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