TSOFDs: It’s interesting you’re the second artist we’ve interviewed recently who isn’t overly interested in self-promotion. We’re hoping this heralds a new wave of artists that would rather spend their time working on their music than paying for Facebook boosts which only bots click on. Anyway, we’re grateful you’ve been kind enough to put aside time to converse with us. Conor McAteer (We Are Aerials) states it makes him feel ‘mucky’ trying to sell himself. Is this something you can relate to – should the work just speak for itself?
WD: I can definitely relate to that. It’s important for a musician to have a good understanding and respect for promotion and how/when to utilise it, but many artists are way too involved in self-promotion and creating their online persona with daily posts of miscellaneous fodder. I prefer to be patient and let things grow naturally. I’m not going to post something on social media if I don’t feel like it and I’m not going to force myself to do a post every day on Instagram… When I have something that carries at least some meaning then I will consider sharing it. Ultimately it’s about the music and not the person(s) behind it.
TSOFDs: Seems like advice we could all benefit from heeding whether musicians or not. More straightforward question. Where did the title ‘Filoxiny’ come from?
WD: Filoxiny is taken from the Greek word ‘philoxenia,’ which I learnt from my good friend Basilis from Greece, who released the first Skinshape album back in 2014. He mispronounced when he first tried to tell me about this word and it came out as ‘filoxiny’. The cool thing is that there is no word in English for this! It means something like ‘generosity of spirit,’ in other words hospitality to your guest/patron but to a much greater degree, i.e. ‘my home is your home.’
TSOFDs: Great to learn something new and, yes, we couldn’t suss out where the word came from with a quick search online. Makes a nice change to find the Internet doesn’t have all the answers. Speaking of which, the Internet couldn’t provide us with a definite answer regarding whether you’ve turned your back on touring? Do you see making a record a bit like painting a picture – once it’s done it’s done?
WD: I don’t think I can say I’ve definitely turned my back on touring forever but for the time being it feels very right. I’m happy where I am, and I try to keep my life simple. I am busy enough as it is and trying to keep your head straight in this world is not easy so I think if I started touring I would lose it! Also, touring generally puts a lot of stress on personal relationships and I don’t want to do that to my partner. I am choosing a path where I am not all about ‘me and my music.’
TSOFDs: Sounds entirely sensible. Perceptions of musicians can be a bit reductive. People seem to think all an artist should be doing is making a record/promoting a record/touring a record. Can you tell us some of the things you’d rather be doing than trying to get a band together/touring – how do you like to spend your time when you’re not writing and recording – where do your other interests lie?
WD: That is quite reductive, but then isn’t that what musicians generally do? We spend a long time writing an album, and then we spend a long time recording it, and then we spend a long time promoting and releasing it, and then we spend some more time touring it and playing lots of festivals… And then we do it many times over. It’s quite relentless actually. But yes, there can be more things that a musician can do if they think to try… I read a lot of books, especially travel and philosophy books. I sell secondhand vinyl as a hobby (part-time job), I work with my girlfriend and we share the money we earn, that’s quite fun. In the future I’d like to write a book, probably non-fiction. I’m terrible at drawing so I could never paint. I could try photography, I sometimes think I can see good photo opportunities walking around London. Apart from ‘work’ related stuff, family and my partner are very important to me, and I prioritise them above anything else ultimately.
TSOFDS: It certainly seems to have proven beneficial to find a pace of life that works for you – so many artists seem to just burn out. Your recording process sounds really cool and there’s a beautiful overall tone to the final result. Can you tell us about some of the gear you use – is it simply a matter of plugging into a computer and mixing in the box or is the recording chain more complicated than that?
WD: Ah this is the question I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me for a long time, hahaha. What studio nerd doesn’t love to talk about gear? My recording process is quite weird really, because the music gives the impression of a band jamming out. But really there is no band and everything is built up layer by layer, usually starting with the drums. I always try to push myself with new techniques and ideas to make the recordings more unique. There’s lots of little studio tricks I’ve used that you may notice if you listen carefully, especially in the third album ‘Life & Love.’ But back to the gear! The important thing for a sound like Skinshape is to use as much vintage gear as possible. We don’t want any of that sharp digital high end! I always record the drums to tape, that is the first thing. Sometimes I mix the drums down to one channel, which is more limited to mix later on but it’s more exciting to do, and it challenges you to nail the sound at the start. Other times I record the individual drum microphones and mix them later, it’s nice if I want a stereo drum sound, like on the track ‘I Didn’t Know.’ The rest of the music is not generally recorded to tape, but I use vintage valve preamplifiers to record nearly everything through before it reaches the computer. I generally use cheap microphones as well, the only time I’ve used expensive microphones was to record the strings and horns, I hired a couple of Neumanns for those sessions to make sure I had the best possible sound.
TSOFDs: That’s an awesome insight to gain. Here’s hoping it inspires any aspiring recording enthusiasts out there to nail the sound at source. Putting recording to one side, what tends to come first – words or music – how do your songs generally start life?
WD: Music nearly always comes first. I need to create a vibe to feel inspired and write some lyrics. I usually start with drums and then add some guitar or bass to build the vibe. On Filoxiny I sometimes started with synthetic orchestral sounds or piano to build my idea, and replaced those later with the real thing. Due to the cost of hiring the musicians to play some of the parts it’s essential to make sure you have their parts correct so that you don’t have to get them back in a second time.
TSOFDs: Good advice. African music seems to be something you’re passionate about as a listener. Which countries in Africa in particular – which African artists would you recommend to our readers that they may not have heard?
WD: African music has been my great passion for a few years now. I love Congolese music the most at the moment, there is something so profound and deep about it. I have about 100 7″ vinyl from Congo and it’s growing every day. I also regularly listen to music from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast. Generally these are all on original old vinyl, which I have spent many many hours searching listening and collecting over years. The fact is that much of the music can only be heard on vinyl so if you want to discover it you don’t really have any choice! But it’s not a bad thing, as the quality is usually much higher than on any format or YouTube video.
TSOFDs: It’s time to get off the computer people! But after finishing reading this, obviously. You’re described as a Londoner. Where in London are you from? How have the music scenes you’ve been involved with changed over the years? Has London changed for better or worse for musicians would you say?
WD: I am actually not a Londoner it is just where I have lived for nearly 10 years. I’ve actually from a town called Swanage in the county of Dorset. It’s a beautiful place and I’m proud to be from there. London is sadly a necessity for many people, musicians or otherwise. It’s where I come to meet musicians, work at my studio. And it can’t be denied that it is one of the best places on Earth to find myriad amazing musicians. I can testify to that because not only have I found some of the best ‘Western’ musicians to record some of my previous work, but I am currently finding amazing musicians from Africa and Latin America for my new material without even having to leave my city… it’s amazing, really! London is amazing, the only drawback is that due to the number of outstanding musicians in this city, it can be quite difficult for many to find a voice and stand out from the rest.
TSOFDs: In terms of ensuring your voice, as it were, is heard precisely how you want people to hear it, what do you find hardest about making a record? A lot of musicians I talk to find coming up with the core parts not so difficult but then deciding on a final mix can be absolute torture. Any tips that might help someone who’s hit a brick wall push through to the end?
WD: The hardest part of making a record is definitely the period after you’ve created your initial idea that you are happy with. It’s a laborious process building up the songs and making them interesting. Finishing a song seems to be the part that many musicians struggle with. Sometimes people create something great and then they just give up before they get to finish it, and that can be dangerous because you may lose interest in that song and never finish it. I find it’s imperative to force yourself to finish a song, even if you don’t really have that much motivation to finish it. Sometimes it’s the encouragement of others that gives me the drive to struggle through. Finalising the mix is also a looooong process. I usually do 20-50 mixes of a song before it’s done, listening to every mix on my iPod (yes I still have an iPod) and making little notes to change in the next mix. It’s usually very minor tweaks just bringing everything into balance better. My advice to anyone who has hit a brick wall, is to push through! And bounce the mix off someone whose ears you trust to get a second opinion, someone who is going to be honest whether they think it’s good or bad. If someone asks you, ‘Hey what is this song?’ that is usually a sign that you are on the right track!
TSOFDs: Top tips. What’s next for Skinshape? Any new records in the pipeline or new projects?
WD: Up next is my next LP which is something like 50% complete. I am not going to say too much but I will say that it is totally different to Filoxiny, much more upbeat, funky and very world music orientated, drawing on music from places such as Mali, Congo, Nigeria, Benin, Ethiopia, La Reunion, Cuba, the US and many more. It is an exploration of rhythm, poly-rhythm and grooves. I am very excited about it and it has been a big challenge for me so far but I am starting to see progress with it so that’s great.
TSOFDs: We can’t wait to hear it – really appreciate you giving us your precious time.
WD: Many thanks for the brilliant questions, it’s nice to see someone who does not just ask the standard stuff!