Sonny Fodera certainly gets around. Born in Adelaide and now based in London, he’s also lived in Melbourne, Ibiza, San Francisco and, er… Birmingham. Last week he was in Mexico, tomorrow he’s in Canada, but today he’s in New York, part-way through a monster tour that will round off what’s been a glorious year.
His debut album, Frequently Flying, was released on Defected in November and followed a series of acclaimed summer shows, a Beatport Number One with Gershon Jackson, several award nominations and a superb Radio 1 Essential Mix that you can still find on his SoundCloud - two hours of deep ’n’ techy tunes from Walker & Royce, Groove Armada, Todd Terje, etc.
“Releasing my debut album was definitely the highlight of the year for me,” says the 31-year-old. “Yes, I love singles and I love club tracks, but there is something hugely satisfying about putting together a bunch of tunes and making them work as a whole. It’s like you’re telling a bigger story.”
Is it always easy to tell if a new track is going to be album-worthy?
“Sometimes, yes, you know straight away when it’s going to fit in with that overall feel. But there are times when a track has such a weird sense of direction that you don’t really know where it’s going to end up until you’re doing the final mix.
“Let’s take a track like Feeling You. I was doing some stuff with Secondcity, and he came in with a great Yasmin vocal [the Manchester-born vocalist has also worked with Major Lazer and Gorgon City] that was about three years old. In a very quick 12 hours, we added a bassline, some cool pads, and finished up with what we thought was a decent song.
“That went out to a few labels and we got a lot of interest, but then Yasmin heard it and wanted to get back in the studio because she felt she could hear something else in the vocal… she could add something to it. We already had what we thought was a finished song, but after Yasmin came in, we ended up with a different song, and that song ended up on the album.”
So, there are no songwriting rules? Always start with a beat or always start with a melody…
“I guess we all have rules, but we all break those rules when we feel like it. A beat is probably the most common starting point for a song. God knows how long dance music has been around, but that straight 4/4 kick drum can still inspire so many different ideas.
“Even if you were to go into the studio every day for a week and start with the same simple kick drum, you’d come out with seven totally different songs. Isn’t that amazing? The kick drum can still take you off in so many different directions, depending on what mood you’re in or what you’re listening to.”
One or two of the tracks seemed to surprise people. Wasted almost ventures into… jazz!
“Wasted was written in a much more traditional, studio kind of way. What I mean is that some songs are ‘in-the-box’ songs, but this was all about people together in a room. Physically playing together and firing ideas off each other.
“As much as I love making music with a computer, you can’t beat that feeling of being there and creating music with other people. I guess it’s something that’s got lost over the last few years, which is a shame. I do think that I’ll be incorporating more live instruments into my sound in the future.”
Speaking of which, you can play quite a few instruments, can’t you? We read somewhere that you can turn your hand to recorder, trumpet, bass, guitar, classical guitar and piano.
“Well, that might be pushing it a bit. I did learn a lot of instruments when I was a kid, and went through a really cool school music programme. My mum and dad were musicians, too. It was a very musical household.
“I used to be able to read music and everything, but I’ve been away from that technical side for so long. Even my guitar playing’s not what it used to be. The guitars on Wasted were by Ricky Ahir; it was him with me on bass.
“Ironically, having just said that, I’m going to be incorporating more live instruments into the sound, but I’ve actually stopped playing live bass. That’s one of the instruments I spent a lot of time learning as a kid. Dad introduced me to stuff like Hendrix - I actually played Foxy Lady at a school concert when I was about eight - but when I was a bit older, I started listening to a lot of classic disco. Y’know - Chic, Sister Sledge… I loved that Bernard Edwards bass and really studied the whole pop-funk-disco-rhythm thing.
“For years, I used to add live bass to my tracks, but then I got hold of Trilian; the bass guitar is now gathering dust in the corner. There are sounds on there that are just so damn funky. And, of course, if you’re playing it, or programming it from a keyboard, you tend to get a little bit crazier and more experimental.”
Is the studio full of ‘real’ instruments?
“The studio is in a state of flux at the moment, because I’ve just bought a house and I want to move from my rented studio space into the house. But, yes, there are a few instruments… some analogue hardware. A Fender Stratocaster, Washburn bass, Elektron Analog Keys, a Moog Sub 37, Moog Minitaur, microKORG, Novation Bass Station II.
“I had to leave a lot of stuff behind in Australia after I moved to the UK. It was almost like starting from scratch. One thing I do wish I’d brought over is my old Akai MPC2000. The sound you could get from that was so good that we used to put all the drums into that, then sample them back into the computer. Yeah, you can get a ton of gadgets that will add swing to a beat, but nothing seems to do it like the MPC.
“I do use soft synths, but I’ve always got that hardware option. I still love jamming on a synth with real knobs because you’ll always end up finding a sound that surprises you. For me, that’s one of the biggest problems with soft synths: if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with the same sound that everyone else has got. Think back to when everybody was using Massive. And you’ve got the same problem at the moment with Sylenth1.
“Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against soft synths. I just think you have to work hard to find sounds that nobody else has found. Make them do what you want them to do. Don’t let them stay in control.”
You mentioned Trilian earlier…
“Yeah, I’m a big fan of Trilian. I’ve also got Omnisphere and that new one from Spectrasonics - Keyscape. What else is on there? The Arturia stuff, of course the Korg collection, the full Native Instruments bundle and Maschine 2.
“The quality of the sound that you can get from soft synths is getting better and better - Trilian is a perfect example of that. And, of course, you can take them on a plane! I think I’d find it more or less impossible to be in a situation where I could only make music when I was physically in the studio. You’d have an idea for a bassline on a plane at seven in the morning and… man, that would drive me crazy.
“The Gershon Jackson remix that went to Number One on Beatport last year, Take It Easy, was actually put together on an early-morning flight to Milan and mixed on my headphones. The whole thing took less than an hour. When it started taking off [the track, not the plane!], I was like, ‘How did that happen? It was mixed on headphones’.
“I suppose that’s what we all love about music; but it’s also the thing that annoys us. You spend all that money on a studio, analogue synths and some fancy Focal monitors, but sometimes, all you need is your laptop and a pair of headphones.”
Recent interviews have you down as an Ableton fan.
“Definitely! I’ve been there since about 4 or 5 and always get excited when there’s an upgrade. It’s far more than just a platform; it’s an instrument in itself and becomes part of the creation process. The way you can throw things in there and stitch them together… slicing up an acapella.
“The onboard effects are pretty good, too - basics like delays and reverb - but I’ll admit that I’m a massive fan of UAD effects. Those tape simulations add warmth and grit that you won’t find anywhere else. The payback, of course, comes to your CPU. For the last six months, I’ve been expecting my poor MacBook to crash every time I turn it on. It’s a three-year-old i7 model and really does need upgrading, but that thing has stayed rock-solid. It’s getting to the point where I’ll be too scared to upgrade because I know something will go wrong!”
Has it always been Ableton?
“I started with Cool Edit Pro and FruityLoops, with a little Casio keyboard that made these super-cheesy sounds. I must have been about 15 or 16. At the time, I was still listening to a lot of rock music, but it was hip-hop that got me into making beats.
“There was a band in South Australia called Hometown Hoods, and they were mixing rock music elements with hip-hop beats, which made perfect sense to me. From there, it was Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, getting my own turntables, trying to DJ, scratching, making my own mixtapes.
“I was listening to a bit of house music, too, but there was one particular night that totally turned my head. I was at a club in Adelaide called Electric Circus, and Derrick Carter was playing. Something magical happened… How can I put this? It was around this time that I was also experimenting with other things. Haha! The combination of the people, the space, the sound system, those beats and the other stuff changed my entire life. At that moment, I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to make house music’.
“We’re talking about 2003 here. At the time, the sound was US-driven; very funky and full of disco samples. All played at a nice, relaxed 123bpm. Because of my disco past, I could put it all together in my head. The funk… the bassline and the drums working together. Like I said earlier, that’s still the basis of dance music. You’ve got your kick and you’ve got your bass… let’s get them talking to each other.
“I’m not sure if I’d have called myself a producer or even a DJ, but I was making my own tunes and I was learning to DJ. Me and my mate, James Shoji, who also appears on the album, would stay up all night, swapping vinyl and doing these mammoth crazy mixes.
“When you’re listening to music all the time, you start to hear how it works; what makes this a good song. OK, you’ve got your intro beats, breakdown, the drop and the outro. Of course, now I know it’s not that simple, but back then, we started trying to replicate what we were hearing, burning it onto CD and taking it around to local radio stations.
“I couldn’t believe it when Fresh FM actually started playing some of my stuff! My God! And then I started getting offered DJ gigs. Looking back now, it seemed to happen almost too easily, but the next stage - getting something signed to a label - was much harder.”
We doubt if there’ll be many readers who disagree with you. Let’s have it, then… the Sonny Fodera secret.
“Get to know the right people. Every time I was at a club, I’d try and get to know the other DJs and the people who worked for record companies. I wasn’t making a nuisance of myself, I was just talking to them about music; finding out what they were listening to.
“After that, I’d maybe send a couple of tracks and hope that it clicked in their head. ‘It’s the guy from the club’. I guess it did click, because I got signed, but believe me, there is no guarantee. Even at the stage I’m at now, there are still labels - I won’t name them - who won’t even send a reply. I’m not kidding. There’s one label I’ve been sending stuff to for almost ten years and I’ve heard nothing.
“The whole process is a bit of a juggling act, because, on the one hand, your music needs to interest a label; on the other hand, they won’t sign you if you’re just copying something they’ve already signed. I definitely used to do that when I was younger. I’d hear something new and go, ‘Wow, I want to be signed to that label’, so I’d concentrate on making songs that I thought would fit into some kind of template they were looking for.
“That’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make: always chasing after a new sound. One week, it’s this sound and this label; next week, it’s something totally different. You have to persevere with a sound, but you also have to believe in your own talent enough to let your own songs come through.”
Sonny Fodera’s debut album, Frequently Flying, is out now on Defected.