Phil Robinson aka Philth has been listening to drum and bass since he was a teenager. Today he is one of the genre's darlings, laying claim to an extensive catalogue of releases and constantly pushing into new auditory realms. With his masterclass at dBs Music Bristol just days away we joined him for a chat about his career, inspirations and industry tips.
Could you tell us a little about your journey into music?
I’ve been listening to drum & bass forever, since my early teens, and I started buying records in the late 90’s at the legendary Blackmarket Records. Two of my first purchases were Ed Rush & Optical ‘Medicine (Matrix remix)’ and Bad Company ‘The Nine’ and that era has always had a special place in my heart - and my sets.
I went from making tapes (showing my age here) in my bedroom to hosting a show on pirate radio in London and playing local parties, but after years of chipping away I realised that you had to make music to advance in the scene so I went to university to study Music Tech in my twenties.
My first releases happened round about the same time I graduated and I’ve worked with Facing Jinx and Peer Pressure ever since. I also met Bassi and started making music for Flexout when they first started, it’s been a pleasure to watch them grow, but it was meeting Ant TC1 and releasing music for Dispatch that has developed my career the most, I found a label that is the natural fit for my music and Ant has helped me to develop as an artist. I’ve done three EPs and numerous features for the label and represented at parties all over the world.
You went from releasing your first tracks with Facing Jinx through Peer Pressure Records to running the label alongside him. How did it feel being passed the torch and taking over from Matt Beebe?
Having the chance to shape the label that gave us our first opportunity in the scene is a special and pretty unique situation. I am forever grateful he showed faith in us to release our first tracks, and it’s important to me to keep that ethos going and always give new artists a platform.
Now that you’re effectively on the other side of the table, what’s the most important thing you look for in a prospective new artist?
Something that stands out beyond the kick and snare! If the music has no vibes it doesn’t matter how clean and precise the mix sounds. Emotion and personality is important, we always look for music that has a sense of identity and memorable musical touches along with the club potential.
Don’t get me wrong the engineering is important of course, but I’m quite happy giving detailed feedback to help an artist improve the mixdown and it can help them to learn and advance. It also helps if the artist is somebody you can get on with and presents themselves professionally in emails and in person. As a label you invest a lot of time and money in your artists and it needs to be people that you believe in and want to work with.
You’ve released over 100 tracks in your career. For artists agonising over whether their tracks are ready or not, would you always recommend they just pull trigger and get everything out in the open?
No, you don’t want things to be released if they’re really not ready, that’s why record labels are so important - quality control. Even though I’ve put out a lot of music in my career there are at least five times as many that didn’t make the cut, and later in this interview I talk about my thoughts about taking your time before sending music out.
But at the same time you shouldn’t obsess about writing the ‘perfect’ track, you’re not going to debut on Critical, and if DJs and labels are excited about your tunes then they should be released and start to build your name.
Committing to complete your projects is important and you learn a lot just in the process of finishing a release - final mixes, masters, artwork, promotion. The question is whether you’re being honest with yourself - does the music represent you or are you just trying to push tunes out to build a profile? If you believe in the music you release you will still be proud of it in the years to come.
With so many releases to look back on, how has that informed the way you’ve grown as an artist?
I’ve grown as an artist through putting myself out there and letting people hear my music. I’ve (hopefully) continued to improve my technical skills as well as my ability to write tracks but I’ve always put out honest music and some of my closest friends and working relationships have come from people hearing my early releases and getting in touch to show love. I’ve been swapping dubs with Bredren for 5-6 years now and we’ve been friends ever since their first visit to London.
Now after so many releases I have the experience to plan further ahead, and be able to anticipate what will happen in a year or two. I also feel comfortable in my own skin and don’t feel I need to prove myself, my discography is out there and people can hear what I’m about.
It’s increasingly common for new musicians to try and be as good as the top artists in their chosen genre. As someone who has spent years cultivating your own ‘sound’, was this ever a mindset you wrestled with?
Yeah for sure, in the early days of my career I would always compare my music to the artists I consider to be the top guys. You get excited about this music because certain producers create music that blows your mind and you want to be thought of with the same esteem, so it’s natural to compare your music to them.
But I realised that you need to step away from that mentality and recognise that your own voice is all that really matters. Comparison kills creativity and if you spend all your time listening to your favourite artists you get stuck trying to replicate their sound rather than trying to be yourself. I barely listen to DnB when I’m not working, and when I’m writing music I actively avoid listening to contemporary tracks so I can’t subconsciously be influenced and end up making a copycat idea
Anyway, music is so subjective - I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘the best’, just the right song for the right mood and the right time. If you compare yourself to artists on big labels playing out all the time you’re just setting yourself up to feel bad. Being aspirational is important, but being obsessed by trying to be as good as somebody else is a false path and you’ll always be disappointed.
You’re a big advocate for making sure the musical elements shine, rather than perfecting the kick or snare. Do you think technology and the limitless amount of industry standard plug-ins has a part to play in this pursuit?
Well I still want my drums to sound good! And I actually do my mixdowns step-by-step as I am writing. But I don’t want to spend all my studio time engineering ‘perfect’ drums before I have any vibes to work with so I have developed a workflow that lets me work fast and still be happy with the sound.
As I said when talking about my A&R ethos I feel like the human emotive element is so important to make a piece of music standout so I focus on that in my early writing sessions. If you can write a track that you love musically it doesn’t seem like such a battle fine-tuning the mix to give all the elements the professional polish.
It’s true that nowadays we have so many options with our plug-ins, and I worry that new producers get blinded trying to discover the ultimate engineering tricks rather than concentrating on the music itself. With the abundance of tools that are available you can spend days lost in compressors and EQ’s and never make music.
Since I bought my last studio computer I’ve tried to limit what I put on there and learn the tools that I have inside out. If you choose the right sounds to begin with and know your tools you can achieve the sound you want and work quickly and decisively.
You batch create tracks and carefully line them up for release through the right people, sometimes waiting a year or so for them to see the light of day. Have you always worked this way?
You need to sit on music for a little while and be sure before you send it out to labels. You need time to be able to evaluate your work objectively and decide whether it is really finished or if there are ways you can refine it. At the same time you need to trust that your initial ideas and instinct was good and not tweak something to death - working on the same track every day is really unhealthy and you end up overdoing it a lot of the time and losing that initial inspiration. I hear producers say to me all the time that they’ve worked on a song so long they don’t like it any more, even when I’m trying to sign it to my label.
So I will write fast and put music aside, then I will wait until I know what to do next before I work on it again. Sometimes just this period can be a year - I will be playing an early version of a track at my gigs and eventually figure out what will be the finishing touches to the track or to the mixdown. So I am always sitting on a lot of unreleased music, and I wait until I have a collection of tracks that I think will be exciting for a particular label boss then send them all at once.
Did this process change when it came to writing your debut album?
With my album I was still working on the same principles - write fast and come back to review the music when I’d had some time to get perspective. The album was initially conceived when I sent Ant a batch of 10 tunes and he signed almost all of them. Once I knew I was writing my debut album I stopped worrying about what labels they would fit best and just thought about which tracks I loved the most and really represented me.
I had a conversation with Ant where he told me "your deep stuff is your best”, so I knew I could write what I wanted. I let the music breathe then went back in and revised it all when I was ready, and just gave him all my favourites. Turns out we are really in tune with each other because he signed almost everything I had earmarked for my album.
Banana for scale
We read it was being mastered at the beginning of the year, with artwork also being designed. Any clues as to when we can see it drop?
There’s no firm date as of yet. Once the vinyl is done then we will know for sure, that’s the slowest part of the whole process. I’m happy - I made a conscious decision to be relaxed about it and enjoy the process so I’m not stressing about rushing to get the music out. Nymfo’s album drops soon and you want there to be space for his album to take all the attention, then breathing space for my project. At the moment if you want to hear it you have to come and see me or Ant playing.
What are your must-have tools?
Slow cooker, beard oil, skinny jeans. Can’t work without them.
The most essential tool on my computer is Camel Phat. I’m terrified of updating my iMac in case it stops working (yes, I know they have integrated Camel into the newest Logic but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it). I love filters and distortion and the way they interact with each other and Camel Phat just has the perfect feature set.
For EQ and compression I use Fabfilter and Slate. One is the precision set of tools and the other has an immediacy and warmth that contributes greatly to my workflow.
What’s been your proudest moment so far and why?
I’m really bad at taking stock and appreciating the good things that have happened in my career, I’m always chasing the next goal and I’m sure all artists are the same. Thinking about this question has actually made me remember to be both grateful and proud.
There have been so many great moments: playing in Hollywood for Dispatch; releasing music with Artificial Intelligence who inspired me to play and make liquid; playing ‘Don’t Let Go’ at Sun & Bass with Collette Warren singing it live; making my debut at my favourite club Fabric a few years back; remixing AI on Metalheadz. When I think about the days playing pirate radio at 5am hoping somebody was listening I’m very proud of the journey my career has taken me on.
Looking forwards, I’m incredibly proud of my album. It represents everything I’ve learnt so far and everything I love about drum & bass - it’s the most truthful work I’ve ever done.
What advice would you give to new artists looking to make their break in the industry?
It’s not what they probably want to hear, but be patient, take your time and don’t expect things to happen overnight. The artists you aspire to have been developing their skills for years and the labels you want to release on are normally a year ahead of themselves in terms of their release schedule. Nothing happens overnight, so don’t get disheartened.
Go out and say hello to artists and labels, get involved in the scene. Learn your trade, keep advancing your skills and write music that you truly believe in and you will find the right people to work with. It’s very obvious when an artist is copying their idols or trying to latch onto the current trend. Be yourself, and you will find a sound that no other artist can replicate.