Based out of Bristol, England, Matthew Preston AKA Phaeleh is a multi-instrumentalist, producer and DJ best known for his atmospheric, emotional and chilled bass music. With roots in a wide array of musical styles including dubstep, garage, house and ambient, Phaeleh has been nurturing his unique sound over more than 10 years and 20 releases.
With his latest release Clarity (2018), Phaeleh has stepped further into his power and delivered his most multifaceted and personal record to date.
Listen to Clarity here:
We look forward to the next Phaeleh offering, and, until then, we are happy to share some words from the artist:
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. How are you? What are you up to today?
I’m good thanks, I’m just getting ready for a house move so taking apart my studio and already looking forward to getting everything into a new space and cracking on with some new music.
Your releases span just over a decade. How long have you been making music? What prompted you to start sharing it with the world?
I’ve been making music in one form or another for most of my life. I was lucky enough to have a music teacher at school who would let me use Cubase instead of doing what most of the class was doing. I started to get into electronic music when I was about 17, and it was a few years later that I got into production more seriously after years of playing in bands.
I never had any plans to share my music, I think it was just a result of social media appearing. It was Myspace that first got my music online, and I had zero expectations at the time, as it was just a hobby for my spare time. But around 2006 when I started the Phaeleh project I noticed myself starting to get more gigs, and by 2008 I was getting so many people asking where to buy the music, that I started my first label.
Can you tell us a little about the experience of starting your own label/s?
My first label was called Urban Scrumping which was started in 2008 but hasn’t been active since early 2011. It wasn’t a conscious decision to set up a label, I just wanted my music to be available for people to download as I got messages every day on Myspace asking where people could buy my music. I worked directly with the stores themselves which was an option back then as there was a lot less ‘noise’ in terms of releases and artists and the whole scene hadn’t reached the oversaturated state it would do a few years later. One immediate issue was that the stores all required a label name in order to put the music online as you couldn’t just do it under your artist name. It was after I’d set up my first couple of releases, that I realised the infrastructure was there to put some of my friend’s music online as well. So it all happened quite organically and essentially by accident.
Unfortunately, around the time Fallen Light came out I became a lot busier and just didn’t really have the time to do it, and this was also when dubstep was becoming quite big so it became increasingly difficult to get the releases noticed as well which was another factor in it stopping.
My current label Undertow was set up without too much intent either, the label I was on at the time was part of a bigger business which sadly went into administration around 2012 (nothing to do with the music part frustratingly), so to avoid all my back catalogue being owned by a bank, my manager at the time quickly changed everything over to a new label with the distributor so that I wouldn’t lose all my work and also have a way to put out my album Tides which had just been finished. This was all done in a few chaotic hours. All my music since 2012 has been released on Undertow.
This label is definitely a bit more serious and has done physical releases as well as proper PR campaigns, neither of which my first label did. I never talk about Undertow too much as I’ve never been someone who puts too much emphasis on labels, I’d rather focus on the artists themselves, which is why you’ll rarely see a label name on flyers after my artist name.
Your recent releases have seen you gravitate towards hardware synthesisers and guitars. Why is this? How has it changed your creative process?
When I first started experimenting with music software the only option was to use sound modules and synths, as Steinberg hadn’t released the first VST at that point. Luckily the world of software synths definitely made things easier.
Despite this technological shift, there’s always been guitars and hardware on Phaeleh releases since the very beginning, but there was a time where it was just quicker and easier to use software for a lot of the synthesis side of things. Since I’ve had a bit more space in my studios it’s been easier to factor in the ever-growing hardware collection, but I’m still using some old synths that I originally bought back around 2002, so it’s not really new. I think with recent releases it’s more of a case that I’ve been using software less rather than using hardware more.
In terms of my creative process, I think 10 years ago sitting at a computer all night was a lot more exciting than I find it now, I seem to have reverted to a setup whereby playing things live and standing up away from the computer holds my attention a lot more than clicking away at the screen. I guess with software I’d tend to work in loops and then build arrangements from that. These days I tend to get lost in a sound, and record that part, then everything else will be built around it, so it’s more like fully improvised jams, just without any other musicians and it happening one part at a time.
Have you been pleased with the reception Clarity has got so far?
I think the reception from the fans has been really positive which I’m so grateful for. It’s hard to say beyond that as I decided not to do any kind of conventional promotion or press for it, so I have no idea how it would have gone down in the wider context of the music world, but I’m less concerned about that sort of things these days. I’m definitely very pleased with it as an album and I think the overall level is a lot more consistent across the tracks than previous non-ambient releases.
Do you automatically approach a new album or project with previous work in mind? Are new projects necessarily “follow-ups” from previous ones?
I definitely used to be aware of what fans liked on previous releases, which often left you in limbo between what you wanted to make and what you thought you should make. Occasionally you might remember a song and try to write something in a similar style, but it never really works out that well as the emotion or overall mood just isn’t genuine. A lot of people ask why I don’t make so much 140bpm stuff these days, but the truth is I do, it just doesn’t meet the standards of previous releases for me and I feel it lacks the authenticity and real connection to the music, which doesn’t happen so much when I’m working with different tempos and different styles.
The process is different for each release, I think my key thing with Clarity was that I just wanted to capture a series of tracks that were made around the same time creatively, rather than picking things out that had been made over a longer period of time. I don’t feel the need to ‘follow-up’ a previous release, and if anything I think it’s good to switch things up a bit each time too, even if you return to a sound a few albums later.
What is the inspiration behind a track like ‘Moments’ being dropped into the middle of Clarity?
People quite often bring up the interlude tracks on my albums, normally complaining that they’re too short! I am a big fan of albums which are quite dynamic, I like there being ‘events’ on a tracklist where the tracks grab your attention, and in the same way, I view interlude tracks as being quite good for cleansing the sonic palette and actually taking a breath before carrying on. I think it helps subsequent tracks retain impact, as people don’t always have the attention span for endless beats and beats.
I have considered making a whole album of more acoustic/classical sounding things, but I think that might be too far removed from my normal releases. With my ambient albums, I feel the textural elements aren’t actually that different to my beat-based tracks, they just don’t have drums on many of them. I guess I’m too scared to try it. With ‘Moments’, it was a track I really liked when I made it and it resonated with me a lot emotionally. I’ve got hundreds of little tracks like that which never see the light of day and I thought it would be a shame for that to happen with this one as I’d become quite attached to it.
Having openly communicated your pleasure with having produced an album with no label or management involvement, do you see yourself returning to these structures in the future?
I can’t completely rule it out. In the unlikely event that someone approached me whilst I was finishing an album, and they liked it as it was and didn’t want to change too much, with the greater reach and PR budgets that labels offer I’d definitely consider it. I think the thing I’d be wary of was signing to a label without there being any music finished, as someone’s idea of what they want could vary massively from what I actually end up making, and I’m at a stage of my career now, where for the music to feel fresh and for me to fully engage with it would require some level of autonomy and freedom to explore different ideas which may only become apparent as I’m writing. I don’t want to sign to a label to make a beat album, then suddenly be inspired by writing lute suites, or signing to an ambient label and suddenly realise I’m into making techno bangers. Whilst it might not be the most sensible approach, I’d rather have that freedom than a huge amount of pressure to make something I’m not 100% feeling.
I was recently exposed to the idea that a rising concern with “self-care” has seen a growing interest in more downtempo and ambient styles of music. Considering the very complicated and heavy global political and social climate, do you feel that music should be a reflection of this or an escape from this?
I’ve always tried to keep the music isolated from too many external factors, and think I’ve always made stuff that leads to people having an emotional connection to the music.
I guess music for me was originally a form of escapism, and regardless of what style I’m making, I like to think it could offer a form of escapism for people’s lives, whether that’s emotional things they’re going through, or to just switch off after a hard day. So I guess it could be seen as an escape from the current climate, but I wouldn’t say any of it is written with that in mind.
Outside of music, where do you draw inspiration from?
I’ve always just been inspired by life mainly. If I’m making sad sounding music, it’s a reflection of my mindset at the time. If it’s upbeat, it’s because I’m in a good mood. I think as I’ve gotten older it’s taken a slight departure from this approach, and can often be inspired by a particular sound I’ve dialled in, or a happy accident I’ve come across by routing things through some pedals in a way I’ve not done before. I shouldn’t really say it, but my music doesn’t have a lot of thought behind it when I’m writing, I just tend to go with the flow with it and most of it is based on improvisations and just letting the music go where it needs to, it almost just writes itself, for better or worse. I’ve definitely stopped fighting it and trying to control it as I was a few years back, as I found the music would lack the authenticity for people to make meaningful connections with it.
If you were not a musician, what would you be?
I’d probably say a teacher, but if I wasn’t a musician I’m not sure I’d want to teach anything else. I’d be quite content working at an owl sanctuary or being some kind of nomadic llama herder.
Famous last words?
Don’t worry too much about what everyone else is doing, stay true to yourself and try to see any setbacks or disappointments as a chance to learn and gain a greater understanding of what’s actually important to you and what direction you want to be heading in.
Phaeleh will be playing XOYO on August 23rd as part of the Calibre residency. You can get tickets and all the lineup information here: