Matt Preston is certainly an interesting fellow. Making ambient electronic music under the guise of Phaeleh, he’s been in the game since 2008’s Reflections EP, all the way to present day with the current album Tides. Having a solid fanbase following his beautiful live shows and actually purchasing his music (he told me that fans who pirated his music actually tried to buy him beers at gigs after feeling bad for it after the show), he’s become a regular name on many DJ circuits. We caught up with him after Horizon Festival for a quick chat about his past, his present and the increasingly exciting future.
Firstly, I need to say what an honour it was to meet you over in Bulgaria. I should also probably apologise for grabbing you immediately after your set, but sometimes you’ve just got to go for it! I know you were only there for a day or two, but how did you find Horizon Festival?
It’s probably the sensible option, I’ve turned into one of those annoying DJs who runs away after they’ve played! I didn’t get a chance to see the rest of the festival, but thought the setting was great for that stage, and looked like everyone had been having a great time!
Yeah, the setting of the large, outdoor Tofana stage was perfect for your style of music. The snow surrounding everyone, the setting sun, the start of the lights, it all added to your unique ambient beats. How was it for you personally compared to playing somewhere back here in the UK?
Every show is always different, regardless of where it is. I personally find festivals a bit harder than club gigs, as you never know whether people are there to see you or someone else, but I see it as a good chance to play a few different styles.
It was my first time over there, and actually the first international festival I’ve gone to. The set up’s quite bizarre compared to the UK fests, don’t you think?
Yeah it was a new experience for me too there, never played outside in the snow before, so that was an interesting challenge. I felt really sorry for the guitarist in the band playing after me! I didn’t really see enough of the festival to compare it to others I’ve been to, but I’m generally a fan of the festivals all on one site, probably cause I grew up on Glastonbury!
You’ve played loads of different places, so this might be a harder question than I realise, but what’s been your favourite place to play and why?
There are lots of places with various reasons. I think the first time I played places in Eastern Europe was a great experience for me, as I’d never travelled and they were my earliest overseas shows, so I remember them fondly. I have lots of great memories of New Zealand and Australia tours, always meet so many nice people and see some amazing views, and I also found America pretty mind blowing in terms of the different sights and sounds you come across. The two shows that normally jump out when I’m asked this question are probably my first show in Lithuania, which I think was about 2008, and the first Outlook Festival I played, which I think was in 2011.
With so many stages in the world, this is maybe another difficult one. If you could play anywhere; in any setting, where would you play and why?
I really like places that are new experiences for me. I’ve never played in South America, Africa or Asia, so would be a great thing to pass through any of those places, but I think the idea of a show in some beautiful outdoor setting, possibly with some wonder from the ancient world in the background would be pretty cool.
I’ve seen you play more times than I can count now, on a variety of styles of nights. I know which of your tracks gets me and my friends going (‘Breathe In Air’, ‘Whisper In The Dark’, ‘Cold In You’), but do you have any personal favourites when you’re up on stage?
It’s a tricky one when you’ve heard the songs so many times, but I’m still a big fan of ‘In The Twilight’ and ‘Journey’, those ones still have the same effect on me as when I wrote them.
A friend of mine once told me that a good DJ is like a gateway to another reality, a way to really connect to music on an almost spiritual level. Your performances have certainly led me to believe that statement. How do you feel when you can see the crowd all reacting in tune to you?
This sounds really bad, but if it’s a proper Phaeleh show, then I tend not to look at the crowd. In the past I’ve misread people zoning out to the tunes as them looking bored, so I find it safest to just trust my instincts musically. This would be different if it was a boat party or free party or something like that, where the emphasis is on fun rather than the music, so I tend to be more of a traditional DJ in those settings, and react to the crowd and guess the stuff they’re going to like based on the reactions of what you’ve played so far.
It all looks a bit quiet on the performing side for you at the moment. Does this mean you’ve gone into hibernation for Spring? Or is this the start of a follow-up to Tides?
It’s very intentional! When I came back from America last year I was completely exhausted, so told my manager I wanted to take it easy on gigs for the first six months of 2014, so that I could really try and get back into production. Tides was a very broken up process to write, and I wanted to get back into the writing headspace I had a few years ago, where I could spend weeks just making music. It’s really important to me that the next album is a step up in terms of songwriting and production, if something sounds like it would be good enough to go on one of the previous albums, I’m throwing them away, as that’s not the level of improvement I’m looking for!
Everyone has their own way of getting into the zone when writing new material. How do you get yourself into that space?
I always need to be in quite a chilled headspace, and have that balanced out with an unhealthy amount of caffeine and sugar.
It sounds like an exaggeration, but I normally need to write about 100 tracks to warm up, especially if I’ve been doing a lot of shows. Then it’s just a case of perseverance, and not getting too down when you’re not making stuff as good as you’d like. I find the creative process amazing, as it takes me to extreme lows with frustration, but those moments are when the magic normally happens, and out of nowhere you can have something that leaves you feeling completely elated.
It’s quite bad, but I find locking myself away, ignoring emails and my phone and the real world for weeks on end can be really helpful. I know it’s been a good creative week when I realise I haven’t left the house for five days and seem to have grown a beard.
Fallen Light was; and still is; one of my iPod staples. Tides definitely started to show a new approach to your music though, there’s a lot more focus on the vocal parts (with a lot more collaborations) and the whole thing has a very fresh vibe to it. Was this a natural evolution, or something that you chose to direct yourself to?
Tides is a very complicated subject, most of the vocal tracks on there were thrown together really quickly. If I’m honest, it’s the instrumentals on that album I’m happier with. I had the intention of making it more musical, with more instruments and ideas, though I don’t think it really happened. I think it’s a better album than Fallen Light, with stronger tracks, but for various reasons, I think I was happier with Fallen Light. It was all written so quickly, but at the same time so there’s a coherent sound to my ears. With Tides, there was nearly a two-year gap between the oldest and newer tracks, and that’s what I want to avoid with the next album.
From talking to various performers over the years, I’ve come to realise that quite often an artist doesn’t listen to their own genre as much as one might assume. What’s been playing on your iPod recently? Any favourite albums right now?
I listen to no electronic music that’s been made in the last 10 years if I’m honest. I don’t really get to listen to much music, but when I do, it tends to be old drum and bass mixes or more minimalist stuff to chill out to. I think the last album I bought was the most recent Boards of Canada album, but still haven’t had a proper chance to listen to it yet.
Your hometown of Bristol has been the origin of some of the biggest names in electronic music in the last 20 years. What was it like growing up surrounded by the incredible scene down there?
I’m actually a recent arrival in Bristol in the grand scheme of things, I grew up down the road in Wiltshire. To be honest, as a kid I had no idea about music scenes that weren’t based in Seattle. It was only as I got more into production that I got more into the Massive Attack/Portishead side of things as well a lot of the Full Cycle sound. It definitely is a huge help living somewhere which gives press an angle, even if I’m not really part of a Bristol ‘sound’, they like writing about it.
It might be a typical question to ask, but one worth asking nonetheless. Who do you classify as your influences?
I think my biggest influences over the years are probably Tool, Prodigy (first two albums only, everything else is a bit rubbish in my opinion), LTJ Bukem, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Plaid, Brian Eno and Steve Reich. In terms of my production, I’d say the biggest influences on my sound have been the people I’ve made music with over the years. I’ve been very lucky in knowing a lot of talented musicians in various genres, so think I picked up a lot from them in the early days.
Your career has already seen some pretty high times, but is there any one event that you can think of as a defining moment in it?
It sounds kinda lame, but with a lot of the shows I did in America, I saw posters for bands who I grew up listening to on the walls. That for me was a weird moment of taking stock and realising that I should try and look at the positives for once, rather than eternally dwelling on the negatives.