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Tourist on creativity, performance, and promise

1 September 2016 | 10:58 pm | Hannah Galvin

Hot off the back of his sold out Australian headline shows last week, we were so fortunate to pick the mind of the prodigal William Phillips - aka, Tourist.


It's a little ironic to think of William Phillips' working moniker, TOURIST. By name, it's subject to a visiting foreigner, yet in terms of artistry, the musician could not be more at one with his craft.

Entering our lives early 2012, you could argue that not much has changed in the character of Tourist's sonic trajectory. Where his EP Placid Acid could probably fit comfortably on his debut album, U, this point is shed in a positive light, for Phillips has somehow managed to solidify his voice through the merit of consistency; despite influential trends that have passed through the electronic music scene along the way.

Through cultivation and discipline, Tourist finally gifted us a complete body of work. Titled, U, the record (released through Monday early 2016) translates the tale of a love lost, and sets out on a healing journey of accepting the situation at hand. Designed to be heard from cover to cover, it's easily Tourist's finest material, and has an incredible way of connecting with the human spirit.

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Enlarging this piece with his visceral live show comprised of elongated versions of U's tracks, visually hugged by an aura of beaming LED lights, Tourist has proven to be incredibly diligent in his expression, doing right by fans in sharing U with his audience.

In this prime moment of pure ecstasy as a result of finishing up his Australian Tourist headline tour, we caught up with William Phillips during his visit to delve just that little bit further.

Explain your artistic background; have you always been playing with electronic production?

Yeah! I mean I don’t really see much of a distinction between the two; lots of people who write electronic music play the piano, lots of them play the drums, or whatever, but I suppose, to answer your question, I’ve always played the piano since quite a young age. I started when I was like, four. I didn’t really have lessons, I think I was just naturally drawn to it; it was like a distraction.

A piano is quite an exciting thing to children, cause you know, you push it and get an instant response. It just occupied me from a very young age.

I was quite gravitated to electronic music, in my early teens. I think I just came across it, like via the Internet. I was just so amazed by the sound of the “future” – that’s what electronic music was for me, and still is, so that’s what excites me so much.

So you were self-taught with piano?

Yeah, that’s right.

Your musical trajectory spans back to 2012. Despite the constant change of trends in the electronic music scene, you’ve maintained a solid sound that is distinctively Tourist. Do you try to switch off from what the current trend may be?

Yeah, I’m always cautious of things that are trendy. I mean my music isn’t timeless, but I want it to be. I don’t really like to hear buzz words and things, like it’s cool to be popular for a little bit, but I’m more interested in making something that feels new, but also nostalgic in a way. I don’t really listen to a lot of current music, which I suppose sounds bad, but I think as soon as I do, I start refracting my sound into that a little bit, so I try not to listen to too much current music.

Your debut LP, U, has been a work in progress for many years. How did you go about writing the album?

I suppose what happened is that I had something to say. I didn’t really want to write an album unless I had a point to make, otherwise it’s an album for an album’s sake, you know? I don’t ever want to make an album that’s not rooted in a clear idea or a clear goal for me as a musician.

I thought the story of a relationship was quite an interesting thing for me to write about, especially from the point of view without lyrics. I think there were like nine lyrics on my album [laughs], which is stupid, but you know it quite excited me, that problem. I was like, “Okay I’m going to write a record about my relationship that’s failed” which implicitly means it’s going to be an honest record. I always want to do something that’s honest; I’m sometimes contrived, but I try not to be. So I had something to say, having gone through that in my life. I thought that would be quite a good subject for my record.

That was probably why it took me a while, because I didn’t have anything else interesting to say, but I stumbled across the idea. To me, an album is a real point in time, and it’s an interesting thing to be reviewed by itself. It maybe gives me confidence to write more music as an album; I don’t think I can get my point across in singles that effectively.

So it was always intended to be the rise and fall of a relationship, it wasn’t something you were going through at the time of writing?

Yeah, I wasn’t writing a bunch of happy music cause I was in a relationship which then failed and thought, “Oh this could be, U”, it was a reflective album. Not really a diary, more like I was remembering it rather than experiencing it.

Is there a particular song you would say epitomises what the entire record is trying to say?

Not really, I feel like they’re all there for the purpose of being digested as a whole. If you take it out of its context, it’s kinda weird, like, ‘Too Late’ is a very different piece of music to, ‘For Sarah’. You might ask if that’s even from the same artist. I think U –that’s the song, it’s a forty-minute piece of music, in a way.

It’s a good question, I think something I’m proud, of that maybe epitomises the record, might be, ‘For Sarah’. That’s a bit of a reflective one – mournful and a bit sad, but hopefully kind of uplifting at the same time? I don’t know, I hate talking about my own music, it’s shit [laughs], it’s difficult to do because you end up sounding like a complete prick. I just hope the music speaks for itself.

Electronic music allows a very different style of story telling, as opposed to lyric-centric songs. How do you know when a certain beat or melody fits a mood?

It’s such an interesting question, because you’re asking about creativity, and I think, “What is it that makes and compels people to create,” and, “What is it that makes people follow a certain path?” In my experience in being someone who creates things, I know when it’s good because it makes me feel something. That’s such a strange goal, because if you think of it like, you’re going to the studio, and you go, “Cool, let’s make myself feel something”, that doesn’t really mean anything, that sentence, because you want to make yourself feel something interesting, something good, something vulnerable, something you didn’t know existed.

I think when I know I’m making something that might turn out to be a good song, it’s usually when I’m writing it, I’m lost in it. I feel completely at one with it, and watching it almost give birth to itself. It becomes it’s own thing. That’s when I know that it’s eliciting something in me.

And I think you’re right – it’s a different challenge to make people feel things with sound, as opposed to words, because you have to think differently about the relationship that people have with sounds. Yes, words can be oblique and metaphorical, but I think sounds are far more elusive in how they affect you. Look at cinema and film music, they’re really really good at making you feel things, because they’re usually restrained to an orchestra. So when you have electronic music, where the palette of sound is essentially anything, the problem becomes much wider. As long as I’m making myself feel something.

Essentially rather than making it, you’re growing with it. That’s when you know it’s going in the right direction?

Yeah! It might be a melody that stands out for me, or the texture of some drums, or even just the general mood of something, how it feels. These are the strange terms that are so exciting about music. To create feelings is amazing; I still find it absolutely amazing, the best thing in the world.

The clip to, ‘Too Late’ is very similar to your live show set-up. How important is lighting when delivering a Tourist set?

Well it would be profoundly boring to watch otherwise [laughs]. I think performing electronic music when you produce it yourself, and you don’t have a band is an interesting problem, because the music is not designed to be played where you’re literally playing along to your songs with instruments for other people to watch. When I plugged my live show, I thought maybe it would be more interesting to take my music and stretch it out, and reveal the layers of it to build it more, and focus on the visual experience as well.

I think those LED tubes are kind of cool, because they’re there as a real thing, they’re not a projection screen, they’re real lights and react with the room. The number of colours can be beautiful. What we tried to do was mirror the album artwork - which was designed by my mate who I think did such a good job. So we wanted to mirror the feeling of the artwork in the live show.

During your performance at Sydney's Oxford Art Factory, you announced that it was your largest headline show to date. What was it like playing to a room of people reacting to your own songwriting?

I can’t answer that, it’s so difficult. I almost detach myself from it. A crowd of people is a thing in itself, if it was just one person I’d have much more of a relationship with that person, but when there’s so many people, you can’t comprehend it. I try not to think about it, because it might blow my mind a little bit.

It’s just a massive compliment, and the only thing I would hope is that people go there and they feel happy, or that they’d feel something interesting within themselves, and feel as though it’s worth it. I don’t think it’s about adoring me, I think it’s just that they like music, and there’s a nice connection between me and them which is some music that I made, and I love the idea that it speaks to them. Especially considering this is Sydney, it’s not London, it’s a completely different place for me.

Would you ever expand your live show with more members on stage, or will Tourist always be a solo pursuit?

I think it would be completely dictated by how the music sounds. If the music sounds as though there should be a drummer on stage, then maybe we’ll get one. You know, Floating Points, his music I think of as jazz. He’s someone that has a massive band, and it’s really cool! I just don’t think it would add anything to my music though, like watching twelve people in an orchestra playing, ‘Too Late’ would be really weird. It wouldn’t really make sense. My music is made on a laptop, so why shouldn’t it be performed on a laptop?

But you know, I’m not going to say this is the live show forever.

We can’t see any live show dates after December. Could Australia expect your return at Laneway Festival next year?

[Hesitant] I have no comment on anything. I’ll be back in Australia [laughs].

Aside from touring, what’s next for Tourist? Potentially any remixes or collaborations in the works?

Yep! [Laughs] that’s all I can say. Sorry, I just want to finish them first and then I can send them, otherwise I’ll make false promises. But yeah, I’m really busy. It’s good, I’m happy, I’m pushing myself.

Words by Hannah Galvin.