As a music student at Thames Valley University, Will Phillips was very much the wannabe producer. When he found encouragement after his demo was played on Radio 1Xtra by MJ Cole, he moved from London to Brighton to escape his hedonistic lifestyle and focus full-time on music production.
Inundated by A&R following the release of his self-titled debut EP, Phillips was in need of trusted guidance and eventually plumped for Method Records, run by UK Garage siblings Disclosure. Phillips' career then took an unexpected U-turn, having co-written the massive No 1 Pop hit Stay With Me with then unknown singer/songwriter Sam Smith.
Encouraged by the single's huge success, Phillips plotted his solo ascent with the release of his debut album, U. Recent singles, To Have You Back and Run, provide a taster of what to expect, as Phillips' career prepares for take-off with live slots at this year's Coachella, Glastonbury and Sonar festivals.
What can you tell us about your writing and recording environment?
"Well I'm in this studio at a business complex in Hackney. Some of the studios are for small businesses and start-ups, but lots of them are recording studios. Musician-wise, there's probably about ten or 15 here, and I like this one because it doesn't feel like a studio - it was actually an old pirate radio station, but I'm not sure they could pay the bills. It's a room within a room, which is good for my focus.
"I moved here in January 2014, painted it and put the carpet down. It's a bit DIY, but it's mine. I'll probably keep this place just for playing things really noisily, but I'm definitely going to have a little home studio - and that will be more Ableton-based."
You're a self-taught pianist, but don't tend to use the instrument in your music…
"I play synths a lot more than I play piano. It's still all about chords, melodies and harmonies, which I've always really loved. I have a Yamaha U1 here and I like to just sit and write melodies and take them over to my Juno-106.
"When I was a kid, I used to have three or four Yamaha synths - I'd get a new one every three years. I haven't recorded the piano yet, except with a room mic just to get a gritty kind of sound rather than that well-refined, beautifully recorded sound. I like the idea of just sampling it."
Has your path to success been a tortuous one?
"The reason I think I stuck with music for so long is because I love it. There's been months when I've written so much music and everything's rubbish, and I think any sane person would think, 'Why am I doing this… where's the end point?'. But because I love the process of writing music as opposed to the outcome, putting yourself through that torturous creative process means you get there in the end and it's always worth it.
"If I had to go and get another job, I'd go get another job - I'm not bothered and I'm not proud. I'm so lucky that I'm a musician at the moment; I might not be one day, but as long as I keep pushing myself, hopefully it will be my career for many more years. I guess you're only wasting moments in your life when you're sat in your pants at home not doing anything - so I only try and do that for three days a week [laughs]."
You started by taking piano lessons?
"I was always playing piano as a kid - we had an old one in the house. Then, when I was about six years old, I really wanted to play drums, so my mum bought me a snare drum. I didn't realise that just having a snare drum, all you could do is sound like a marching band. Then I started playing computer games on an old Packard Bell PC and remember the beginning of sequencers."
Was that your first stab at production?
"Actually, there used to be a keyboard called a Yamaha DJX, which was like this naff late-90s keyboard with DJ sounds on it, but I absolutely loved it. I managed to plug the keyboard into the computer using a rudimentary PCI card MIDI interface, and then I got Cubasis, which was like entry-level software, and some sample CDs that I'd put into the computer to drag in loops and stuff. Then I think Reason came around in the early 2000s, which was when computers were getting cheap and the software better."
Were you stumbling around to find your sound?
"I've never met anyone who writes the music in their head first and then gets it out. I discover what I like by messing around. If there is a thread, it's that I always start at the piano, so I think the melodies and harmonies always start with very specific progressions or sounds that make me feel a certain way. I'm still stumbling across what my sound is; it's as ever-evolving as I am. I write a lot of tunes on the piano because the melody can dictate the emotional resonance of the song, and if there's a motif or idea that I like, I'll record it on the phone and take it to the synths; but there's no formula."
What was it like to co-write the Sam Smith track and see it hit 600m YouTube plays? Can you comprehend something being that successful?
"Erm, no… I try and detach myself from it because it doesn't mean anything. It's so big, I can't comprehend it, but it's not big in terms of the universe, is it? I could have a really big, fancy studio, but I don't want one, because I don't think that is what writes good records. I have to remember how fragile ideas are and remember that's the point of it all, not rewards or YouTube plays.
"That might sound ungrateful, but I never aimed for that stuff, so I don't want to be defined by it."
For young producers like yourself, is releasing an album as exciting today as a single or EP?
"For me, it is. I love albums by Four Tet and Jon Hopkins, because I love the texture of sound as well as the story of where it comes from. I used to listen to Brian Eno when I was growing up; he's one of my heroes. You can say more with an album because there's more time - it's as simple as that. If you want to say something, the longer you have, the more articulate you can be. If you can make a single that gets played on the radio, then it's happy days, and singles are really cool for people like Bicep, who do great club music, or Major Lazer; but I'm more interested in telling stories.
"I grew up listening to Röyksopp, Roni Size, The Avalanches, Massive Attack and Portishead, and they were all about albums. I still think that format has an amazing future."
Your new album U comes with an art print, which is a nice touch… Are you a big fan of vinyl?
"You can't kill some stuff. We don't always react to things objectively, do we? It's cool having a song on your phone, but it's a different experience to owning vinyl, so there's value there. With albums, there's something quite meditative about putting it on and sitting back. Music is about losing yourself. Sometimes it's great to listen to music on public transport and sometimes it's better at home - that's why I mix the records then give them to really talented mix engineers who can make a song sound really good in this room or maybe a club, but nowhere else."
Your use of vocals is quite unusual - you don't use them in a traditional sense but more like instruments…
"It's interesting to me. I think there are nine lyrics on my album and I really thought about each one. I wanted to make a story that was about a portion of my life. I do use vocals as instruments, but they are saying something. I chop them up and find spaces that sound emotionally resonant, then sample and resample them to help change that meaning. That's what I love about digital: having the ability to turn a voice into something that is not only lyrically pertinent, but musically.
"Some of the vocals are samples - there's an Usher sample on there - and then the rest of it's me singing into a Neumann mic or maybe my phone. If I want a specific lyric, I'll just sing it and manipulate it."
You also tend to use a lot of vocal pitching. What effect are you looking to bring to the sound by doing that?
"I think it creates an interesting sound that becomes almost super-human when it's not male or female and non-identifiable. I like that sound and I think people can use it in really good ways or bad ways. It's almost like sidechain compression; it's about not trying to be too clichéd in how you use things."
It's been said that you write sad dance music that makes people happy. Would you agree with that?
"I like melancholy, but the last thing I want is for people to feel sorry for me. I think there's a fragile part of me - I can quite easily cry listening to a melody. That sounds pathetic, but I've written chord changes and just the sound of the synth can bring me to tears. That's why I think a chord change is sometimes more meaningful to me than a lyric.
"When I was really young, I was so emotionally touched by chord changes that I thought I had something wrong with me. I like to aim for that feeling of emotional resonance and can't wait until I get that, because it's like a drug. You forget time and feel the most alive you've ever felt. That's what the essence of music is, finding a part of you that can be familiar but you also didn't know existed.
"The album is all about a relationship. Is it sad or happy? I don't know. We've all had heartbreak; I'm just trying to make an electronic album about it."
Seeing as there's not much lyrical content, does it make it harder to project emotion through the music alone?
"The names of the songs are the lyrics. A lot of people never put much thought into that, but Four Tet does it amazingly well. His record There Is Love instantly conjures up things just by reading the title, then there's this beautiful piece of electronic music that gives another meaning to it. Making austere music with titles that don't really mean anything is also cool, but it's not what I wanted to do with my first record.
"One of my favourite songs is Another Chance by Roger Sanchez - that really cool house record. I love that one repeat lyric because it makes sense about where the song was born from.
"I'm not really very good at making beats, I'm probably too impatient to do that - the business and hype machine have born a certain music that's all about drops and people's expectations of what a piece of electronic music is. It's almost pre-written now. They want drops, big breakdowns and XYZ, but I don't play that game; it feels a bit cheap."
Tell us what you're using as your production sketchpad.
"Logic has always made sense to me… the linear design from left to right with the instruments
going down the left side. I'm using Logic Pro X and have it on automatic update, although I'm using Ableton more now because I didn't realise how great it is. I started using Ableton in 2013, playing all my shows through it. Then through being on tour buses and stuff I thought I'd look into how to write things with it, but it's only recently that I've started to enjoy that. I've not yet written a piece of music and finished it in Ableton, but I really like the way it looks."
So you don't necessarily see it as the complete product?
"I think you can actually hear tunes that were written in Ableton. Because they're written in a certain way, you can hear how people automate and EQ things and almost hear the creative process. I like that, but I also dislike it. For me, Logic is great but I'll probably mix it up now because I love how powerful Ableton is and how simple it is to utilise that power. To do something in Ableton is so much easier, whether it's time-stretching or chopping up a sample - and Logic is useless to me without the whole Komplete Native Instruments setup."
What elements of Komplete are you most attracted to?
"I use Battery for drums, because they're amazing, and then Kontakt for vocals and other sounds. I really like Omnisphere and Diva, although I don't use Diva that much. I prefer not to use Reaktor or FM8; I've never really liked the sound of FM synthesis."
What plugins do you use for processing?
"I like all the Waves stuff as well, especially playing around with the L3 Ultramaximiser plugin and putting drums through it. It's a beautiful limiter and sounds so good, so I really like making crunchy sounds out of that. The flanger is fantastic; I love the way you can pause it at certain points."
Do you record your hardware synths straight into the box?
"I try not to run MIDI out of them. I prefer recording them like I would a Rhodes or a guitar, because I always think of synths as instruments, as opposed to MIDI devices. If I can't get a sound out of something within about five minutes, I get bored. I need to be tactile, but as you can see, I'm not really an external outboard guy yet. There are some things I do want to buy, like a nice preamp but I've got all this UAD stuff - emulations of classic preamps, compressors, EQs and reverbs, and their plugins are real winners.
"With these UAD plugins, I can't tell the difference, and I'd rather not spend £20,000 on all these amazing bits of outboard gear when I can get near enough with these plugins to get a vibe going and then get it mixed by someone who's really got that expertise."
Tell us about your Moog Sub 37…
"It's new and a truly analogue synth. I've got five of these Moog synths - some of them are at home and I use one for live. I just love them; they're expensive but they last forever and are classic bits of kit. They have a lovely filter section with all the oscillators and different waveforms, and you can do pulse code modulations of square waves on it. I like square waves; there's so many happy little accidents you can make from them and a lot of the lead and bass sounds on my records have come from the Moog. It's also got a really nice arpeggio and it's duophonic, which is nice for a Moog because they're usually mono.
"I'll play it straight into the Mac, record it, chop it up and do some effects processing in the box. I love using syncopation in music; it keeps the interest up and rhythm is something that people don't always play with enough."
Is that why you shy away from drum programming, because it's difficult to blend with syncopation?
"Absolutely, you're quite right. The musical elements in my sound are usually very rhythmic. The lead line on Run, for example, is quite rhythmic, so just putting a kick drum underneath is fine. I used to love listening to garage because of the complexity of the rhythm, the swing and the beats, and I think a remnant of that is this swing feel in my records. I don't really write music that's straight 4/4."
We noticed you have a Doepfer Dark Energy II. Is this your first experiment with modular?
"I've hardly got into this - it's for a brand new project. I wanted a nice introduction to modular synthesis, which I know nothing about but it really interests me. It's easy to just buy and buy stuff, but I just want a few key pieces, and people told me this is a good introduction to analogue synthesis. It will be my pet project for my next album. I plugged it in for the first time and it just made a constant noise, which scared me a bit. I need to learn how to gate or MIDI control it."
Do you still use Elektron Machine Drum MKII?
"Yeah, it's from a Swedish company and pretty new. I like programming drums this way; it's great at making rhythms for club tracks. It's a drum synthesiser, really, which makes interesting drum sounds, and you've got control over all of them. It's got a sequencer, so I can program the drums from here and record them back in. It's quite nice for intricate things, like hi-hats.
"I just bought a refaced Roland TR-8 as well, because it's really good fun for using live with the Roland MX-1."
What's your full live setup at the moment?
"So I've got the Moog Sub 37, a Moog Little Phatty Stage II, a Roland TR-8 and the Roland MX-1, which is a fantastic performance mixer that works as an audio interface. I plug it into my laptop and it gives me four channels for my original tracks - drums, bass, synths and vocals from every tune - and you can pull them in and out.
"Then I've got different scenes in Ableton. For example, one will be the intro to a tune that loops, so I can pull out the drums for the intro. Then I've got samples of all the sounds from my records and I can trigger those, apply delay and filters, and use the drum machine to replace the track drums. It's all pretty stable. I've got it so that when I click on each scene in Ableton, it will change the preset and the drum kit on the TR-8. I've put a lot of effort into programming everything, so I'm not about to play a tune and it's on the wrong sound. It means I can just focus on performing."
It sounds as though you like to give yourself plenty of scope for improvisation?
"I've got the ability to extend an intro to a tune, slow down the tempo on Ableton or bring in a new one. If I just bounce the record out of Logic and play the bassline, it shows you can play but it's not really live, so I try and re-contextualise my tunes for the space and open up the sound in the record. That's what people pay their ticket price for. They don't pay to hear the tune on the record but to hear it done in a way that's not just different but 'good' different and builds a bit of danger. I think live acts sometimes lack the ability a DJ has to control a crowd, which is the responsibility of a live electronic artist - holding their hand and taking them on a journey."
U is available now on Monday Records. Check out the Tourist website for more release info and tour dates.