I discovered Tourist’s music during the first UK lockdown. His 2019 album Everyday, grounded in the minutiae of everyday life, depicted a simple domestic scene on its cover: a coffee pot, some bananas, the kitchen window half-open as grey morning light streams in from outside.
As the world shut its doors and my own days spent inside began to bleed into one another, the record’s attempt to find beauty in the mundane gave this bleak and uncertain time a new sense of meaning. But while that album was providing solace to locked-down listeners, the British producer was also shut inside, piecing together the songs that would become his next one.
A deeply personal record written in response to the loss of a close friend, Inside Out was recorded at home, using a modest set-up - just a laptop, an OP-1, a phone and an audio interface - to explore big emotions, and even bigger themes. Like much of his radiant, panoramic electronica, it lives on the boundary between melancholy and euphoria, repurposing the rhythm and pulse of club music to evoke feelings beyond the buzz of dancefloor hedonism.
Speaking to the Grammy-winning artist in his South London living room, he talked us through the endless possibilities of sampling, the joys of disavowing timbral snobbery, and how working within technological limitations can inspire a new kind of creativity.
Could you tell us a little about the background to the new album?
“Most of my records tend to be rooted in stuff that's going on in my life. This one was a weird one, because this was literally smack bang in the middle of a pandemic. And also, I had something sad personally happen, I lost one of my best friends, right at the beginning of the pandemic. We were all by ourselves in lockdown.
“Writing music became quite a healing process for me during this period. I couldn't see his wife because she was on the other side of the world. I couldn’t do the usual things you do when you're grieving. You go and see people, you’re with family, you have a funeral, all that stuff - but none of that happened.
“I've kept myself half-sane by writing music. A lot of these pieces of music on the record are really in reference to this person, in reference to how I was feeling - so yeah, without wanting to go too heavy on a Monday morning, that was it, to be honest. Also, the fact of not being able to be at my studio also informed the production process greatly, which was something that I hadn't anticipated, but was really liberating, actually.”
So you’re working in a commercial studio space?
“Yeah, I have a studio in Hackney just about 15 minutes from where I live. It's filled with nice stuff that I love using that I've accumulated over the last 10 or so years of being a professional musician, but I didn't really have access to that because it didn't feel appropriate. We’re told to stay at home - so it was okay, well, I’m gonna stay at home.”
What kind of set-up were you working with at home and how does that differ to what’s available at your studio?
“This is quite crucial, in terms of this record. All I had was my phone, an OP-1, an Apollo Twin, and a Mac. That was it. There was very little hardware, and very little in the way of synthesizers, things like that, very little outboard. Obviously, the Apollo is great. But the majority of this record was really formed from sampling. I found this quite interesting way of working. I got this adapter for my phone, and I plugged it straight into the Apollo. Then I would just go to Spotify on my phone, I could just sample directly in and you didn't have to go through the whole process of downloading from YouTube and converting to WAV.
“It was almost like sampling from a record player - you just push play. In the new version of Logic, you can sample directly into the sampler from an input. I used to use Kontakt quite a lot. I don't know if you can do that in Kontakt, but you can do it in the new Quick Sampler in Logic. And it was really liberating, because I would just push play, push record, and then you've instantly got your sample. That became a really inspiring way of working for me, because it was almost the antithesis of soft synths - which I love and find very useful. But it was just like: ‘No, I'm going to use real things as sound sources, real things are going to be my oscillators for this record’. And that was really inspiring.”
You mention the OP-1, is that something you’ve worked with on previous records?
“A little bit. I would sample into that - you know, I didn’t realise all of these things. I’m an old man, I don’t do any of this stuff. [laughs] But you can sample into that, and then you can sample from that back into your computer. Also, it's just a really, really solid MIDI controller just for playing in notes. If I'm being brutally honest with myself, I probably bought it because it looked cool. But I quickly realised that there's very little you can't do with a computer, an OP-1, a phone and an audio interface.
“It was so liberating - I think before the pandemic hit, I was like, I'm gonna get 10 artists I want to work with, I'm gonna get your lovely studio, I'm going to record everything, everything's going to be analogue, I'm going to use beautiful synths, I'm going to use this and that - and none of that happened. And it was really liberating. I thought: 'Okay, well, if that's not how I can do this, I have to work with what I have.'
“It was an exercise in dealing with what you've got. I think the 12-year-old me would have done anything to have a laptop, this powerful audio interface that is so stable, and the ability to sample. I would have written any kind of record ever, just with those bits of gear. I really loved it in the end. I'm rinsing it a bit too much now. I think I need to go back to working in the studio a bit more.”
Sometimes limitations can be quite creatively stimulating.
“Yeah, hugely. That’s really the biggest lesson of this record.”
Looking back a little bit now, how did you first get involved with music production and electronic music-making?
“I played the piano ever since I was a child, just because we had one in the house. I didn't have lessons, but I just taught myself, I would listen to music and figure out the chords. I loved that so much. I think I bought a keyboard when I was about 10 or 11. It was the beginning of keyboards not sounding really rubbish, but actually being able to sample in a very primitive way.
“I think the natural step from that would have been that I got some decks because I was listening to loads of dance music. It was the dawn of the internet, in terms of being able to stream things - and I mean RealPlayer, not Spotify, I mean being able to have audio downloaded over the internet in a very Stone Age way. I was listening to lots of UK garage, drum and bass and jungle back then. The logical step for me then was keyboard, decks and a computer. It was probably Reason that I started with in the late 90s, and that was when I was about 11 or 12. It just progressed from there.
“It's funny - I was thinking about it the other day, the past 25 years goes back to the year 2000, and if you think 25 years back from that it was 1975. But not much has changed in the past 25, fundamentally. You can hear it in music. Music hasn’t really changed technically, in terms of how it sounds. Something that was recorded in 1998 could sound like it was recorded now. I love it, it’s such a strange, ageless period of music we’ve got.”
There seems to be a lot of recycling of trends and genres going on nowadays, rather than new and original ones popping up. People looking back and finding value in what’s come before.
“I completely agree. And I think that was probably going on in the late ‘90s. If you listen to Boards of Canada, they will probably have been listening to ‘60s psychedelia and ‘70s ambient music, you can hear that in there. But yeah, it's a very interesting time in culture and music. Because it's a bit rudderless in a way, so no one really knows where to go. But you're right, I'm not sure there's any really new stuff that's happened.”
What led you to move away from Reason to Logic?
“I was very impressionable back then. I found Reason so easy to use, but everyone at my school and college was saying: ‘you’ve got to use Logic.’ So I was like, okay, I've got to use Logic. I remember this period of finding it really difficult to try and write in that instantaneous way that I did with Reason. I wish actually that someone had said, ‘you like Reason, so use Reason.’ Just keep using it. What's the big deal? Why do you need to change? Is your music going to be better?
“I think in my older age, everyone's like: ‘You’ve got to use Ableton, Will.’ Well, I like Logic. Logic’s fine. See you later. [laughs] It took me such a long time, probably from the period of 2002 to about 2005, until I was super comfortable with Logic. But now I love it. For me, it's just one of those things. It's always there, you know?
“Not that Ableton isn't great. But there are certain things you can't do with Ableton. There's no scissor tool. Did you know that? There’s no chopper. You have to click on the clip, move the playhead to the middle, and then splice it like it’s a piece of tape. It’s cool, but it’s a bit more time-consuming. I do so much chopping up of audio regions that for me, that’s ridiculous. It’s a non-starter. It would take me a couple of weeks to reconfigure my brain. I don’t feel any limitations in Logic now. That, for me, is still so great because I can write anything I want in that piece of software.”
Are you more of a software-based producer or do you work a lot with hardware and outboard gear?
“It’s probably 60/40, I would say, 40% hardware. I have a Juno 106, I have a Moog Model D and I have a Prophet-5. I just love those, they’re so instant. You turn it on and within moments you're there. Those three things, they haven't left my studio in the last 10 years. There's other stuff I've had, which hasn’t felt as valuable. I would rather have three things that I love than 15 things I think are okay.
“I kind of wave in and out of being someone who wants loads of gear, and someone who doesn't really want any at all. Because all of it's just a big distraction. The important thing is that music should feel inspiring to write, and sometimes an instrument can really do that, it can really feel inspiring. And I think those three instruments are super inspiring.
“I do have some nice 1073s, I have some Neve stuff that I run vocals through, and I also run the Moog through that, which is really nice to have. I'm not going to argue that those aren't really, really great-sounding EQs and preamps. But if you held a gun to my head, I wouldn't last very long if you A/B’d software and something else and asked me to hear the difference. Because it's so good now, isn't it? It's amazingly good. And I don't have great ears.
“I would say it’s 60% software, you know: Omnisphere, Sampler. All my drums tend to come from software, actually. I've never really thought about making drums with hardware. That's probably something. Wow, that’s actually quite a good idea. I should probably do that.”
When you say drums from software, are you synthesizing those with a soft synth or using samples?
“They’re samples. They are from everywhere, honestly. They can be from other records, they can be from sample packs, they can be from my own sample library that I’ve built up over time. And you know, I’ll just bounce things. I’ll think: 'That's a really nice snare sound' - but it's really an amalgamation of four or five snares. And you're like, okay, I'm going to have a little Tourist sample pack. Those are the things I like to use.”
When the hardware synths you mentioned weren’t available to you, what kind of software were you reaching for to recreate those sounds?
“Omnisphere. Massively. Honestly, that synth is just incredible. It's ridiculous. It's everything. It can be floaty and ethereal or it can be really chunky. It can be anything. I'm really not ashamed of having used presets, they’re so good. The sound of them is so incredible that I’m like, why not?”
There’s a bit less of a taboo around using presets these days, I think.
“Exactly. What do you appreciate? Is it a song, or is it a sound? Do we listen to sounds or do we listen to songs? You know, I hear Four Tet in Omnisphere. You listen to some presets, and you realise, oh, he used that. Okay, cool. If the absolute king can do that, there’s nothing to stop anyone from doing that. It’s all about context.
“For me, music is all about context. It's not about having a pristine process. Everything doesn't have to be modular. Those people are cool, and that's all good. But like, I'm probably not going to hang out with you at the party. I'll listen to you talk about it for 10 minutes, and then I'm like: 'Is it good music?' No matter what the process behind it is. And I love the process, that's very interesting. But I think people get very caught up in that stuff. I like the product more. Just sitting with an album and enjoying the record.”
If someone sits down and writes a song on the piano, you don’t criticise them for not having created the sound of the piano. I suppose it’s the same thing.
“It is as simple as that point. That is definitely the best possible point you could have made, because it's completely true. I remember Diplo, he made this really funny Instagram post, saying: 'People criticise me for not not making my own sounds. So I learned how to play the drums. And then people started criticising me because I didn't make my own drums. So I learned how to make my own drums. And then people criticised me because I didn't make the animal skin for the drum heads, so I killed my own goat' - something like that. It’s such a valid point, about at which point you’re a purist and at which point you are not.
“You know, these guys who use modular, they'll happily go and eat fucking ready meals. Do you know what I mean? It's like, okay why aren’t you growing your own veg? Anyway, there's room for everything in life. That's my viewpoint as I get older. It’s difficult to be a purist.”
Vocal samples pop up a lot in your tunes. Are you working with vocalists to record these yourself, or sampling other tracks?
“I do a mixture of things. I think if, in your head, you clear the samples - you say okay, we're going to clear them, so that means I can use anything I want. Because if you don't clear them, and then someone comes along and then goes: ‘hey, why did you use that?’ Then you end up like the Fugees with Enya, that track Ready or Not, which used an Enya sample and she earned 2 million quid from that, or something ridiculous.
“My lawyer was one of the guys who dealt with that whole process and he was like: 'Will, clear the samples.' So with this record, we’ve got Ellie Goulding, The Mamas and the Papas, Julianna Barwick, Penelope Trappes, Big Thief, The Durutti Column... it was quite the process to clear all this stuff. I'm not going to claim anything, that was my lawyers, they did an amazing job. But it was really important to me.
“In the past, a lot of it I've avoided. I've re-recorded stuff, or I've recorded stuff myself. Or I’ve used infinitesimally small things. I guess I’m putting myself in hot water there. I am really keen to credit people where it's due. And if the music does well, then hopefully that's good for them as welI. I use so many vocal samples, dotted around all over the place. They come from so many different places.”
The vocals in your tracks often have a really warm, rich tone. I was wondering if you could shed any light on your vocal processing techniques?
“I was thinking about this, because I'm a reasonably technical person, but I'm not hugely technical. I don't really have processes. A lot of it happens in the type of samples I choose. I think it's that point which is the really important one. I’m listening for certain stuff, certain qualities in the vocals. For me, it has to just touch me in a way that's like: ‘God that really moves me.’
“I don't really use a lot of compression in my music. I use limiters on stuff. But it's weird, I don't really have a go-to compressor. I have a real go-to EQ, which is the FabFilter, which I love, it just sounds incredible. But I don't have a specific methodology for certain things. I think it's just a combination of lots of different choices that end up making things sound a certain way.
“I'm not a massive processing guy. I do have certain things that I love using, certain reverbs, certain choruses, certain EQs. Those things for me, just have a certain sound that you I love. I used quite a lot of this Universal Audio plugin, the Cyclosonic Panner. Oh my god. It's amazing. I don't know if it's binaural emulation or something, but it does it in a way where it doesn't feel like left and right, and it doesn't feel like naff 3D. It’s a really interesting spatial device for moving sounds around. I was playing around with that quite a lot on this record.
“Is it Valhalla who made the UberMod? That is absolutely incredible. That and the Valhalla VintageVerb. On my live show, I use the Strymon blueSky Reverberator, the guitar pedal. It has that hugely ethereal, everlasting, Brian Eno-like, crystallising reverb sound. The Valhalla thing has a really similar quality. I use that loads. So actually, when I said I don't have a whole vocal process, I think I do. It's the UberMod and the Valhalla reverb. Those are amazing. Those really add depth and space to what I'm doing.”
Something that really makes your music stand out to me is that really expansive sense of atmosphere and space. What else do you think feeds into that?
“I love that wall of sound. Do you know what it is? When I was in my mid-20s, I was listening to lots of shoegaze and electronic music, Boards of Canada. It’s really like a duvet, that stuff, the music is so warm and full. I think I tweeted once: dance music but made by Beach House. That's what I wanted to be on one album. I love the idea of that all-encompassing, shoegaze-y dance music, there's something about that I love. You know that record Star Guitar by the Chemical Brothers? That's a really good one. That's a real touch point for my music. I love it.”
Is it a challenge to mix tracks with so much going on in terms of reverb and space?
“I let my mix engineer deal with that. [laughs] But it is. When this became a job for me, and became something that paid my bills, I was a really crap mix engineer. I really didn't know what it was doing. I can hear it in my earlier music. But as I've made more music, and as I've started to hand it off to mix engineers, I've had to get better and better. Because you give them the idea of what you want, and then they go and make it perfect. But having to give my music to someone else to mix, it's actually had the effect of making me a better mix engineer.
“It is difficult to mix with lots of different reverbs, it really is. Whenever I get my music back from David Wrench, who mixes my stuff, it always sounds like it's lost 10 pounds, stopped drinking for a couple of weeks and been on the beach. It's amazing. It sounds so much better, but not much has changed. It's probably just depth and EQ, and he's the master of that stuff. And also drums. I find it really hard to get bass and drums working together. I want to get better at that.
“At the moment, I'm lucky enough to be able to put my music out myself, but you know, I can fund it. So I can pay for it to be mixed. It's not cheap, but it's worth it to me. It’s one of those really, really worthwhile expenses.
Have you worked with David Wrench on every album?
“My first album was mixed by Dan Parry, who is great. David's mixes always sound like caramel, they sound so pleasant. There’s such a wonderful glue to everything that he does. But Dan’s mixes sound like a Crunchie bar. They’ve got that real punch to it. It’s really upfront, and I loved that, and it worked really well with my first record. But I think with my other stuff, I just wanted to put it through someone else's ears, someone else's process.
“With this kind of downtempo, headphone, reflective electronic music, David is the king of that stuff for me. He really does just make these worlds, and it makes me write in a different way. It makes me think okay, if David's mixing this I can go crazy. I can add so much. We have a very important relationship, and actually a lot of why my music is the way it is, is thanks to David.”
Another element of your sound that I picked up on is this stuttered, rhythmic effect that you have on vocals and synths. Is that a filter you’re automating, or a noise gate that you’ve sidechained, or something else?
“This is something that I love doing. I’m using a tremolo and running a sample through it. But you hear these melodic passages, and they start happening. I don't know where I heard that technique first. I remember listening to lots of Todd Edwards, 4/4, chopped up, house music with an unbelievable amount of samples in. I wanted to emulate that in a way, but make it feel as though the sounds are all contiguous, and all the same. I found that if you use a tremolo, and you put a sample through it, you get this really interesting rhythmic and melodic effect, depending on what you run through it.
“If you just put a sine wave, obviously, it's not going to do much - it will just make a rhythm out of a sine wave. But if you reverse an old folk song, and then maybe that's got a guitar and maybe it's got a female vocal in, and then if you put a reverb after that, you get these flecks of melody that will change. And if you just hold down middle C on your keyboard in your sampler, you will hear stuff that sounds inspiring. Maybe I've given away one of my secrets there, but I don't care, because it's so inspiring.
“I think I did it in Against The Clock for FACT. I do exactly that thing, and I do it with an old Talk Talk sample. I reverse it, or time-stretch the sample, so it becomes this drone. Then I run it through the tremolo. If you change the depth of the tremolo, you get this lovely effect where the sound feels like it's creeping out at you.”
“Another technique - that I'm sure people have done before, but it was new to me - was I got a sampler and I entered every 16th note on a MIDI grid, so you've got that pulse of a MIDI trigger. Then I used a Penelope Trappes vocal sample, this evolving vocal sound. Then I basically use the sampler to trigger that sound, but if you move the start point, forwards and backwards, and you get this wash of different sounds. And if you increase the release of the sampler, that's basically the main sound in Your Love. That changing vocal sample was created by triggering a sampler once every 16th and then moving the start and end points while that trigger happens. It's such good value for what you're doing, you end up with unbelievably interesting sounds.”
Kind of like a granular thing?
“Yes, exactly, it’s a granular thing. But you're doing it yourself. And if you reverse the sample, that even again becomes more interesting. If you do it on a loop, it's a bit like The Field, he does that kind of thing on Here We Go Sublime. I'm sure that's what he's doing. But maybe he's just finding one song, looping it, and then changing to a different one. But what this does, is it gives you so much more of an ability to hit upon chance, because you're just moving it yourself as this trigger is happening. You don't have to think about triggering a sample, just sweep it across a vocal sound, or sweep it across a whole song, and you'll end up with unbelievably inspiring sounds.”
Are there any other new techniques you’ve experimented with for this record?
“I've also got really into using AI tools to extract sounds from pieces of music. What I'm interested in is not about getting someone else's sound, but it's about the artefacts that occur when you do that. Resampling your own music through an AI tool and asking it to extract the vocal, and it doesn't do a great job, but you get these Burial-esque artefacts. You’re feeding the machine and it throws you back your own music in a way that’s added this quality and this texture.
“Certain radio stations use these really heavy compressors on their main output, and actually, it sounds quite nice. Like with old pirate radio stations I used to listen to as a kid, I’d think: ‘Why do the drums sound so good?’ It’s because there’s this ridiculous compressor on the end of it. I found the same kind of technique worked quite well with these AI stem separation tools. It’ll take the drums out of your own record, but they won't sound anywhere near what they should. But if you remove all the low-end from them, you've got a really interesting accompaniment to those original drums. It adds texture and it adds all this other stuff.
“I’ve stumbled across these really weird ways of working because, as we were saying earlier, music technology fundamentally hasn't changed. Everything's got faster, and everything's got more storage. But the method by which we write music changed so much in the early '90s. And it just doesn't feel like it's changed that much since then. I think I’ve just reached to these different ways of working. Sampling for me is one of the most interesting things that still happens in music. Recontextualizing sounds is more exciting than synthesis, for me. I love synthesis. But when it comes to synthesis, all I love is a warm analogue sound. I've dabbled in modular stuff. But for me, it's sampling. It's just way more interesting.”
Listening through the new album, the single especially, this feels a tad heavier than previous albums, leaning even further into club music than you have before. Was that a conscious development?
“I like challenging myself a little bit. So I thought, what would happen if I tried to write club music? I can't really write club music, I get too bored. I can't just have eight bars, eight bars, eight bars, I don’t have the attention span. But actually, I think I made a concerted effort to make it more upfront. People don't really play my music in clubs. It's not really dance music. It's too dense. It’s more headed toward headphones. But I definitely tried to make it more something that people would want to move to. If you look at the average tempo, of a Tourist album, this one's way up there. It felt quite emotive, given the circumstances of not being able to see anyone. I wanted to make stuff that felt quite physical and communal. I’ve always done mid-tempo, downtempo music, why not try something faster?”
When you’re translating your tracks to a live setting, are you aiming to recreate the sound of the record faithfully or are you leaving some room for improvisation and variation?
“Definitely the latter. The point of live is to recontextualize stuff, so it sounds and feels more pertinent in that setting. A lot of what I do is actually just finding which of my tracks are in the similar key, and then almost doing - this is the worst phrase in the world - a mash-up, incorporating elements from other pieces of my own music, sampling myself across my own music, matching the key and then having moments like, ‘oh, this track is exactly as it is on the record, but there's no drums, I've never heard that.’ That's more interesting for me.
“There's a point in my live show, there's a track I did called Love Theme. And it's a full-on song, usually with drums and everything, but when it's live, it's just the vocal. It’s actually quite arresting. It's like wow, that's lovely. And that's, that's the main lyric in it. It’s really cool to be able to do that, to make these versions of the music that are live. Maybe some of them are more uptempo, but maybe some of them have more reflective moments. Like Apollo, when I play it live, it’s just the intro, this big ambient wash.
“A lot of the recontextualization is about thinking, how do you make it more suitable for a space filled with people? But also how do you remember that those people still have these memories of this record, in their headphones? How do you expand on that? You might loop the intro of Your Love for five minutes, it might drive someone insane. But when it comes to the drop, it’s like: ‘Ah, finally, that’s so good’.”
What’s your live set-up looking like?
“I use Ableton Live. I've got a sampler, the Elektron Model:Samples, which is great. And then I've got a drum machine, the TR-8S. The great thing about that is you can load your own sounds onto it. I used to have a TR-8, but it was just an 808 and a 909. It was fine, but those are quite loaded, those sounds, they conjure up certain stuff for people.
“I've got a mixer, I think it's by Richie Hawtin, the MODEL 1 I think it's called. And then I've got a Universal Audio Apollo 16. That basically allows me through one cable to send four stereo channels from my laptop, so you can send out - without having to have like, tonnes and tonnes of cables - you can send out everything straight from your laptop to the mixer. I’ve got a delay pedal, because the mixer has two sends, I have a Boss delay pedal and I've got the Strymon blueSky.
“I've got my sampler, as soon as I trigger a scene in Ableton everything changes. So the drum machine changes to the right sounds, because the sampler will change to the right patch. It’s really instinctive. It's got to a point now where it works so well. Everything just works. It's really solid, there’s no faff.
“I really don't mess too much with my live set, because it's gone through so many different iterations. I used to play live with another guy and like, you know, we'd have all these samplers and keyboards and it was great, but like - does it sound good? That is the fundamental question. You can have all this stuff to make it live, but you know, we're not a band. At some point you have to think, there's no shame in playing things off a laptop. So why not play things off a laptop really well, and expand on the way it sounds?”
Do you think you’ll head back to your studio for the next record or continue working with this reduced set-up?
“Undoubtedly, I'll head back to my studio at some point. Because when I do I know I’ll play the Prophet-5 and be like… ‘aaah.’ It’s such a beautiful sounding synth. I play the piano, I love keys. But yeah, we’ll see. I love the philosophy of not requiring too much stuff. You don't need it. Maybe if you're recording a band, maybe you need a load of stuff. But the kind of music I make is so accessible to get into doing, and I love that. I used to read a magazine called Future Music, back in the day.”
That’s our magazine, it’s still going strong!
“Yeah? Okay, good. I used to subscribe to that, my dad would get it for me every Christmas, the annual subscription. It was the best thing, I’m really not just saying that. It was so inspiring as a young kid to learn about all this stuff. It was very formative. I've probably got all the copies at my Dad’s. That interview that you did with MJ Cole, he was my hero when I was growing up. I read those pages back to front.”
Tourist’s new album, Inside Out, is out now on Monday Records.