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Q&A with Rich Lucano, aka Phondupe

Friday 29 April 2022, by Abla Kandalaft, Eddy Durnan

Phondupe is the musical outfit of Sydney artist Rich Lucano. His ambient tunes and evocative soundscapes found quite a following amongst restless, locked-in listeners during Covid. His masterful sampling of everyday sounds picked up during his many travels lends itself particularly well to visual art. In fact, as a bit of a film buff, he is looking into pivoting towards film soundtracks.

You’ve travelled extensively and have drawn on the places you’ve been to to create and shape your music. What drove you to those countries? Were you expecting to find specific soundscapes to use or was it more of a process of discovery?

I was lucky to be able to travel when travelling was still a thing! Feels like a bit of a distant memory at the moment. I was lucky enough to go to Mexico, Japan, Cuba, lived in the USA for a couple of years. The whole tapestry of the soundscapes that worked their way into my last few releases were all recorded in those countries. Japan and Mexico were so different. But one thing I loved is that they bring together modernity and absolute respect for traditions and rituals, and that juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern is very inspiring.

I nearly quit music as a teen because I was in a classical piano routine but a teacher introduced me to Cuban music, which reignited my interest. I wasn’t expecting to find those soundscapes. It started in Cuba, the streets are just alive. If you could blindfold yourself and walk its streets, you would still feel the colours, the spirit and the soul, especially in Havana. I’d walk around with a field recorder, capturing those incredible sounds, from Santa Maria ceremonies drafting through windows, to fruit vendors.... Lots of items you can’t find in shops, so you have to be on the street at the right time, so there’s a lot of shouting going on. Simple things like wet wipes, vendors would yell out when they had them. When you re-purpose those sounds, they take on new meanings. One track has somebody yelling about bananas... this old weathered Cuban man yelling about bananas.

In Japan, I as very lucky to catch a sample outside a shrine, which worked its way onto Ama. Ama means pearl diver. Two years after my visit, I’d been going through my field recordings and found that angelic Japanese vocal, which worked perfectly to match this track about Japanese pearl divers.

What music and musicians have influenced your own sound?

I’m a sponge, constantly taking in influences from everywhere. The artists that influence me the most are those that don’t settle, those that don’t have a specific style that defines their entire careers. Lucio Battisti, Bowie, Flying Lotus, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Brian Eno... They’re always shifting. It’s that constant quest for the creation of something that hasn’t been heard before that keeps me going.

Would you say the music you have created over time has evolved? Have your intentions or processes changed along the way?

I’ve only just become conscious of the fact that the way you make music reflects the changes you’re going through in your life. I started Phondupe by being in a funk rock band. I felt like I was retreading old paths and I wanted to explore sound more. This exploration has been the North Star for the majority of my tenure under this moniker. I’m listening to myself a lot more and realising that I’d been scared to do that. The style of music that I’m making is shifting. It’s about ensuring that whatever I’m saying is honest and true. It sounds simple but it’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.

Many people came across your music during periods of confinement in the last two years, often quoting the evocative, dreamy, "transportative" qualities of your work. Were you expecting such a reception? Is this feeling of escapism one you actively seek to foster?

Escapism is what I’m aiming for. I’ve taken an approach that’s a little more filmic. I want each track to be like a terrarium. I want each track to be self-sustaining, for you to be able to put on a pair of headphones and be transported somewhere. In many ways, it was at the right place and the right time that Ama in particular came out. When we were in lockdown here in Australia. I know people who couldn’t travel physically, so they sought to travel in other ways. They played into that longing to be connected to something greater to feel a part of something, something that was so hard when we were all locked in our apartments.

How do you conceptualise your visual work and music videos? What relationship do you believe they should have with the music itself?

The visual component is so important. It’s twofold for me. Building on my terrarium point. I like each track to have a sense of place, even if it’s made up. I want to know where you’re going with the track, emotionally and visually. Something that classical music did so well. A lot of ambient music does a great job of that. You can be distracted a bit by vocals but the instrumentation is always there to paint a picture. Neptuno was particularly galactic in its conception.

How did the collaboration on Silo come about? How do you seek out collaborators?

In terms of the video, we come to a middle ground with the partners I’ve worked with. Silo is a great example. It was written from a real place of disappointment and depression. My starting place was a real tug of war. Alexander Leeway, a phenomenal director, interpreted that as two dancers that embodied that mental tension. It took us a year and half to conceptualise and then 3 years to create the video. I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved.

Which way do you envisage taking both your audio and visual work in the next few years?

Hopefully, a lot more film work. I obsess over film. I’ve done work for TV and film before an the thing I love most is that there is zero ego involved. Your job is to serve the characters and the setting. No-one cares who you are. All that matters is that moment. It’s the most present form of music making. It actually makes it easier when you remove yourself form the equation. I want to do more installation work. I currently have one in Canberra. An art work with one of my ambient tracks. I worked with my partner, a psychologist, on contemporary soundbaths. We’ll be hitting the road with these next year. A few hundred people lying in the dark listening to ambient music...

Listen to ’Silo’ now: https://ditto.fm/silo-phondupe
Subscribe to Phondupe’s YouTube channel: https://youtube.com/phondupe
Follow Phondupe on Spotify: https://spoti.fi/3ur1fvh

An audio, unedited version of this interview was published on the Mydy podcast.

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