Tourist Interview: "What’s the point of making art if you can’t control it?"
Dive into Tourist's new EP Wash - out now - before his return to the country for a round of festival shows throughout the new year.
Header photo by James Lyndesey.
"It's been a big year for me," reflects London-based musician Tourist – real name William Phillips – from his home in London. He's not lying either. In 2016, Phillips finally released his long-awaited debut album U, a sprawling, ten-track release which highlighted the many sounds and styles the producer has experimented with across his many years producing and song-writing. He's also travelled the world supporting the record, moved homes and relocated his song-writing set-up from a dark, windowless studio to the comfort of his own home – a move that's aurally reflected by his bright new EP Wash.
Featuring good friends and collaborators in Swim Mountain, JONES, Ardyn and Esther Joy, the four-track release is his first since the album and sees the producer move into more joyous and celebratory sound. "I never really intended to write something that was happier or more joyous – that’s not how I write music – but I think it’s something that happened subconsciously," he says over the phone two weeks before the EP's arrival. "I quite like changing the parameters of my creativity, I like changing very fundamental things and seeing what happens. I think [the studio move] combined with my life changing in other ways, probably created an EP that definitely sounded different to U."
The EP's lead single, the Ardyn-featuring opener We Stayed Up All Night, reflects this changing sound the best, combining Ardyn's fragile yet optimistic vocals with a playful combination of synth and percussion that oozes with an uplifting gleefulness. Similarly, two songs later on the EP's third track Sleepwalking, shining vocal melodies float above a pulsing, percussion-soaked instrumental which itself feels more sun-licked than much of the instrumentals on U. "You’re definitely right that it feels more joyous than my previous work," says Phillips on the more cheerful nature of the EP. "I was just in a different place. Hopefully, artist’s lives change and their art reflect that."
Celebrating the EP's worldwide release, we caught up with the well-loved British producer and songwriter to talk about the EP, the relevance of major labels, and the evolution of his live show ahead of a round of festival shows across Australia and New Zealand over the New Years period (dates at the end of this interview).
Hey mate, nice to chat with you at last. You mention that your life has changed incredibly since the release of your album U last year. Can you give us some insight into what's changed and how this shapes your music?
Just travelling the world, moving house – there are so many personal things that happen, and while I’m not really an auto-biographer in my writing because it’s just not very interesting, I feel that if I provide little capsules of things from my life then maybe it could give some insight to who I am. What that reflects in the listener too is kind of interesting in that it could help reveal something in the person who’s listening to it. I’m not here to tell people about relationships, but I want to make sounds from these experiences which may allow listeners to feel emotions, and the sounds I make probably trigger certain emotions and experiences from certain people. It’s always interesting to hear how it arrives with the listener.
But yeah, a lot has changed. I’ve had a really good year in that I’ve gotten over the fact that I have to tour AND write music, because you have your whole life to write your debut album but with your second or third one you have to adjust to the fact that you don’t really have the luxury of time anymore – every moment is an opportunity to write music. There’s no reason why in this day and age that I can’t write a song on an aeroplane. It took me a while to get into that headspace, but ultimately I don’t have to be this precious musician who’s like "I need to have this! I need to have this! I have to have this!" There are X number of circumstances which could produce a piece of music, and it doesn’t have to be in a recording studio with special equipment.
I actually really enjoyed writing this EP not in the way that I wrote the album. U was very much in studios wherever I was at the time, but the EP was largely written on the road – like, I was touring Australia with just my laptop writing some songs for the EP. Just writing the EP in a different way is something I’ve really enjoyed actually.
That’s really interesting. One thing I’ve found when talking to other artists is that pieces of the music and culture in places they’re touring will sneak into their music. So for example, I was talking to ODESZA about a similar thing and they collaborated with a Latin American group for one of their singles after feeling inspired from touring in Spain. Does the same happen to you while on the road?
I mean, yeah it does, but I’m not going to go out to Australia and sample a didgeridoo – there are other ways to do it. So for example, I do a lot of field recordings, so a lot of the EP has sounds from the places I’ve been writing music in. I wrote Hush in Los Angeles and a lot of the sounds in that song are actually from LA. They’re not specific music or culture references to LA, but more the sounds and life. I think where I am at the time massively changes how I write and that’s why it’s quite nice to travel so much – you really get to further yourself as an artist by experiences with different things in different countries. If I only lived in London, my music will all be the same, so I think ODESZA are onto something when they say that.
That all said, I’ve never really made any specific links – like I haven’t gone "I’m in this place so I’m going to use this instrument" – it’s more subtle. That never really occurred to me.
One thing I wanted to touch on is the collaborational aspect of the EP. The album was more of a solo affair, while three of the four tracks on Wash have collaborations. Was this a purposeful move – keeping your album more personal and then to branch out afterwards? Or did it happen naturally?
My album was no more personal than my EP. It’s all personal to me; it’s all a reflection of who I am. If you look at the writing credits on my album, every single song is 100% me; every single production credit is 100% me. It makes it very easy to credit [laughs]. But yeah, I think with the new EP I just wanted to work with other people. It wasn’t ever a tactical move, it was simply that I just didn’t want to do what I did with U, so I did something different.
I think I’m quite impatient - my mind bounces around a lot when I write music - so I was interested in what happens when I get other people to work on my music too and Wash has been a result of that. It was probably more of a reaction to U being so solely me and no-one else.
Correct me if I’m wrong here, but they’re all artists you’ve worked with before too. Like, JONES and Ardyn you’ve worked with as a songwriter, and you have Swim Mountain on your label – Monday.
Yeah, you’re completely right. These are people from my world; these are people I know. This is not me going "right, I want to write a song with this artist because it’ll put them in a good place," this isn’t a tactical move, it was me keeping it personal and working with people I’m friends with and hang out with. That’s really what it is.
And speaking of your label – was there a reason why you decided to start it? Or did it just feel like the next step for yourself and Tourist?
Well, pretty much all of the music I’ve put out is on Monday. I started the label in late-2012, so my EP Tonight was the first release to come out on Monday. The reason why I did that was back when I wanted to release the EP, I sent my music out to all these people and no-one was really getting back to me, which means either my music was really bad or it means that labels are quite difficult. I thought my music was okay, so I was like "right, I’m going to start my own label. I don’t know what that means, but it just means that I’m going to be putting it out myself." It was out of necessity really. I was quite frustrated.
I like Swim Mountain and I like his tunes, so I just thought "yeah, I’ll put it out" – that was quite recently really. The Tonight EP, the U album, this new one – they’re all out on my label just through ease and because I quite enjoy it, it’s nice to have a real creative ear over your own work. I guess that’s what having your own label allows you to do. It’s kind of scary and daunting, but it’s all taken care of by a bunch of very talented, hard-working people. Ultimately, what it means is the A&R process is really mine and mine only. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing I don’t know, but it really makes it easier for me. It just provides me with the freedom that I wanted. I don’t really know why record labels exist anymore, to be honest. The general public doesn’t really care anymore.
Yeah, and with the internet and online streaming it’s not like it’s a very difficult thing to spread your music and distribute it with sites like YouTube, Soundcloud and Spotify.
Exactly, it’s so easy now. Like, what’s a label going to do to you? They’re either going to turn you into something you don’t want to be, or they’ll let you do what you want to do. That’s really the question. I definitely think there’s a place in the world for labels like XL Recordings or Domino or 4AD because they have good taste and can recognise good art, but I don’t know why we need X number of major labels. It’s so much more interesting what they put out rather than how they operate and who they are. It doesn’t really matter to me as an artist because I can do what I want really which is very, very freeing and I’m very, very lucky for that.
It’ll definitely be helpful as an artist to have full creative control over your music without suits trying to shape your sound for you.
Yeah, it's not even suits anymore – more tracksuits [laughs]. Ultimately, what’s the point of making art if you can’t control it?
Have you had any major labels approach you though? You won a GRAMMY for co-writing a single with Sam Smith and I’d imagine that’ll entice major labels.
Yeah, I get approached by both independent labels and majors. It’s good. For songwriting, it only really matters if the artist is interesting. The only real thing that matters to me is if I’m making music which feels like myself. I’ve done a bit of songwriting here and there, including for Sam [Smith], but the only offers which I really pay any attention to are about remixes because those things excite me.
You’re in the country again at the end of this year for a few festivals so I wanted to talk about your live show a little bit before I lose you. Electronic music has this really heavy emphasis on DJ culture, but you have a strong live element to your shows. How important is it to you that Tourist stays as a live act when you could easily do a 'Marshmello-on-stage-with-a-helmet'-styled DJ set?
I’m not going to be wearing a bucket or a mask on stage, that’s for sure [laughs]. It’s funny though, the psychology behind why artists wear mask – it’s very interesting. It sort-of dehumanises them so they can be who they want to be, so it’s interesting why someone like Marshmello would wear a mask.
But yeah that’s a tough question. Ultimately it rolls down to if I were a DJ, I’m not going to just play my music – I’m not going to play 100% Tourist. When I think about my own music, I think it’s more suited to a live show. I can deconstruct it and spread it out. I can loop it. I can find sounds that no one else has access to and I can use them in my live show. It’s interesting though how in electronic music we have DJs and then we have full live bands with instruments playing their own music – I feel like I live somewhere in between them, because I’m clearly not playing every single instrument by myself on stage but I’m recreating sounds that sound like me, but people haven’t heard before. So I’m hopefully taking them on this kind of journey which is really what I want to do – play sounds and music to people to take them from A to wherever they want to go.
I’m not going to hide behind pyrotechnics or dancers or anything like that, but hopefully, the live show feels interesting and hopefully it feels like an expression of myself in the same way that my music does. I’m looking forward to doing new things with the live show.
Do you see your live show evolving in the future and becoming something... I guess a little more live with other band members? It could work well with a lot of your music, but singles like Apart [on the Wash EP], could work well with a live drummer.
Yeah, it really could. Or, the way I see it, I could turn Apart into more of a club record for the live show. It works both ways. When being a musician at my level, there’s a very fine balance between touring a show which loses a lot of money and a show which may help you further proceed as a musician. You have to be as mean as possible and make decisions about touring, because if you tour a lot with a grand live show, while you are spreading your music around and travelling the world, you’ll lose 50,000 pounds. It’s almost the opposite of a job – you’re paying to do all this stuff. Unless you have financing – which is something that major labels do help a lot with – I’m only going to add things to my live show when I think it’s worth it for both the audience and for myself financially. Hopefully, in like, 15 to 20 years I would love that, but you have to be sensible.
I’m always interested in adding things to my live show, but there are other ways to add interest to your live show – say live visuals or anything else more financially viable. I would love to have more though. I was recently on tour with Bonobo in the US, and he has 20 people on stage and it’s like "wow, that’s so incredible" and it really adds to the show, but only when the time is right. When I can do it to his scale, or like Floating Points, that would be how I want to do it. When the time is right it’ll definitely happen.
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