Apr 2014 14

With a new limited edition double-vinyl album, influential electronic musician Phil Western speaks to ReGen about the latest developments in his creative direction.
Phil Western

 

An InterView with Phil Western

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

Perhaps best known for his collaborations with cEvin Key in Download and PlatEAU, Phil Western has earned himself a respectable niche in the world of music. Exploring the chilled out modes of electronic music from dub to ambient to techno, and even incorporating the psychedelic atmospheres associated with space rock, Western clearly likes to leave no stone unturned when exploring the range of his musical tastes and abilities. After a plethora of releases on numerous labels, including his own imprint The Record Company, and signing to Rustblade and releasing the Laborandum collection in 2012, which featured a number of tracks from across his various solo oulets, Western’s music was opened up to a wider international market. Now with the limited edition double-vinyl release of Longform on Rustblade, Western continues to pursue new avenues of musical expression, branching out from the electronic elements he’s most revered for toward a more organic approach. Western speaks with ReGen on the development of his craft over two-plus decades of making music, touching on his place in the modern electronic music world and from where he draws his creative energies.

 

Let’s talk about your previous release, Laborandum – your first on Rustblade. What prompted you to sign with this label, and in what ways has their association been beneficial for you?

Western: I received a random email from Stefano at Rustblade asking me about doing the Laborandum release with them. I figured it might be a nice way to get some physical copies of my music into distribution in Europe. At least that is what I hope has happened. I am not really sure if anyone buys CDs anymore.

You had been the owner/operator of The Record Company since 2001. What did you find to be the major difficulties and rewards of operating your own label, and in what ways did this contribute to your signing with Rustblade?

Western: Actually, when I was putting out regular releases on The Record Company, I was living in Los Angeles, and had developed a bit of a system for releasing music that was based on some factors that really relied on being in Los Angeles. For instance, the postage was much cheaper there, and printing the CDs was much cheaper and everything I needed was a short distance from where I lived. It was quite a lot of work, but I eventually got it down to a pretty good system. Make the music, get it mastered, make a cover, get it printed, get CDs made, and then I would put them all together myself, and ship them out. I used a mailing list, and would let people know a new release was available, and then they could PayPal me for their order. The only problem I had was that the mailing list kind of never grew. And lots of people would buy one or two discs but not the others.

Laborandum features selections from your various solo endeavors. What was the process of selecting the tracks for this release like? What factors came into play for deciding which songs to include?

Western: There were a few songs that Rustblade requested to be on there, and the rest were pretty much selected to try and create a cohesive album because none of my albums, except for maybe 1221, had any amount of cohesion to them. You would have a rock track followed by an ambient track followed by noise collage, followed by electronic music. This release is a compilation meant to have some degree of accessibility, so I made the songs all fit somewhat alongside each other.

Since Laborandum featured several selections from your various endeavors, will the new album be completely new material?

Western: Essentially, yes. There is going to be a digital release of the album, which will be entirely new material, but there will also be a vinyl edition that will feature songs from previous digital only releases. About four previously released songs have been chosen to be included on the vinyl release. It will be released by Rustblade – it’s a bit of a cooperative endeavor as the release is a very expensive one to manufacture and prepare. The mastering alone has begun to really add up.

You mention the mastering being rather costly, and perhaps the average consumer is still unsure as to what exactly mastering is and its importance to merit such expense. With the ‘Loudness War’ being a subject of much debate for many musicians, what is your take on it and how do you feel it has affected the way you hear and listen to music, including your own?

Western: I am a listener of quiet music, and I have a tendency to make quieter music as well from time to time, but I am also of an age that my seminal and formative influences were things like Brian Eno and various other artists whose work in the ’70s and even ’80s sort of preceded the ‘compressed to death’ phenomenon in music. I believe compression to be a tool like anything else, and I love the sound of a good compressor like an LA2A or 1176 on a vocal or bass guitar track, and I am not opposed to a gluing buss compressor like an SSL or something on an entire mix, but if I can hear the compression, and if the dynamic range disappears from the music then it just seems kind of lifeless to me.
What good mastering is to me is a process of keeping the artists’ intention. Bringing the mix up in volume is one small part of it, but maintaining the vibe of the mix and the track is more important. Sometimes masters will come back and sound literally like the song has been remixed. This is not something I am a fan of.

Because your music is mostly instrumental (barring the few times you’ve had people like Mark Spybey and Genesis P-Orridge doing vocals in Download and such), how do you approach the sense of melody in the absence of lyrics? Or is that even part of your process?
If so, how do you feel this is best exhibited on the new album?

Western: This is an interesting question because I actually just posted an album I made in 1997 to Bandcamp (Corrected Idiot), which used vocals and guitars as the main instrumentation. I feel quite at home making melodies for the voice and using guitars and stuff like that, but I never felt like I was good enough at it to pursue it fully. Then again, I find that music to be much more personal and effective in many ways than instrumental electronic compositions. But I think the approach to melody remains the same whether it will be a vocal or a synthesizer that performs it ultimately.
On the new album, there are a few songs that are very melodic, and a couple have vocals. It is a bit all over the place as is usual for one of my LPs, but it’s pretty much the same approach I have taken in the past. The main conceptual approach for this album, if there was one, was to try and create a section in the middle for the ‘longform’ writing approach, which was steeped in minimal repetition – I guess the intention being to sort of put the listener on a nod-out. I enjoy it when I listen to music that puts me into a state like that… it is not easy to do. But when it is effective, it is really satisfying.

In what ways did assembling a collection like Laborandum inform your approach to the new material you’ll be presenting? In other words, did going over your past output in that collection have any direct effect on your writing process for the new album?

Western: I am not sure if that album in particular did – I find I am always kind of disappointed when I listen to 90% of my older material. I do have some things I really like that I have done, but they are usually the quieter and weirder tracks. Most of the positive responses I get are to the faster songs or the songs with more programming etc. I prefer the droning stuff.

It’s not uncommon for an artist to be his or her own worst critic, and as you’ve just stated that you have a preference for your slower and weirder tracks, has it ever led you to actively avoid the styles that seem to yield the more positive response?

Western: Conscious avoidance, no, but I am conscious at times, when working on a slow or weird ambient thing, that no one is probably gonna like it or get it. And it makes me feel like an alien, because I know that those tracks are the ones I would like best if I was the music listener. But my tastes have never really been aligned with those of the people around me.

Is there ever a sense of obligation to continue pursuing the faster sounding material because it’s garnered such praise, or is that not even a concern?

Western: Honestly, I do deliberately set out sometimes to make a song that fits more into the Kone box or can be appreciated by DJs or whatever; but it is less and less. Now I am more into jamming with the gear and sometimes the results end up being very different than things I have done before. Obviously, I hope to find success one day, so I always think well maybe this approach will interest more people, but that is usually after the song is made rather than before.

Also recently, Download released an album, LingAM. Since Download has very much its own signature sound and style, tell us about how you and Key approached that album and how that experienced compared/contrasted with past albums you’ve done together.

Western: Well, cEvin really loved the album when it was done – I am still warming up to it. It isn’t that I didn’t think it was good, but I really wish we had had more time to complete it. I still think our best work is the work we have done when we had no time constraints. When I lived in Los Angeles, we were able to spend great periods of time getting things right; for instance, on FiXeR, where you can hear the time that has been put in, time that is most evident probably by the amount that isn’t kept. When you have no time, you tend to keep things that may have eventually been replaced by something better.

Also, since Download has traditionally been rooted in experimentation and jamming, is it ever a concern for you that you’re repeating yourself? How do you combat this to continually challenge yourself and keep the music fresh for yourself?

Western: Well, I believe the next Download album needs to be a radical departure. We are already in that zone of needing to recreate our sound a bit because we have explored the programming and sequencing arena in so many ways, and I really feel strongly that our next album should delve more deeply into acoustic space. I have always felt this way since FiXeR was made because my favorite track on that album was the one where we used dulcimer and field recordings and really went to an acoustic zone we had not explored since Furnace. So I want to do more of that. There is only so many times you can tweak a module or write a sequence and still feel excited by it. I know there are infinite possibilities in the realm of synthesizers, but I like using instruments too. For example, on the new album of mine, I am using live bass guitar on almost all the tracks, and that alone makes a huge difference to the overall feel of the album.

Regarding live instrumentation, you mentioned using bass guitar, which has always been a key sound in dub music. What is the potential for you to reintegrate some of those older sounds into your style? Especially now that dubstep has become such a prominent electronic style (though somewhat removed from dub); what are your thoughts on it and would you be interested in exploring that as well?

Western: I think the new album features some of those elements here and there. Some inspiration came from early ’80s Talking Heads and Brian Eno’s work with David Byrne, so there is kind of a groove element to some of the songs, but it really is hard to pin down one genre that would adequately describe it. However, the new trends in electronic music are not really evident on the record; that much I know for sure. I am not sure I could do those styles even if I tried really hard. Things have changed so much.

What other live instruments excite you the most, both in terms of your personal taste and with respect to their integration with the electronic sounds that you explore?

Western: The drums excite me endlessly, and percussion… and guitar and bass. I like processing things and cutting them up. I really love playing bass guitar. I want to use live instruments more and more, which is why I have gone a bit crazy as of late buying pre amps.

As you’ve been a prolific artist for over two decades, you’ve seen – and indeed helped to usher in – many new artists and styles of electronic music such as techno, IDM, ambient, etc. What are your thoughts on the development of electronic music since you first started working?

Western: You know, it’s funny – I never thought of myself as particularly good at making electronic music. But I was and still am a hard worker. I am also my harshest critic. It is only now with, as you say, the benefit of two decades worth of distance between my early and later work that I can listen to some of the old stuff and say to myself, ‘Hey that was pretty good!’ I mean, it still shocks me when people put Download in the same category as some of the great electronic music artists, because I never thought of us that way, and we certainly never got the exposure or the press or the recognition that those artists did, so it was always a bit easier to assume that maybe we just weren’t good enough or something. But then I listen to some of those records, and I realize that they were pretty good actually, and I think what happened is we just got lumped out as a ‘Skinny Puppy side project,’ and that made it hard to break out of the so-called industrial market. However, one thing I think we did do is expose a lot of people in that market to a whole new stream of electronic music that some of them may never have discovered otherwise, and I am gratified by that.

Many associate your sound with your continued use of the Roland TB-303. How do you feel the technology has developed for better or worse, and in what ways do you feel that it has affected the way people make music? How do you feel these developments have affected your own work and the way you approach making music?

Western: I have always loved the 303 and the 202; both great machines – so expressive, and really quite versatile, both dynamically and melodically. You know, I am a real analog purist, and while I use the software here and there, I really prefer to reach for a machine. But as I have said in interviews past, I don’t think I am dogmatic about it. Music is music, and it really comes down to what you do with the tools. When I lived in Los Angeles, I had almost no equipment and really crappy monitors, and I made both Kone records that way, and that is some of the most intricate production and mixing I have ever done. So who knows? My approach is always changing, but one thing I do miss is having the drums and amplifiers set up in the studio like I used to. I just don’t have the same type of space as I used to but I hope to again because it was a lot of fun combining recording of acoustic instruments with the electronics.

We spoke a bit about the associations with the 303 and the 202, and you stated that you’re an analog purist without being dogmatic about it, so let’s talk a little bit about your current setup. What sorts of newer tools have you begun using?

Western: The tools I am using these days are the same ones I have used for a long time – the studio is made up of a decent, not ridiculous array of sound devices, including the 202 and 303. My most recent investments have been in higher end front end equipment like compressors and pre-amps. And I have begun venturing down the modular rabbit hole by investing in a lovely handmade case – it is quite huge, and will take some time to fill up.

You’ve had numerous projects and associations over the years. Aside from the collaborations with cEvin Key, Tim Hill, Mark Spybey, etc., how do you differentiate among your various monikers in terms of your approach to making music?

Western: Well, for me, the Kone project represents the heavier electronic expression. Phil Western albums are sort of whatever comes out of me – could be multiple genres across a record. And those are really the only two names I use these days. Tim Hill and I will probably release another Frozen Rabbit release, and that will be quiet music.

What are your thoughts on the way the industry is approaching how it builds new instruments with respect to the needs of artists – both up-and-coming and those with more of a history?

Western: Well, I love what Korg has been doing, although the MS20 is the only one of the new instruments that really made me excited. It isn’t that I don’t think the cheaper analogs they make aren’t cool, because they are, but they are kind of toys in a lot of ways; very fun toys, I will admit. But I prefer a bit of a meatier sound, I guess. However, at least Korg is doing it!

Discussing equipment, it does now seem that Roland actually is jumping on the Korg bandwagon of reissuing/updating past models like the TR-808 and what not (and it’s well known that cEvin Key has made frequent use the 808). Should they come out with a new version of the 303 and/or the 202, would you be interested?

Western: Yes, I noticed that Roland was promoting something or other recently regarding an 808, but it’s hard to tell from the promo what exactly they have up their sleeves. But yes, if they released an 808 and people can buy it for less than $3,000 dollars, I am all for that. I think the prices for synthesizers and drum machines is outrageous.

What do you feel have been the most major changes for you as an artist over the last 20 years?

Western: As things changed in my personal life, the music changed for sure. A lot of my earlier musical output was fuelled pretty much by turmoil. A lot of artists kind of have the same story, and you get to a point where you either die or you live. And a lot of artists live, but their art turns to shit. I am trying to make sure that doesn’t happen for me, but I must admit, it is a different process now, writing music. I used to be so fogged out all the time – even smoking pot was a huge part of making music for years. But I don’t smoke pot anymore, and it took a long time to figure out how to make music without it, and even after I figured it out, it was never really the same. I kind of had to grieve the loss of a certain type of creativity when I cleaned up. It is not that I lost my creativity when I cleaned up – I didn’t, but it is a different type of creativity, and I can’t even put too fine a point on what it is. I made a record about a dozen years ago called Dark Features and there was a lot of pot being smoked and psychedelics being taken during the recording of that music. And you can hear it in the music, for better or worse. There is also this sort of intangible weirdness and raw inspiration in the music that I sort of miss now. A lot of happy accidents would occur that were primarily the result of obsessively working over long hours and lots of periods of no sleep and altered states of consciousness. Now I am quite a bit more industrious about it. I just work, but it isn’t filled with the same sense of the absurd, and I admit, sometimes I miss that. However, there are a lot of things I don’t miss about the way I lived back then and on drugs. I was a total basket case, for one thing, and really not a very pleasant person to be around. I was also deeply depressed a lot of the time. You know, it changes as one gets older. I just want to be able to get there now with a clear mind. And I think I can, but it is a different process. There is less pain, basically, and as we all know, pain generates a different result in art than joy does.

 

 

What’s next on the horizon for you, musically? Will there be a new solo outing with Rustblade?

Western: I am not sure. Bless their hearts, but Rustblade doesn’t really have much money. I mean, I can probably sell my own work to the same number of people directly as a label can, because the music business doesn’t seem to work the same as it used to anymore. If I sell it myself, I cut out the middle man. True, I don’t get distribution that way, but I am not really someone whose work sells because it is in the shops. When I release music, whether by myself or with cEvin, we generally sell our material to the same core of people that we have done for years, and those people are generally fairly loyal and will buy it from me directly, usually online via mail order. So it is hard for me to see the advantage of working with a label, particularly since no one seems to buy CDs anymore, and there isn’t much in the way of artist development done by electronic music labels. The reason I did the Laborandum release with Rustblade is because it was a compilation and it would put the music in the European marketplace, but I am not sure how much they have done to promote it. I have done one or two interviews, which is nice, but I can say firsthand that interviews don’t sell CDs either. Really, the only thing that seems to sell CDs is getting out and playing a lot of shows and hoping you get some festivals along the way, because that is where the people are.

 

Phil Western MySpace https://myspace.com/philwestern
Phil Western Facebook https://www.facebook.com/phillip.c.western
Phil Western Bandcamp http://philwestern.bandcamp.com
Rustblade Website http://www.rustblade.com
Rustblade MySpace http://www.myspace.com/rustblade
Rustblade Facebook https://www.facebook.com/rustblade.label
Rustblade Twitter https://twitter.com/rustbladelabel

 

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