Image courtesy of Tourist.
When Will Phillips, known to everyone but friends and family as Tourist, released his first track into the ether (AKA The Net), it felt like the start of something good. Since then we've seen a slew of remixes and collaborations, all gathering a kind of staggering momentum and propelling him into homes and headphones around the world.
The producer's debut full-length release U was, frankly, a gift. A winding, almost cinematic thing, capable of transporting the listener from melancholy one moment to euphoric the next—like all great, deeply sincere albums tend to do. Single and standout track "Run" manages to ache, and thrill, and also tranquilise. Somehow. And it could only ever be called "Run" as listening to it is the exact same thing as running, as fast as you can, through a field at night. Don't fight us on this.
As he toured the record around the world, we caught up with Tourist to talk starting young, curbing expectations, and Sigur Ros.
Hi Will, how's it going?
Yeah, good thanks!
Where are you? What's happening?
I just got back from America two days ago so I'm just trying to adjust to the time zone. I'm just sat in my flat, I'm about to go for a run. And it's very warm weather here. So it's good, everything's good! I've got an iced coffee, which is really helping me through my jet lag.
Yum! Well, congratulations on the record, how long were you working on it?
Probably twenty months? Sorry, I've learnt to be weirdly specific. About two years. U was the first piece of music I wrote, early in 2014. And the last thing I wrote was in October of last year. And I'm not sure if that's a long time or a short time because you just get so busy with it.
What were you listening to while you were making it?
Probably quite a few things. But mainly demos that I'd written for it. I tried to kind of isolate myself somewhat for it, from the world of other stuff because I'm such a sponge that I'll just inevitably end up sounding like other stuff. I knew I didn't want to make a club record because I'm not really a clubber, and I didn't want to make a record that was just a load of features, because I wanted to have a story, I wanted to carry something through. I just wanted to make a story about my life, something that was personal. So that was what I had in my head.
You've work with Sam Smith and you've remixed Aaliyah, are you a fan of pop music?
I always listened to pop music as a child, I've always grown up with the world of pop and I just think it's clearly effervesced into my being. I always loved electronic music, and like, that Brian Eno can go and write a song about Coldplay or whoever it might be, and then go back and do his own electronic thing. I like the challenge of pop music, and I've always liked the challenge of electronic music—being the guy that likes to do both things. My stuff is just not pop music in that it's… not very popular.
You said that you listened to a bit of electronic music growing up, were you a London rave kid?
No, I wasn't, actually. I was more of an outsider. I mostly spent time in my bedroom rather than in the club.
How old were you when you got into production and DJing?
I was about 10 or 11. I was at the age where computers were getting cheaper. I got a keyboard for Christmas because it was all I really wanted. I'd always played the piano as a child, and then I plugged my keyboard into my computer and I was just amazed at what you could do, It was this whole world of sound and expression, and it was so naive and simple but it was so important to me. I'd just sit in my room making rubbish. I mean, I just sat in my room making really really bad music which is… exactly what my life is now. But I'm more stressed [laughs].
When I was very young I was unable to describe the way music affected me. Melodies really affected me, really specific things. I could never work out why or the science of it. There was something deeper about it. I think that the most interesting, life-affirming fact was that melody and chords could touch you in the way that a great piece of art, or a great piece of conversation can touch you. How on earth can I feel so much listening to a chord? I don't understand. Really all I'm trying to get across in my music is that. Which is why I started at such a young age because it was just something that I loved so much.
It's funny that you say that because, listening to U has that really special element to it—that way of being acutely moving and painful and stuff, or nostalgic and reminiscent of really specific feelings and moments, while being really uplifting. It does what you just described. For me at least.
That was my goal, so it's touching to hear you say that.
It reminds me a little bit of first hearing something like Sigur Ros, when you're just going about your business, listening to something and you don't realise that you've forgotten when you are, or—
Yeah, I love that feeling of losing one's self, forgetting that you have friends or a mortgage or anything, or possessions. You're just in that moment, it's such a beautiful feeling. I'm really interested in that. I love Sigur Ros. I might listen to them on my run today, actually.
They're pretty good.
They are, aren't they.
That's the other thing about the record, similar to them, is that it often feels like more of a soundscape than your typical album. It's nice when producers move away from making, like you said earlier, tracks with features. Was it nice to go it alone for a bit?
Absolutely. I don't think I was worried about it, but the feature thing is really mid-2010, do you know what I mean?
It's very Majestic.
Yeah, I don't know what it's all about it. I don't think I understand it, or who benefits from it. It feels very music industry. I was surprised at how well people received my feature-less album, because I think a lot of the music industry was saying "you've gotta get these features, man, they'll get you on the radio" and I saw how well "Run" did. I didn't have any expectations, really. I thought maybe Annie Mac would play it once on one of her shows, that's literally what I thought. I thought—she'll play it, I'll release a record and I can play a couple of shows to a couple hundred people in London and that was literally my expectations. I wanted to do something that was completely honest and nine features tracks is just not honest. And the reason I was allowed to do that was because I put it out on my own label.
Besides, I didn't want other people singing about my relationship. That'd feel crap.
Totally. On another note altogether: that Lil Silva remix of "Run" is so amazing.
I know, it's so great. I love how he didn't even touch it that much, it's just like he shone a different light on it. He changed the lighting in the room, as if it was a sculpture. I love how it's not that different, but it feels completely different.
Yeah, you could hear those two songs and honestly not know that they were connected. But that's the good thing about a good remix, is that it becomes either a companion piece or totally its own.
Yeah, no. It should always be it's own thing. Absolutely.
Are you still remixing tracks?
Yeah, a couple of weeks ago I did a remix for a girl called Shura. She's an artist in Britain who I think is one of the most exciting British artists. She does a lot of her own production, and she has an amazing sound. She's really talented and really humble and all this success is really surprising. I think that's just beautiful. So unaware of how great she is—that's such a nice quality. They asked me to do a remix of her song and I did.
To be honest, I probably say no to four remixes a month, because unless I feel like I can contribute something great to it I'm not going to do it. Why would you do a remix unless you were going to make something that really feels beautiful, or like its own thing.
Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so here's a bit of an annoying question—that I unfortunately really want to know the answer to—why're you called Tourist?
I was just thinking about words and I wanted to have something that wasn't my name—William Phillips—because it's such a regal sounding name—
It's very English…
Yeah, he doesn't sound like an electronic producer. Then I just started thinking about words that I like and I was just looking through the internet one day and the word tourist came up and I thought, that's quite a cool word. I think I liked it because I like what the word means. It's a bit like "justice" in a way, it's a very everyday word, but when you put it against music it becomes more interesting. I also think it lets me write any kind of music that I want. Like if I was DJ Will Phillips you might expect a certain sound, but Tourist sort of lets me do whatever I want. Which is quite freeing. I'm enjoying it now because I'm starting to write my second record, and I feel like I can do what I want.
It definitely sounds a lot better with a British accent.
It doesn't sound bad.
What was it like writing an album with such a large following already? That's quite a new phenomenon I think, you know, because of the internet. I wonder if it's a lot of pressure, when you have so little out but so much potential to become well known so early on.
Yeah, what's it like to live up to expectations… I feel like my fans don't really know what they want until I show it to them, a little bit. If I start assuming that my fans dictate what music I write then I'm really fucked because I'm going to probably assume the wrong things of my fans. And I don't have really that many fans, I'm not like Jessie Ware. But you're right, it is quite a new thing: putting a piece of music on the internet and having one hundred thousand people like it. It's like, oh right, that's the proliferation of the internet. I think that's why albums are so important, because it's easy to make a lot of noise and generate a lot of heat online, but to make something physical, something that lasts, you need to put out something that's not just three minutes long on Soundcloud. You need a bit more time.
When I was thinking what do these people expect of me there were moments where I thought what is the whole Tourist thing and then I thought that's not for them to decide, that's for me to decide. So I'll try and make the creative calls and if it's shit then that's my fault and I'll take ownership of that. And if it's good, then everyone gets to enjoy it and that's good.
Final question: if you could have written any song, what would it be?
If there was one song I could've written, what would it be? It would be… "Susan" by Leonard Cohen. If you've heard that piece of music…
I have. Good choice.
Such a beautiful piece of music. That or "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Prince, but the way Sinead sang it.
No offence but I like the Prince version better.
Do you?! Okay. That's interesting.
That might be because when he plays it live… It's just… I think it's very cool.
Rest in Peace buddy. What a horrible year.
I know, I know. We've lost so many great people.
And you've lost the EU.
I know, I know, I know. I live in a part of the UK that clearly feels very disgruntled about it. I was expecting that we were definitely going to remain, I mean, I live in Hackney, which was actually the highest voting borough in the whole of the UK. Which just reminded me that world I live in is not representative of the rest of London. Very, very disappointed with that result but now we have to live with it and get on with it.
Maybe! It sounds like there may be hope for you yet. Fingers crossed.
We'll see, we'll see.
Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. See you when you're back in Australia.
Thanks so much! See you then.
Tourist was announced yesterday as part of the Laneway Festival 2017 line up. Check out the full thing here.