When I first heard Fukushima and then the album Black Boulder, I was enthralled and intrigued in equal measure. PHON.O blends an easy listening, almost chillout approach using self-sampled sounds with quirky rhythms and addictive melodies that culminates in a unique EDM experience.
In this interview we chat candidly with PHON.O about his early years, his music making process, gear, using Ableton Push in the studio, Live 9, MaxMSP and Cubase, mixing for home and clubs, his next album, and the impact Thom Yorke playing his track, Fukushima, has had on his career.
Editor's Note: An excerpt of this interview was published in July issue of AskAudio Magazine. Get your digital copy here.
Tell us about your background and how you got into music making...
In 1994 I went to my first real Techno party at a club called Distillery in Leipzig, Germany. Before that I was into grunge, Rage Against the Machine, Body Count, etc. But this party was mind-blowing and changed my way of listening to music. I wanted to figure out what kind of sounds were used. Every release at this time was super fresh to me, very exciting.
Which artists influenced you at that time?
It was mixed. I grew up with the early Warp label artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre which were cool and intense. Then I started to buy records and DJ with my friend Apparat. We grew up in the same area and started to do parties together and it was a chance for us to play and practice in front of lots of people. And we forced them to listen to our shit!! [laughs]
After finishing school I went to Berlin, saved up money while working and began buying gear. I shared a studio with Apparat and all the money we earned went straight into hardware gear. We started with an Atari, sampler and synths. We couldn't afford lots of gear so we tried to get the most out of every single piece of gear. But, I think this was really important when starting out.
So, these gear limitations helped you when making music?
Yes. When I see younger friends learning music now they have everything they need at once. But, they don't really understand what a synthesizer is, oscillator, filters, ADSR, etc. I always tell them the best thing they can do is to take a course or watch video tutorials.
What was your typical gear list for a typical live show at that time?
Well, back in 1997 we used nearly all of our studio equipment. It took about 2 hours to set up! We had a cheap Roland sampler, which we could connect to a CGA monitor which was pretty awesome at the time. It even had a connection for mouse input, which was somehow very comfortable at the time. We had a Yamaha synthesizer, a drum machine from Roland and a Jomox. We had the third one which was ever built!
I'm not familiar with the Jomox.
Well, Jomox was a famous drum computer made by the company of the same name in Berlin. They still exist and do great stuff! We couldn't afford a 909 and the Jomox was half the price of a secondhand 909 and it has some unique features, too.
"When I play live, I use an Akai APC40, Native Instruments' Traktor X1 and F1 as a MIDI controller… and I plan to integrate an Ableton Push into this setup too."
Thanks. What gear are you using today?
I'm completely on the computer these days, mainly using Ableton Live. The biggest advantage for me is that I can do a sketch and then leave it for several days or weeks and then go back and check whether it's working or not.
I have outboard gear, but I don't use it anymore. It takes a long time to set up and then you have to write down the adjustments and all that kind of thing. I'm pretty happy I can do everything on a computer. I guess some complain that it doesn't sound warm, or analogue. But, if you listen to my latest album, Black Boulder, a lot of people believe it's been made with a lot of analog hardware, but it isn't! It's just a question of how you texture and layer sounds, and cut some frequencies so it doesn't sound too digital or clean. I really don't like it if it sounds like you just opened a preset in a software instrument.
When I play live, I use an Akai APC40, Native Instruments' Traktor X1 and F1 as a MIDI controller… and I plan to integrate an Ableton Push into this setup too.
I've really enjoyed listening to your album Black Boulder, and love your interesting rhythms, grooves and textured percussive/melodic elements. Can you share some of your techniques with us?
Sure. I like things to sound organic. To create unique textures I sample a lot of real sounds and layer these with synthesizers, drums and whatever. This generates ghost notes and somehow makes it feel more human.
Where do you go to sample sounds?
Sometimes outside, or with a mic and record sounds at home, in my kitchen - whatever might sound interesting and warm. For example, I may knock a wooden cooking spoon on a table or plastic bottles. Then I layer these sounds with drum sounds for an organic feel.
Do you use Ableton's Simpler, Sampler or a third-party sampler?
Mostly I use Drum Racks for the percussive sounds and for other sounds I'll use Sampler (sometimes Simpler - because it's simpler). They work well, so there's no reason for me to use something else.
I also use Native Instruments' Komplete and for weirder effects I use Guitar Rig's special effects section where you can build quite nasty, rack-based combinations. On every track I have at least two Guitar Rig effects. Typically these are not distortion. These are more like for delays and reverbs in combination with subtle distortions.
I also use Lexicon reverbs. But I also like Live's reverbs for different purposes - for stranger, longer sounds where you can completely alter the textural element and not just add space to a sound.
I know you're also using the Ableton Push. You mentioned you're not using it when performing live yet?
I don't use it live yet, only because I haven't had time to rebuild my live setup. When I use it I really want to take advantage of its features. At the moment I'm working on my new album, so after that I'll integrate Push, which will be awesome! The color coding of the clip pads and integration of the drum sequencer is pretty cool. It'll be the next level for me. Right now, I'm using Push a lot in the studio.
PHON.O uses the Ableton Push in combination with Live 9 for much of his creative workflow.
Has Push changed the way you create melodies or the way you play them... Or both?
What I really love about Push is that you're able to get new musical ways of playing melodic parts. It doesn't change everything totally, but it's always good to have new ways for performing a melody. I'm not fast at playing chords and melodies on a keyboard. I know what I'm doing, but I'm not quick. So, it's pretty good for me to play new melody lines and harmonic phrases on something like Push, which as a not so talented dude, gives me the chance to create something new. That's what I love about getting new gear; it gives me new ideas.
Has Push helped to speed up your creative or production Live 9 workflow?
I wouldn't say I'm quicker, but this is a problem I've always had with myself. I spend a lot of time writing and creating new sounds - adjusting them. The creative part where you are playing or recording notes - what I call the sketch - this is nearly the same for me. Maybe I'm saving time creating beats as Push's Sequencer works very nicely with drum racks. But then I take the saved time and spend it on the other side of production. So, in the end everything takes me the same amount of time. [laughs] Being super fast is not important for me. It's cooler for me to reach the sound I want.
Another cool thing about Push is when you start triggering clips you can create a quick rough arrangement, because you can jump to another scene and create duplicate notes, or whatever, which is pretty cool. So, you don't have to look at the screen but can create multiple variations on the fly, so this is a big time-saver and it makes arranging fun!
Is there anything about Push you'd like to see improved in the future?
Yes. I'd like improvements for integration of 3rd-party instruments with the step sequencer. There is a workaround, but it'd be good to have this done in an easier way to easily browse 3rd-party plug-ins. Now, you can put them into an Effect rack and the plug-in will appear, but it'd be cool to have plug-3rd-party ins directly supported as inserts.
I know Ableton are working on number of new features. Give them some months and it'll be fine.
I'm really impressed with the Max4Live integration. Do you use this, too?
Yeah, that's a pretty good thing. I used Max4Live in Live 8, but in Live 9 it's way faster and easier to use. It's amazing what you can do now and there's a big scene behind this and they're working all the time on new patches.
I'm sure people will build weird sequencing and musical instruments for Push too. I don't know what, but I'm sure they'll be interesting...
Aside from Live, do you use any other DAWs or audio applications?
I still use Cubase which I grew up with. Somehow I haven't switched to doing my final arrangements in Live, though I think with Live 9 and Push that's happening and it makes no sense anymore to arrange outside of Live anymore. But, most of the time I create all my ideas in clip mode in Live. Then I create a rough arrangement and record the stems as single tracks and export these to Cubase.
The mixing is a little easier in Cubase, which I'd love to have in Live 9: a mixer where you can see the inserts and proper meters.
From a creative point of view, perhaps it's nice to take a track out of one app to another because it changes your perception of the tracks; puts you in another headspace. Do you find that?
Yes. It changes things definitely. I see new ideas and things I can change immediately... Like maybe to get rid of one track, or improve it using EQ, or whatever. The advantage is that I clean up my arrangement while I'm bouncing tracks out of Live.
"I'm really influenced by the source of the sound itself which influences how I play it and the context it fits into a track I'm making."
Where, and when, does creative inspiration strike for you? In front of Live/Push or elsewhere?
It's always a little bit different. Sometimes, I'll hear a weird, or cheesy, pop track on the radio and I'll just wonder how they created particular elements, like the percussion or reverb on certain sounds. That may be a good starting point and when I go into the studio I don't copy it, but try to understand the way it was done and experiment until it becomes something different.
Other times, I'll explore a new sound patch and then feel like it doesn't sound quite right for me and change it. I'm really influenced by the source of the sound itself which influences how I play it and the context it fits into a track I'm making.
Your album, Black Boulder, was released back in May 2012. What have you been working on since then?
I've done several remixes and have been helping a friend of mine, Born in Flamez, to produce a project for her. She's a singer and my job is to make weird beats and sounds. I've also finished an EP on 50weapons, called schn33/go. It's quite dancey.
And what about a new album?
I've started collecting sketches and playing them with Push. I want to keep collecting these until the end of the Summer and then I'll go through my sketches and check which tracks are worth arranging. I'll have to be finished in late Autumn.
Does this album feel like a continuation from Black Boulder?
I've been playing a lot of live shows in which I play the same material from the album, but with a more dance-y feel. The new album will have more of that, but track-wise I'm still trying to keep song structures. I don't want to make a pure techno album. I want to make an album which is electronic, listenable and organic.
OK. I'm even more intrigued now. I don't have an idea what it'll be like...
Me too, I don't have a clear idea yet either. I don't like to start with a main focus like, “OK. Now I'm doing drum n' bass album. I just collect stuff, put it together and in the end something comes out which hopefully will be like an album. Otherwise I'll not release it.
What are you listening to to the moment?
I listen to a lot of different styles at home. At the moment I'm listening to Talk Talk and The Cure, not much electronic music right now. I like Classical music; at home I prefer less energetic music, I like to listen to stuff to give me new ideas and harmonics or something. And I'm listening to the Atoms for Peace album, Amok, as well.
I was going to mention Atoms for Peace. I feel like there's a similar exploration of new rhythmic territories in Amok and Black Boulder.
Yeah. Exactly. I mean they have way better rhythms and more interesting ones. I'm not really a drummer, so I always have to really work hard on getting rhythms out the way I want them. I think it's harder for me than a lot of others who are super fast at programming a lot of cool rhythms!
I heard that Thom Yorke is a fan of your music.
Yes, I heard that also. It's really cool and I'm really proud of this. In his Atoms for Peace DJ set he often plays Fukushima and a couple of years back he played a remix of mine from ModeSelektor, so yes I was happy. He's really a genius. I've been listening to Amok a lot. What's your favorite track?
Well, that's hard. It changes a lot for me. Before Your Eyes enchants me... I've found the album to be one I've grown into. I didn't really get the song Amok at first, and now it's one of my favorites. What about you?
That's always the sign of a good album, where you can explore and find new tracks. I think my favorite now is Ingenue. I really love it for the melodies. Other tracks on the album have cool rhythms I like too.
Back to your music. With the interesting rhythms infused throughout Black Boulder how do you find this translates to the dance floor in a live situation?
Many people can't believe that when I play it loud in a club it's danceable and somehow gets even harder. I mix it on purpose with a very warm flavor, not too over-compressed so that you can listen in a more relaxed way at home. But, if you turn it up then it pushes and fits the club environment. This was my aim and for the next album I want to improve it so you can listen wherever you are; then when I play live maybe I'll create extra versions so it grooves or punches through.
The reaction so far has been good. People are like surprised and say 'Oh, damn. It's groovy!' But, I wasn't so surprised. [laughs]
Do you have any tips for those starting out as producers an DJs?
It's important to concentrate on just a few instruments and effects in the beginning. Otherwise, you can lose focus on what you are making. It also makes sense to watch the audio courses at AskVideo.com. It's so easy to learn about making music, but you need to be patient and follow it step-by-step. Making music can be hard work, but it is worth it when you get that eureka moment, when it all clicks.
Discover more about PHON.O: http://phon-o.com
Listen to Black Boulder on iTunes.
Listen to Schn33 / Go on iTunes.
Listen to Fukushima on iTunes.
Editor's Note: An excerpt of this interview was published in July issue of AskAudio Magazine. Get your digital copy for iPad / iPhone here.