Feature: Phil Asher

Picture of Phil Asher

Interview by Tom Breslin

What’s that you say? Focus has made a new album? There’s a fresh Woolph production? No, wait, there’s a new Restless Soul long player? Or is it a Basic Soul project? Another Phoojun record? I’m confused!

Well, whilst none of these is technically correct, they’re kind of all true in a way, for behind each of these much loved musical identities (and a fair few others we could throw in there as well) stands one man. That’s right folks, it’s the mighty Phil Asher. Admittedly, he’s had some partners in crime along the way – most notably Luke McCarthy, in the case of Restless Soul – but let that take nothing away from the achievements of the man.

As a producer, he has been prolific for well over a decade now, racking up more than one hundred of his own official creations and gracing an array of leading record labels, including Classic, Co-Op, Chillifunk, DiY and Versatile, across an incredible range of styles and sounds. He’s provided countless artists with his Rolls-Royce remix treatment and yet still finds time to squeeze in the odd underground disco edit here and there as well (Holger Czukay anyone?).

It’s not only by making his own music that Asher has made a name for himself, but by playing other people’s records too. In addition to Inspiration Information, the long-running and highly regarded, anything goes party, run by Asher and good friend Patrick Forge, he was also a founder member of Co-Op, the pioneering broken beat collective and London club night, alongside Dego, I.G. Culture and Demus. What’s more, Asher is also the frontline resident DJ at the hugely successful House music institution that is Soul Heaven, where he expertly primes some of the world’s busiest dance floors for some of the world’s best-known DJs.

All of which is to say that February 2009 sees the release of Asher’s new album – Phlash & Friends ‘Deep Electronic Sound’ – on Italy’s Archive record label, and we were very fortunate to have the man himself take some time out to chat to us a little bit about this project.

First and foremost, let’s talk about your highly anticipated new album, Phlash & Friends ‘Deep Electronic Sound’, your first long player for a little while. As the title suggests, it’s a heavily collaborative project, so how did you approach the creative process this time around? How was this different for you from, say, the Focus album?

This album was the easiest to make out of the lot, and the process was very organic and flowed from one track to the next. If I could get the singer or musician in the studio, then I would, but Lady Alma, for instance, heard the track at my place and then went home to Philadelphia and recorded her vocal there. Mostly, everything was done at my house, except for the Fyza and Zed Bias collaboration, “Look at What You’ve Done”, which was recorded at Zed's studio in Manchester.

Every LP that I've done has had a slightly different method of employment. Working entirely from home allowed me the time to work on and "live with" the songs, as opposed to being under the clock in a studio environment, where every second counts.

Is this a project that’s been in the pipeline for a long time?

I'm not sure if it has. I formulated the Idea with Enrico from Archive in about a fortnight. He came to London from Verona, listened to the demos, said yes, and then I started. Deciding whom to work with was easy. As the songs were being made, I was thinking about who would suit them at the time, and contacted them immediately. The rest is what you hear.

You took a sabbatical from music-production a few years ago. What was the thinking behind this, and how did you get lured back into the game? Did you miss it too much?

I took a year out to clear my head. To look at what I'd done (laughs to himself) and look at what I wanted to do. It’s true that I'm not that young anymore and I found myself noticing a lot of producers and DJs my age and older who had become bitter with the scene, always having something to moan about. I never want to feel like that, so I took some time of to reflect, to re-strategise.

It was great. I spent loads more time with my son and I spent a lot of time listening to music again, something that there's never enough time in the day to do. I missed it for a minute, but I knew it was just there to return to. I left my MPC (Akai sampler) switched on just in case. I lasted about ten months, and then I was gagging to get my beat on.

On to your collaborators then. There were a few surprises for me there – I’m thinking of Zed Bias and Ommas from Sa Ra, for example. Did you already have an existing musical relationship with these guys, or did you just quite fancy working with them?

Most of the lovely people on the LP are existing friends and if they weren't, then they are now. The idea seemed like a good way to unite all the future collaborations in one place. I respect all the singers and musicians involved equally and was stoked when they all agreed to be involved…Shea Soul, Zansika, Lady Alma, Fyza, Stella Page, Dan K, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Rich Medina Afronaught, Benji B, The 16-bit Horns, Danny Huckridge, Jan Kincaid, Reuben Holt, Simbad, The Mighty ZaF, Karizma, Dego, Zed Bias, Bopstar, Ommas, Sandra Nkake…all mixed down with love by Toni Economides in his Wooden Greens. One Love to you all.

What’s it like to get into the studio with people that you genuinely enjoy spending time with? Is it a smooth and seamless process or are you more likely to have differences of opinion with people that you know so well?

To be honest, there were no dramas with any of the co-writers; it was equipment that shook things up a bit. At one point during the writing process, the hard drive containing all the album's material just decided not to work. After some t.l.c. from my Mac specialist, Craig Mac, the drive got re-housed in a new enclosure and away we went. If it hadn't been for Craig's expertise and patience with me, I don't think we'd have an LP to talk about.

How would you describe Mark de Clive-Lowe’s contribution on the album? He seems to pop up throughout.

I rock the beats, he bangs the keys! Mark's contribution toward Phlash & Friends has been invaluable. He has furnished at least six of the songs with his music, as well as helping me out with tuning and editing. Just being around musicians of Mark's calibre is inspiring enough, and it really helps when you’re good friends.
Hanging out, working and eating together really helps to bond this.

The album is called “Deep Electronic Sound”. Stylistically, did you deliberately set out to create this eponymous sound or was it just the result of where your head and ears are at the moment musically?

I wouldn't necessarily say that, but it’s true, each track contains its own deep electronic vibe or sound. The whole LP was created using an Apple Mac, Akai MPC3000, keyboards and a Sm58 microphone – all electronics available at your local eBay store (laughs). This LP sees me stray away from live musicians and intricate arrangement and veer more towards mutated keys, drums and ‘deep electronic sounds’. Back to the raw arrangements and a Pro Tools mix-down. There's a lot of subliminal stuff (sound wise) going on in the LP. Maybe the first time you hear it, you won’t notice it, but then…

Having been so versatile and receptive to different styles in your career as a producer and remixer thus far (making records under different monikers, like Woolph, Phlash 3000, Focus and Basic Soul), is it difficult for you to concentrate on one particular sound? Do you find yourself wanting to jump from House to Disco to Jazz and Latin, for example?

Yes constantly, but you just have to keep a rein on things. Studio wise, it’s like cooking. Too much salt can spoil a dish, not enough pepper can leave it tasteless, that sort of thing. Now I generally focus on what the label that I'm working for at the time mainly deals with, i.e. if it's a song for Soul Heaven, then it's generally going to have a house feel. If its for Especial records in Osaka, I can be a bit more adventurous, like “Draw your Bow” or “Something Inside” which are mid-tempo. Back in the day, I would mess around with labels’ heads and deliver broken beat mixes when it was predominately a house label and vice versa, but nowadays labels are on to me (laughing).

Similarly, as a DJ, you are well known in several different ‘scenes’ (for want of a better word). Can this be a difficult juggling act, trying to stay at the forefront of what’s going on in each one? Or, would you just find it impossible to limit yourself musically?

I love all shapes and forms of music and sound, so I suppose it would feel alien to me not to be listening or be involved in music of different varieties. I would get bored just listening to one type of sound. Sometimes deciding what to make or play can be a balancing act, as there's so much good music in this world. It would be a shame not to try and check out as much of it as you can; inspiration can come from anywhere.

You’ve been the key resident with Soulheaven for quite a while now. Do you think there’s still a real hunger for the classic, soulful garage sound or are dancers looking more for that deep electronic sound, as you call it? 

(Laughing) I think dancers are looking for good music and a good environment, and I'm not sure they worry too much about genres. As long as it sounds good to their ears and their hearts, they'll boogie. Classic music will always be needed; it's good to remember where it all comes from.

What was the first spark of inspiration behind Co-Op and the broken beat (or ‘West London’) sound in general? And, what’s the plan for Co-Op, now that it has departed from Plastic People?

The Initial idea behind Co-Op was to have a space where we could play our tunes in an understanding environment. I remember when "broken" was a dirty word and not many people got it. It seems now that it has many fans, far and wide. As far as the future of Co-Op goes, I'm not sure. I haven't had much to do with the organisation side of things there for a little while now, but I hope that whatever the future holds, it is bright and full of dancers.

In another major change, you and Patrick Forge decided to call it a day on your extremely popular and long-running party, Inspiration Information. Is it true that Patrick has decided to move to Japan?

(Giggling to himself) Patrick is indeed setting off for the sunnier shores of Okinawa, that is true. As far as the club ending, that isn't going to happen for a long time yet.  I'll be running Inspiration Information, keeping it in the tradition of what we've been doing for the last twelve years, but trying some new ideas and looking for great DJs to play there.

And, finally, now that the album is set for release, what do you plan to do with your time? Will you be turning to different projects or just concentrating on promoting Phlash & Friends?

I've already started working on my next project. It's going to be an LP by the Restless Soul Fun band, a live oriented Funk-style band. I have about eleven songs that I need to finish, so watch this space. And, of course, I'll be concentrating on the promotion for Phlash & Friends. I've also got unfinished projects with Spry, Guy Robin, AC Layne, Jan Kincaid, Shea, Zansika, and Zaf to name a few. The UK Indie dance scene is very positive and strong at the moment, we have a lot of amazing singers, musicians and producers, as well as events and live show's that we should be very proud of.

Photography by Alex Coley: www.myspace.com/alexcoley

Tom Breslin, Jan 2009

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