Interview: Phil Passera – Payfone (November 2016)

Phil Passera and Chieka Ononye’s music careers as DJs and producers span two decades. They honed their sound on solo projects and collaborations with dozens of musicians, becoming well-respected actors on the world dance scene. So it was a no brainer for them to team up to run a project together. In 2013, they met in London and started to produce music under the name Payfone: an up-and-coming project inspired by deep house and 80s disco sounds, but also references to Latin and West African traditions.

We had the opportunity to interview Phil Passera and get an exhaustive introduction to his new “creature” and music. It was also a way to receive an official invitation to Payfone’s forthcoming gig (organised by Bustin Loose) at CLF Art Café in Peckham, a venue which saw the live debut of the project six months ago.

Rhythm Passport: If we’re not wrong, your music career started almost 20 years ago. But how, when and why did you decide to join forces with Chieka Ononye and create Payfone?

Phil Passera: That’s right, I put out my first record as Kitty Bronx in 1998 on my own label at a young age, which now seems like a lifetime away. I began DJing with Chieka around 2006, when I invited him to play alongside me at INDO in Whitechapel, London. I originally started making Payfone songs in 2010 with another producer called Jimmy Day, but when Jimmy dropped out I invited Cheika into the project – and he brought in a whole different set of influences.

RP: What’s the “mission” or philosophy of the project?

Phil: To write and produce music that is 100% original and contains no samples from other records. The finished product needs to work on an intelligent, artistic level but also deliver on the dancefloor. All lyrics have to hold a deep meaning and songs must have a narrative. This is not disposable dance music. More like political disco.

RP: Two years ago you signed for Golf Channel Recording. How was it to move your music from East London and Europe to New York and how this changed your approach to music?

Phil: Being so heavily influenced by late 70s/early 80’s disco, it feels like an honour to be releasing records from the same city that gave birth to the genre.

RP: What are the main differences between the London dance music scene and the one in New York?

Phil: From what I know (and I’m no expert), it appears the New York’s dance/club scene has been driven underground as local authorities are doing everything they can to crush any form of social enjoyment for young people, and as you can see with the recent closure of Fabric, London is going the same way fast. It’s a big problem for many major cities. Barcelona has this problem also.

RP: Despite all its troubles, closures and lack of support from institutions, the London music scene is always buzzing and referential. How do you feel about being part of it and how it can be helped and developed even further?

Phil: It’s great to be a part of it. But I feel more so than associating with a specific location, I feel that musicians just want to be associated with music. It’s about being involved, in whatever capacity that may be. Creative people want to create. It’s the only time they are truly happy. This is what sets us apart from the non-creative community. When a factory worker wins the lottery it usually ends in unhappiness and confusion. Give £10M to a creative person and it won’t be enough money to match their ambitions.

RP: You basically play house, deep house and 1980’s oriented disco music. But your influences and the music you listen to go far beyond those styles and reach a global dimension. Where does your sound come from and how did you build it?

Phil: My first instrument was the saxophone. I started playing at 10 years old, then at 16 I moved to bass guitar and drums. Usually my tracks start with a bassline. I am lucky that my older brother (by 10 years) was a club DJ at a young age so I had access to a pair of Technics 1210’s from an early age also. I started my first band at 16 and started releasing music at 19.

Fast forward to now… What inspires me musically is the period when club disco moved into the electronic arena through hardware – in front of a socially diverse and political backdrop.

For the last few releases, I’ve been enjoying focusing on writing lyrics. After 20 years of writing lyrics I think I’m starting to understand how it works. It’s a long learning curve. I’ve written some terrible songs on the way, but luckily they were never released.

RP: What about your latest EP… Can you describe its sound and also explain its title (Catholic Central) and recurring “religious” theme?

Phil: The cover art work is photo of a 1980’s US College Jacket that I own. It’s from the famous school in Michigan. The song is basically a modern romantic tale so it fitted a high school setting.

The previous release QUARANTINE featured a religious them also. There is a story for that also but I don’t want to give it away. If you listen hard to the lyrics in the song you will see the connection. I am a great believer that music should contain mystery.

RP: What are your listening to at the moment and is there any musician/DJ/project you’d like to recommend?

Phil: Suzanne Ciani – ‘1980’s Electronic Pioneer’

Guem – 1970’s Brasilian percussion

Kris Davis – modern deep house on NEEDWANT label

Fatima Yamaha – Minimal Electro from Berlin

Rinder & Lewis – 1970’s NYC disco production pioneers.

RP: What are Payfone’s next steps? You’re playing for Bustin Loose on the 24th, then a new album next year… What are your plans for the future?

Phil: I can’t see beyond the album at this point. We have very high standards so it’s already proving to be hard, hard work. Which is how it should be, you should sweat blood to make music that is the best it could be, with no uncertainties. Then you should relax.

RP: Finally, our routine question… How would you introduce and describe your project and music to someone who had never listened to it?

Phil: Like the sound of Money being dropped into a volcano.