Phil Western is one of Vancouver’s most respected and creative musical minds in the industrial, experimental, and techno scenes. He is a founding member of Off and Gone, Frozen Rabbit, PlatEAU, Download and Kone. (The list goes on…) He is also an audio engineer and has worked with artists including Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails. His music is diverse and at times opaque, but zealous, mesmeric and cool. I love his atmospheric, enduring, and at times, hypnotic sounds. Phil agreed to answer a few questions about things such as his influences, record labels, and the Vancouver music scene.
You have influenced many artists in the electronic scene, who influenced you in the beginning? Who helped or what helped shape your sound?
Probably the biggest early influences on my music were Severed Heads first few albums and Brian Eno… and probably The Cure as well. Spacemen 3, White Light White Heat by the Velvet Underground, Skinny Puppy, early Butthole Surfers. These were all the bands and artists I was into in high school. Echo and the Bunnymen—I loved the drummer in that band. He died and then they had a different drummer who wasn’t as good.
You have worked with some great artists over the years. Is there anyone that you would like to work with that you haven’t?
I would love to collaborate with Jim O’Rourke or Christoph Heeman, or some other more avant-garde noise artists that I like listening to.
What inspires you to write music and keep creating?
Well, in the old days it was turmoil and chaos, and the fact that I based so much of my identity in music. As I grew out of those mindsets, it has been more a natural urge to create. That was always there, but lately it is pretty much free from ambition, which I prefer a great deal over the neurotic idiocy that comprises trying to “make it” with music.
Tell me your thoughts about record labels. Do you still operate The Record Company? Do artists need record labels anymore?
Well… Most independent artists I can think of seem to be selling their music directly to their fan base, if they have one. This seems to me to be the best way to operate as it kind of cuts out the whole middle man, but if one wanted to be Beyonce or something, then I suppose they would need a label. Labels are still needed to brand superstars, but the rest of us can get along fine with some clever online marketing.
What do you think about people downloading music? Are you all for it or to do you miss the old days of when people actually bought music?
I think both are alive and well in the current climate. Yes, it is depressing that the average punter never hears anything more high fidelity than a compressed digital file, but there are plenty of people going to the record stores these days it seems. I always did—even when CD was king I never gave up on records, but now I would like to sell them all because they are heavy and cumbersome and I hate moving them.
How has the music scene changed over the years in Vancouver? What would you like to see more or less of?
I’m probably not much of an authority on the subject because for a great many years I basically never went out. And then for about five years I was out every night because I was a live sound technician so I saw hundreds of bands and DJs. From what I saw, the only thing that frustrated me was how many bands were doing the same old thing. Washed out and reverby vocals over some dirgy reverby synths and not much melody to speak of. I would think, “Why are all these bands going for the same vibe?” But I think that is part of the fun of music is that anyone can form a band. I did see some great bands as well. I think we are at a somewhat healthier place for live music in Vancouver than we were for a long time. I came of age in the 90s when there was basically a moratorium on live music here. Vancouver was very lame for many years.
What is your favourite synth and/or piece of gear that you can not live without?
The MC202. It’s my fave synth because it can be predictable or made to be completely unpredictable, and has a beautiful atmospheric sound that seems to work no matter what I do with it.
You have played drums in various projects. Any chance I will see you behind a drum set anytime soon?
Well, I was drumming for braineater last year, and who knows we might get together again although I am not sure when or how that will happen. I love playing drums and want to play with a band, but I am probably too old for that now. Maybe not. It could be a gimmick, having the old guy on drums.
Where do you think electronic is going? What are some of your predictions as to the future of electronic music?
Over the last several years I have realized that I have no clue what is happening any more on the ground, so to speak. I look at the festival lineups and for the most part have no clue who is who. I have been totally disinterested in the sort of testosterone driven electronic music of the last few years and from what I can see, the underground is just recycling the stuff we were listening to in the mid 90s. I don’t know where it will go from here, but it does keep evolving and some things are very interesting to me. Once in a while things come along that have the elements that turn me on. Melody, interesting production, a bit of weirdness, good movement. I thought James Holden’s last album was excellent. I hear certain DJs, like Gareth from More than Human, playing great DJ sets full of interesting electronic music. It’s certainly out there, it’s just not popular. But then again, I was seldom ever into anything that was. The more broken it sounded the more I seemed to like it. That was the curse of my musical existence.