moment. I think as my background is as a musician rather than a DJ, it's incredibly important to me to be able to play 10 shows in a row and the songs are completely different every time you play them, even if the core foundation is the same. The only downside to this is that the songs can sometimes end up being far more interesting and better than the versions which originally got released!
Well that certainly adds a unique touch to experiencing a live set. On the topic of productions, you’ve been making music for quite some time now. Do you tend to have a certain artistic approach when you begin a project? Has that changed for you over the years?
I think I've always written in the same way, and that is to try and capture an emotion in a way that enables the listener to have an emotional response when listening to it, but without being too prescriptive and instead allowing them to place the music in an emotional context that reflects their current mind state. I think one of the things I enjoy about feedback to my music, is that some people may find a track incredibly uplifting and happy, so play it at weddings and other celebratory events, yet someone else may view the track completely differently and use it at a funeral or to get through other challenging times. I think that to me is the best feedback I could ask for.
In terms of the production, as with anyone, I think there will always be methods you use at different points on the artistic journey which are reflected in the music you make during those times. I think if you automatically make music in a set way and just stick to that throughout your career, you're ultimately doing yourself and your fans an injustice. I know there is a certain type of track and way of working that could potentially be a better option financially, but it's generally not how I like to work. I'd rather respect the artistic process rather than painting by numbers and be motivated by money. I'll probably regret this down the line, but at the moment I'm very happy to maintain this outlook.
It's definitely more fulfilling to make honest music that way. I read in a previous interview that you started producing music as a young teenager. How do you think making electronic music before the immersion into clubbing and live music influenced your approach to artistry?
Honestly, my approach to making music at 35 is no different to how I made music at 15 in bands and on my own. I think I had a period during the early dubstep days where I realised the only music people played out would be the 140bpm stuff, so I wanted it to have a nice intro to mix, follow a set pattern in terms of arrangement, but I like to think that I've moved on from that, as I'd aways rather make music to listen to than for someone to DJ with.
And, do you remember the moment you decided to seriously pursue music?
I've always taken music seriously, just not as a career option. I think the switch to being more focused was when I was just finishing my teacher training and I was about to become a full time music teacher. I was aware my creative output was getting some attention at the same time, and I felt that I didn't want to regret not taking the chance when on my death bed. With that, I gave myself a few years to see what I could achieve, and if nothing happened, then I could just go back to teaching. I never really set out to do this as a career. Music for me was always a form of expression and a therapeutic way of dealing with the highs and lows of life.
Was the industry what you expected when you first delved in?
It really depends on what you view as the industry, but I would say the overall wider music industry is as I expected. It's very cut throat and everything and everyone has a very short shelf life if you're not hitting the numbers someone requires. I tend to be quite isolated in the way I work. I'm self managed, I self release and I rarely play multi DJ nights or anything like that, so I'd like to think I'm quite lucky in some ways to be so detached from the music industry.
Those crazy weekends aren't for everyone. Do you see the industry changing direction anytime soon?
I'm not the best placed person to pass comment on this, as I find it best for myself to just do my own thing and generally ignore what the industry and other artists are doing. I do feel that the glory years of being discovered via social media has long gone, as the organic way of engaging with fans now costs money. Whilst that's fine for an established artist who can write it off as a business expense, it really is going to cripple people starting out now.
I do sadly believe that we're returning to a time where unless someone is bankrolling you and throwing money to get your face everywhere, you're going to struggle to be noticed amongst all the other noise that is out there. I am known for being a pessimist and having a generally cynical view of the world, so it would be nice to be proved wrong on this, but I really do believe I would struggle to be noticed if I was starting out now.
On the other hand, I am a big fan of the shift to streaming rather than a physical product as it means people without a huge budget can make an album and get it online in the same place as other established acts. Whilst getting it noticed is the hard part, it only takes a few people to discover you to start getting the music shared and experienced by a larger number of people.