"It's Just Down To Instinct!" Erol Alkan On Phantasy's Manifesto

"It's Just Down To Instinct!" Erol Alkan On Phantasy's Manifesto

As the label toasts its milestone 100th release...

Erol Alkan has spent the bulk of his life either in clubs, travelling to clubs, or preparing for his DJ sets.

Without doubt one of the most influential figures in UK dance music, he's been at the frontline for 20 years, helping to push back the boundaries and, well, to keep kids dancing.

His own imprint Phantasy has developed a shadow identity, one that parallels some of his own tastes, whims, and obsessions, while also developing a curious life of its own.

Recently toasting the 100th release, Phantasy has navigated the troubled waters of the pandemic by shifting and diversifying, all while releasing some thrilling music.

Clash spoke to Erol Alkan over Zoom, and the conversation opened with the DJ apologising for his lengthy lockdown locks - "I look like a mid 70s Turkish psych bloke!"

We spoke about the shape of club culture in a post-pandemic world, the continuing relevance of label identity in an over-saturated music world, and why he will forever be fixated on the next challenge.

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It's the label's 100th release - what does that milestone feel like?

How does it feel to get to 100 singles? It is unexpected I suppose. It was just a singles club I didn’t there’d be this longevity to it in that sense. I kind of haven’t thought about it too much, it only kind of crept up when we were around 90 something that it was ‘we’re fast approaching 100’. To be honest I never really was looking to celebrate the age of the label as such. Even when its like 10 years of the label starting, we didn’t really make much noise about that or anything like that.

I’ve always wanted the label to feel more youthful… I’ve always hated when people refer to me as a veteran, you know what I mean? In my mind that’s not how I look at things. Veteran feels like you’re kind of owed something a little bit because you’ve put the time in.

But 100 singles did feel like an achievement. So I thought it was OK to kind of highlight that, in that sense.

Working without definitions, is that why you’ve reached that milestone?

I think so. I think not being bound to a particular genre and it being bound to instinct I think has given it a better chance of being relevant in whatever time it exists in. Even our first ten singles they were quite diverse within themselves.

Again it's just down to instinct. What you like. Believe in. What you feel you want to share with other people and that’s kind of just carried on right on through until now. Even though now I think Phantasy is the busiest it’s ever been and with all the things that are coming up, that kind of ethos is very much at the nucleus. Now, as it was then. It’s honest I suppose. And that’s not a word that I like to use all the time. 

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You’re clearly still a big believer in the role that labels play. What do labels offer artists now that self-releasing, say, can't touch?

That’s a really good question. It has made it so easy for people to release music alone and there’s certain things that kind of do go online, onto DSP’s and they can rack up millions of plays without any help of any kind of promotion. It’s literally on word of mouth. Also the ability to kind of culturally permeate quickly amongst certain age groups and cultures and things that like. They are incredible. That in itself is just an amazing thing and I see it first hand. I think it’s incredible but the reality is, is that when you look at other forms of music and their role in culture and the culture that they’re in or attached to i.e. club culture, alternative culture in that sense, is a different age group then it’s a whole different set of tools and mechanisms that can help that music or that voice be heard. It’s a combination of things.

I think from the primary aspect of a label and what a label’s relevance is in a modern age or in the modern day, I’m a big believer of people and of instinct and of conversation and ideas and trying things and succeeding and trying things and failing. Sensible ideas, daft ideas, whatever! That comes from people and that comes from being part of a unit. The thing about Phantasy now is that it’s a group of six people who all talk about what we’re doing.

We all converse about it and we all have ideas and we all say what we like. If there’s an issue that we have with something, we’ll all talk about it. Than it itself is some form of guidance which I don’t believe would happen, obviously, if the channel from an artist, their music being heard, was as direct as just simply uploading it and there not being anything in between. Whether or not that’s a positive or a negative depends on the artists and the label and the combination.

Again, if you strike upon a relationship, like many of the relationships we’ve had in the label, I don’t think it could have happened if it wasn’t for everyone doing what they have done. There’s no way of testing this because you can’t run an artist’s career without a label and with a label in parallel to test it. It’s a leap of faith. That leap of faith extends to trust within each other and just making the right decisions. Sometimes the biggest things that can happen for anybody and a label can come from the most unexpected and smallest moments. The nucleus of it being that. It’s a menage its, just getting people into a room, the atmosphere will change depending on the people in that room and what everybody is doing at that one time versus being on your own, you know.

I’m a people person as well, I value other people’s opinions and input. Even if I don’t agree with it I will listen to it. Even as a producer it’s part of what I’d prefer to do rather than dismiss something is to try it and see if it works rather than dismiss it. All of that kind of permeates into the approach of the label as well. For me personally I don’t know if I would take that route right now, just to have nothing between me and to just upload things. Myself, I find that the relationship I have with everyone else at the label is really valuable.

Obviously, there’s other things as well – they’re far more established labels that people sign to, there’s obviously that association with previous artists who have been on there before. There is that. There’s maybe less of that now because labels are becoming a little bit more transparent, I suppose. Obviously, my favourite labels growing up were Creation, Factory, Heavenly and Island. They all have such a strong aesthetic and such a strong ideal at their centre.

Do you believe art is inherently communal?

Yeah I do! I do. I also believe that, those communities work well because the diversity and the difference of personality bleeds within it. You wouldn’t have ten Tony Wilson’s working at factory. You would have a Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus and Rob Gretton and they all have very different personalities which I think lock together to enable each other to make better decisions. If you were to kind of like take them out from that, I don’t think they could achieve what they have achieved on their own at all. Having said that you do need to have some people who are bigger cogs than others. Everyone is usually quite happy for their presence to be new and that’s just down to personalities. That’s what makes things work.

Obviously, you can have difference of opinions and things buffering against each other and then ideas can stall and things don’t progress. Sometimes it takes some of the smallest cogs in the system to allow the biggest ones to do what they do.

Yeah I do believe in art being a communal experience. Can you think of an example of a label where it has literally just been very much a singular person behind it? I’m just trying to think now. I mean, almost like the opposite of what we’ve just been talking about. 

Daniel Johnston making his own cassettes is the extreme opposite I suppose.

Someone like Daniel Johnston was doing that just for Daniel Johnston music. If you’re taking the responsibility for other people and their music then I think whatever you can have in place for them is going to be important for them. If it was just myself then Phantasy would probably be very very different.

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VICE recently ran an in-depth piece on nu rave, which you contributed to. Do you ever feel nostalgic for the past or are you a future focussed, present minded person?

Something like that, like I said before about the new rave thing, what is really important for me was how a moment like that connected with young people up and down the country. I saw that first-hand. I am really fascinated by things like that. I’m really fascinated by what kind of catches fire, you know? What really inspires people. So that was the aspect that really excited me about looking back to that period.

I can only be part of the present moment, I can’t do anything about the past and what has happened before so I don’t like to dwell on it too much but I do feel like, if there’s something that you’re happy about that you’ve done in the past and if it can have some kind of relevance, if it can still sound good in the present moment. I think it’s nice to put a little spotlight on that.

Ultimately, 98% of everything that I do day by day is about the present moment. I don’t think you should ever turn your back on your past. There isn’t any shame in that at all. Some people are quite like that and don’t like to dwell on things they’ve done before. Feel proud of it if you’re into it. If you still like it it’s fine! It’s gonna be new to some people. You’re assuming that everyone who hears what you’ve got to say is A) waiting on your every word or B) knows everything about you. They don’t! Putting things in front of people again or dipping back into this or that, as long as it’s balanced out with whatever you’re doing in the present moment or what you’re aiming for in the future. I think it’s kind of healthy. It’s good to be completely aware of your past and who you’ve been and what you’ve done, rather than to turn your back on it.

There’s some things I know I’ve done in the past that I wouldn’t necessarily want to put in front of people and that’s ok you know. There’s other things that I do feel I’m kind of glad I did. I think that’s ok as well.

How do you envisage club culture bouncing back post-pandemic?

I honestly think it’s gonna be down to the individual. There’s going to be some people who are probably just gonna dive right into it, quite accelerated. I do think there’s gonna be some people who are quite reserved. It’s each to which-ever the person feels comfortable with. We’ve all been challenged considerably, not just to do with going out to clubs or any of that kind of escapism that we depended on week by week. For me, DJ’ing has always been escapism. An online stream doesn’t really give you that at all. I have missed it a lot. But at the same time I’ve had a lot of time to reflect, in going forward, what is it that I’m looking to achieve by picking up from where I left off you know? I think we’ve all changed as people and that will definitely come through in what we do and what we don’t do.

I’ve got some ideas in my head as to what I’d like to do as a DJ and what I don’t want to do as a DJ going forward. There’s still things that I’m cultivating in my mind. It’s very much been informed over what’s happened in the last year. Also that sense of mortality in it. Seeing that, again, it could very easily be taken away from you for another twelve months, a years time potentially! I think its really, maybe, reminded people just how vulnerable it can be. So I’m definitely roaring to get back, to DJ again.

I sometimes make little jokes about my next set back... my first record’s gonna be at 150bpm; really accelerate. The reality is I’m going to be a lot more thoughtful about what I’m going to do and what I commit to and how I put it together. What purpose it plays as well. Also what clubbing offers to people now going forward as well... that escapism.

Again, without kind of doing it a few times it’s hard to measure my response until I’m in it. I am cautious but I’m excited, you know, slightly fearful as well. It’s a weird mix of things. I think coming at it from the two different sides of me, there’s the ‘me’ of now but then there’s always the ‘me’ of 25 years ago or something. That’s always there as well when I do what I do. I do feel that I kind of wind back to a different version of myself sometimes when I’m being creative. That side of me, I don’t know, I don’t want to say. I don’t know exactly what he’s thinking right now.

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How do you plan on steering the label for the rest of the year with lockdown ending?

We’ve not really ever discussed anything to do with ‘live’ as such, we’ve got a stack of releases. The only thing that’s been holding us back really has been a couple of things. Pressing plants have obviously been under massive pressure as well so making a record takes a lot of time at the moment.

We’re still massive believers in the relationship that people have with the physical product. So we’re still making records and records still are, thankfully, selling. Even with record shops being closed records are still selling, thankfully. We hope that when the record shops do open again people aren’t just completely climatised to buying music online. Buying vinyl online. I really miss going record shopping. I miss being in Phonica every week or every other week. Just discovering things that I wouldn’t normally discover. We’re still very much committed to making sure that vinyl is represented.

Literally when the pandemic kicked in we spoke every morning. The whole label, via Zoom or whatever. We made sure just to speak for fifteen minutes every morning, just to talk about anything to do with the label or what we were gonna be doing. Just to interact and see what ideas there were or what was available to us at that point. We had this idea to look back across all 100 singles. It felt like the right thing to do. At that point we weren’t that focussed on releasing new music because obviously it being music of a club nature and there’s no clubs, there’s no DJs. You don’t really want to release records into a void you know? The feeling was, let's give this time. See how this goes. It’s only now that it feels that we’re coming out of it.

There’s a lot of releases that we had that are designed for night clubs, DJs, crowds and that culture. Without it, it seems like a slight loss to release it to nothing. Even if they’re great records, they’ll still be liked and heard. We just focussed on what we could do rather than what we couldn’t do. That was a really important thing.

We’re limited in so many ways but at the same time there were other things that we could focus on that felt like it could be the right building blocks for the future. Thankfully we did that. It feels like we’re coming out of this pandemic, fingers crossed obviously, as a stronger unit than when we entered it. That’s testament to us coming together. Again it goes back to what we were saying about the value of the label. I really feel that we’re a stronger label because we’re a stronger unit.

Finally, did you have a lockdown album or a lockdown sound that you explored in the last 12 months that’s kept you going?

To be honest with you, not just in lockdown but in the last few years I really haven’t been ‘listening’ to albums as such. I’ve been more geared towards single tracks on playlists or new music that I’ve been getting, being sent or anything like that. I listen to a lot of music digitally; I buy a lot of music on vinyl… for DJ sets and stuff. No, there hasn’t been a particular album as such that I kind of listened to. There wasn’t a singular album its literally been new music always.

A lot of time I listen to digital radio because I’m always listening out for new things. In the car, in the kitchen, it’s radio. And then in my time to listen to music it’s been really just listening through to new music.

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Photo Credit: Tom Medwell

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