In May this year, William Phillips – otherwise known as Tourist – released an album that heralded a necessary change in direction. Bucking the trend of feature vocalists and pop song scaffolds out of frustration with a formulaic industry, the British electronic producer brought together an intricate 10-track concept record entirely on his own. Documenting the dizzying highs and brooding lows of a failed long-term relationship, 'U' throws the notion that lyrics are imperative to lucid emotional expression out the window, capturing the universal feeling of falling in love with "Run", the sting of losing it all on "To Have You Back", and that final heuristic kiss goodbye with "For Sarah". It's an experience that speaks volumes about human intimacy with less than a handful of abstract vocal samples.
Three months and a triple j feature album later, Australia has caught on to the magic of Tourist, spurring on two back-to-back sold out headline shows down under. A day before his Sydney debut, I met with Will and his tour manager at a quiet hotel bar on the wettest afternoon possible, and I was quick to apologise for the miserable weather. "This is what we get in London nearly every day!" He joked. Will had just flown in at 5 a.m. that morning, but judging by his cheery demeanour and genuine warmth, the long morning hadn't seemed to phase him at all. By the end of our time together, we'd revisited, dissected and reflected on the story behind what has proved to be a very special debut record for this humble London lad.
Best Before: 'U' is done and dusted, it's out there, and people are beginning to wake up to it on an international level. How do you feel about the album's success so far?
Tourist: I'm not sure success is the right word! Haha. I think it's more been successful in a way that it's been heard by a lot more people than I ever anticipated. Especially here in Australia. I think I feel a sense of success in that I put out the album that I actually wanted to put out. I wouldn't call it a commercial album; when you listen to it as a whole, it doesn't really sound like a pop record at all. I didn't want to do that, so I'm proud of what it is. It's great to have done it, and let it go out into the world. Now I'm just excited about the next one, to be quite honest. I think when you finish a record, you hand it off and it's no longer yours – it becomes everyone else's. Now I'm thinking about what I want to say with album two.
You had another version of 'U' that you scrapped. What happened there?
It was just way more song-based. There were a lot more lyrics and traditional songs. To be honest, I think the process of writing with other people can either be a really seamless experience, or it can be seriously hindered by strategy. There's times where you'll write a song with an artist, but they won't want to release it until they've had a few more singles out, or whatever else it may be. For me, I really do like writing songs with other people, but it just didn't work in terms of the timeline. My album would have been delayed because others wanted to put out records before mine, and it never felt like I was in control of my own creative process.
As soon as you bring in another party, it adds a whole range of new opinions.
Exactly. That setup didn't really work. To be honest though, I think the final version of 'U' really benefited from that. I had to sit down by myself and do it alone, and I actually enjoyed getting my narrative across without relying on anyone but myself. I think it would have been the easy way out to have just done an album with even one feature vocalist that I really liked.
'U' is definitely chronological. I think that's honestly just my naivety, in a way. I found myself thinking, "If I have to write an album, it has to flow like a story."
In the past, you've collaborated with artists on singles like Lianne La Havas, Joseph Salvat and Will Heard, and those songs embraced a lot of pop elements. Was there something that happened during that time that steered you away from bringing in feature vocalists?
There was, actually. It was just features, features, features, everywhere I looked. Everyone was doing it. I just didn't want to be boring, really.
Did you feel that bringing in feature vocalists would break up the message you were trying to get across? 'U' is such a tight, directional album. Would they have interrupted the flow?
I think so, yeah. It just felt unnecessary.
'U' seems to follow the story of a relationship in chronological order. How strict were you in terms of visiting different moments or emotions when you were deciding on the order and flow of the album?
'U' is definitely chronological. I think that's honestly just my naivety, in a way. I found myself thinking, "If I have to write an album, it has to flow like a story." You don't have to do it like that; I mean, I was throwing in bleak messages here and there all throughout that were more subtle and hidden. I think that's just the way I naturally started to write it. I saw it sort of like a journal. It's just the way it ended up, and that really helped the arc of the album. I think it also helps in forcing people to listen to the album in order.
A lot of people have asked me what my favourite track on 'U' is, and I find it quite a difficult question to answer because I always just put the album on and let it play out. It's just one of those experiences.
Exactly. I think 'U' is actually just one track. It's just one long song.
Melody always speaks to me more than lyrics. Whatever it is about my being makes me really feel things when I hear certain chord structures or particular melodic patterns.
I've heard you call Tourist "dance music for outsiders." When you're writing music that's so personal and emotional, do you ever have to consider whether people could actually dance to it? Is that something that crosses your mind?
It's always an afterthought. It's never a priority in my mind, though. I think my music is labelled "dance music" because of the palette of sounds that I've decided to use – 808s and synthesisers and elements that are just automatically associated with the realm of nightclubs and that scene. I don't even frequent nightclubs, which is stupid because I always play in them. I get labelled a dance artist ultimately because my sound is inspired by what you hear on the dance floor. That's just a taste thing for me; I just liked it at that moment. To be honest, I think that's changing as I write more music. I'm finding myself leaning more towards sampling and traditional instruments at the moment – strings, harps – elements that feel a little more alive.
Gospel choirs, maybe?
Yeah! Funnily enough, I actually did a lot of that on my previous EP. For this record, though, the tone was inspired by what's being played on dance floors. That just comes down to growing up listening to dance music.
When do you feel that you really pinpointed the 'Tourist sound'? Was that something that happened organically?
I'm not even sure if there's really a distinct 'Tourist sound' in my mind. It sounds quite naff when I talk about it myself, doesn't it? Honestly, all I try and focus on is making music that moves me. I don't distinctly know what it is that moves me, but there's always something about certain sounds that will always do it for me. When I push myself and go to places where I wouldn't normally go because it feels a bit easy or dumb, that's where I find myself making things that I'm really proud of. Maybe something like "To Have You Back". That's not really a dance record, is it? It's more just a piece of electronic music.
I would think that "To Have You Back" is too dark and edgy to dance to anyway.
Yeah, it is, isn't it? It's slow and stodgy. Back to the question, though – I think the 'Tourist sound' is always evolving. For some reason, melody always speaks to me more than lyrics. Whatever it is about my being makes me really feel things when I hear certain chord structures or particular melodic patterns. I always try and start with that. I don't really do monotonous, one-level songs. That's not a bad thing, but I always find that I'm jumping around in terms of the key and chord progressions. That's just a part of who I am as a musician. Maybe it's just because I'm impatient.
After listening to 'U' in a nice pair of headphones, I noticed a lot of subtle field recordings and ambient touches woven throughout each track. Where did those extra little inclusions come from?
It comes from my time at university, I think. I studied sound design. Look, the iPhone is a wonderful piece of technology, but it's also quite dreadful, because it keeps us from really talking to each other. I think it's amazing that you can record the sound of anything, anywhere, at any time. I love recording the sounds of life and then slapping them on top of my music. It could be a footstep that sounds rhythmic in a sense, or it could be an ambience that feels as though it gives the track a bit of context. With 'U', I actually did go around to all the places that were important in that relationship and record little things.
I'm just imagining everyone staring at you in a bar as you wander around with your phone out.
Exactly! Ha. I'm just an anti-social, weird guy.
Do you ever hear something when you're out and about and think, "That needs to be on a song?"
Ha! Absolutely. I'm actually recording you right now. You'll be on the next album.
I don't think music is a medal or something to show off to people.
I thought it was really cool that you included little snippets of indiscreet conversations with your ex-girlfriend. How do you feel that adds to the emotional impact of a song?
It just adds another layer. It provides context for people. I don't think they have to really read into it in that sense, but every song on 'U' is quite explicitly about that relationship. Maybe people would listen to a track like "Run" and not feel anything to do with falling in love. I'm cool with that. I actually hope they do, because otherwise it could mean that my album is just really one-dimensional.
There's a rare quality to 'U' in that you use little to no lyrics, but it's so easy to identify the meaning and context behind each song, just from the production and the melodies and the structure alone. When you're pulling together a song, do you set a certain theme and then produce around that?
Yeah, I think so. I think each song has to make me feel something that one of my others hasn't. It has to trigger something authentic. I don't want to make music that's all about drops or impressive production. I've actually never been impressed by that approach to making music. I don't think music is a medal or something to show off to people; it's a moment that can be anything to anyone. To answer your question, though, I don't really start out and say, "I'm going to write a song about falling in love."
Was there a mind-map or master timeline behind 'U'? Did you find yourself slotting songs into the timeline of the relationship as you finished them off?
That really did end up happening. I'd write one piece of music, and if I decided it would be on the final album, I'd consider what else would need to be on the album to match back with it. I found myself asking, "What else would that song need?" It's all just about counter-points and linking different moments. In saying that, I didn't finalise the tracklist before I wrote the music. After I'd finished a track, I'd identify the tone and decide where it fit in from there.
How many potential songs do you think you had altogether for 'U'? Will we be seeing a deluxe edition release?
I think I had about 30 songs that were in the running. It's funny you ask that, because a while back I tweeted, "My relationship wasn't deluxe, so you won't be getting a deluxe edition of 'U'." Haha! In all honesty though, if you can't say what you want to say in 10 tracks, then you're probably not saying it well at all.
I know it's a tough choice, but what song on 'U' are you most proud of?
Um... honestly, I'm just proud of finishing the record. I mean, "For Sarah" is something that I'm particularly proud of. I'm really happy with "Waves" too. That sounds quite different to what I'd normally do. I'm proud of it all, though.
Are there any songs from 'U' that are difficult to revisit, or are still raw emotionally?
I'm not sure, actually. There's moments where I've played "Run" to 5000 people at a festival, and you stand there and think, "I wrote this in my bedroom about my new girlfriend." I was falling in love with her, and that feeling was so present in me. To be honest, I don't think I could have written a song about falling in love with my ex. "Run" was actually the last piece of music I wrote for 'U', so it's still quite fresh.
Let's be honest, though – do you get sick of talking about your old relationship?
Ha! I do. It was so long ago now. I'm over it! We're friends now. Well, I wouldn't say friends, but we're both mature adults with our own lives now.
Do you think she's ok with 'U'?
Probably not. But I wrote that album about my life, and it's not bitter. It's not a "fuck you" album. It's more of a dedication to her. 'U' is a tribute.
Tourist's debut album 'U' is out now. Read our review here.
Words and Images by Jordan Munns. Photos were taken at Tourist's debut Australian headline show at Oxford Art Factory in Sydney.