Interview: Erol Alkan on Phantasy Sound
An in-depth Erol Alkan interview. About his record label, Phantasy.
Erol likes cats. We like cats. We like Erol.
K: Does Connan still make his own moccasins? He used to make them for people when he was in his first band.
EA: I don’t know on this tour; he’s got a whole new band now. But, you know, he’s certainly as inventive as he was before. I mean, the new record is incredible. It’s my favourite album of the moment and it has been for the last few months.
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K: What’s it like?
EA: It’s just a beautiful, endearing, psychedelic journey. The journey lasts thirty-six minutes, but it’s a really great thirty-six minutes. It kinda flutters between so many different styles and emotions, never repeats itself once; it’s just one of those records you can really get stuck into and live inside of. Like the best albums really. All the albums that I grew up loving had that element. And when you get a bit older, you know, you think you’ve heard a lot of new music before, but then something comes along and completely knocks you for six and sounds extremely original.
K: So you’re expecting big things from him?
EA: It’s one of those things: everyone who tends to hear the record just remarks about how much they love it and how great it is. The one thing I’ve learnt [running a record label] is not to associate how good a record is with how many – potentially – it can sell, or how big an artist can get. But I do feel that everyone who encounters the music – or his music – is certainly caught or captivated by it.
K: I’ll have to check it out. I have to admit, I haven’t listened to any of his new stuff.
EA: It hasn’t come out yet. It’s out on Phantasy Sounds on May 10, in all good record stores and on iTunes.
K: That was perfectly timed! How do you select your roster – do all of your artists have a common thread?
EA: Our approach has kinda changed since the beginning. At first, [we put out records] because we had a track – you know, like we had the LA Priest track [Sam from Late of the Pier], which was before Late of the Pier had blown up, or been noticed – and think, “Oh maybe I’ll do a remix for the other side”. And then you’ve got two sides for a single right there and you put it out and people buy it, or people play it in clubs, and then you come across another record and so on. Everything was built by just stumbling across things and we felt it’d be a good idea to put them out.
But then when we got into about five or six releases in we sorta started seeing it slightly different and envisaging how we can do it in a form that helps the artist out more. Obviously what comes of that is promoting them because, in this day and age now, record sales are not what they used to be. So putting out a record is more about…well, obviously it has a lot to do with releasing music, but it’s almost like people are hopefully trusting our taste, or liking what they’ve heard from us previously, and lending an ear to what we’re gonna put out next. And in a way, that sets a challenge to diversify. And to feel that, maybe if you do have people’s attention, you wanna surprise them a little bit.
K: What I mean was, are there any underlying guiding principles about the kind of stuff you’re putting out? For example, all the artists must write and sing their own songs while wearing a balaclava and playing a banjo?
EA: That’s a good one, but I don’t know about that one just yet! I think, again, because Phantasy is fundamentally an artist-based label, because people do align it with me, it’s got a slightly boutique-y feel to it. With regards more to a 'taste-based' label. We’re not signing things because they’ll sell; we’re not signing records because we think they’ll be successful for us; we’re merely signing them because we really believe in them. Some things you’ll put out and only sell a handful of copies but you hope that people have lent their ears to them, if they’ve liked other things that you’ve put out. It’s got a bit of a Zen approach to it: hopefully everything feeds off each other, or maybe we’re working towards a new way of releasing music or being a label. You know, I don’t know, I can’t tell yet. It’s such a murky period to be a record label.
K: How so?
EA: Because everyone can get what they want for free today, so, potentially, what you can afford to put back in to things is limited. Everything – well, many things – have got to be done at DIY level. And everyone that is involved with something has to fully believe in it to work on it. Because obviously, being a small label, like many small labels, nobody can afford to hire any external PRs or things like that because the margins are so narrow. It’s like the whole independent spirit of small labels in the early ’80s, releasing very limited or short runs of music. Although now you can release something digitally – and obviously you don’t press digital releases – but the number people who decide to buy something and how many decide to just download it all and be content with having it at a low bit-rate has gone up. There are people who are quite happy to have that.
K: You're releasing on both digital and vinyl. Explain the vinyl.
EA: We still really believe in making vinyl. ’Cause, um, we love vinyl! We don’t want it to disappear. And the experience of buying vinyl is still completely unsurpassed.
K: Quite a lot of labels seem to be reverting back to vinyl. Didn't Late of the Pier start a vinyl-only record label at one point?
EA: That's it: Zarcorp. People have actually started issuing stuff on cassette again as well, which is interesting. I love cassette. I mean, I don’t have a CD player in my car, I just have a cassette player. I’ve gone back to listening to all the cassettes that I used to listen to when I was growing up. Just listening and seeing whether I could tap back into something that I used to love when I was 16, or something.
K: There’s definitely something very romantic about cassettes. I’m digressing here, but I went to a bar in Shoreditch called Callooh Callay and the entire toilet walls are covered in cassette tapes, tiled like bricks. It was kind of mesmerising.
But back to your label, is this the kind of music that people are expecting you to release?
EA: I don’t know really. One of the problems that I have – well, I wouldn’t say it’s a problem really, since, to a degree, I think it’s a benefit – is that I don’t know what people know me for: if they know me more as a club DJ, or better as an alternative DJ, or if they know me more as someone they might have heard doing the odd show on 6Music. Or perhaps it's through Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve. It’s hard to envisage how people perceive you. So it’s quite a hard question to ask, but I feel more comfortable having more different sounding styles of music on the label than if it was just one straight thing. I don’t think it would work for me, personally, just to have it as dance music, or for it to be alternative music, or for it to be Brazilian acapella music, which is one of the releases which is coming up. It doesn’t make sense for me to stay on one square.
K: Sure. I think for a DJ as versatile as you are, you’re absolutely right: you have to have something that reflects all the different things you’re into.
EA: Well, the thing is, that I know it’s quite a common thing right now for people to feel that they need to have their fingers in as many different pies as possible, because they’re not too sure which ones are going to be successful or not. But that’s not the reason for me. People say that they do a bit of this and a bit of that and they’re not sure what’s gonna take off – it’s like, you know, I don’t think Brazilian acapella music is going to take off?! I don’t know how many copies Connan’s gonna sell; I don’t know if Gonzales is going to be the biggest artist in the world. It’s not about gambling on it, it’s merely about celebrating the fact that you can be into many different styles of music at one time. For much of the ’90s, you were led to feel that you were part of one thing and one thing only – it’s really only this last decade where a collectivism of such, which has now become a dirty word, is celebrated. Even though all along through time people have always listened to different styles of music! But it was the common question of “What kind of music do you listen to?”, because you had to nominate the one thing that you wee part of. I’ve never felt comfortable with that at all.
K: Obviously you haven’t started Phantasy for commercial gain. Why did you start the label?
EA: Like I said, I was coming across music that I felt should be released. I’ve been involved with both sides of the fence when it comes to labels and I thought, “Well, it can’t really be that hard to put a record out, can it?”. But that was at a time just before labels were hit really hard financially. You can see why labels that had been successful during the turn of the last decade would’ve struggled towards the middle. Because if you had a staff of three or four people and sales dwindled as much as they did, you wouldn’t be able to keep them on. But up until very recently, Phantasy was always a two-man operation. And you know, neither of us are drawing money away, we’re just putting it back into the label.
K: It seems that, to put it epically, in the face of adversity quite a few big DJs like yourself are starting up their own labels anyway. Why do you think that this is happening?
EA: I can’t really speak for anybody else, what their reasons are. But even thought I mentioned in the last question, “Well it can’t really be that hard to do”, it is hard in a way, because you’ve got to make sure that you do right by whoever you’re releasing – you’re taking their music and taking it into the big wide world and you need to do it as well as possible. And it’s very sensitive: it’s not like a ‘slap bang bosh’ procedure – you know, just making some vinyl and giving it to some bloke to sell in the shops – there’s far more that goes with it than that.
K: It seems like a natural progression for you as a 'music curator'. For instance, at his show last week, Gonzales announced to everyone that you discovered him and brought him over here for the first time. And now you’re releasing his new single.
TO: So Phantasy is almost an extension of the family, in some form?
EA: Well, yeah, in a way. I’m fortunate to hear the music quite early and I can say to someone, “Look, I really like this, and if you need someone to put it out, I’d love to do it”. It happens in that very natural way. That’s how that particular thing [with Gonzales] happened. And the same with Late of the Pier. There are two tracks that I produced with the band and we weren’t too sure when it’d come out because the band were working on all different projects at the moment – so it was like, “Well, we might as well get it out now”. Obviously, for a large label like EMI to put out a single, it’s probably a lot more work than it is for us to put out a single. Just because they’ve got so many more people working there. So it kinda made more sense for us, Phantasy, to do it and they were kind enough to allow us to. And everyone is a part of this small family, which I hope will grow and develop.
K: Do you hope that all your artists will adopt the Ed Banger way or working, where they all collaborate and help each other out?
EA: Yeah. Already, at this point, Connan is working with Sam from Late of the Pier, which is really cool. It’d be great to kinda get everyone together under one roof and see what happens.
K: It could be carnage!
EA: It’s interesting. I don’t think we’ve fully realised its potential yet. I don’t think we’re at that point where we can view it in that way because we’re still quite a young label. We’re still very embryonic and we’re still finding our feet. But the one thing is, the artist deals that we make with them are very, very, extremely friendly for artists. And also, we invest everything we make back into the label.
TO: How many elves do you have to help you run Phantasy?
EA: We’ve just taken on two members of staff in order to make everything run a lot better. And they’ve been great so far. A guy called Ryan and a girl called Meri. It’s all feeling more professional at the moment – dangerously so! There's no office at the moment, though. Trash was never operated out of an office. I don’t think we’re at that stage yet.
K: You've been running Phantasy since 2007. So is 2010 the year when you’re upping the stakes?
EA: We’re definitely looking at what we’ve done to this point. Trying to work out how we can make it better for everybody who comes on to the label. And also, regarding what we’ve put out previously, we don’t really feel that a record’s died just because it’s been released. We really feel that much of the music has a timeless quality to it. So there’s no reason that a record you put out in 2007 can’t come out again. Everything moves so fast at the moment, but I listen back to some of the things before and I still think they sound really good. I don’t want to just look for what the hottest thing is at the moment, I wanna make sure that I can look back on the music and it’ll still stand up, regardless of when it was first released.
K: How many releases have you had so far?
EA: We’re on our tenth one at the moment. Double figures.
K: You’ve done a track with Boys Noize, 'Avalanches/Lemonade', but have you got plans to put out any of your own solo productions on Phantasy?
EA: Yeah, when it all gets finished. I keep shying away from it, but I will knuckle down and nail it all very soon. In the meantime, I have been making a lot of other music for other things. But, yeah, there’s a lot of things that I should go back to. Again, the quality of some of it, you can listen to stuff that came out a couple years ago and it still sounds good now. Well, to my ears it does at least. So that’s a good sign. Rather that than sorta rushing into something.
K: When you were setting up Phantasy, were you influenced or inspired by any other labels?
EA: Um. Good question.
[there is a long pause]
It’s a really hard one, because even though I’m fully aware of other labels – and there are labels that I love – I wouldn’t exactly say that they’ve influenced me. A lot of labels that I love existed in a time when [the music industry] was completely different and the [concept of the] label was completely different to what it is now.
K: What about naming some labels that you’re really liking at the moment?
[there is a long pause]
EA: You know what, I don’t want to be difficult or anything but I like that fact that labels can put out three records that I really like and then ten that I don’t. I keeps you on your toes [and encourages you] to keep looking in different places for music that you might potentially love. There are some labels where I like a majority of what they put out, but I like the fact that they can challenge me a little bit as well and put out stuff that I might not be able to get my head round, or that I might not particularly like. And I like them for that reason. A lot of labels that I like don’t constantly put out stuff that I love. I don’t want to name names having said that I don’t like some of the stuff they’ve released, but that’s the fact that I like - I like it that way.
K: I suppose you can't just like everything from DFA just because it's on DFA, for example.
EA: Yeah, but the other side of that coin is the fact that I do go to record shops. And I might go in and the guy behind the counter is gives me releases by a certain label and dozens of times I’ve never liked it, but I won’t not listen to the next one if he says it’s really good just because I haven’t liked those previous twelve. Do you know what I mean? I get given so much stuff that I don’t always like, but once in a while something makes you go “This is amazing” or “Yeah, this is really great” and it opens you up to something else. So, for the very reason that I don’t subscribe to the whole idea of loving everything that a label puts out, which I think is fine, I don’t dismiss other labels for the same reason. But going back to what was said about Phantasy, I think it’s a strength if you can lead people to check stuff out. But you can’t expect everyone who bought the last record to buy the next one. But if they’re at least listening to it, then that’s the thing.
K: You talking about record shops just made me wonder actually: What record shops in London stock Phantasy's releases?
EA: Two record shops that I go to all the time – that I make a point of going to all the time: Phonica and Rough Trade. I visit them both equally. They both fulfil my musical [appetite]…what I end up buying.
K: What are Phantasy's future plans? Do you have any big label parties or compilations coming up?
EA: We’re going to definitely do a couple of parties. We’re certainly going to do one for the launch of Connan’s album, which will be beginning of May. Compilations-wise, I think we’re gonna go back and put a spotlight on all our previous releases. And we’ve got our next like five releases all worked out pretty much.
K: Can you tell me what they are?
EA: Well, obviously Gonzales 'Never Stop' and 'Avalanche' and 'Lemonade' are out. But we’ve got the Babe Terror album coming up; Connan’s album; we’ve got a fantastic techno record coming out (but I won’t reveal what it is yet, because I haven’t revealed it to anybody yet). Also we're putting out a single for a band that I really, really like. And possibly something else which I can’t mention. But it’s all pretty exciting stuff.
K: I think Gonzales wrote those lyrics for you. You never stop!
EA: I know, God!
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