Q&A with UK Producer Jon Phonics of Astral Black & First Word Records

The UK has been a hub for an endless amount of progression in music culture, building the identity of electronica with an influx of new producers and voices in the regions movement for well over 30 years now. Jon Phonics is a strong figure in this era’s shift, joining with the popular First Word Records and running his own imprint / club night Astral Black. His music is dynamic, vibrant and co-exists with duality for headphone experiences and the dance floor experience. Jon Phonics possesses the kind of range that allows a lot of different modes of sound to be expressed and he isn’t waiting to show all of these sides in singular statements of sound. With his First Word debut EP White Neckle, he was able to encompass a full circle spectrum of electronic music, adding in flavors of R&B, rap, grime and other genre deviations to the norm. It’s an adventurous and heady ride that has garnished the attention of BBC, XLR8R, Potholes In My Blog, Ninja Tune and so many others. We were able to link with Jon through First Word this year to discuss the new EP and were able to find out some fascinating things about where he’s at right now and what brought him to the execution of White Neckle. Ranging from the creative processes behind various productions on the EP, what it was like working with vocalists and what they brought to the album, to editing approaches, perspectives on UK music culture and working with First Word, it was a pleasure conversing with Jon about the areas of his life that he is sharing with the world. Erik: Hello Jon, I wanted to first start off by saying that everyone at SCV loves the White Neckle EP. Absolutely next level music that we feel is a very important contribution to the world of electronica. I’d like to start our interview by asking about the creation of the music on the album. Where were you at in your life when you made this music and what aspects of the conceptual side of the album do you think of the most when you listen to it? JP: HI SCV. Thanks a lot, I’m really pleased you guys like the music. It means a lot. Looking back, the music on White Neckle was made at three separate points and locations in my life really. The first two tracks were made when I was living in Bethnal Green, East London. Until that point, a lot of the music I was producing was quite different to music I was playing in clubs, those tracks are my attempts at trying to produce some stuff that wasn’t a huge change in my sound but also would work well in my DJ sets. The tracks, “Give It Up” & “Wired” were made maybe four months whilst I was living in Brixton, South London. “Give It Up” was made in about 2 hours. Just Rup & I sitting in a room with my MPC and him with a rhyme book, so there wasn’t too much conceptualizing for that. “Wired” was also made really quickly and there’s some tracks in a similar vein that I made around the same time coming out on my EP for Alex Nut’s ‘HoTep’ label where I was experimenting with making beats without a BPM. So it’s quite a free expression of just going with what feels natural, rather than being confined to a grid, which I like. “Yes” & “Candy Coupe” were written with two weeks of one another when I first moved to Glasgow, Scotland.. maybe ten months ago. There’s a lot of field recordings and experimenting in the textures of those tracks and I’m pleased that First Word gave me the opportunity to release them. I grouped these tracks together for White Neckle as I feel it gives listeners an insight into the range of stuff I produce and the different chambers to my sound but also that they sit well as a cohesive project. Erik: The fluid and panoramic nature of White Neckle is incredible. The compositions feel like they took some time to edit and mold into where they are at for the final mix. Is the production process from beginning to end a lengthy one or do you work in fast cycles? JP: I guess, I do most of the work on a beat in one or two, short 2-4 hours sessions. Once I have a batch of beats, I’ll pick my favorite ones and then zone in on them and bring them up a level. Once I know what tracks are set to be used for a release, I’ll focus on each one individually, mix it and get it popping as much as I can, exploring arrangement options and adding touches here and there. As I say, all the tracks were made at different points so there is an element of working on them all together over a two week period trying to make it sound like one project, as opposed to just a bunch of tracks thrown together and that can take a couple of weeks. Erik: The track “Yes” is something that I am absolutely in love with. Every listen gets better! Fantastic work man. Yasine adds a lot of depth to the songs identity, how did you two both link for the track and how was it like tracking her vocal takes? Can you take us through, if possible, the sonic design and tools that went into the beauty of this piece? JP: Thank-you, that track is really one of my favorites too. If I remember correctly, this track started as I just wanted to experiment with making some new drums sounds. The snare is various recordings of a pestle & mortar layered together and I think the kick drum is the sound of me slamming my fist on a large book. I messed around with those recordings a little until I was into it and then found a piano sample and chopped that up until I had something I was happy with. At some point, I went to the shop to buy a can of pop and took my tape recorder with me. A lot of the sounds in the background are the sounds of walking down a gravely toe path and using my change to pay in the shop. I layered these in the track and side chained them to the drums which gives me that rough texture. There’s also traces of me singing badly through a filter on a Kaoss Pad and I also used a Korg Micro-Delay to get that sort of high pitched mist over the top of the track. Yasine is someone I met when I used to work with Triple Darkness a lot (a UK rap group) and she was featuring on a track I had produced for them. I sent her the track and she wrote to it and next time I was in London we got together and she recorded to it. Yasine almost broke my computer doing about 100 takes and then I just had to sort of sift through and choose which ones I felt worked best, which was quite a long process really but I feel it was worth it as I’m really pleased with the finished track. Erik: How’s it been working with First Word Records on the release of the album and can you talk a little about the future releases you have planned with them? JP: First Word are great and to anyone that takes a leap of faith and invests time and money into releasing my music, I am eternally grateful. So much love to Aly & Sri. I’m working on another release for them just now, a kind of part two to White Neckle that will hopefully drop in early 2015. Erik: I really feel like the UK has been an important location for music to turn mainstream, regardless of where it’s from in the world. Jimi Hendrix and many others were given a chance there when they were not in many other places and I love that about the UK as I learn more about music history. What are your favorite aspects of UK music culture? JP: Something I’ve grown aware of over the past couple of years is how diverse music in the UK is. When I was 14, Sticky & Ms Dynamite’s “Boo” was in the charts, like seriously, that song should be sent into space for aliens to hear what’s happening down here. I think what’s happening at the moment is maybe, there’s a, dare I say, “revival” of stuff like that because people it influenced are now getting into positions of power at labels and magazines. I guess that’s also why people like Theo Parrish gets so much love over here, he’s such a diverse selector and I don’t know if crowds are as educated and receptive to such varied genres elsewhere really. Erik: We’ve heard some buzz about your residency night and imprint Astral Black. Can you tell us about what you have been creating with that over the last year? JP: Astral Black is a label and club night that I started early in 2013. I self released my Rugers cassette and started a club night in East London. Since then, there’s been tapes from Jaisu, Inkke & Opal Block and we’ve got a residency in Glasgow too. I’ve just sent off the masters for our first vinyl too which is DJ MIlktray’s All Because The Lady Loves EP – a collection of 140 grime edits of big R&B/Hip-hop tunes from the early 2000’s. With the club nights, we want people to have a great time really, it’s not a beard strokey thing. We want people to hear songs they know and love alongside music they haven’t heard before and just don’t know they love yet. Release wise, I just want to put out music from people I’m into and think other people should hear too. Hopefully it continues to grow and be received as well as it has been. Erik: Going back to the new EP on First Word, the vibe on “Give It Up,” is menacing, very different from anything else on the album. I love Rup after hearing just one verse and have been looking up a few things since. Love the part when he says, “yeah, I’m the fucking dude!” Very unique presence on the mic. How’d you two link up and how did the concept for this song come together? JP: Rup is a guy who I’ve been a fan of for years. Weirdly, one day I started working at a record shop a couple years back and Rup was the guy training me! We just became close friends from then really, we’re quite similar people in that we’re fans of the same music and both like wearing Ralph Lauren…We made “Give It Up” when we both had a day off and realized we had never made a song together. It was a pretty straight forward process and I think sometimes the best things are. Erik: What’s your favorite First Word Records release? JP: There’s a couple. I love the old Eliphino beats he did for them and of course early Kidkanevil too. Amenta, that was dope. More recently, I’d probably have to say the Tall Black Guy stuff & Soulenace’s beat tape though. Erik: The song in your entire collection of music that you feel represents your vision to the highest level? JP: I think that is an impossible question to answer, haha. But a song that I am so grateful was made and would be so humbled if I could ever make anything that comes close to is Lyman Woodward Organization’s “Joy Road”. When I die, just wrap me up and bury me in that song. Erik: Thanks for your time Jon, we are really enjoying White Neckle and wish you the best of success this year and beyond. Cheers! JP: Thank-you SCV! Much love.