I followed a typical yet fundamental path into the world of "nerdy" dance music. I was into post-punk and new wave at a very young age, which I guess says a lot since I'm still younger than most. I still listen to those records just as often, but they somehow lead me down this road that eventually connected to dance punk, disco, house, techno, and beyond. All of these elements helped shape my taste and style, but I wouldn't know if this big mash of influences was actually beneficial or just confusing. But when I eventually discovered DJs such as Rory Phillips, I learned that all of these sounds can be properly placed side by side when done right. Rory is someone that many DJs and producers should aspire to be like, although none shall be able to replicate his originality and ease. As an integral member of several legendary parties in London with Erol Alkan, to being an in-demand remixer for acts such as Digitalism, The XX, Munk, Gossip, Crystal Castles, and many more, Rory has developed a style of his own and created a fulltime life out of his world of music. He also happens to be one of my favorite DJs to watch and dance to, and I'm definitely excited to catch him on his next North American tour in early 2013. So with that being said, I couldn't think of a better time than now to hit him up for a discussion about everything and anything to do with his art. Hit play on the mix below and read on...
Hey Rory, how have you been?
Very well, hiding from the frost here in London.
Alright so let’s start from the beginning. You’re originally from the West Midlands, but when did you move to London? Was that move made in favor of a music scene?
It was initially for work, as I got a job down here. It was only once I was there that I threw myself into the music scene, which 12 or so years ago when I moved here was in great health.
What sort of things were you listening to around the house growing up? Did your parents listen to anything that may have influenced your taste at all? What kind of records did you start buying in your teens?
At the fear of showing my age here, I think growing up in the 80s was a huge influence. What would have been considered mainstream pop at that time was so diverse, flamboyant and fantastically strange, especially here in the UK. In my teens I was an indie kid but also hugely into rave and hip hop. Hip hop and rap were sort of nerdy pursuit back then, lots of tape swapping between the geeks at my school.
I imagine you weren’t satisfied with any of the music being played in clubs when you were younger, is that how you decided to start DJing? Did you see any DJs early on that inspired you to give it a try?
When I was growing up it wasn't so bad, I used to go to a night that was billed as a 'teen disco' but somewhere along the line morphed into a rave club, and was also the first place I ever saw anybody DJ with a telephone handset.
I read that you began DJing while you were attending university. What were you studying at the time, and did you ever imagine your music hobby to turn into a career?
I have a degree in Multimedia, which most easily described as digital art, and I studied in Newport, which until a couple of years was home to the legendary T.Js club, where I worked behind the bar. The other clubs there were pretty dire, you could either go to an indie club, playing the same old indie records, or a house night, playing the same old house records. I just nagged my boss to let me do a night where I could play music across the board. There was nothing planned beyond just playing there, I just wanted to do it as I had the records and wanted somewhere to play them.
So at that point you made the decision to head to London. Did you have any contacts out there at the time or did you just go for it? How did you end up meeting Erol Alkan?
I didn't really know anybody, I lived in a hostel for three months and would go clubbing or to see shows almost every night. I met Erol just through having seen him play at Trash, and him being the only person I'd ever seen mixing indie records with dance records and throwing in these pop curveballs too. Stuff that seems pretty standard now but at the time was seem as being difficult.
When Erol first had you DJ as a resident at Trash, you were spinning the opening slot every week. How would you describe the importance of the art behind an opening set, and why must every DJ go through the learning process of being an opener?
It's the best way to learn how to read a crowd, knowing how to create a mood and most importantly how to hold back. It's not something every DJ has an interest in doing but it's a shame not to, as it's hugely rewarding.
Opening sets are great for expressing a huge part of your music tastes. I consume a lot of music on a daily basis, and opening slots are often the only time I get to take some weird, awesome chances with different records. People seem to just want to skip to peak-time DJing these days, but would you agree that setting the tone and building up the vibe is an ideal party element?
Oh definitely. I mean there's always that one guy who was the third person to walk in the door nagging you to 'play harder!' but you have to think of the people walking through the door to a club just opening up. Who wants to walk into an empty room with pounding full throttle music playing? You want to make the club inviting, and yes it's a great chance to play those records that you wouldn't otherwise get to play.
It's a shame that people now want to skip to the main slot, especially as we live in times when every other person is a DJ. A good reason to get into DJing is because you see what is around you and think 'I can do better than that' rather than seeing somebody on top and thinking 'I want to do THAT'.
A lot of people try to blend as many different sounds as you do. Eclectic is a word often abused and thrown around, but I think it’s accurate when describing your taste. What’s your strategy when blending so many types of music within a single set in a way that flows naturally? Is searching for the threads in each track to link one to another regardless of genre the game you play?
I like to find the common threads between things that sound quite disparate and link them together, but sometimes contrast is important too. Playing it straight stylistically isn't really of interest to me.
And along with playing your part as a resident at several other parties, you started a few of your own too. What parties are you currently throwing yourself in London at the moment? Tell us a little bit behind the concept behind your “Say Yes” party and the sound that makes it what it is.
We still do DURRR, which was the successor to Trash, and Say Yes is a disco night that I do with Nadia Ksaiba, who is one half of G&S, and Thomas Whitehead. It's our own take on disco though, so takes into a lot of post-punk, synthpop and italo as well as disco in the classic sense.
How long ago did you begin producing? It seems like you simply made the natural progression from DJing to remixing to creating original records. Do you have any formal musical background, or are you self-taught? Did you play in any bands prior to your DJ / producer path?
I'm self taught in a formal sense but I've also learnt a lot from working with and watching others. I've been recording music since my teens (if using a four-track counts) in various bands and collecting analogue gear since then too.
Your remix work over the last handful of years really allowed you to develop your own unique style and I assume it helped you learn how to completely use the studio. Do you think taking on all of those remixes prepared you to produce your own singles later down the line?
Remixing I sort of fell into just from having labels and bands assuming I did it already and yes it's a great way of learning how to use the studio, but more importantly it's an education in how recorded music is structured, as you are presented with all of the elements of other people's work.
Do you still find it just as difficult to produce as you did when you first started out, or do you feel the flow of creativity is less forced now?
It's tough. The more you learn the more you analyze, and you find yourself longing for that ham-fisted simplicity you had before.
Tell us a bit about your “Mixed Fortunes” project and how it all works. Do you have any more lined up for 2013?
Mixed Fortunes is a subscription based Singles Club of my own original material. The idea is 6 2 track 12"s, with no remixes. It was originally supposed to just run throughout 2012, but due to various delays, will continue through the first half of 2013. It's a completely DIY operation, there's no management or interns so these things happen, especially when you are pressing vinyl. It's already gone through two vinyl pressing plants, three printing companies and the biggest postal increase in British history.
What’s your producing process like in the studio? Do you treat it like a 9-to-five day job or do you just go in whenever inspiration strikes? Is it important for you to try to create sounds everyday even if you don’t have anything in particular to work on?
I have to treat it like a job because inspiration usually strikes once I'm there in the studio, whether it's from a random sound, or a sample or a drum beat. The sounds themselves are the inspiration.
You came up in a time where DJs would be sent random 7’’ singles from producers and bands all over the world just to get their stuff played out and heard, which was exciting and interesting. But now with the rise of the internet-generation of DJs, there’s this endless battle of mediocre producers trying to get the most plays on soundcloud. What’s your perspective of this situation and how do you work around it to discover new music?
I mean you can't blame people for using the medium to get noticed, but there is so much of it. I find some great stuff online but find it more important than ever to go record shopping and use that as a filter, and of course find labels who's output you trust, that's still the same as it ever was.
What do you think are some of the biggest / most important aspects to DJing that young up and comers may be forgetting or ignoring? What would you like to see change in this new wave of dance music?
I'd advise anybody starting out to study their influences but don't copy them. Find your own sound. The only thing I'd like to see change is the endless DJ moaning. There's an acronym there.
At the moment, are there any newer producers or bands that you’re really digging? Who should we be listening to?
I'm bigging up my friends here but Daniel Avery has really come into his own this year, Nadia Ksaiba's G&S project is exciting, The Draughtsman's last EP was really great and I'm really excited to hear Classixx's album as what I've heard so far is fantastic.
I’ve read that John Peel is your biggest influence and you’d say he was everything a DJ would be. Give us some reasons why you’d say so.
He just opened so many people's ears to new music from across the spectrum and was rarely swayed by trends, and like him I also used to have a habit of playing records at the wrong speed.
It seems now that you’re not playing literally every week multiple times in London, you have more time for producing and yourself. Do you miss playing out so regularly, or is this change of pace pleasant?
Having a residency is very different to playing often and as a result I turn down a lot of gigs, so the ones that I do feel special. That said I'm excited to go on tour in the US next month.
So before we head out, what have been some of the highlights of this year for you, and what can we expect from you in 2013? What’s the latest coming up?
There have been too many highlights, playing a discotheque on a cruise ship, basement parties in Miami, super clubs in Tokyo.. next year I can only hope for more of the same.
Thanks again, Rory!