SoulTracks reviews 'Glaciers'
The music man behind much of the signature tones that have come to define The Foreign Exchange (+FE) sound continues his alchemist trick of making instrumental electronic music feel organic for laypeople who swear they don’t care for electronic music. Following a tradition initially established in jazz by artists like Miles Davis and in soul by Stevie Wonder’s experimentations in Songs in the Key of Life (peaking in the woefully underrated In A Square Circle), manipulating electronic music to distill the innate robotic coldness of its confines to cultivate something emotional and resonating is a hard row. Most lean into the coldness, creating music that stretches from the industrial and dystopian to the nihilistic and metallic.

Indie-soul collective Foreign Exchange plays the Cat's Cradle (via The News & Observer)
It seems like only yesterday Phonte Coleman was just a North Carolina rapper/singer, one-third of the up-and-coming hip-hop trio Little Brother. Back then, Coleman was also exchanging music files with an Internet help desk employee and aspiring producer in the Netherlands (Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook), hoping the two could make music together.

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365 Albums A Year interviews The Foreign Exchange

by +FE on April 10, 2011 at 11:15 AM · Comments
The Foreign Exchange are an extremely talented duo consisting of singer Phonte and producer Nicolay. After releasing their first album together in 2004 and switching genres in 2009, their latest album, Authenticity, shows once again great growth from the group. It's no surprise that it placed at #12 in our top 50 albums of 2010; "From romanticizing to reminiscing, philosophizing, glorifying, and degrading love it seems the album glides along on elegantly like its skating on ice."

In our conversation with the duo, we've talked about their upcoming projects (Phonte even dropped a release date!), working with The Based God, Internet as a promotional tool, Nic's passion for collecting vintage synths, their relation with film, and much more.

Hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed doing it! Here it is:

Marcus Wolfe for 365 Albums a Year: Your latest album, Authenticity was released about six months ago. How do you guys look back at it today?

Phonte: Looking back on it at now, I'm just more surprised we were able to get it out more than anything. We had a lot going on at the time, but I'm extremely proud of it. Very surprised of how dark it came out for me lyrically, it didn't seem to be that way when I was recording it. Looking back at it, I was like; "damn, it's pretty dark stuff." It's not a very cheery, happy album anyway, so that was it.

365AAY: Do you think that came with the theme of authenticity, the somber approach?

Phonte: Possibly, it could have something to do with it. I like, or I try not to think that being authentic or being real is synonymous with being sad. But a lot of times that seems to be the case [ laughs]. The subject matter just kinda came out of the songs, the music rather influenced it, and that's how it all came together.

Nicolay: For me it's always kind of really a moment of truth, how the music does live. That's always just an exciting process. We have been doing a couple of shows for the record and we're actually doing a bunch more soon, and just getting to play the new songs is really cool. It kinda gives some fresh energy to the show. So it's not necessarily like my opinions and thoughts about it have changed, I can definitely say that I appreciate it more now than I did then.

365AAY: You described how you enjoyed doing the songs live, are there any unique reactions you get from doing the Authenticity songs as opposed to your last two albums?

Phonte: The fans now, they really like us doing "Maybe She'll Dream of Me," they really like "Laughing At Your Plans," it really gets a good response. They just be into it. It kinda surprises them to see how much energy we bring with the new songs, and how even though they're on record, on record they're one way but when they hear it live it's really different, a lot more energetic. That to me is what I like; catch the people off guard and giving them a new experience.

365AAY: What can we expect from you in the future, whether as a group or solo projects?

Nicolay: One of the first things that we're doing outside of going on tour, we are actually about to release a live acoustic album. That is really just an example of us kinda experimenting with a different style if you will. I mean it was a totally acoustic session without any sort of amplified instruments. So it was really for us another new way to interpret and translate our music into a different kind of format and platform. We're really excited about that. We are re-releasing our first album Connected, that's been out of print for a while now. Since that's where it all started it's important to us that we keep that out there, so we got that coming.

Phonte: My solo album is coming out September 13th. And... that's all I am saying. [laughs]

365AAY: So no other details to share yet?

Phonte: Nah, not right now.

365AAY: There seem to be a season-related theme through your three albums, both in the music and cover arts. Was this intentional or only a coincidence? Can we expect your upcoming project to be reflective of spring?

Nicolay: It could. It's never really intentional so much as that it becomes essential. The first album set the tone for a lot of the stuff we do visually, it was a colorful package. When we were getting ready to do Leave it all Behind, we really wanted to get as far away from that as possible. So we came out with the black and white, it was really much more somber, more understated. For Authenticity it just felt right to go with the leaf, as the symbol of the album and the authenticity concept. It's not like we are trying to do the four seasons like Vivaldi or something, it's really not like that at all. But it's definitely a theme.

365AAY: Phonte, a few weeks ago you had the Internet going crazy, in a mostly positive way, with a very unlikely collaboration with Lil B The Based God. Did you expect such a reaction and what did you think of it?

Phonte: I definitely expected that reaction, just based on that line-up alone, not even on the song, before the song was even played by people, I knew that just based on that line-up they were gonna be like "Oh shit!," you know what I'm saying? For me, it was just something I wanted to do just to have fun, just make a dope record with somebody that nobody would really expect me to do a record with. Lil B is a person that is very much a polarizing figure in hip hop. For me personally, I just think the dude is hilarious. [ laughs] I think he's very smart in creating out his own niche and building his fan base from the ground up. I really admire what he's doing and I know that doing the record with him would just be something that would catch everybody off guard and piss some people off. That's what it was and we accomplished our goal [ laughs] so, at the end of the day, the record came out dope and I'm proud of it. I had fun doing it and that's to me what it's all about.

365AAY: Does by any chance the Lil B persona make you feel like taking up the Percy Miracles persona again?

Phonte: Nah nah, I can't do that. [ laughs] I can't do that. We're at different stages in our career and him doing the Based God persona, that's his lane and he has perfected that, that's his thing. For me, Percy Miracles is something I just feel I don't have the need to do anymore.

365AAY: Being a duo that started working together via the Internet, what are you views on it recently being a major tool for new musicians to create a fan base and publish their work?

Nicolay: It's definitely not the standard road to success, but it starts with a really good quality product. The Internet has definitely opened a lot of fast ways especially for people without money, like really ourselves. We don't really have a big budget, so a lot of the promo that we do has to be some grass root stuff, whether Internet, e-mail, or physical mail. We just employ a lot of different tactics since we don't really have the big budgets. I really think a lot of people are getting really clever with that, but once again it all depends on the product. If you have a great, excellent product you can do a lot on the Internet and put yourself out there. But if you have a whack product, the whole Internet is not gonna help you.

365AAY: Do you see anything limiting about the Internet?

Phonte: I guess if anything that's limiting is that the fact that it's unlimited [laughs]. You can literally put out your whole discography as an artist and just unload your music on people, and that creates a flooded market place. It can be harder to cut through all the clutter. Other than that, I think it's a great tool, it's all about getting to your fan base and getting to the people who dig you. The Internet has made it possible to strip down all the unnecessary stuff of just doing great marketing budgets, blowing lots of money trying to take over the world. It might not be about taking over the world, it might just be like "I just want to take over Chicago or something, 'cause that's where my fans are." Just being really specific and getting to where the people who feel you are and continuing to nurture that place and hit them with new material.

365AAY: Nic, you collect vintage gear such as keyboards and synthesizers. How did that start?

Nicolay: Just really by loving to play them, it's not any type of vanity stuff. I love the sound of them, I've always played vintage synths so it was something I enjoyed doing before I started producing, I've played in a lot of bands and stuff. At first when I moved to the States I had to get rid of pretty much a lot of them because I wasn't able to bring it all over. Ever since, I've kinda built some stuff up again. I really like using them mainly; I mean I don't really have anything in my room that I don't use. So it's not like a museum or anything of the kind, but I've got some Moog's, and some Juno's, and DX's. I just love the different sounds, the different characters of certain machines. There's a very distinct character in each of those different instruments, and it helps me do different stuff every time, I guess.

365AAY: Phonte, you used to do one minute reviews of movies, have acted in FE videos and appeared in The Color Purple at six years old. Do you have any plans on making it to the big screen again?

Phonte: If a matter of opportunity came along, I would do it. It's not like I'm out actively auditioning for roles and stuff like that. My love is just music, first and foremost. That's pretty much what I focus on. If the music gets me into movies then of course I would do it, but I just stick with my passion which is music and see what path that takes. Rather than, "Okay I'mma go act and start a clothing line and I'mma do this and I'mma do that." I just stick with what I know [laughs].

365AAY: Do you guys think there's any films that have influenced you music?

Nicolay: Yeah, all the time. I just in general like very cinematic music and I put a lot of that in my music. I'm a big fan of movie soundtracks, even outside the context of the movies. We've actually been talking about the great possibility that would be The Foreign Exchange doing a movie soundtrack. We're definitely both interested in movies, Phonte even more so than myself. It's definitely something that gives inspiration and ideas to work on.

365AAY: In 2010, your song "Daykeeper" got a Grammy nomination for the Best Urban/Alternative Performance. The Grammies decided to remove the category in 2012. I know Nicolay didn't seem too happy about it on Twitter, what can you guys tell us about your opinion on their decision?

Nicolay: I mean it's pretty clear, I've said several things about it and they weren't necessarily all negative. But it is very clear to me that regardless of how the "decision making people" at the Grammies explain it, it is very clear to me, not even for ourselves as the Foreign Exchange because that is only one unit, but it's kind of a generation that gets a hit here. It's definitely the Arie's, the Bilal's, the FE's of the world. We're definitely in the soul or in the R&B lane if you will but there's definitely not any point of releases like ours going up against the big releases of a Rhianna, of an Usher. I think there's some good things that they did, I think that it's good that there's no more distinction between male and female categories, because I think that at the end of the day a good song is a good song. There's some logic behind that, but there were a lot of categories that in themselves represented a lot of diversity and pretty much the smaller categories took a hit and I think that's a very bad development.

365AAY: Nicolay, you were the 4th Dutch person to be nominated for the Grammies, do you take pride in that?

Nicolay: Yeah, I mean, to a degree. You gotta take that with a grain of salt, in the sense that it's a very small country [laughs]. It's still kinda cool, it puts me in the company of much celebrated musicians like Tiësto, who made I think 20 million a year at this point, Kenny Dolfer, who used played with Prince. It's really an honor from that perspective. It's something that is extra special from people that come from Europe, it's a really different kind of race out here. It's cool to be in company with those people, people that really made their mark in their own right. I am proud to be amongst that.

365AAY: Finally, is there any album you'd like to recommend to our readers?

Phonte: KING, The Story. Their EP, it's three girls out of L.A., it is incredible. Shout outs to KING.

Nicolay: Ironically, I really like the new Fleet Foxes, but that shit ain't out so I guess I might be giving myself away a little bit [laughs]. When it comes to new material, for me I listen to a lot of a lot of old music. We saw Prince a couple of weeks ago, so I've been listening to a lot of Prince again, definitely got the buzz back. I listen to Jean Jolly a lot, a local artist, she currently tours with us. She has a project called Falling in Carolina, also an EP on iTunes. I try to listen to a lot of different stuff.

365AAY: Any last words for your fans?

Phonte: I just gotta say thank you for everything, thanks for the support, thanks for believing in our music. Thanks for telling your friends about it, downloading the music, bootlegging it, passing it around, buying the t-shirts, taking pictures of yourselves in the t-shirts and sending it to us, all of that. We can't thank you enough.

Nicolay: Ditto. [laughs]

365AAY: Thanks again for making the interview with us.

Phonte: Thank you man.

Nicolay: Not a problem, thank you very much.

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