SOMEWHERE BETWEEN NOSTALGIA AND SADNESS:
an interview with
Phil RetroSpector

Posted on January 15, 2013 by in Lighthouse Yarns

In The Art of the Novel (1986) Milan Kundera said, ‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’  Phil RetroSpector is an audio-visual artist, not a novelist, but he may well be inspired by Kundera’s words.  Based in Galway, Ireland, RetroSpector is a mash-up – or bootleg artist – of the first order, merging an almost unbelievably diverse selection of songs with astonishing results.  His debut album, Intro/Version, features haunting remixes of Johnny Cash, David Lynch, Charles Bukowski, The Beatles and Muse.  He has also produced original audio-visual artwork for the Absolut Art Collection.  In the mash-up/boot-leg world RetroSpector is a folk hero, and Verity La now introduces him to the literary world.  Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s start at the beginning, the very beginning.  What was your earliest experience of music?  And how do you think it’s influenced the work you do now?

RETROSPECTOR

My first memory of music is begging my mother to stop singing ‘The little boy that Santa Claus forgot’.  I’d get all hysterical and bawl for hours over it.  Growing up listening to my parents’ vinyl, it was all Slim Whitman and The Everly Brothers at one end of the spectrum and anything soundtrack-related at the other. A Clockwork Orange and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly in particular were always on heavy rotation. I can still remember the first time I heard the Clockwork soundtrack; I must have been about eight years old.  I didn’t really comprehend what I was listening to, or how Walter was now Wendy Carlos, but it completely blew my mind.  I’m still hugely influenced by that cinematic sound. For me it’s all about mood.  I always say I mix emotions rather than beats.  It’s all about bringing a lump to my throat or making the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  It always has been.

INTERVIEWER

‘It’s all about bringing a lump to my throat or making the hair on the back of my neck stand up’ – can there be a better motive for making art?  That cinematic sound is certainly in your mash-ups. How did you get into making this kind of music? Was it just a matter of experimenting, or were you influenced by what others were doing?

RETROSPECTOR

That’s reason enough for me. Even though my background is primarily image  based, film to be exact, I always gravitated toward music as music is arguably the most emotionally honest of the arts. But for sure, my film and visual-art base has informed my sound to some extent. Again it comes back to mood. Everything does.

It’s that same old story: failed musician becomes DJ becomes bedroom producer. In about 2004, I became disillusioned with DJing and dance music in general, so I hung up my decks and retreated to the bedroom.  I was listening to white labels from bootleg legend Mark Vidler (Go Home Productions, Addictive TV), who was cutting up The Doors with Blondie, and Echo and The Bunnymen with Abba and I thought, wow, I could do that. Now at this point, and generally to this day, the culture is dance-driven, and is all about giving an old song or hook a new twist. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to go that route. I wanted to make music with a cinematic edge and something that wasn’t all about the BPMs. I am a huge fan of the Wall of Sound and nostalgic to a fault. Hence, Phil RetroSpector was born.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us how you actually make a mash-up. What’s the process you go through from idea to finished product?

RETROSPECTOR

I spend a lot of time sourcing material to sample. The same applies to working with vocals – sometimes the resources are there at your disposal, otherwise it’s all about utilising vocal-isolation techniques. Thereafter, it’s about taking said elements into a digital audio workstation, such as Sony ACID and/or Abelton Live,and mixing them harmonically.

I tend to feel most creative when I’m feeling a bit blue.  I remember I was having a particularly bad week when I stumbled across Harry Dean Stanton’s reading of Charles Bukowski’s ‘Bluebird’.  From the moment I heard it, I saw it as a sound painting.  Bukowski’s poem resonates like a perpetual wound, tragic and lost, yet it’s incredibly beautiful.  It’s so textured.  Muse’s ‘Blackout’ provided the perfect backdrop, the way it illuminates, then waxes and wanes.   I also knew I wanted to counterpoint this despair with the operatic textures of Delibes’ ‘Lakmé’, which signify the song of the bluebird. I especially like the Bob Dylan bit at the end – ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ mirrors both Stanton’s vocal geography and sentiment.

Editor’s Note No. 1: Do yourself a favour and watch ‘Bluebird Blackout’ here.

INTERVIEWER

teardropOne of the things I find really fascinating about mash-up culture is it’s done without financial reward; clearly this is a result of not being able to profit from borrowing songs in this manner. Your work is simply put out into the universe for free, often with the mash-up artist creating ‘cover’ art-work, even videos. In the end it must come down to doing all this simply because you love it so much?

RETROSPECTOR

I suppose all comes down to cultural expression. A lot of people deem it lo-brow, fail to see its relevance. Some might argue we are digital punks, who have swapped the mohawk for a laptop.  This is our generation’s pop-art.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned earlier that you work best when feeling blue.  Your motto is ‘Warning: Please ensure glass is half-empty before listening’ and you say that you’re openly a member of ‘Melancholics Anonymous’.  I was wondering if you could tell me more about this sense of sadness that you seem to love working with so much.

RETROSPECTOR

Have you ever noticed when you break up with someone how whatever music in playing at that given moment in time takes on a weird poignancy?  I remember after one failed relationship compiling disc after disc of real schmaltz and purging myself on it for months on end. The interesting thing is I became aware of how music resonates most when it’s somewhere between nostalgia and sadness.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you see yourself taking mash-ups into the future?

RETROSPECTOR

Mash/bootleg will wax, wane, mutate and then reinvent itself with yet another moniker.  Like anything, it’s about knowing when to get off.  It’s a culture I’m really proud to be associated with as it facilitated me remixing the likes of Billie Ray Martin,The Young Punx,Giorgio Moroder, and producing audio-visual material for Absolut Art. Right now, I’m working on an audio-visual follow-up to Intro/Version, as well as a number of official remixes.  I’m also working on some audio-visual installations for gallery space. I suppose that’s really where I’d like to take it next…

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Editor’s Note No. 2: Phil RetroSpector has generously produced for Verity La a very special bootleg, ‘Time out from Teardrops’ – have a listen, because it’s an absolute ripper.

 

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