Interview with Phil France

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The first solo record from Phil France (he’s also a member of brilliant Cinematic Orchestra) did a great splash last year. Every composition from The Swimmer LP is like a protracted leap into the mirror-smooth surface of the crystal sea. We are still in hypnosis and during the session we asked Phil some questions about his brilliant work, life, jazz records and flamingos.

Phil, who did you want to become in a childhood?

I wanted to be Sting in the Police.

What was so special for you in Police music in ‘79?

I liked the rhythm with the ‘ska’ influence the drums the melodies and the way they looked. Also bass player was lead singer in the band as well. In ‘79 I was 8 years old.

So your dream was music right from the start.

Yes, I was engaged with music from an early age — jumping up and down on the sofa when music came on TV and listening to my elder sister’s records.

When I read some info on your site, I met Charles Mingus name as some sort of start point for Cinematic Orchestra. Was Charles your next musical hero after Sting? Who were others?

Yes, I got into Weather Report and Miles Davis and James Brown and Charles Mingus because I was getting into the bass — I bought one of his ‘jazz workshop’ LPs and played that a lot. I’ve got many heroes at different times: John Coltrane, Hans Zimmer, Bach, Stravinsky, Ennio Morricone, Joni Mitchell, Brian Eno, Philip Glass and more.

As a style is jazz the biggest influence on you?

Yes, because I studied it in order to teach myself how music works — you know harmony and scales and so forth — so I can make sense of other music — but I love other styles of music just as much as jazz.

You mean studied it on your own?

I studied on my own, but also at conservatoire in London called Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

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When you first heard jazz music — was it the love from the first sight (listening)? I mean jazz is not so easy music for understanding…

Yes it was love at first listen really. Miles Davis’ Kind of blue LP and Weather report’ Heavy Weather LP — I just loved listening to those records and still do.

Did you change Jason Swinscoe’ musical taste after your acquaintance and listening to Mingus’ records?

Yes, I think I headed him in the jazz direction )

Phil, did you dream to play in a rock, jazz band or in more classical environment, orchestra for example?

All of those in the same band.

Were Cinematics the orchestra right from the start? Such grandiose plan to begin with.

No, it just grew from Jason’s Motion LP.

Tell us about creative process in Orchestra, who write music? Are you composing there?

I co-wrote most of the tracks on the The Cinematic Orchestra albums Everyday, Man With A Movie Camera, Ma Fleur and Crimson Wing OST. Jason and I would just get in the studio and the ideas would bounce back and forth. We have a great gestalt and although I’m taking a break from the live band I hope that Jason and I have an opportunity to write together again in the future, on the right project.

One more question about The Cinematic Orchestra and soundtracks: have you seen the whole movies before composing?

Yes with Man With The Movie Camera and no with Crimson Wing soundtrack.

Ok. Tell us about your break from live band and how the ideas about solo project came to your mind?

I got a break working on the Crimson Wing soundtrack, I co-wrote most of the score with Jason and ended up having a great time and learning a hell of a lot. I was lucky. I’m very proud that the score has won so many awards. The experience gave me the confidence to tackle my solo record. Once I’d made the decision to make my own record I had to commit to that and put my energy into it which is what I’m enjoying doing now. With regard to taking a break from the Cinematic Orchestra we’re still friends and my decision to leave the band is amicable, as I say hopefully Jason and I will do some more writing together in the future.

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Tell about the concept of the album, the swimming theme.

Initially I knew that wanted to make an instrumental record that had 7 tracks on it and was like a suite of sorts. Then the concept of The Swimmer came and I began to understand that I wanted to make something that was uplifting. I’d been meaning to teach myself to swim properly for quite some time. Relocating from London to West Yorkshire provided me with the opportunity. My niece, an expert swimmer, provided information on correct techniques and I found a great pool in a spa built in the former home of Charles Waterton, (a 19th-century naturalist and explorer) close by. I had always swum but with no particular technique. There I applied myself to learning how to swim properly. The correct way of breathing during breaststroke was relatively easy to accomplish. When I figured out how to actually breathe on alternate sides after odd numbers of strokes during the front crawl it felt like a revelation. I pushed on, gulping for air at times, trying to keep calm in the main, never in actual danger. And with the learning of the technique, thinking of nothing but my breathing, forward movement and the feeling of my body in the water my mind started to focus not on the act of swimming itself but on the album I’d been trying to get started on.

What was the first composition you wrote for the Swimmer?

Let me think… That would be the track The Swimmer.

What was the setup during recording?

Me using Logic programming, midi mainly, then bouncing to tape, then bouncing back into Logic. Recording of strings and drums was done in Amsterdam and Manchester.

What was the hardest part of working on it? How long were you preparing and how long was the process of recording?

The hardest part for me was probably finding the 7th track! I had an initial idea that there had to be 7 pieces so I went round the houses trying to find the right one. It was a long process of about 3 years recording. I used the oblique strategies to help me along. I have realised now that I maybe didn’t need to be so demanding and ruthless in refining it.

What was this 7th track, the hardest one? :)

It was December.

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How music is born, can you describe the process? Do you hear music in your dreams?

Yes I hear music in my dreams — the process of writing the music for The Swimmer LP involved me being near a keyboard and capturing what came to me, working on it and developing it to see if it was strong enough to work.

Can you describe the way you feel/hear music/sounds? Are the sounds colorful in your mind?

I dont see colours but I feel it physically and there’s a place for it always in my mind like continuous jukebox. Or playlist.

Have you a favorite track on the album?

No, I don’t have a favorite, it’s all like one long piece to me.

Agree with you! I saw pictures from your gig in Manchester — how it was? How was it perceived in live context?

It was excellent — I really had the best time. The people that came along were great — really friendly with very good vibe — there was a fantastic vibe in the room and they were really supportive of the live band. I spoke with people after the show and they couldn’t believe it was the first ever show which was great to hear.

What are the places where you want to play, the places you are dreaming of, the most suitable for your music?

I’d like to do a gig on a beach by the sea somewhere warm and beautiful. Or in a cool church. Otherwise I’m still in very early days of discovering best live context – there’s a lot of potential to be explored with the live show. I’d like to incorporate a strong visual element hopefully at some point too.

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What movie came to you mind in role of visuals for the Swimmer?

I love the work Sam Craven did on the Transition video and ideally i’d like to be able to expand that concept out. I don’t think of any existing films like The Swimmer or “Taris Roi de L’eau” (a film by Jean Vigo made in 1931) but maybe I should!

I saw it, this video is in the Staff Picks category on Vimeo! Your music is so pervasive, so expanding consciousness, so hopeful and strong… How did you achieve such harmony? Is it only because of swimming? Are you a religious person?

I can’t describe myself as a religious person, but I’m interested in Taoism. I don’t practice or meditate but it’s the closest thing I have to a religion. I wanted to make something that was uplifting. I also felt that it was important to maintain a bit of edge or ambivalence in the overall tone of the record. I was probably more single-minded and ruthless than I needed to be about chopping things out and refining the sound. Ninja Tune were very helpful at the end of the record (they are my publishers) and suggested I added more real strings — that made the record sound better and really ramped up the hope and emotion even more.

What are the most important things in your life beside the music?

My family and friends

And what’s next? Records, gigs, collaborations, projects…

All of the above! I’m really pleased with the reception the record is continuing to get and I’m looking forward to the year ahead!

The record is really great. Thank u, Phil! It was a pleasure!

Nice one Sasha — a real pleasure! Cheers

Check Phil France website

Words: Sasha Tessio, Artem Super Ikra.
Cover picture: Sasha Tessio